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Rapper, activist discusses civil rights, education and forward progress in keynote speech
On Thursday, Jan. 17, students, staff and administrators at Bellevue College welcomed legendary hip-hop star and activist Chuck D (real name: Carlton Douglas Ridenhour), and his wife, Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson, to kick off a week of recognition in honor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The presentation, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here…Chaos Or Community,” addressed a number of topics relating to Dr. King and his message of equality - most notably being the importance of keeping King's legacy alive.
"[Dr. King] is more than just a symbol to me," Ridenhour said. "He was a revolutionary; he was no punk."
Speaking about King's struggle for racial equality, Ridenhour discussed the importance of being an educated society - and the responsibility of young people to become better, more informed people.
"You need to work on designing your insides - your character," Ridenhour said. "Because that is more important than your outsides."
Dr. Johnson continued the dialogue about King’s impact, explaining the radical ways in which Dr. King acted, despite the "peaceful persona" he was given in comparison to more aggressive revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara.
Noting key moments in the Civil Rights movement - the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs. the Board of Education - Johnson discussed the need for Americans to understand these moments were not spontaneous, but intentional actions built upon decades of struggle.
"There were [approximately] 17 other lawsuits before Brown vs. The Board of Education - that's just the one that made it to the Supreme Court," Johnson said.
She went on to discuss the importance of being active in the pursuit of justice, whether it be the continued struggle for race equality or gay rights - a movement she considers to hit closely home to the mission of the civil rights movement.
"People try to say protests don't work, but they do," Johnson said. "The biggest changes [in this country] have come about from people coming together and making it happen."
Sponsored by BC’s Multicultural Services, the Black Student Union, and other campus organizations, the purpose of the event was to bridge the gap between activism and academia.
Vice President of Diversity Yoshiko Harden, who helped plan the visit, said she hopes those who attended the event walked away feeling empowered to be active in their communities and the causes they believe in.
"These types of events were some of the most important aspects of my time in college," Harden said. She added that the diverse student body of Bellevue College - as recognized by Chuck D and Dr. Johnson - made the event even more relevant.
A rapper, author, producer and activist, Ridenhour is credited with helping to create politically and socially conscious rap music in the 1980s as the leader of the famous rap group Public Enemy. Dr. Johnson is a professor of Black Studies, as well as an affiliated faculty member in the departments of History and Chicana/o Studies, at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
In regard to why he devotes his time to speaking at events such as this, Ridenhour said it is the responsibility of older generations to give guidance to younger generations - "especially in communities where they don't necessarily see themselves in the people around them."
The keynote was followed by a question and answer session, as well as a reception, where students were able to ask questions and take pictures with the guests.