Posted: March 18th, 2023
Fight the Power by Public Enemy
When “Fight the Power” was released as a part of the Do the Right Thing soundtrack in 1989, it was radical not only for its lyrics, but for the context in which it appeared. Do the Right Thing was Spike Lee’s third commercial movie and tackled taboo subjects such as race, economics and violence in an unapologetically confrontational manner. The movie takes place during a hot summer in Brooklyn, New York, where racial tensions are exacerbated by limited opportunities, short tempers and the heat. As the lynchpin in the Do the Right Thing soundtrack, “Fight the Power” was nothing short of an anthem, giving voice to ideas and emotions that many African-Americans had only thought or expressed to each other. As Adam Haupt writes in “Notions of Rupture (or Noise) in Subculture,” the music in Do the Right Thing is key to an understanding of the movie’s radical message:
clear demonstration of the claim that rap, with the concept of noise as one of its strategies, involves a contest for public space and self-representation can be found in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), a film about racial tensions in the New York suburb Bedford-Stuyvesant during a particularly hot summer.”
Finally, here was an opportunity for African-Americans to sign along to the sound of their own discontent, and it had a good beat, too. Public Enemy not only embraced radical thought with “Fight the Power,” but they also tread new musical ground, as they did for the decade between the mid=80’s and the mid-90’s. As Goran M. put it in “Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats:” “[Public Enemy] politicized a whole layer of youth all over the world. If it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t have been any politically engaged bands in the second half of the nineties such as Rage Against the Machine or the Manic Street Preachers.”
Chuck D’s opening verse begins with traditional hip hop lyrics designed to the get crowd moving and excited, which matches nicely with the opening musical sequence, which is loud and forceful. There is no build up, musically, which is one of the first hints that “fight the Power” is more than just another rap song about partying or showing off. However, by the end of the first verse it becomes clear that “Fight the Power” has a more significant, radical agenda:
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be Lemme hear you say
Fight the power
Here, Chuck D. is making a demand on behalf of himself, Public Enemy and the black community at large. The reference to “what we want/need” can be read as a demand for equality, justice and economic opportunity. The lyrics indicate an unwillingness to be silent about American racism and injustice any longer; the people will fight, according to Chuck D, with speech being the weapon of choice. The powers that be – the government and others who wield the power – will be the targets of the fight.
In the second verse, Chuck D. acknowledges that he’s using the music for a greater purpose, indicating that there is a connection between the music that sustains African-American youth and political/social agendas:
As the rhythm designed to bounce
What counts is that the rhymes
Designed to fill your mind
Now that you’ve realized the prides arrived
We got to pump the stuff to make us tough from the heart
It’s a start, a work of art
Here, Chuck D. indicated that art, in this case hip hop, is as good a place to begin revolutionizing people’s thinking as any. Hip hop is certainly as art with its origins in the streets of New York, and with this verse Public Enemy urges blacks to use the music, which comes “from the heart” of the community, to make a difference.
Later in this verse, the lyrics refute the idea that the path to enlightenment is that professed by Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement:
To revolutionize make a change nothin’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
As Goran M. notes in “Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats,” the Civil Rights Movement did not change living conditions for many black Americans:
The famous Civil Rights movement, which began in the fifties with Martin Luther King and reached a climax in the late sixties with the spread of the Black Panther Party, in reality failed to bring a significant improvement in the living standard for the oppressed black minority within the United States.”
Public Enemy rejects at least some of the teaching of the Civil Rights Movement, including the notion that people are all the same, implying that there are a special set of problems and circumstances suffered by blacks that need to be addressed specifically. Chuck D. pleads for awareness of this crucial truth, thereby taking a much more radical approach to racial issues that had been accepted by mainstream society. Certainly, other voices existed in the societal discussion of race relations, but more moderate, and some might say meek, voices prevailed. “Fight the Power” is taking a much more uncompromising view of the situation and the action needed to remedy it.
In the final verse of “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy takes on the white establishment by denigrating some of its most revered heroes:
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant ***** to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was Simple and plain
Mother ***** him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
There are few popular culture icons more beloved than Elvis, and Chuck D. literally spits his name out in disgust in this verse. He draws attention to a radical notion: not everyone idolizes a singer who “borrowed” his vocal style and dance moves from black artists who toiled in obscurity while Elvis made millions. Chuck D. also attacks John Wayne, who is styled as the classic good guy who saves white American from savage influences. As Charles Mudede writes in “SHUT THEM DOWN: A History of Public Enemy vs. The System:” “If Hollywood represented black men as Stepin Fetchit, it represented white men as John Wayne, a cowboy who shot down all of his troubles (which usually came in the form of American Indians).”
By rejecting both Elvis and another traditionally revered America icon, John Wayne, Public Enemy proclaims its true revolutionary stance. Chuck D’s verse goes on to proclaim a type of verbal war on popular culture and its embracing of music that seeks to placate:
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here Public Enemy resists the simplistic message of Bobby McFerrin’s hit song and instead calls for more aggressive, more honest, more radical messages:
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be in “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy combines politics, hip hop and anger to create a rap anthem that is aggressive and honest. After living in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement and its message of getting along and nonviolent protest. The song takes on a radical stance, urging blacks to use their voices as weapons and to reject the status quo. Not only was the song radical it its message, but it also represents one the first times hip hop music was used to encourage political and social reformation.
Haupt, Adam. “Notions of rupture (or noise) in subculture.” Accessed 16 March 2005. http://www.uwc.ac.za/arts/english/interaction/95ah.htm
M., Goran. “Public Enemy: Power to the People and the Beats.” Accessed 16 March 2005. http://www.marxist.com/ArtAndLiterature/public_enemy_art.html
Mudede, Charles. “SHUT THEM DOWN: A History of Public Enemy vs. The System.” Accessed 16 March 2005. http://www.thestranger.com/2004-09-02/ex3.html
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