Rap Is Black America’s TV Station

Chuck D? Apocryphal?

public01Dear Quote Investigator: Perhaps you can help locate a quotation attributed to the rapper Chuck D of the group Public Enemy. I do not know the exact wording, but the gist was the following:

Rap music is the CNN for black people.

He apparently said this during an interview in the late 1980s, but I haven’t been able to pin it down.

Quote Investigator: In September 1988 SPIN magazine published an interview with the prominent rapper Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour), and he employed a version of this saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Rap serves as the communication that they don’t get for themselves to make them feel good about themselves. Rap is black America’s TV station. It gives a whole perspective of what exists and what black life is about.

The citation above was the earliest evidence located by QI and CNN was not mentioned in the expression. In July 1989 Chuck D spoke at a festival in Indiana about the power and popularity of rap music. His words were reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Pennsylvania. He used the phrase “headline news” which was the name of the primary channel for CNN news: 2

Rap performer Chuck D. of Public Enemy says rappers are idolized by youths because they tell it like it is. “We’re almost like headline news,” he said. “Rap music is the invisible TV station that black America never had. . . . Public Enemy and rap music are dispatchers of information.” All this was said Sunday at the Indiana Black Expo in Indianapolis, at which dozens gathered to discuss rap music.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Chuck D’s words at the Expo were also reported in the Austin American-Statesman of Texas though the sub-phrases were presented in a different order: 3

Rap performer Chuck D. of Public Enemy says rappers are king to some youths because they tell it like it is. “You gotta understand, Public Enemy and rap music are dispatchers of information,” he said Sunday at the Indiana Black Expo festival. “We’re almost like headline news. Rap music is the invisible TV station that Black America never had.”

In December 1989 a music columnist in the Los Angeles Times presented a version of the quotation and said that it had been spoken “a couple of years ago” by Chuck D. The word “invisible” was omitted in this instance: 4 5

“Rap is the TV station that black people never had,” Chuck D said a couple of years ago. The frontman for the political-rap group Public Enemy was referring to the art form’s ability to convey the unedited African-American experience to vast numbers of people in a country where the mass media are almost exclusively white-controlled, as in the way an N.W.A song tells black kids in South Carolina a little bit of what it’s like to be a black kid in Compton.

In 1992 the journal “Humanity & Society” published “Power to the People Y’All: Rap Music, Resistance, and Black College Students”, and this article included an instance of the quotation: 6

Interestingly, the production of knowledge seems to be a concern of rap musicians. Chuck D of Public Enemy, for example, said, “Rap is our invisible TV network. It’s the CNN that black people never had” (Gold 1989, p. 16).

Bibliographic note: Gold, Jonathan. “Enemy of the People.” LA Weekly. January 6 – 12, 1989: 14-20.

The article excerpted above included a citation to “LA Weekly” in January 1989 as shown. QI has not yet been able to access and examine the article in the “LA Weekly” magazine. Jonathan Gold wrote the “Los Angeles Times” article cited above and the “LA Weekly” piece.

In 1994 the periodical “JazzTimes” interviewed producer John Carlin about an album project, and he said the following: 7

Rap music is extremely conducive to conveying information in a direct way. As Chuck D. said, ‘rap is the CNN of the ghetto.’ He’s right. In the alternative or country music worlds, it’s much harder to write songs about something directly, without it seeming forced. It’s really closer to spoken word.

In 1994 the “New Book of Rock Lists” by rock critic David Marsh and James Bernard was published, and an instance of the saying appeared as number 17 on a list titled “Rock and Roll Reflections”: 8

“Rap is the CNN of young black America.” — Chuck D, Public Enemy

In 1997 Chuck D released the book “Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality”, and he included three figurative expressions combining the terms CNN and rap: 9

Initially Rap was America’s informal CNN because when Rap records came out somebody from far away could listen to a Rap record because it uses so many descriptive words and get a visual picture from what was being said. …

Everytime we checked for ourselves on the news they were locking us up anyway, so the interpretation coming from Rap was a lot clearer. That’s why I call Rap the Black CNN.

Rap is now a worldwide phenomenon. Rap is the CNN for young people all over the world because now you can hear from rappers in Croatia and find out what they talk about and how they’re feeling. Rappers from Italy, rappers from Africa. Rap has become on unofficial network of the young mentality. It just has to be directed a lot better than it has.

In conclusion, Chuck D did describe rap music’s power of communication using a television station metaphor on multiple occasions. QI recommends using a quotation directly from an interview or his book “Fight the Power”. The expression of his ideas has changed over time, and the last quotation given above from his 1997 book reflects an international perspective.

Image Notes: Television image from Nemo at Pixabay. Public Enemy type image from Wikimedia Commons. Placed in public domain by its author Ranking Update. Cropped.

(Special thanks to Thomas Conner and Jan Postma whose inquiries gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1988 September, SPIN, Volume 4, Number 6, Armageddon in Effect, Interview by John Leland, Start Page 46, Quote Page 48, Column 1, Published by SPIN Media LLC. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1989 July 26, Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: Features Daily Magazine, Article: “Rex Harrison, 81, Dubbed Sir Reginald”, (Set of short unrelated news items), Page: F02, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Ellipsis was present in original newspaper text) (NewsBank Access World News)
  3. 1989 July 26, Austin American-Statesman, “Rap to kids is news to us”, Quote Page A12, Austin, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
  4. 1989 December 24, Los Angeles Times, The Eighties: Rap Music by Jonathan Gold, Quote Page AZ8, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  5. 1989 December 28, Altoona Mirror, CDs and MTV energized music of 80s, Article section: Rap by Jonathan Gold, (Acknowledgement Los Angeles Times), Quote Page B6, Column 3, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1992 February, Humanity & Society, Volume 16, Number 1, Power to the People Y’All: Rap Music, Resistance, and Black College Students by Yasue Kuwahara of Northern Kentucky University, Start Page 54, Quote Page 66 and 72, Published by Association for Humanist Sociology. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1994 December, JazzTimes, Red Hot + Cool by Josef Woodard, Quote Page 29, Published by JazzTimes, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1994, New Book of Rock Lists by Dave Marsh and James Bernard, Rock and Roll Reflections, Start Page 13, Quote Page 14, Fireside: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 1998 (Copyright 1997), Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality by Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) with Yusuf Jah, Quote Page 256, (Verified with Amazon Look Inside of 1998 paperback edition)