Fight the Power
by Public Enemy
"Yet our best-trained, best-educated, best-equipped, best-prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact it's safe to say that they would rather switch than fight."
Sounds a lot like MLK, but this is actually attorney Thomas "TNT" Todd speaking about the Vietnam War.Deep Thought
The actual context of this quote doesn't have a lot to do with this song, at least at first glance. Todd was speaking out against the Vietnam War, in reference to the large numbers of AWOL soldiers, using a twist on an old cigarette ad. (AWOL stands for "absent without official leave.") Tareyton cigarettes ran with the slogan "US Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!" from 1963 to 1981.
Public Enemy seems to appropriate the quote in reference to black Americans who didn't seem to be committed to fighting racial injustice. That is, PE might really be trying to say, "You could fight these injustices, but you won't. It almost seems like you're ready to be on the other side before you will fight for yourselves."
"Now that you've realized the pride's arrived"
Black pride was on the rise in the late 1980s precisely because of bands like Public Enemy, which asserted, "I'm Black and I'm proud."Deep Thought
Adopting the stylings of the Black Power movement and James Brown, many young African Americans in the late 1980s turned to their cultural heritage as they asserted their importance in American society. Hip-hop in particular created a new appreciation in African Americans for their own accomplishments, as bands like Public Enemy were creating new music genres by the day. In other media and scholarly thought, this movement, dubbed Afrocentricity, sought to remind the world of the importance of Africa and African Americans. This brought about new fashion styles, as Common describes in his 1994 song, "I Used to Love H.E.R.": "out went the chains and in went the braids, beads, and medallions." Africa was portrayed on T-shirts, and scholars were turning to the massive empires of Africa's past to debate the influence of Africans and Egyptians on Greco-Roman thought.
"Yo! bum rush the show"
Yo! Bum Rush the Show was Public Enemy's debut album.Deep Thought
Yo! Bum Rush the Show introduced the world to Public Enemy in 1987 with the same black militancy that characterizes Fear of a Black Planet. It didn't sell very well, but it is and was highly acclaimed.
"Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s--- to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Mother---- him and John Wayne"
Chuck D has since explained his rant on Elvis as an attack on the perception of Elvis as the king of rock and roll, which disregards his black influences.Deep Thought
Chuck D put it this way: "The Elvis that died wasn't the same Elvis that was coming up. They said he was king. Based on who and what? Based on the quality of the people judging or the quality of his music? What does 'King of Rock and Roll' mean growing up in a black household? My Chuck Berry records are still in my house. Little Richard is still in the house. Otis Redding and James Brown. The King of what?"
That is to say, for Chuck D, calling Elvis "King" discredits all the African American artists who inspired Elvis when he was developing his sound. Chuck D is well aware of Elvis' reverence for his black contemporaries and influences. Inspired by an assignment to cover Elvis for Fox, he said, "Elvis had to come through the streets of Memphis and turn out black crowds before he became famous. It wasn't like he cheated to get there. He was a dope white boy. Just like Eminem is doing today. ... Elvis had a great respect for black folk at a time when black folks were considered n-----s, and who gave a d--- about n----r music?"
The problem, he's saying, wasn't Elvis, who could be found hanging out in African American bars and sampling dance moves from his contemporaries. The problem was the way in which America memorialized Elvis with shrines, while at the same time demolishing important sites of black music history like the Stax recording studio where Otis Redding and other stars got famous.
"I'm Black and I'm proud"
James Brown couldn't have asked for more. In 1968 he said, "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," and in the 1980s, black Americans seemed to be saying, "I'm Black and I'm proud" more than ever.Deep Thought
As Reagan-era reforms cut social services, some black Americans began to protest. (You can read a lot more about race in the context of those reforms in our US History section, here.) Hip-hop played a huge role in this revitalized black movement. As hip-hop started to hit the mainstream with Run-DMC and The Beastie Boys and Grandmaster Flash, a powerful sense of the creative cache of black Americans emerged. African Americans didn't need to fit into the status quo; hip-hop was proving that time and time again African Americans were capable of shaping the culture at large with innovative music and powerful social messages.
"Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps"
In 1989 this was definitely true; while Booker T. Washington was the first black man to appear on a postage stamp, which was issued on April 7, 1940, it took another forty years for the first black woman to appear on one, on February 1, 1978.Deep Thought
That woman was Harriet Tubman, who famously escaped slavery and rescued over seventy slaves from the South using the Underground Railroad. This stamp was the first of the Black Heritage Commemorative Stamp series. It should be noted of Booker T. Washington that he was heavily criticized in black communities as an "Uncle Tom," in reference to the cruel slave owner in Harriet Beecher-Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. He advocated a separate-but-equal stance that angered many activists. He famously stated that "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." So, in all likelihood, Booker T. Washington was not one of Chuck D's heroes.
"Don't worry be happy / Was a number one jam / D--- if I say it you can slap me right here"
Bobby McFerrin's 1988 song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was the first a cappella song to be a #1 song in the US.Deep Thought
If Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" represents the angriest, most frustrated voices of black musicians, then "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is its polar opposite. In light of the issues that PE sought to bring up in their music and activism, Chuck D found Bobby McFerrin's song infuriatingly benign.