The Music in Spike’s Message

Twenty years later, what does it mean to ‘Do the Right Thing’?

Beneath the racial bombast, Lee has never missed an opportunity to link music to his message. His genius as a filmmaker and tastemaker is tied to his brilliant mining of the black musical tradition, from championing “go-go” and “Da Butt” in School Daze to the jazz tradition in Mo’ Betta Blues and the music of Stevie Wonder and Prince in the films Jungle Fever and Girl 6.

Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, was a jazz bassist whose sensibilities influenced many of his son’s early films. Do the Right Thing marked a break of sorts from the jazz-backed She’s Gotta Have It, as Lee courted more popular artists such as Guy, Take 6, the reggae group Steel Pulse and, of course, Public Enemy. Do the Right Thing was the first time that Lee openly embraced hip-hop in his films. The film began with an instrumental version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that quickly shifts to the opening bars of “Fight the Power.”

Lee would later become more critical of hip-hop, as we would see in his 2000 film Bamboozled, but in 1989 he clearly understood the seismic shift in black culture that hip-hop helped usher in. Public Enemy was at the height of its own 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, Public Enemy burst to the forefront to carry the bloodstained banner for Lee’s vision.

The year 1989 was one in which groups like Public Enemy and “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 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 played dozens of times during Do the Right Thing accounts for the way it burned its way into our collective conscience. Perhaps it reflected a sentiment that was already in our subconscious, and that’s why the song and film broke out. Either way, 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.

Twenty years later, the state of blackness in America is no less complicated—arguably more so. But Lee’s cinematic vision, and the anthem that backed it, prepared us to meet the complexity head-on. 

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books, including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. In the fall of 2009, he will offer the course “Spike Lee and the New Black Aesthetic” at Duke University.


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