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Black Gloves and Mirror Balls

From Panther to disco genius, Nile Rodgers keeps his own course.

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By Carlos Hernández Gómez

You know Nile Rodgers's music even if you don't know his name. Rodgers, the producer and distinctive rhythm guitarist who with Bernard Edwards formed the core of the disco supergroup Chic, has made contributions up and down the FM radio dial. One of Chic's biggest hits, "Good Times," inspired both the Sugar Hill Gang's pioneering hip-hop hit "Rapper's Delight" and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust"; after the group broke up, in 1983, Rodgers produced big-name outings from David Bowie's Let's Dance to Madonna's Like a Virgin to Duran Duran's Notorious. But few fans of his decidedly apolitical oeuvre realize that the renowned musician and neighbor of Martha Stewart was once a member of the Black Panther Party.

Rodgers, 47, was in town for the screening of Public Enemy, a documentary by German filmmaker Jens Meurer about the black revolutionary group, at the Chicago International Film Festival. Rodgers was one of four former Panthers interviewed in the film, the others being poet Jamal Joseph, professor Kathleen Cleaver, and party cofounder Bobby Seale.

Rodgers, whose father was a musician, grew up in Greenwich Village, where in his early teens he started hanging around with a group of young anarchists called the Resistance. "I was disillusioned with the way the peace and civil rights movement was going," he says. "Becoming a Panther was a natural progression." But though he'd heard about the Oakland-based organization on the national news, he wasn't sure where to find the Panthers in New York. "There were no Panthers in the Village, so I first hung out with opportunists who just dressed like Panthers to get girls and rip people off," he says.

Soon, though, he came into possession of a copy of the party's newspaper, the Black Panther, that asked all members in the tristate area to report to Mount Morris Park in Harlem. There he met Jamal Joseph, then the party's local leader, who gave him his first orders. "I was in Harlem standing guard where Sister Betty Shabazz was speaking," he says. "It was a great responsibility, an honor."

The Black Panthers' ten-point platform advocated decent housing, education, and community solidarity. Rodgers remembers participating in antiwar protests and what the Panthers called "survival programs," like free breakfasts for schoolchildren and sickle-cell anemia testing. But the party's Marxist leanings and call for blacks to exercise their right to bear arms brought it under the intense scrutiny of law enforcement.

Harassment by police and infiltration by the FBI's COINTELPRO program eventually took its toll on the organization, and on Rodgers too. "When I heard the charges for the New York 21"--21 Panthers charged with conspiracy--"read in court, I knew they were trumped-up. I went into my room, didn't eat and cried for days.

"There was so much dissension in the ranks of the Harlem chapter of the Panthers we didn't know who was a member, who was a cop, or who was cooperating with the feds. As things deteriorated, I felt betrayed," Rodgers says. "It got really scary."

He left the Black Panthers in his late teens, and for solace turned to a lifelong love--music. "My father was a percussionist who played with the likes of Xavier Cugat and Harry Belafonte, and my mother was an intense music lover. It was always around," he says. A one-off gig would change his life. "I was playing guitar in a pickup gig and I met [bassist] Bernie [Edwards]."

They struck up an immediate rapport. "I could depend on Bernie; he was so together," Rodgers remembers. They formed a group of their own and, after a name change and a number of rejections, sold the single "Dance Dance Dance" to Atlantic in 1977. The sound Chic introduced made Edwards and Rodgers the dynamic duo of disco. In addition to Chic's hits--"Le Freak," inspired by a rebuff at the entrance to Studio 54, gained them access to the club for the duration of its life--they also wrote and produced Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and Diana Ross's "Upside Down."

But Rodgers knew the end was in sight when the Knack hit number one with "My Sharona" in the summer of 1979. He compares the disco backlash to book burnings in Nazi Germany. "Disco sucks" displays like the one at Comiskey Park that year, perceived by many as antiblack and antigay, sent him into a depression. "It seemed racist," he says. "I felt betrayed, I didn't know who my friends were--it was as if it was paralleling my Panther experience. It was weird, because we were friends with the Knack. I even knew Sharona."

In 1992, after a decade-long run as one of the most sought after producers in the country, Rodgers reunited with Edwards and Chic and put out a record, Chic-ism (Warner Brothers), which is now out of print. In April 1996 they recorded a live album at Tokyo's Budokan concert hall with guest appearances by Sister Sledge, Steve Winwood, and Slash (who played lead guitar on "Le Freak"). The performance was a triumph, but that night Edwards died of complications from pneumonia in his hotel room.

Rodgers continued to perform, playing guitar on the Steve Winwood track "It's a Family Affair," which was dedicated to Edwards, and this year he formed his own record label, Sumthing Else, which has so far released Chic Live at the Budokan and the Public Enemy sound track.

The sound track, which opens with a rousing speech by Kathleen Cleaver and includes a track called "Bobby Seale Rapping at Rally," is as close as Rodgers has come to mixing politics and music--he says he was and is determined to keep the two separate. On-screen in Public Enemy he even takes a jab at Marvin Gaye: "I'm not gonna sing 'What's Going On' or 'I can't pay my taxes,'" he says, and after the screening explains, "Bernie didn't bring his family into the music; I didn't bring my politics."

But he agreed to be interviewed for the film because he "wanted to put a human face on this organization that was so wrongfully maligned." And his success hasn't lulled him into believing race relations in the U.S. are smooth. Recently, in Westport, Connecticut, where he now lives, he was pulled over for no apparent reason while driving his decked-out SUV. "At the end of the day, no matter how rich or successful we are, we can still be victims just because of the color of our skin," he says. "Maybe someday I'll include it in a book called 'What Every Black Person Knows.'...But I'm always hopeful. We all want the same stuff, a sense of relaxed joyfulness."

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