Tate Etc

The Right to Live Loud

Rapper and artist Chuck D reflects on a picture in Tate’s collection showing Public Enemy performing in London, and his belief that everyone has art inside of them

I was born in 1960 and, from zero, I was an artist. I had rebellious parents who encouraged me to be into the arts. My great-grandfather was the first Black licensed architect in New Jersey and the second in New York State – I didn’t know this when I was growing up, but maybe my wanting to draw all the time is in my DNA.

When I was a toddler, The Beatles arrived in America and I remember dancing to songs like I Want To Hold Your Hand, as well as to records from Motown, Stax, and then Philadelphia International in the 1970s. That was the soundtrack of my life, and these artists were almost like my aunties and uncles in the crib. I was the child of all that.

Later, on my university campus, I was a political cartoonist, making incendiary comments about what I saw in the world. That might be something that has remained consistent in my art throughout the years, whether that was music, drawing, painting or graphic novels. Feeling is important, and I’ve always wanted to excite, shock and amaze.

I stopped making artwork in a consistent way for 30 years, from around the time Public Enemy was formed when I was 25, until I was about 55. After my father’s passing in 2016, I started making artworks on paper again. I’ve made thousands of pieces since then. I work at courtroom speed.

I consider myself an illustrator, not a painter, and I enjoy the science of reproduction and printing. I believe that once you have a piece of work and you copy it and manipulate it, almost like a remix of an original composition, that could be an exciting roadmap to new things.

When you look at a work of art, you’ve got to open yourself to its story – there’s so much unbelievable art from the past that we’re only just discovering. So I say to all the kids: now that you’ve found love, what are you going to do with it? Everybody has art in them.

There’s a photograph in Tate’s collection of members of Public Enemy performing at an afterparty in Brixton – I see Flavor Flav and our sound guy Drew enjoying the moment, wearing jackets that we also wore on a TV show in the UK during the winter of 1992. In Public Enemy, it was always: move as a team, never alone. But they did more after sets than I did.

Chuck D is a rapper, activist and artist from Long Island, New York in the United States. His first art book, Livin’ Loud, published by Genesis Publications, will be released in February. He talked to Enrico Tassi.

Franklyn Rodgers’ Public Enemy in the House from the Vox series was gifted from the Eric and Louise Franck London Collection in 2013 and accessioned in 2018. Book an appointment to view it and many other artworks at the Prints and Drawings Rooms at Tate Britain. For more information visit tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/prints-and-drawings-room.