Who was more productive during the COVID shutdown than the rapper and leader of the legendary group Public Enemy, Chuck D (Charles Ridenhour)? Among other things, Chuck D has published his second work of visual art from this time period, Summer of Hamn: Hollowpointlessness Aiding Mass Nihilism. This single volume (240 pages) comes on the heels of his recently released and similar work, the three-volume STEWdio: The Naphic Grovel ARTrilogy.
It turns out that Chuck D has always been a visual artist and earned his BFA in graphic design in the ’80s. During the COVID shutdown, he drew a daily journal, with Summer of Hamn specifically covering the Summer of 2022 and with something of a focus on gun violence in America. (Chuck D’s use of the term “Hamn” is defined in the subtitle as “Hollowpointlessness”.)
The drawings are consistently well done throughout, each two 5 x 8 pages, and largely black-and-white but also with color. Chuck’s style is neo-expressionistic, often marrying images and text that is usually short rhymes, and it echoes famed graffiti artist Jean-Michael Basquiat. His lines are kinetic, making every drawing feel immediate and alive.
The acronym in the title is spelled out in the subtitle, and the cover and images of guns and a mound of spent shells suggest Summer of Hamn will be solely focused on gun violence, though that isn’t the case. Maybe 15-20% of the images are directly related to guns. As Chuck D asserts early on, and along with welcome items from his music and personal lives, these drawings are about the “Disunited State of America.” While guns are clearly a very direct problem in American society, they have a deeper role in reinforcing a nation’s divisions.
It wasn’t immediately clear how this array of drawings tied things together, but Summer of Hamn captures the Hatiots. “Hatriots” is Chuck’s term for certain seething MAGA conservatives demanding a legal right to stockpile as many high-powered weapons as possible out of fear of God knows what. As a result, any loony with a grudge can be armed like a Green Beret and then predictably snap and turn violent against ordinary people. At the same time, any person in a street beef, especially in Black, trauma- and poverty-ravaged inner-cities, always has a high-powered weapon at arm’s reach as well.
Fearful hatriots selfishly use these two scenarios for their own political benefit to ensure that America continues to make the most powerful weapons available. Of course, this perpetuates the second and third scenarios…wash, rinse, repeat. Thus, both symbolically and pragmatically, guns help solidify support for the disgraced ex-president Donald Trump and all he stands for. As Chuck D illustrates, this continued even as the realities of the 6 January 2021 attack on the nation’s capitol and, as he rhymes, the “papers” in the “Mar-a-Lago caper” were coming to light during the Summer of 2022.
Chuck D once famously said that rap music served as the “Black CNN”, telling the stories of lives never heard in the mainstream. Reading Summer of Hamn, I couldn’t help but think of Chuck D as a now well-seasoned, on-the-scene reporter as he parses the news stories of the day, including gun violence in America, in his incisive style.
With so many crazy news items over these last few years, Summer of Hamn’s memorializing issues otherwise lost in the mix of a turbulent year is welcome. Pieces highlight specific mass shootings and other matters, such as climate denial and stories like the Las Vegas Strip flooding. It will also have you googling, whether for an HBO documentary such as Exterminate All the Brutes (which examines the exploitation and genocidal aspects of the colonization of Africa) or to confirm that, yes, at a parade, a Sesame Street character behaved in a manner that could be interpreted as racist.
The images, text, and social commentary sometimes come together especially well in Summer of Hamn. Chuck’s piece on a new “988” suicide hotline, for example, could be the centerpiece of a national awareness campaign. It is simple and respectful while conveying immense distress and urgency. He finds similar results capturing life at a tent city for the homeless that sits amongst gleaming new construction in Los Angeles.
Whether rapping, being a social activist or conveying the message as a visual artist, Chuck D remains an important figure. Even when surrounding circumstances can seem overwhelming, his voice is always solid, creative, and clear. Like STEWdio, Summer of Hamn is a must for any serious Public Enemy fan, but it is also excellent and insightful art and a time capsule for America.