“That ain’t got nothing to do with me,” he parried when I, not so confidently, informed him that the decision to simply give out the photos we were taking was a call my boss would have to make. In my mind, my words were strong, buttressed with heart-felt sincerity. But in delivery they flopped out. Awkwardly. Propelled by nervous energy. And so began the verbal exchange that would become the soundtrack my portrait session with music icon Chuck D would be set to.
I was up close and personal with the mind that inspired a generation with politically-charged anthems. The lyricist who’s vocals carried weighty messages on disks like “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet.” The man that deftly rocked thousands back in the day now stood stoic in front of me — and a visibly frightened, tall, white, college student I hastily recruited to assist in the shoot.
These days Chuck delivers his message sans baseline. He gives straight-forward talks to college students around the country, with one mic. But as one might expect, Chuck D holds court. The man behind the mic may be older and grayer but the wellspring of passion still runs deep. The tenants of his message are similar and age-old; Love what you do, immerse yourself in the path you choose, be wary of celebrity and popular culture, get the most from your education. And, oh yeah, don’t take shit form nobody.
This night, Chuck and his wife Gaye Theresa Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, quietly slip from the wet night into a long dark service corridor behind the California State University, Sacramento auditorium where Chuck is set to speak. We exchange quick but gracious hellos as they make their way to the green room. Moments later Chuck returns alone to the impromptu studio I had assembled in that quiet hallway. And we begin.
It didn’t take long to realize there had been a miscommunication in the days leading up to the shoot. The publicist had given us the green light, but Chuck had the look of someone who’d been ambushed. I had only a few frames under my belt when he asked what the photos were for. When I told him I was with the Sacramento Bee he laughed one of those “you didn’t just say that” kind of laughs. Then we sparred.
“I’m all about you, Carl. Not your corporation” he quipped. I contended that we can all think individually. But not all of us travel around the country kicking ass and taking names.
We bantered a bit between frames — but it was over almost before it began. He turned, took to the stage, and commenced with the ass kicking. What I had was all I was going to get.
Looking back, I agree with most of what Chuck D professed; Be you, be passionate, enrich yourself with education, question authority. But I can’t help but disagree with parts of his message.
I don’t fit the shape of any mold I’ve found thus far. But being a good provider comes first and foremost in my role as a husband and a father. And if that means making some small sacrifices for the big picture, so be it. There are battles I’m willing to lose to win the war of my life.