Shana L. Redmond is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is interested in black political cultures within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
"The Last Anthem: Police Power and the Prophesy of Rebellion in L.A."
In 1989 Spike Lee released his film Do the Right Thing, which captures the lead-up to and effects of urban unrest in segregated Brooklyn. Infused within this visual catalogue was a soundtrack that punctuated the scenes of the film and carried its political power onto the radio and into the cars of millions across the country. Far and away, the most enduring single was track 1: Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Beginning with an original speech of a Chicago political activist, the song launches into nearly 5 minutes of insistent demands (to “fight the power”), taking advantage of numerous musical samples and resistance traditions. The applicability of the song to Brooklyn and numerous other locations, conditions, and political mobilizations, marks “Fight the Power” as an anthem, perhaps the last black anthem of the twentieth century. The song was not simply narrative but was instructive, providing a pulsing backdrop to Lee’s fictive Brooklyn and the realities of black urban neighborhoods in L.A.
It is not surprising that this anthem speaks to the rapid decline of urban civil decency on a national scale; the generation which the anthem marks felt the pressure of the crack cocaine epidemic and its response, the prison industrial complex, which began in earnest one decade earlier but was by the end of the Reagan administration a multiparty platform issue that caged and surveilled black men and women by the thousands. “Fight the Power” spoke to a condition of alienation and abuse faced by African Americans that soon found violent release in a rebellion in the streets of South Central L.A. This paper will discuss how this song bridged the east coast with the west, fiction and reality, and past and future through its critical dissection of the present.