Fight the Power

Public Enemy, 1989 and 2020

This song implores listeners to "fight the power." To whom do you think these lyrics are addressed? And who/what is "the power"?

Listen to James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" (VAT, Unit 8). Why do you think Public Enemy samples Brown's song (and other songs) in "Fight the Power"?

Why do you think Public Enemy specifically call out Elvis and John Wayne as racist?

Compare the original 1989 song to the remix that was released in 2020. What do the lyrics indicate was the inspiration for the remix?

"Fight the Power" performed by Public Enemy on Fear of a Black Planet, © 1989. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

"Fight the Power Remix" performed by Public Enemy, © 2020.

For more information on Public Enemy, visit their official website. The official video may be viewed via YouTube.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

For the 1989 lyrics:

https://genius.com/Public-enemy-fight-
the-power-lyrics

And this one for the 2020 remix:

https://genius.com/Public-enemy-fight-the-
power-remix-2020-lyrics

Do The Right Thing poster
Movie poster for Do the Right Thing.

“Fight the Power” was composed for Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing (1989) and inspired by the Isley Brothers’ 1975 song of the same name. Scholar Casarae Gibson describes the song as “a hip-hop protest anthem that brings awareness of sociopolitical realities in Black communities to mainstream audiences” (Gibson, p. 189).

The group’s original members, Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) and Flavor Flav (William Drayton), met while in college in the mid-1980s and soon began rapping social commentary. The name Public Enemy originated from a sense of persecution from another DJ, as well as the broader (white) society, and it became the title of their first tape, Public Enemy #1. It also communicates the group’s viewpoint, often articulated in their songs, that African Americans are the target of discrimination and violence.

The song was recorded with significant looping and layering, as well as the re-contextualization and alteration of samples from a variety of sources, including James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (see VAT, Unit 8) as well as the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.” Public Enemy leader Chuck D later recalled that they worked with a production team, known as the Bomb Squad, to “put loops on top of loops on top of loops” (quoted in Katz, 161). The dense and often intense sonic configuration of this approach is complemented by the participation of two instrumentalists: saxophonist Branford Marsalis and DJ turntablist Terminator X (Norman Rogers).

The lyrics stand out against the crowded and complex sonic background, exhorting young audiences to rebel against racial discrimination and economic inequality, even if it means turning to violence. Chuck D encourages his “brothers and sisters” to oppose those who are destroying the lives of African Americans.

In Do the Right Thing the song is first heard during the main title sequence, after a solo saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (see VAT, Unit 6). In the midst of a soundtrack that alternates between the soothing sounds of Marsalis’s saxophone and other quiet melodies, “Fight the Power” figures prominently as it represents the anger of the Black youths who patronize Sal’s pizzeria. The song also provides the focal point for the climactic fight that results in the death of character Radio Raheem, who carries a large boom box with which he plays “Fight the Power” throughout the film. The song gives voice to the extreme rage in the film, which is the catalyst for the violence that leads to Raheem’s death.

In the spring and summer of 2020, protests broke out across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. In solidarity with the protesters, Public Enemy released a remix of “Fight the Power” that features Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG, and QuestLove. The performers rap about continuing resistance to systemic racism and racially motivated violence into the present day, drawing comparisons between events from the more distant past, such as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and recent acts of violence against African Americans. The rappers also draw strength from historical figures who fought oppression, such as Booker T. Washington, Toussaint Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. They vow to keep fighting. As Nas raps in the first verse, “the next generation still singin’, ‘Fight the Power.’”