Public Enemy 911 Is a Joke

Public enemy’s “911 is a joke” comes rushing in to the listeners ears as the harsh reality that has been a culmination of the last 40 years in New York city history. Public Enemy’s hype man and charismatic sidekick, Flava Flav, uses a comedic delivery to relate a prominent issue many black communitiesfaced around the country; the lack of response to the needs of African Americans in placed 911 calls. This is evident in the first verse of the song:


“They only come and they come when they wanna, /theydon’t care cause they stay paid anyway”

The NYPD, FDNY, EMT are the first line of defense we have in society. New York City’s emergency respondent departments are supposed to encourage feelings of protection, equality and community. However, when your first and basic line of defense does not care about you, it opens your eyes to the reality that society does not care about you either. If your city, town and state do not care about you, no one else would. Feelings of exclusion and rejection were emotions the Black community was all too familiar with.


There were numerous socioeconomic conditions thatinjected doubt, exclusion and rejection in black communities.These contributed greatly to the formation of Hip-Hop and political rap groups like Public Enemy during the 80’s. “White flight” in the 1950’s and 1960’s played a huge role in entrapping minorities in urban neighborhoods in the South Bronx. Approximately “750,000 people have left in the past twenty years for middle class success in the suburbs” (Chang 17). In the 1960’s-1970’s the deindustrialization of the North East region of The United States wiped huge chunks of the labor force in the South Bronx “600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector disappeared” (Chang 13). These historical events inspiredPublic Enemy and groups alike to pick up a microphone and break the silence on the injustices many Black communities faced.  These conditions were the most felt in the South Bronx which was one of the worst hit areas in New York City.

New York City’s affluent members wanted to transform Manhattan into the wealth capital of the world. The master plan put in place by Robert Moses was to construct a system of highways that directly connected the suburbs to Manhattan. Under “urban renewal” (11), the city was allowed to condemnentire neighborhoods that pushed out and displaced existing Black communities to settle in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and East New York Brooklyn; neighborhoods where public housing was economically available but employment was non-existent. Their white counterparts however, took place in what today is known as “white flight”, a term used for whiteswho were given the opportunity to purchase homes in thesuburbs of New York while many Blacks were left behind. In the New York area during the construction explosion initiated by Robert Moses in the 1950’s -60’s middle class whites received “sprawling, prefab, white picket-fence whites only Levittown suburbs” (12). Meanwhile working-class struggling families “got nine or more monotonous slabs of housing rising out of isolating, desolate, soon to be crime ridden “parks” (12). In the second verse we can see Flava Flav frustration with firstresponder’s reluctance to provide a competent service to the housing projects. Since the services are required by poor Blacks“every day they don’t never come correct/ You can ask my man right here with the broken neck/ He’s a witness to the job never being done”.   The poor people that live in these communities were condemned for their economic standing. The listener is left to ponder if the response times and reluctance would be presentif white picket fences and a white only neighborhoods were requesting these same services.

The deindustrialization of the “snow belt” (freeman 303) played a massive role in shaping the economic landscape of the North East, which was the dominant region in the nation in manufacturing jobs and economic power. However in the 1970’s-80’s, the economic power of the North East started todeteriorate and was now shifting to the “sun belt”, the Southern and Midwestern states (freeman 306) . Southern states with their ample cheap land and lax union stance created a win- win situation for corporations. Corporations started to move their jobs and headquarters to the south. In the 1970s and 1980s NewYork lost more than “800,000 residents” (freeman 304) and was hit “particularly hard, with the local unemployment rate hitting 12 percent in 1975 as many services disappeared and crimeincreased” (freeman 304). Public Enemy addresses the increasing crime rate and lack of governmental regulation or support in their song. Specifically, they ask their listeners to open their eyes to the diminishing resources available in their communities.

“Thinkin’ you are first when you really are tenth/you better wake up and smell the real flavor/

Cause 911 is a fake life saver”

Moreover, the song asks listeners to realize that in fact the government is not concerned with their well-being. In reality, agencies like 911 are all a farce.  In the above lines, we can see the groups increasing concern and frustration with the limited resources offered to Black communities. While many other racial groups were able to relocate in order to seek financial and social stability, the minority population was not afforded the same opportunities. Unfortunately, due to the downturn in the economy, minorities took the brunt of the socio-economic issues facing the North East at the time and in return received subpar services.