If Gusman Hall seemed moderately filled with UM students for an event featuring as historic a speaker as Larry Flynt it was a total embarrassment when Dead Prez came on stage. Elderly people had a reason to vacate; if Flynt offended them earlier, they were definitely not in the state to sit through a Dead Prez concert – but the students had scant excuse.
Even without a care for the music, it was worth attending for the distinct possibility that things would get out of hand – this is an affluent private university with an administration that bans smoking and frat keggars. How would it react to ganja-smoking neo-Black Panthers? A response was inevitable when mid-performance, the rap duo proclaimed, “George Bush is way worse than bin Laden is,” and the “C.I.A. and F.B.I. are the real terrorists.” From then on, the ACLU College Freedom Tour was a telltale test of one’s academic, political, and racial affiliation.
At first, few students seemed to know of Dead Prez beyond the evening’s buzz. Brooklynites now residing in Florida, they hit it big in 2000 with their first album Let’s Get Free, a self-produced rap manifesto which sounds bolder and more provocative in today’s alert-scale normalcy. Here promoting two new albums, October’s Get Free or Die Trying, and the unscheduled RBG, some remaining students were still like, “Dead Who?” But for those who knew little of the thugs in front of them, they were about to get a harrowing impression.
Prez members M-1 and Stic Man opened the show with a “FUCK THE POLICE” chant that could have drown out N.W.A., erecting their ropey arms like pirate radio antennas, motioning the students to follow along. It was great; after so many years of police brutality, the students at UM were finally able to get the repressed anger off their chests. Pleaze…
What looked weirder to M-1 and Stic Man, both of whom are strict, well-educated vegetarians as militant and mysterious as the Five Percent Nation: a hundred white students raising their fists to a black power salute, or all of them chanting along to “I’m an African. I know what’s happenin’?” Awkward lyrics and shitty sound-system aside, the beats and hooks were strong enough to invoke white participation without much hand checking.
And, surely the inclusiveness of the atmosphere was also a factor: green stage lights illuminated a mist of dank pot smoke that poured in and curled up on the ceiling. Heineken-wielding extras, including UM-alum-turned-rapper Burke bounced and fumbled along. M-1 and Stic moved from one side to the other as photographers snapped shots. And unlike Mr. Flynt’s speech, there still wasn’t a cop in sight.
Frantic silhouettes were lit by a slide show projected on the giant screen behind them. A stark photo mElange of black lynchings, police brutality, half-naked heavily armed children, and a photograph of Emmett Till’s open-casket burial – one that had shocked the nation almost 50 years ago – served to remind all present, black, white, whatever, of severe oppression and history. Still, others paid homage to rebellious pictures of rap mentors Tupac Shakur, Big Pun, and Notorious B.I.G. Martin Luther King Jr. folded his hands in prayer only to be followed later by Malcolm X, gripping a machine gun, timelessly posed to say, “By any means necessary.”
Near the show’s end, those always-fun chants of “FUCK THE POLICE” chants reconvened. Closing anthems included a brief cover of Biggie’s feel good classic “Juicy” and a remix of their fuzzy-synthed mega-smash “Hip Hop.” No one got ejected or Maced. No mikes were pulled. The lights didn’t go out. The police were obviously no longer there. As students took a quick glance around and filed out, there was a strange silence of thoughts.
Outside, a few hippies manned a table wielding “freedom” literature, informing passerby that it’s fine not to shave armpits and to oppose the death penalty – just some American citizens exercising their freedom of speech, right? That was the whole point of the ACLU Freedom Tour complete with a show by Dead Prez; but I’ll tell you, no one, out of protest or hijinks, was about to jump on stage during that last hour and yell out “Bush is a great guy!”
The irony might’ve been lost on many, but all the First Amendment rhetoric, flyers, buttons and outcries in the world wouldn’t have stopped such an individual from getting a broken nose and a black eye.
For more info, visit DeadPrez.com and ACLU.org.
Linda Hoffman can be reached at Lindanhoffman.com.