The Music in Spike’s Message

Illustration for article titled The Music in Spike’s Message

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

—Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

One of the most unforgettable images from the summer of 1989 was the video for “Fight the Power,” the theme song for Spike Lee’s classic film Do the Right Thing, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.


Spike Lee and Public Enemy (with the Fruit of Islam guards in tow) walked the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with what seems like a thousand black youth walking alongside them and hanging out of apartment windows. The scene was set up as a contrast to the 1963 March on Washington.

Equally jolting was the scene from the film’s opening: dancer Rosie Perez, alternately adorned in boxing garb and Lycra bodysuits, performing a visual archive of black dance. Moving against the backdrop of Brooklyn brownstones, Perez’s performance—jagged, angular, forceful, masculine and sexy—mapped contradictions of a new generation.

The film was at the center of what was a burgeoning generational debate about the meanings of blackness in the post-civil rights era. Lee’s ability to index the issues of poverty, police brutality, gentrification, interracial romance, the black liberation struggle, the decline of black-owned business, celebrity worship, sexual violence and environmental racism revealed a sophistication that few directors were capable of.

With Do the Right Thing, Lee became the “funky drummer” for a generation of writers, thinkers, artists and musicians trying to get their intellectual freak-on. (This apparently included Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, two Ivy League professionals going on their first date.)

The film seemingly anticipated the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, a black Brooklyn youth who was shot in an Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, and the eventual election of David M. Dinkins as New York City’s first African-American mayor.

Not surprisingly, many mainstream critics misread the film. The National Review dismissed it as an “artful exploitation of racial tensions in New York,” and writer Joe Klein famously predicted in New York magazine that the film would cause riots.


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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Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter