“Swinging While I’m Singing”: Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and the Message in the Music

Chuck D of Public Enemy (Jason Persse, Flickr).

“1989, a number, another summer, sound of the funky drummer”

—Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

The scene may be the most iconic of Spike Lee’s filmmaking career; the late Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem giving up his final breath at the hands of the NYPD in a fashion eerily similar to the death of Eric Garner twenty-five years later. Two years before the videotaped beating of Rodney King, and a full generation before personal handheld devices captured the police killings of Garner, Philando Castile, and Oscar Grant, Jr., Radio Raheem’s cinematic death in the film Do the Right Thing (1989) gave witness to the over-policing of Black communities and the coming crisis of gentrification.

Produced after the well-publicized deaths of Michael Stewart (after an arrest by New York City transit cops), Eleanor Bumpers (in a forced eviction by New York City police), and Michael Griffith (hit by a car running from a racist mob), Do the Right Thing captured the rage experienced by Blacks, not just in the New York area, but nationally. Among some mainstream critics and pundits, the general concern was that the film would contribute to racial tensions. New York Magazine columnist Joe Klein wrote, “If Lee does hook large black audiences, there is a good chance that the message they take from the film will increase racial tensions . . . His film is more trendy than tragic, and reflects the latest riffs in hip black separatism rather than taking a hard look at the problems.” Klein later adds, Lee “is a middle-class intellectual trying to prove his solidarity with ‘the people’ by demonstrating his outrage over white oppression.” In the Washington Post Juan Williams opined, “Despite its defiant attitude and willingness to confront racism and poverty, Do the Right Thing comes up empty-handed—it has nothing to say. The film amounts to shrieking and bullying in the name of frustration, futility, impotence and, finally, self-destruction.”

Yet amidst the anxieties and racist fears of critics, many missed the genius of Lee’s filmmaking, in which powerful images were always aligned with Black sonic interventions, both as language and music. Indeed in Spike Lee’s early films music was a prominent aspect of the narrative, whether it was the colorized dance sequence in the black and white She’s Gotta Have It (1986) that featured the vocals of Ronnie Dyson, the party scene from School Daze that introduced the nation to Go-Go music via E.U.’s “Da Butt,” or Malcolm’s X’s lonely stroll to the sounds of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” in the biopic that bears his name. Beyond the visual provocations, Lee has never missed an opportunity to link music to his message. His brilliance as a filmmaker and tastemaker is tied to his use of the Black musical archive. Nowhere was this more pronounced than the song that opens Do This Right Thing, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

The film began with an instrumental version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that quickly shifts to the opening bars of “Fight the Power”—a metaphor for the generational shift that the film documents. Propelled by “Fight the Power,” dancer and choreographer Rosie Perez, alternately adorned in boxing garb and Lycra bodysuits, performs a visual archive of Black dance. Moving against the backdrop of Brooklyn brownstones, Perez’s performance—jagged, angular, forceful, masculine, and sexy—mapped the contradictions of a generation. At a moment when the objectification of Black and Brown women was shortly to become the lingua franca of hip-hop music videos, boxing became the metaphor in the film’s opening to articulate Perez’s agency in the performance. Describing the sonics of “Fight the Power,” co-producer Hank Shockalee says, “The drums had to feel like African war drums, but instead of us going to war, it had to be like we were already winning the war.”

As such, Do the Right Thing centered a burgeoning generational debate about Blackness and representation in the post–civil rights era, which we might think of now as ironic distinctions between Huxtable-like claims on cultural inclusion and Mookie’s—Do the Right Thing’s resident homeboy—“cash-and-carry” Black Nationalism. Lee’s ability to index the issues of poverty, police brutality, gentrification, interracial romance, the legacy of Black liberation struggle, the decline of community-based Black-owned businesses, celebrity worship, sexual violence, and environmental racism as the civil rights generation gave way to the hip-hop generation, marked a level of sophistication that few filmmakers, if any, were able to negotiate at the time. With Do the Right Thing, Lee became the “funky drummer” who helped galvanize a generation of Black writers, thinkers, artists, and musicians trying to work past the strictures and structures, in part, because he heard the music.

The soundtrack to Do the Right Thing includes a range of diasporic sounds from the a capella of Take Six, the New Jack Swing of Teddy Riley and Guy (“My Fantasy”), Al Jarreau’s jazz vocals, the Afro-latin groove of Rubén Blades, and classic Reggae from Steel Pulse, yet the song that most resonates was “Fight the Power.” In 1989 Public Enemy was at the height of its powers, a year after the release of its groundbreaking It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Though Redhead Kingpin’s “Do the Right Thing” was initially slated as the lead single from the film’s soundtrack—the song doesn’t even appear in the film—Public Enemy burst to the forefront to carry the bloodstained banner for Lee’s vision.

What Lee no doubt realized was that “Fight the Power” was bigger than the film and lived in a world beyond Do the Right Thing’s not-so-fictionalized Bed-Stuy. To this end, in the second of two music videos that Lee directed to support “Do the Right Thing” (the first featured footage from the film), Lee and Public Enemy staged a mass rally called the “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence” juxtaposed to images of the “March on Washington,” which Public Enemy lead Chuck D describes as a “bit of nonsense.” “Do the Right Thing” is a jarring reminder of a time when even so-called conscious rap music was still largely the purview of Black teenagers, and when hip-hop still largely lived in Black working-class communities (and its stars still lived in close proximity to those communities). Decades later the short film for “Fight the Power” is a time capsule for the burgeoning political sensibilities of what I once called “The Post-Soul” generation.

The short film features Tawana Brawley, who two years earlier accused four white men of sexually assaulting her. History remembers the Tawana Brawley case as a hoax, but her appearance in the video—and her invocation in the film, “Tawana told the truth”—is a reminder of the truth of sexual violence against Black women and girls, and how Brawley held so much representation for that violence at that time. As Patricia J. Williams wrote in her book The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor, “This much is certainly worth the conviction that Tawana Brawley has been the victim of some unspeakable crime. No matter how she got there. No matter who did it to her—and even if she did it to herself. Her condition was clearly the expression of some crime against her, some tremendous violence, some great violation that challenges comprehension.” That the Brawley case continues to haunt claims of sexual violence against Black women and girls, speaks to the power of Lee and Public Enemy’s affirmation.

Also littered throughout the video are the Fruit of Islam (FOI), the Nation of Islam’s security detail, which provided security and crowd control throughout the rally. The presence of the FOI, who were direct inspiration for Public Enemy’s Security of the First World or S1Ws, recalls an era when The Nation, as the organization is colloquially known to many, was a vital part of Black urban communities—and not just in the selling of their signature navy bean pies and Final Call newspapers, but in providing community-based law and order as a counter to police occupation. Though the Nation of Islam’s national leader Minister Louis Farrakhan remains as much of a controversial figure as he was in 1989, when arguably he was more widely known, the relationship between the Nation of Islam, Public Enemy, and hip-hop more broadly, was pronounced. Chuck D cites Minister Farrakhan on It Takes a Nation of Million’s “Bring the Noise” (“Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to”) and “Don’t Believe the Hype” (“The follower of Farrakhan, Don’t tell me that you understand until you hear the man”). In the decade to follow, the Minister—to cite another popular colloquialism—helped to broker peace among beefing factions in hip-hop, including the now long forgotten and in retrospect somewhat unbelievable, dispute between Common and Ice Cube, which speaks to the respect that hip-hop held for Farrakhan.

Do the Right Thing and “Fight the Power” were prescient; they anticipate the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, a Black Brooklyn youth who was shot in the Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst; the eventual election of David M. Dinkins as New York City’s first Black mayor in the fall of 1989; and the Crown Heights Riots of 1991, which pitted Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans against Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn after seven-year-old Gavin Cato was killed (and his seven-year-old cousin Angela severely injured) in a vehicular accident. The Crown Heights affair, and Mayor Dinkens seeming flaccid response, paved the way for “Giuliani Time.”

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, hip-hop was largely the soundtrack of Black resistance, not only to white supremacy, but also the Black status quo. Lee was not always in conversation with hip-hop. Lee’s late father, Bill Lee, was a jazz bassist and composer who appears on Aretha Franklin’s Columbia debut in 1960, and whose sensibilities influenced many of his son’s early films. The elder Lee provided the score for his son’s first four films, until Terence Blanchard took over that role with Jungle Fever (1991). Do the Right Thing marked a break of sorts as it was the first time that Lee openly embraced hip-hop in his films. Lee would later become more critical of some of the more cartoonish aspects of mainstream hip-hop, as witnessed in his 2000 film Bamboozled, but in 1989 he clearly understood the seismic shift in Black culture that hip-hop helped to stimulate.

Lee would never really make another film that so wholly galvanized the attention of a generation of Black viewers, even though he arguably did some of his best filmmaking during his Brooklyn trilogy of Crooklyn (1993), Clockers (1995) and Girl 6 (1996)—which featured a Prince produced soundtrack—and earned his first Best Director nomination in 2019 for BlacKKKlansman. Public Enemy too would not have another moment like the summer of 1989, though Fear of a Black Planet, released a year later and where “Fight the Power” also lands in longform, might be their most perfect record. Chuck D, who perhaps tours more these days with Public Enemy and the supergroup Prophets of Rage, is reflective about the summer of 1989: “The record was cool, but it was enhanced by a video, and it also had a major film attached to it. There was a movement behind it too: New York had a lot of issues and needed an anthem. Today you have hit records that need financial help because they have nothing else to hold them up.”

In the midst of what might be termed a renaissance of the Black moving image, from the commercially viable progressive image making of Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Black Panther) and Ava Duvernay (SelmaWhen They See Us, and Queen Sugar), to the art house filmmaking of Khalil Joseph (Flying Lotus: Until the Quiet Comes and the director’s cut of Lemonade) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing stands as the inspiration for nearly two generations of Black filmmakers. Thirty years and almost twenty films later, Lee has had to adapt to the changing means of production and promotion, and has actually returned to his own archive and the hustling spirit that propelled his career with his latest project the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. Like his earlier film work, music remains an important aspect of Lee’s practice, but these days he has to allow for the lack of general knowledge that his potential audience has for the archive of Black music. Whereas earlier generations might have relished in his deep knowledge of the archive—the two-volume Crooklyn soundtrack being a great example—Lee now carefully curates the musical playlists for the new series for millennial consumption habits.

The year 1989 was one in which groups like Public Enemy and so-called “Black radical chic” could exist alongside the “daisy age” attitudes of De La Soul, whose “Me Myself and I” offered a critique of Black groupthink; the Black Brit invasion of Jazzie B and the Soul II Soul (“Keep on Moving” and “Back to Life”) reflected a burgeoning Afro-cosmopolitanism. Still, no one musical performance says as much about the generational shift that was taking root in 1989 than “Fight the Power.” Perhaps the fact that the song is played dozens of times during Do the Right Thing accounts for the way it burned its way into our collective conscience; perhaps both reflected a sentiment that was already in a collective subconscious. In any event, Do the Right Thing and “Fight the Power” became rallying cries for a generation of post-civil-rights-era Black Americans, who were not only speaking truth to power, but speaking back to Blackness.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Mark Anthony Neal

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished professor of African American Studies at Duke University where he chairs the Department of African and African American Studies and hosts the weekly webcast, Left of Black. He is the author of several books including 'What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture' (1999); 'Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic' (2002); and 'Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities' (2013). Follow him on Twitter @newblackman.

Comments on ““Swinging While I’m Singing”: Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and the Message in the Music

  • This is such an important review of Spike Lee’s film, “Do the Right Thing!”

    In 1984, Dr. Skip Norman, my professor at the University of Southern Mississippi (director of “Strange Fruit” with Bobby Seale), told me to follow the work of Spike Lee. I had no idea I would actually be doing it five years later when I had the surreal privilege to be walking up the red carpet behind Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and the entourage of other actors and creators at the world premiere of “Do the Right Thing” in Cannes in 1989.

    Remember the time: 1989 was the bicentennial of the French Revolution and the French Ministry of Culture had created a series of events promoting French language (Francophonie) artistic creation as revolutionary activities. The poster for the Festival International du Film in Cannes that year shows a more-modest-than-usual Marianne wearing the Phrygian cap of the revolutionary Sans-Culottes, waving a banner made of perforated film stock.

    Revolutionary filmmaking was on the minds of the mostly African but also Belgian, Quebecois, and Haitian cinéastes attending the Cannes Festival’s conference for French language film. I had been invited to attend because of French language documentaries I made in Louisiana. My wife Kathleen and I walked behind Spike’s group alongside Cameroonian director Daniel Kamwa and his Ethiopian actress escort (whose name I have forgotten). I can’t claim anything more than accidental good luck in our limousine letting us out behind Spike Lee’s entourage. Although I did bask in the glow of walking in his footsteps, my mentor Skip Norman should have been there, not me.

    Fighting the Power makes its own electricity when adrenalin and righteous zeal are in abundance like at the beginning of all revolutions. That day in May was a perfect conjunction of French revolutionary history and Black revolutionary possibility under the waving film banner of Spike’s film. The set-up was perfect, but there was only shocked amazement when the film was passed over for the Palme d’Or and the forgettable “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” got the top prize. “Do the Right Thing” missed the award because Cannes juror Wim Wenders didn’t like Spike’s character Mookie in the film, as Spike reported later.

    Mark Anthony Neal’s essay on “Do the Right Thing” corrects that stupid mistake forty years later. Spike Lee belatedly gets a new award, the “Palme Noir!”

    Reply

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