On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, in a hall with a 50 foot ceiling and politically charged artwork covering its walls, a multicultural crowd sat rapt at the sound of Chuck D's voice, sonorous as ever. The Public Enemy icon doesn't need cavernous rooms for his voice to boom; for over 30 years, he's been hip hop's voice of truth, a radical and activistic street preacher whose "Fight The Power" is both a mantra and theme song for nights just like this.
Chuck wasn't rapping here, though. The MC sat onstage next to Gina Belafonte, a co-organizer of this event dubbed Into Action, a free, nine-day festival of paintings, panels, and performances in downtown Los Angeles, dedicated to social justice issues from criminal justice reform to feminism to climate change and immigration.
This particular panel felt like the spiritual backbone of the whole enterprise: Titled "ARTIVISM: The Art of Social Action," the conversation underscored the relationship between social change and youth art movements, and how artists are uniquely equipped to communicate complex political issues with simplicity and depth, through frames, phrases, and melodies alike.
After the panel Chuck and I had a little walk-and-talk conversation, like something out of West Wing. He'd weighed in on so many topics that night, but I wondered if there was any one issue that weighs on him the heaviest in this age of Trump.
"Human beings have to pay attention to every second, because what they are seeing is unprecedented, coming at light speed," D said, speaking to the dangers of our whirlwind news cycle and information overload. "It is taking the mind that they have," he went on, "so for people to heed their own minds, and their own sanity, is going to be a struggle."
How to overcome disinformation and headline desensitization in an era of endless social media scrolls, fake-news, and foreign-government Facebook algorithm hacking? Chuck and I didn't have time to deeper. But given that Public Enemy set a template for "artivism" incarnate, it stands to reason that D's faith in placed there. He returned to the night's thesis:
"Artists can...collude and work as a collective, because people are going to be held to task and possibly arrested for their art, because they're speaking at louder volumes than laws," he said.
When I called his response "beautiful," he objected.
"It wasn't trying to be beautiful, either. It's scary."
We ended on a note of agreement: Scary or no, there is beauty in truth.