This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50.”
Before I completed elementary school, Public Enemy had released their debut album, 1987s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. And by the following year, their music videos were being driven into homes around the country by the similarly prefixed “Yo! MTV Raps.” Although I could not fully understand its significance to my life at the time, it was through the work of Public Enemy that I first learned of Malcolm X. The first time I saw the face of Malcolm X was through its prominent display on political rally placards in the music video for Public Enemy’s 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” and the first time I heard his voice was when it was sampled in their 1991 single “Can’t Truss It.” Allusions to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were all around. The group’s original DJ was Terminator X, Louis Farrakhan was name dropped in their lyrics, and I later recognized that their Security of the First World security force paid homage to the Nation’s Fruit of Islam. Three decades later I was presenting on the current cultural relevancy of Malcolm X at an academic conference when I was asked, “How did a young, white male like yourself first become interested in Malcolm X?” At the time I fumbled the answer because I did not distill it to its simple truth: Chuck D brought me here. It was Public Enemy and their frontman who brought me to Malcolm X.
The Hip-Hop Generation’s affinity for Malcolm X has been well documented, but what this essay considers is to what degree rap music in particular has played, and continues to play, in introducing Malcolm X and his ideology to young Americans. If there is legitimacy in Chuck D’s famous claim that rap is the “headline news” for Black America, then perhaps it also serves as its public university, a center of inquiry and instruction. Public Enemy was not the first rap artist to incorporate Malcolm X into their work, but for somebody who had no lived experience as a person of color, and had little reason to learn about Malcolm X from his family or from his high-school faculty in a predominantly white, middle class community, their assent into the mainstream was a conduit into a whole other world of experience, knowledge, and perspectives. Looking back I might ask, as Tupac Shakur (2Pac) rhetorically did in 1991, “No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that?” 1
The brilliance of Malcolm X, and its dissemination through the work of Public Enemy and other rap artists, would play an equal part in shaping both my career and political ideology.
My experience was not an entirely unique one. In 1983 Keith LeBlanc was a house musician for the struggling Sugar Hill Records. Influenced by spoken-word samples in the work of Grandmaster Flash, LeBlanc used some Malcolm X records he found in the studio and laid them over a DMX drum machine beat. In retelling the story to Jay Quan of Rock The Bells, LeBlanc remembered, “I didn’t know much about Malcolm X except that my parents told me that Martin Luther King Jr. was good and Malcolm was bad.” LeBlanc sought out The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and additional records were brought forth by friends and colleagues. The resulting single, “No Sell Out,” was purchased and released by Tommy Boy Records. Before its release LeBlanc played the record for Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz who approvingly remarked, “someone could have done something with my husband’s voice on a record a long time ago, and it took this little white boy from Connecticut to do it.” Within five years Public Enemy was doing the same on numerous tracks, and Boogie Down Productions paid tribute to Malcolm X with their 1988 album By Any Means Necessary. When Prodigy of Mobb Deep listened those artists as a teenager, his mother bought him a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography for his sixteenth birthday. “His story of being a hustle/pimp who went to prison and turned his life around was very inspirational for me,” Prodigy later said. “It made me want to learn more about race, religion, and cultures.” Such recollections led Quan to conclude that “the hip-hop generation made Malcolm X fashionable to embrace.” And for an artist like LeBlanc, a future artist like Prodigy, and a young person like myself, a good amount of education was delivered along with it.
In his extensive examination of rap music, historian Robin D. G. Kelley has suggested that Malcolm X provided an intellectual casing for the explosive anti-authortian rhetoric of rap artists, and the gangsta rap genre in particular. He argues that they aligned themselves with the “Field Negro” mentality as laid out in one of Malcolm X’s most noted speeches, and that his autobiography has allowed them to re-imagine themselves as political radicals. This was an attractive message at a time when Congress was considering the controversial content of rap music, with Dan Quayle infamously declaring that it had “no place in our society.” In the cultural wake of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, the iconic X hat became as ubiquitous a part of early-90s gangsta rap style as L.A. Raiders gear and Chuck Taylors. Ice Cube—both with N.W.A. and as a solo artist— embodied that marriage of style and substance. Not only was his 1991 album Death Certificate seen as presaging the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, but the spoken-word track “Integration” off his follow-up album was composed entirely of excerpts from Malcolm X speeches and media appearances. Malcolm X, The Source leveled, was a “Hood Hero…always will be.”2
Perhaps no rap artist is more commonly affiliated with Malcolm X than 2Pac. Born to Black Panther member Afeni Shakur in 1971, 2Pac was hailed by scholar Gwendolyn Pough as “[embodying] the link between the Black Power movement and hip-hop culture.”3 His family’s involvement with the movement, and his citing of Malcolm X as an ideological influence, is most vividly demonstrated through his action-oriented politics. When, at just twenty years of age, he addressed the second annual banquet of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, he passionately criticized those present whom he judged excessively complacent. When Shakur declared, “I’m not sayin’ that I’m gonna rule the world, or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world,” it bore a resemblance to the manner in which Malcolm X frequently prevailed upon students and young activists.
Although Chuck D and 2Pac took different roads to the microphone, Malcolm X provided for them both a lens through which to view and comment on interrelated issues ranging from racial injustice and disenfranchisement, to endemic poverty and unemployment, police brutality and mass incarceration. Chuck D got my attention, 2Pac helped keep it, and through this introduction to Malcolm X, I began to think about these issues as well. In the late 1990s when I became a history major in college it was not only because I was exposed to the work of Howard Zinn, but because the injustices and institutional inequalities that he chronicled running through this country’s history provided a historical framework to better understand the tensions that Chuck D, 2Pac, and others had already laid bare to me.
The more recent work of artists in hip-hop and R&B demonstrates that the influence of Malcolm X is perhaps felt more urgently than it has been in years. In 2015 The Source published a cover story on “Malcolm X and the Hip-Hop Generation,” and the following year an excerpt from Malcolm X’s “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself” was sampled on Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” off the album Lemonade. The speech was also sampled in the film that accompanied the album’s release, making a clear statement on the Black Lives Matters movement, featuring the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown holding pictures of their deceased sons. In 2020 Malcolm X was sampled in Teyana Taylor’s music video for “Still,” and in a savagely brilliant performance on Saturday Night Live by Megan Thee Stallion, who like Beyoncé before her, sampled “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself.” Both Taylor and Megan Thee Stallion directly equated the unfinished work of Malcolm X with the continuing epidemic of police violence against Black Americans roiling the country. That summer the face and message of Malcolm X were found on placards carried through the streets of Minneapolis and in countless other communities in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor. Between fifteen and twenty-six million Americans took to the streets, representing the largest social-justice political mobilization in American history. All considered, it is reasonable to assert not only that hip-hop, rap, and other avenues of Black artistic expression had been indelibly influenced by Malcolm X, but that now these artists were key in passing those lessons on to a new generation who were finding Malcolm X and his words as indispensable in the 2020s as they had been in the 1960s.