In the context of the history of race relations, 1989 was indeed another year in a long struggle for equality for African Americans, but it was also worthy of note. To some, America seemed to be neglecting the problems brewing in decaying inner city neighborhoods. Figures like Reverend Jesse Jackson sought to lead a new generation of African Americans that hadn't grown up with the Civil Rights Movement. But many of these figures, including Jackson, were much too controversial to gain widespread acceptance, and this new generation would constantly find themselves in a vacuum of leadership. When traditional leadership figures failed, African Americans turned elsewhere. Many of the new leaders would be, for better or worse, entertainers. One of the most important leaders of this movement would be Public Enemy.
As early as in 1986's "Rebel Without a Pause," Public Enemy's frontman Chuck D embraced convicted murderer and Black Panther JoAnne Chesimard ("Recorded and ordered - supporter of Chesimard"), and showed support for Louis Farrakhan in "Bring the Noise." The thing is, despite their controversial content, these songs were popular. While Farrakhan and others were highly criticized figures in the public sphere, Public Enemy could siphon their views into their songs, at the same time rapping about how being black made you a public enemy. As Public Enemy pioneered political rap, more and more journalists, fans, and African American leaders began to view Chuck D as a potential leader for the new generation.
But there are problems with letting an 18-year-old rapper lead people. Chuck D and Public Enemy were just kids, and while they could reason well with racism toward blacks, their often offensive Farrakhan-transplant views on Jews, women, and gays muddied their message. As Bill Stephny, who helped sign Public Enemy, said, "In dealing with the apparent day-to-day, minute-by-minute cultural power that Chuck say Public Enemy wield, I think he truly and legitimately believed that you could create a generation of young people who had a drive and ambition to make serious change and reform within the community. Was it something that was mapped out by all of us at 510 Franklin—a ten-point Panther-like plan on how we were going to take over the media? No. A good portion of Public Enemy was jazz improvisation" (Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop, 253).
It took until 1989's "Fight the Power" for Public Enemy to create a single unified message that a lot of people—not just African Americans—could get behind. "Fight the Power" left much of the black militancy on the table and concentrated on getting listeners to participate in politics:
What we need is awareness, we can't get careless
You said what is this?
My beloved, lets get down to business
Mental self-defensive fitness
Yo! bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
Later in the song Chuck D raps, "'Don't Worry, Be Happy' was a number one jam, d--- if I say it you can slap me right here," in reference to the 1988 Bobby McFerrin single. In an unprecedented way, Chuck D was saying that African Americans, and hip-hop culture more specifically, should be political. This is perhaps the most important message of "Fight the Power" and Public Enemy, and one that many other hip-hop artists have held onto over time (see Dead Prez's "Hip-Hop" for just one example).
While Public Enemy may not have been suited to lead the hip-hop generation, the band did open doors for others. In fact, Chuck D began to retreat from a position of leadership in the African American community, saying that he didn't want to be a leader. Instead he wanted there to be 500 leaders. He wanted the community to come together for change.
In fact, "Fight the Power" was commissioned by another rising black leader in the entertainment business: Spike Lee. Spike Lee wanted the song to open his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, a movie that immersed itself in the racial tension of the decade to recreate the kind of explosiveness on the big screen that Public Enemy was creating with sound. "I knew I wanted an anthem," says Lee, "so I called up Chuck D, and he came back with this classic song."
In the movie, Lee's character delivers pizzas for a white-owned pizzeria in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The plot follows a cast of neighborhood characters on the hottest day of the summer, examining their relationships and individual problems, and how the Italian-American pizzeria owner and his two sons relate (or don't) to the neighborhood, which has become primarily African-American over the years. "Fight the Power" provides the soundtrack for the dance sequence that the movie opens with, and it plays several more times throughout the film. Racial and other kinds of tension in the film build up to a complicated conclusion—the movie doesn't give any easy answers.
Spike Lee also put together a music video for "Fight the Power" in the style of a street protest. He took out ads on radio stations to spread the word about the event, and handed out signs and T-shirts to the people that showed up. As Jeff Chang writes, "It was just a seven-minute short to promote a record, a group, a brand. But the video also seemed to firmly establish Chuck's cultural identity… on 'Fight the Power,' Lee placed Chuck in the streets amidst the likenesses of Black power fighters, one new Black icon anointing another" (280).
In "Fight the Power," as in Spike Lee's feature film, racism is definitely the wrong thing. Figuring out the right thing to do, and convincing people to do it, is a whole lot trickier.