In 1991, Ice Cube Spoke With Angela Davis About Using Rap To Wake Up The People (Video)
In 1991, the Hip-Hop world awaited Ice Cube’s follow-up to his 1990 solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. The former N.W.A. member had taken a bold step in pursuing a career of his own, and even more so by enlisting the help of definitively East Coast-sounding production crew, Bomb Squad, to assist him in his efforts. For those reasons and more, 1991’s Death Certificate would be where he would prove his staying power, and it remains one of his most celebrated efforts today, more than 25 years later. As one of music’s most outspoken and controversial players at the time, Ice Cube in many ways gave political voice to a generation of young Black Americans just one generation removed from the Black Panthers. Formed in the 1960s, they became one of the most influential political groups in American history, and undoubtedly inspired Ice Cube and others to argue for justice in their own lives.
Angela Davis, a political activist, educator, and Black Panther icon sat down with Cube in 1991 to discuss race, politics, Rap, and more, a meeting which resulted in a two-hour conversation that has been preserved by Indiana University Press and W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. As seen on Shadow & Act, a snippet of the interview was filmed for Rap City, and reportedly happened because Cube’s publicist at the time (Leyla Turkkan) hoped that the interview would “position Ice Cube as ‘an inheritor of the Black radical tradition,'” as cited from Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.
During the extended interview, Ms. Davis asks Ice Cube his thoughts on everything from party politics, his usage of the word “bitch,” Malcolm, X, and much more. But in the filmed portion of the interview, the focus is on the transition from his debut to his follow-up, beginning with Davis asking Cube “Why do you think young sisters and brothers are so drawn to your voice, your rap, your message?” Cube says it’s “the truth” he provides that listeners find refreshing. “We got a lot of brothers who talk to a lot of people. But they ain’t saying nothing,” he argues. Calling himself someone “who won’t sell out,” he goes on to answer Davis’ next question, which is “What’s the difference between what you tried to do on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and on Death Certificate?” In response, Cube says he was still “blind to the facts” on the former, calling Death Certificate a “step forward.” “I knew a few things, but I didn’t know what I know now. I’ve grown as a person. When I grow as a person, I grow as an artist,” he says.
Cube continues, “I think I have more knowledge of self. I am a little wiser than I was. In Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, even though it was a good album-it was one of the best albums of the year-I was going through a lot of pressure personally. With this new album, Death Certificate, I can look at everything, without any personal problems getting in the way. It’s all about the music.” It’s then that Davis asks Cube to explain the thought process behind the double-disc album’s side A and side B, titled The Death Side and The Life Side, respectively. “Death Certificate is side A,” he begins. “Most people liken it to “gangster rap.” “Reality rap” is what it is. Side A starts off with a funeral, because black people are mentally dead. It’s all about getting that across in the music. A lot of people like the first side. It’s got all that you would expect. At the end of the first side, the death side, I explain that people like the first side because we’re mentally dead. That’s what we want to hear now. We don’t love ourselves, so that’s the type of music we want to hear. The B side-which is the life side-starts off with a birth and is about a consciousness of where we need to be, how we need to look at other people, how we need to look at ourselves and reevaluate ourselves.”
Elsewhere in the interview, which is only known to be available, in full, in transcription form, Ms. Davis asks Cube to comment on language, specifically “the efforts over the years to transform the language we use to refer to ourselves as [B]lack people and specifically as [B]lack women.” She refers to the decline in the use of the word “negro” in American vernacular, and how it was, to her and many others, synonymous with the word “slave.” She asks Cube his thoughts on the use of the N-word in Rap lyrics, as well as the word “bitch.” In response, he says “The language of the streets is the only language I can use to communicate with the streets,” adding “we have to take the language of the streets, tell the kids about the situation, tell them what’s really going on. Because some kids are blind to what they are doing, to their own actions.” He says that “It’s all an evolution process…But once we start waking them up, opening their eyes, then we can start putting something in there. If you start putting something in there while their eyes are closed, that ain’t doing no good.”
Near the end of their conversation, Davis asks a question of Cube that would foreshadow the place Hip-Hop has taken in academics, with organizations from Harvard University to the Library of Congress, recognizing Hip-Hop’s status in American History. “So what do you have to say about the way Hip-Hop culture is now being examined and analyzed in the context of university studies,?” she asks. “Rap music is a school system itself, and one of the best school systems that we have. It’s entertainment, but it’s also a school system. Right now we are more unified on the surface than we have been,” replies Cube.
Twenty-five years later, once again, we are turning toward art and entertainment to unite us in divided times. In the tradition of Ice Cube, artists like Killer Mike, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper and Joey Bada$$ are using their voices to speak to the masses. And, as Cube talked about waking up the kids, it’s fitting that today’s call to action is to “stay woke.”
#BonusBeat: Check out this 1992 footage of Ice Cube’s speech at Ohio State University, where he discussed racism in America, police brutality, and more.
26 years after the release of Death Certificate, Ice Cube announced the release of a special anniversary edition of the LP, including new songs.