How do you fight the power?
A protest anthem… and a new series
Hi, Ari here—with a new post and a thought:
In this newsletter, sometimes I try to go beyond current news and dig into culture, or go back in time. I’m now going to start a new series of pieces for you about protest music—the anthems, political songs and protest lyrics that resonate across history.
We’ve touched on some of this on The Beat, and sometimes gathered your input on songs online, which we can probably do in even more depth here—we can discuss music in the comments, or share stories, etc. And if you have any recommendations for songs you’d like me to write about (or interview artists about), you can tell me, too!
What is the right thing to do?
“Do The Right Thing” is a raw, funny and poignant portrait of life in a big American city. It’s New York, literally—specifically Brooklyn—but it could be Chicago, or South Central L.A., or Detroit. It’s kids playing in the street and teenagers hustling and people trying to eke out a living and police walking the block. It’s race, class and power defining virtually everything.
It’s a movie, but it’s also a nod to reporting, with a dash of prophecy or warning, because Spike Lee renders the truth of those realities. The facts of life.
By the time simmering tensions boil over at Sal’s Pizza, the film has taken us inside the kind of altercation that’s all too common in our cities: misunderstanding and hate feeds a brawl, which explodes out of control, and the arrival of police does not bring order, but rather more violence, and ultimately death by chokehold.
The film came out in 1989, but it could have been a decade earlier, or later, or now—the police response in many minority areas continues to end in violence, and death; with the same excessive force allegations of chokeholds in 2022 as in 1989.
Lemme hear you say…
Lee was unknown at the time, with no major backing. He made the film in just six weeks for a small independent budget of $6 million—and it went on to gross over five times that at the box office. It was both Siskel and Ebert’s favorite film of 1989, and is considered by many film critics to be one of the greatest movies ever made.
It is a significant film. And you don’t have to be a rap fan to notice that this story about the marginalized is rooted in music—and the culture of hip hop—which is a key voice for the marginalized.
There’s the local radio DJ who is something of the neighborhood’s narrator and counselor (played by Samuel L Jackson) and the tough, cool kid, Radio Raheem, who lugs his large boom box around to provide a real life soundtrack, whether people like it or not. (He also sports those iconic “hate” and “love” ring knuckles.)
Fight the Power
And what does he play? Among other things, the breakout Public Enemy hit from the soundtrack. I bet you know the chorus:
Make everybody see / in order to fight the powers that be / Lemme hear you say, ‘Fight the power!’
We are not the same
To me, “Fight the Power” is one of those songs that sounds like it “already existed.” Maybe that’s just because I heard it from a young age, before I got very interested in music. Or maybe it’s because it has a classic arrangement, sampling a well known James Brown classic, “Funky Drummer,” and drawing on a vernacular that has as much in common with civil rights speeches and southern Spirituals as modern rap. (The music video also features people marching in the streets).
In the song, Chuck D proclaims:
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
In that clear, simple cadence, two ideas clash: We are all humans with equal rights and are just the “same,” a laudable claim that was losing credibility for many after the clashes and assassinations truncating America’s Civil Rights Movement; and the rebuttal—We need not pretend we are the same as the oppressor, nor that we share the same experience or game.
That’s a rebuttal from many Black leaders who focused more on “Black power” and self-sufficiency (ala Malcom X) than the focus on integration and perhaps accommodation (ala MLK). It’s certainly the view of militant artists like Public Enemy and NWA. These are compact lyrics, but also a reference to that much broader discussion about how the system oppresses Black Americans, cuts them out of the game, and subjects them to different rules. That’s a deep disadvantage, and clearly a different experience.
Thirty-three years later, this song is still playing at protests against police violence. It’s a testament to the power of music that even as people adopt so much new technology, people born after this song came out are choosing it anew, as their protest anthem for today, because sadly, so much of the critique is relevant today. Police continue shooting people at the same rates. Minorities are far more likely to be killed.
It’s not just the Right Wing
And while yes, Right wing figures lead more white grievance and backlash in America, from Nixon to Buchanan to Trump, the song also endures because it focuses on power and justice more than partisanship—a framework to take on whoever’s in power.
So recently, that included Trump, but not only his party—in 1989 and today, many of these police departments are overseen by Democratic mayors, and many local justice systems are run by democratically elected D.A.s. Fighting the power means confronting whomever is in power, including those who ran on “change,” only to oversee some similar systems and outcomes.
Now, you won’t usually see big “boom boxes” at today’s BLM rallies—the digital speakers are much smaller—but you will see real life “Radio Raheems”... Young people who know the score, know their culture, know the history, and are drawn to music and activism that reflects their reality now, and the hope of changing it.
It’s rare—maybe even singular—that a movie and a song come together to create a cultural impact that has lasted for decades. That’s what happened with “Do The Right Thing” and “Fight the Power.” Both offer raw commentaries on American institutions, and what we owe each other, and how we can connect to each other. Fight the Power is probably the more explicitly political of the two.
The song is one of my favorite protest songs of any genre ever. What is your favorite protest song? What is the first song that made you think about the world or politics differently? And, if you want, post any other songs you’d like to see me cover in this series in the comments.
Been reading some of the initial comments -- interesting stuff! And subscribe above if you haven't...
The war in Vietnam was the soundtrack of my junior high/high school years so there are many that come to mind - like Freda Payne "Bring the Boys Home" or Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" or Country Joe & the Fish, “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” or classics like "Blowin' In the Wind".