On September 15, 1983, a Black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart was arrested in New York City when he was found tagging a subway car at 2:50 a.m. He was taken to the hospital in custody with bruises all over his body, and after slipping into a coma, doctors concluded that Stewart’s brain had hemorrhaged in a way that could only have been caused by strangulation or choking. He was declared dead at the age of 25, but after two years of trials and investigations, the six officers involved were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Stewart went on to become the inspiration for Radio Raheem, a character who meets a similar fate in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, which prominently featured Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a call to action and militant protest anthem. Over syncopated, layered, drum beat samples from The Isley Brothers, The Jacksons, and Funkadelic, Chuck D and Flavor Flav rap, “Got to give us what we want/Gotta give us what we need/Our freedom of speech is freedom of death/We got to fight the powers that be.”
After the death of George Floyd this past May echoed that of Stewart’s, Public Enemy returned to premiere “Fight the Power 2020” at the BET Awards, a remix boasting additional features from Nas, Rapsody, Jahi, YG, and Black Thought of the Roots, 30 years after its original release.
Acting as the lead single off of their latest record, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, the re-emergence of “Fight the Power” not only celebrates Public Enemy’s lasting impact as they release their first album for Def Jam in over 20 years, but also solemnly reflects how little has changed to remove systematic racism and police brutality since Michael Stewart.
A good half of What You Gonna Do, such as “Public Enemy Number Won” and “Rest In Beats,” does center around Public Enemy clinking glasses with former tour-mates Run-DMC and The Beastie Boys, but it’s hard to fault Chuck D and Flavor Flav, both now in their sixties, for wanting to reminisce.
In the ‘80s, the Def Jam label created by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons boasted them as the biggest rap acts on the planet, and it’s heartwarming nostalgia hearing rap-legends-turned-grandparents like Flav sincerely ending tracks encouraging Chuck D, “Yo that shit sounded good on the record, what you just did, haha.”
While some of the record’s lyrics may seem like low-hanging fruit ripped from Tonight Show monologues (“Orange hair fear the comb-over/Here’s another scare, keep them hands in the air”), most of What You Gonna Do serves as the best anti-Trump hip-hop material since YG’s aptly named “Fuck Donald Trump.”
Alongside Chuck D’s famous, recapitulated “Elvis never meant shit to me” verse from “Fight the Power,” YG raps “They tryna erase our history, stop and think/History class ain’t tell us ’bout Juneteeth.”
In a polarized news cycle where the youngest generation gets shamed for spreading the virus despite the fact that they make up most of the essential workforce (or are out protesting), it’s comforting to hear the solidarity shared between artists like YG and Public Enemy, despite being twice the Compton rapper’s age.
Even with the 30-year offset, What You Gonna Do still has the guitars blaring, the drum machine marching, and the hard-hitting vocals up front and center.
Chuck D’s “Vote or Die!” messaging stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Rapsody’s call for justice for Breonna Taylor, but their display of collective resistance isn’t just to serve some sort of generational kumbaya. Public Enemy’s lasting influence has always been felt through their hammering for the country to learn from its ugly history.
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