“Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say they would rather switchhhh…than fight.”Thomas “TNT” Todd
And through this sample, a recording of a civil rights speech, so begins “Fight the Power” which, as introduction to the movie Do the Right Thing, is an explosion of excitement, anger and sound.
The movie Do The Right Thing by director Spike Lee and the song “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy were both released in 1989 as examination of and reaction to violence throughout New York City in the 1980’s. Michael Griffith was attacked by a group of young white men in Howard Beach in 1986. Eleanor Bumpurs was shot in her home by police in 1984. Michael Stewart was killed while in policy custody in 1983. Riots in response to racial incidents in New York in the 1980’s became routine. People were angry. Tempers were high.
Do The Right Thing begins bathed in a red light, and actress Rosie Perez is wearing a red dress dancing to “Fight The Power” as the opening credits roll. Her movements are at once jerky and fluid. Her costume changes. The lighting changes. Her dance routine is beautiful and angry. She stares us down. She is defiant and accusatory. We hear Public Enemy lead vocalist Chuck D.’s booming voice begin the song as a commandment, as direction, as a sermon.
“1989 the number another summer (get down)
Sound of the funky drummer
Music hitting your heart ’cause I know you got soul
(Brothers and sisters, hey)”
Spike Lee asked Public Enemy to write an anthem to open his film about racial violence erupting in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, and that’s just what they did. Perhaps Public Enemy is an extreme version of Lennon and McCartney made for the often violent and sad end of the 20th century. Chuck D is Lennon. Deadly serious. Leading the way. Almost commanding us how to think, and what to feel. Flavor Flav is the clown prince embodiment of Paul McCartney. Lightening the mood with his constant mugging for the camera in their videos, but always playing a key role is adding melody and color to the songs.
Though the song features Branford Marsalis on saxophone, producers The Bomb Squad constructed the song mainly from tape loops and samples. The song is a layered and textured attack of sound and color. Chuck D is trying to open our eyes. The lyrics attack like a machine gun.
“Listen if you’re missing y’all
Swinging while I’m singing
Giving whatcha getting
Knowing what I know
While the Black bands sweatin’
And the rhythm rhymes rollin’
Got to give us what we want (uh)
Gotta give us what we need (hey)
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be”
Many listeners were shocked at the level of anger they heard in “Fight the Power,” and felt that the song was a call to arms. Bassist Brian Hardgroove said “Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power.”
“To revolutionize make a change nothing’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
You say what is this?
My beloved let’s get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
(Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
To make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be.”
People sometimes claim themselves to be color blind, that they don’t see differences between the races. Public Enemy is telling us that our races provide different life experiences, and those life experiences inform who we are and what we’ve become. We shouldn’t ignore those differences. Ignorance breeds carelessness. Carelessness breeds violence.
Public Enemy takes a stand. They encourage us to embrace our differences, and they encourage us to consider our role models with a more critical eye. I did not grow up as a person of color in America, and Chuck D’s lyrics hit me like a ton of bricks.
“Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant sh-t to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother f-ck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) let’s get this party started right
Right on, c’mon
What we got to say (yeah)
Power to the people no delay
Make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be.”
I don’t know what it’s like to grow in a world where “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” My experience, my life, is different. My experience tells me that Elvis Presley recorded rhythm and blues songs in way that a national audience could enjoy. Chuck D. is telling me that Elvis stole and sanitized the music of his culture. My experience tells me that I love John Wayne movies, and the characters he portrayed were often conflicted and troubled. Chuck D. is telling me that the movies he made forwarded an agenda of racism and bigotry.
“Fight the Power” stands the test of time. Musically, the song sounds as current and passionate as it did when it was released exactly 30 years ago. Sadly, from a lyrical point of view, the song could have been written today. Laquan Mcdonald, shot 16 times by Chicago police in 2014. Eric Garner, strangled by police in 2014 in Staten Island. Sandra Bland, died in her cell after her controversial arrest in 2015 in Waller County, Texas.
Whatever our life experience happens to be, right is right. Wrong is wrong. Fight the power. Fight the powers that be.
“Fight the Power”
Written by Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Boxley and Keith Boxley
Performed by Public Enemy
Released June, 1989