LOS ANGELES—From a distance, if you ignored the cardboard cutouts of Bernie Sanders’ face, the crowds outside the Los Angeles Convention Center Sunday evening might have looked like a music festival. Thousands packed the venue sporting familiar tees––Black Flag, Rage Against the Machine, Misfits, and, uh, Mary Poppins. The Vermont senator, though intentionally detached from pop culture himself, has well-known musical ties. He’s toured with The Strokes, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver; received public support from Cardi B to Kim Gordon to Ariana Grande; and inspired more than one series of music-related merch. But in the final push before Super Tuesday, the standing Democratic frontrunner billed his Los Angeles rally with an especially apt musical guest: hip-hop pioneer Chuck D and his Public Enemy offshoot, Public Enemy Radio.
Inside the Convention Center, there were clear parallels between Sanders and Chuck D, born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, despite the differences in age, ethnicity, and background. As attendees filed into the makeshift concert hall, most flocked toward the merch stand. The campaign staff had unveiled a new shirt: Sanders’ silhouette on a black background, fist held in the air. The caption, honoring Public Enemy’s famous 1989 single, read: “Fight the Power.” Like Sanders, the lyricist behind the seminal album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, spent years honing a consistent critique of the wealthy, white elite. Both made constant calls for revolution through activism and engagement. Both dropped albums in the ‘80s. When Sanders introduced Chuck D, he described him as someone who “has spoken truth to power for decades.”
Before the concert-slash-rally Sunday evening, the pairing had drawn widespread attention for the absence Chuck D’s other partner, William Drayton, or Flavor Flav. On Saturday, Drayton’s lawyer, Matthew Friedman, sent a cease-and-desist to the Sanders campaign, accusing them of using his “unauthorized likeness, image and trademarked clock” in their event promotion even though the hype man had not endorsed any candidate. In response, Chuck D cautioned against reading too much politics into the letter. “It’s not about BERNIE with Flav... he don’t know the difference between BarrySanders or BernieSanders,” the rapper wrote on Twitter, adding that “trying to fill his persona with some political aplomb is absolutely ‘stupid.’” Later, an attorney for Public Enemy pointed out that Chuck D had drawn the group’s logo himself and remained its sole owner. “From a legal standpoint,” the attorney told Rolling Stone, “Chuck could perform as Public Enemy if he ever wanted to.”
It wasn’t the first time Flavor Flav had taken legal action against his longtime collaborator. In 2017, Flav sued Chuck D and Public Enemy management over an alleged failure to pay him adequate profits and royalties, while relying on his image to market the group. During the first lawsuit, the pair remained good friends: “I love my partner Chuck D everyone so don’t get it twisted,” he tweeted. “We will fix it,!!” The rapper echoed the sentiment, telling fans on Twitter to “lighten up” on Flav, blaming the hypeman’s management. He summed up the suit with a hashtag: “#stupid.” But this time around, the schism went deeper. Sunday evening, just as the performance got underway, Public Enemy and Public Enemy Radio announced that they had fired Flav from the group after 37 years. “Public Enemy and Public Enemy Radio will be moving forward without Flavor Flav,” the group wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “We thank him for his years of service and wish him well.”
On Sunday, the rally focused less on the rift between bandmates, than the one Sanders’ has spent his career talking about––between the rich and the working class. His signature themes appeared throughout the songs and speeches, and even among activists in the audience. One woman, a representative with the group Socialist Alternative, collected emails for an event called “Million to Milwaukee,” a nation-wide protest planned both in Milwaukee and cities around the country during the Democratic convention. “The Democratic party has already indicated they might try to take the nomination from the candidate with the popular vote,” she told a couple waiting in line. “Can you come to Milwaukee to make sure that doesn’t happen?”
At 5 p.m. on the dot, the room was packed––mostly with young millennials and families. Several kids sat on their parents’ shoulders. Each end of the concert hall bore a massive American flag. The lights dimmed to black, and French-Chilean singer Ana Tijoux, best known for her hip-hop group, Makiza, tore into a stunning set of percussive agitpop. Tijoux talked between songs, jumping from Spanish to English and back, about expanding access to quality public education. In the speaking portion of the event, Jésus “Chuy” Garcia, Representative for Illinois’ 4th congressional district, discussed the importance of electing progressives into local office; Sanders’ Los Angeles regional field director Scarlett Peralta touted the grassroots campaign’s goal to knock on every door in the city; and Executive Director of National Nurses United Bonnie Costillo emphasized the role of unions in delivering vital services like health care. As guests stood within coughing distance of each other, Costillo also articulated a latent anxiety: “We have just admitted our first and second coronavirus patients,” she said. “There will be more.”
Two other high-profile speakers appeared on the line-up: comedian Sarah Silverman and actor Dick Van Dyke. Both played defense against common Sanders’ critiques. Silverman spent her set taking down hysteria over socialism. “Bernie’s a socialist and you know what socialism is? Communism!” she said, parroting right-wing and centrist pundits. “Okay. Relax. First of all, socialism is not communism.” The one percent were actually down with socialism, Silverman continued, in their own way. “No one’s asking ‘how are you going to pay for it’ when it comes to endless war, when it comes to trillions in tax cuts for the rich,” she said, to raucous applause from the crowd. “These people are fine with socialism for the billionaire class.”
“I’m what’s left of Dick Van Dyke,” said the 94-year-old actor, taking the stage after Silverman. Van Dyke, who approached the podium amid cries of “WE WANT DICK,” had come to tackle another issue. “I would like to say a word about age,” he began. “I’m 15 years older than Bernie. I think he was born the day I got married or something.” The actor laid out a case for longterm political memory, recalling when he voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952: “I voted for Ike and I’m not sorry. Ike said ‘Beware the military industrial complex.’ People didn’t know it then. We sure know it now, don’t we?”
Van Dyke’s defense got somewhat muddled when the actor charmingly forgot his speech (“Where was I? What was I going to say? I’ve lost my train of thought. My name is Dick Van Dyke!”). He walked off-stage a few times and seemingly cosigned American use of the atomic bomb. But Van Dyke won the crowd back quickly, breaking into a musical interlude with a warbly verse from Bye Bye Birdie. “I want to make a special announcement tonight,” Sanders joked later, “that we are going to announce for Vice President––the youthful, vigorous, Dick Van Dyke!”
Many audience members had not been born when Public Enemy’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, debuted in 1987. But when the hybrid group of Chuck D, DJ Lord, Oakland rapper Jahi and the S1Ws began their set, the crowd surged to the front. Over a 30-minute set, Public Enemy Radio played the hits––“Bring the Noise,” “Black Steel in the Age of Chaos,” “Fight the Power”––and stirred attendees into a chant: “Build Schools. Less Jails.” Between songs, Chuck D talked at length about Sanders, about his father’s healthcare troubles, and feeling disenfranchised from the political system. He reminded the audience to combat that impulse by voting. In California, the primary will be held on Super Tuesday for the first time ever, giving the densely-populated, progressive state a greater say in determining the nominee. Sanders currently leads here by 17 points.
“Voting is as important as washing your ass in the morning,” Chuck D said. “Some people say you don’t have to wash. Well, you don’t. But then don’t go telling everybody how it stinks out here.”