Dave Chappelle, ‘Americaz Nightmare’ (Originally Published October 2004)

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Kanye: I heard this one statistic… I wish I had the exact number, they told me when I was at one of those hip-hop summits. They were saying that there was such a low percentage of people in our age bracket that vote, that they feel they don’t have to supply candidates for that age bracket. They like, “They not gonna vote anyway…”

Stic: All that voting shit—to me, two things: One, if you vote, vote. It ain’t gonna do shit, but vote. Get it out. See what it do. But the thing is, people like Russell Simmons, they running around trying to get people to vote and say that’s how you participate in making a difference. But they ain’t educating people on how the system works. And to me that’s criminal, ’cause just getting people to register and vote is just building a base so candidates can exploit the community. ’Cause you know they’ll come and tell you everything you want to hear, ’til they get in office. Then they’ll act just like the other muthafucka. Voting is just a collective voice. Ain’t nothing wrong with a collective voice, but you gotta educate people about the system and how it works so young people is not just thinking, “I made a difference!” ’Cause that’s some bullshit.

Kanye: That was one of my main points why I wouldn’t want to go to a lot of the summits. It wasn’t just because I had to wake up and had to fly to another city early as hell. It’s because I’m supposed to be speaking to 3,000 kids about something that I didn’t really know about. And they using my face to say, “This is Kanye, blah, blah, blah. Just say yes.” I’m like, You know you look at certain icons and you like, “Hey, whatever they say.”

Stic: A lot of people don’t understand we be making moves for the day. How can I make $20 a day? These crackers be making moves for 20 years. They’ll send you a Bush, a Clinton, a Gerald Ford and a Jimmy Carter—all part of one plan. So while you thinking, you getting caught up within a wolf and a fox. All of that’s part of one plan: to maintain power. They know when a lot of people is resisting Bush and they know when a lot of muthafuckas is like, “Get Clinton out of office.” And it don’t matter, ’cause the same muthafuckas is in control. We get caught up in that, but when do we have power under any of these muthafuckas?

Dave: I feel like we’re in the midst of change. Most change happens in the evolutionary kind of way. You might not even notice, until it’s on top of you, what’s changed. But for example, I feel like this conversation is a symptom of change; the fact that we’re doing the photo shoot for a cover of a magazine and these are just not the traditional things that you hear public people talk about. Not even politicians will speak this candidly or sound this passionate about effecting a change. The artists are normally the backbone of a society, one way or another. And this society in particular… James Baldwin once said that Black people in particular are America’s conscience. And I feel like that’s an incredible niche. I saw Fahrenheit 9/11. And in the beginning scene, when you see the Congressional Black Caucus standing up in front of the Senate contesting the election, that had just been ratified by the Supreme Court, to Al Gore, and not one senator would come up and aid these people, that’s just another visual example of Black people trying to uphold what they see, or what we see, as the moral fiber of society. So in the midst of change, what changes are in effect? I have no idea what the outcome is gonna be. But all I know is I’m sensitive to the context that I’m in, and I feel like I live in an unprecedented time. I don’t feel qualified or smart enough or wise enough or even confident enough to say what I feel like these changes are. But in the last four years, almost every institution that an American citizen puts its faith in has… in one way or another, that faith has been shaken. In 2000 there was a dead-even election. It was unprecedented. The Supreme Court had to decide who won it. They couldn’t agree. Everyone was there counting votes and couldn’t agree. Numbers don’t lie. And somehow, they couldn’t tell. It was an anomaly of a thing. I wouldn’t even be talking this shit if I wasn’t edited. ’Cause I’ma read this shit and be like, You know what, maybe this isn’t the type of shit people wanna hear from the guy who says, “I’m Rick James, bitch.” I feel like I can attribute it more to the times than I can to myself, ’cause I don’t feel any funnier than I was eight years ago. But somehow, contextually, I’m more significant than I was eight years ago. And I think that that goes for everyone around the table.

Kanye: You’re comedy. But you bring up a lot of social and political issues. And I used to always compare myself to you and say that we laugh to keep from crying. And that’s kind of the way that we got it over on America. We’ll be saying the same things, but we’ll be throwing a coat over it.

Dave: I absolutely believe that there is part of our culture that’s a survival mechanism of people. That you could give us the worst part of an animal to eat, and we’ll call it chitlins and eat it long after we’re free. Or if you call us a dirty name like “Nigger,” we’ll say, “It sounds like it has a nice ring to it.” I think it was Mos Def that I was talking to—he made a point that “Nigga” used to be such an exclusive word. And then it became cool to be that, and it’s now as exclusive the other way. Now you hear White people say, like, “Why can’t we say it?” So all these things to me are symptomatic… All these people that say, “This reminds me of a lynching”—I never seen a lynching. I wasn’t alive for that. Reminds me of some rap songs, I think. Reminds me of some friends I’ve had. It’s not that I don’t discount that part of our experience, but I feel like most Black people in America, with cultural statements, apologize for who we are.

Kanye: On my next album, I’ma have this joint called “The Black Kid.” ’Cause we’d stay in the city with my mother. But in the summer, I’d go visit my father. And I’d be in neighborhoods, ’cause he had a nice job or whatever, and I thought I had friends for the whole summer. I ain’t realize that I’d be in the pool or something and they’d be like, “Ayo!” I ain’t realize ’til the end of the summer. This one kid came to me and said, “Yo, Richie wanted to know if he could get his ball back from the Black kid.” So the whole summer, I’m playing with all these kids and ain’t nobody know my name. I was just “the Black kid.”

Common: That’s symbolic of the country.

M-1: That’s what rap is, “the Black kid.”

Dave: The thing is, that as we progress in this kind of business—you talking to a group of people that travel to countries, sometimes travel the world, and express themselves, and sometimes we strive for people to relate to. And in the process of doing that, your worldview will change. You get a better understanding of the local mentality. For instance, I had not seen a poor White person until I traveled. They exist in America. So if I go to a person like this and say, “White people are holding me back!”—how is he gonna look at me? He’s gonna say, “What are you talking about? You rich, nigga! You crazy! Are you out of your mind?” Maybe it isn’t solely about race. Why do so many White children embrace hip-hop? Why have I seen White kids wearing dead prez T-shirts, jumping up and down screaming, “I’m an African and I know what’s happening!” None of which may be true, but they scream it. So it makes me say to myself, these times are beyond Bill Cosby’s definition, Dave Chappelle’s definition, Chris Rock’s…

Common: For me, as an artist known as “conscious” and “political,” I never really knew a lot about world politics—and really, still don’t know a whole lot. But when we talk about change, I always felt that it involves you changing yourself, your inner, first. It’s just with you. Like, you can make a difference. Like, living what I speak enough so where I don’t gotta say nothing to nobody and they gonna see by my example how to live.

Dave: See, that’s why I like sitting at the table with you right now. ’Cause you say, “I don’t know anything about real politics,” and you just quoted Gandhi by accident. Gandhi said, “Become the changes you want to see…”

Common: Well, I definitely be on that Buddhist thing because I love the Buddhist books. That, the Koran and the Bible. The only thing that’s consistent in my life—or I think that Black people can really be consistent about—is God. We may choose to say “Allah,” we may choose to say “Jah,” we may choose to say “Yahweh,” we may choose to say “Jesus,” but God’s been here for Africans for the longest. And we are in this country for a certain reason. We are obviously shining our light to the world. And went through these trials and tribulations for a certain reason. Artists, to me, is divine order. And I don’t got no answers and I know everybody in here don’t really got the final answer, but what we doing is trying to contribute to the solution and to what we know and believe is right. I’m learning from these brothers. And Kanye may be like, “I don’t know shit,” but Kanye know a whole lot. And he put it simple enough where everybody gonna get it. And I’m learning from that.

Talib: We documentarians. And our job is to document the history of what we see as honest as we can portray it. But what’s the most consistent in my music is self-love, self-esteem, self-awareness—’cause I feel like if we knew what we worth, then we wouldn’t take a lot of this shit that we on.

Dave: Why do you think that the “balling” aspect in hip-hop became so successful when so many in hip-hop’s constituency don’t have that kind of money?

Stic: I remember coming up, we’d be in the trailer. Me and my mama, my sister. And these books would come every once in a while, like Christmas. It would be real thick and you could buy all kinds of shit. They called it a “wish book.” I remember just sitting with all my friends and cousins like, “I want that. I’ma get that.” That shit just be fun, it be my life. One day your life gonna work out where you just gonna have whatever you need. No problems, it’s gonna be cool. I think that’s what the balling shit is.

Talib: That’s what hip-hop is. That’s what it started as. One thing I’m fond to say is that we gotta celebrate—and that’s what poor people’s idea of success is: celebrating. It’s somebody else’s success, ’cause we don’t own, and we ain’t making it. But as we look at that, that becomes our cause of celebration.

M-1: We be celebrating our small victories because we have none.

Dave: The notion that a person is only one-dimensional is a very interesting point—that a person couldn’t listen to dead prez and watch Seinfeld. But still, we know people like this.

Stic: Like me.

Dave: Right—you are in dead prez, watching Seinfeld. Who knew?! Ladies and gentlemen, we got a scoop! That’s right: dead prez watches Seinfeld. But that is fuckin’
hilarious, and there you have it: people are many things.

Stic: I feel like we all have that sort of balance. But any man with sense in the world knows that peace—you gonna put that forward first. You gonna try to be peaceful in whatever situation you in, ’cause that’s what you want back. But in the times where niggas is trying to pimp you, attack you on all levels of the game—your business life, your career, your people—every aspect of you is under attack, you gonna have to bring that gangsta. And they try to separate that and say you this or this. They don’t let us be whole human beings.

Kanye: I went on tour with Kweli and the only CD he was playing was 50 Cent. That fucked me up at first. Nah, it fucked me up that the first place I ever met Kweli was at Club Cheetah. I said, Kweli at the club?

Dave: This brings me to my question. True or false: More artists are idealists than not? Is it ever pressure from the ideals that you hold in your music to what you experience in your personal life? Is there tension between the two?

M-1: It makes me wanna quit. Dave: Yeah, because it’s hard. You’re making revolutionary music, but it’s commercial at the same time. It’s being sold by major distributors… I think that’s a very interesting question for a person: “Do I not be an idealist?” Or, “Do I stop going to Cheetah?” [Laughs]

Talib: That’s a two-dimensional person. I think KRS-One as an artist got in a lot of problems with his outs. There was a time when KRS was dropping a hit record every year, and he would always wax poetic about something and people, especially the magazines, would be like, “KRS contradicted himself.” And it wasn’t space for him to grow as a person. You growing as a person, but you growing in front of everybody.