Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. Photo: Kowarski on Flickr

Mayer Wakefield reviews a documentary on the history of hip-hop and welcomes its exploration of the music, oppression and rebellion

‘Hip-hop has always been the soundtrack of the revolutionary impulse.’ – Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Condensing the 40-year history of a multifaceted movement that has taken over the planet into four hour-long documentaries is a difficult task but Yemi Bamiro’s Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World achieves it in indomitable fashion by rooting it in the political struggles from which it has evolved.

The series opens with Run the Jewels rapper and community activist Killer Mike, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘KILL YOUR MASTERS’, encouraging anti-racist activists to ‘plot, plan, strategise and organise’ in response to the assassination of George Floyd in May 2020. It is a rallying cry that sets the tone for an evocative and radical history of hip-hop.

Public Enemy front man Chuck D, who also is also an executive producer of the series, is the ideal narrator. A universally respected figure within hip-hop, his voice remains relevant while also having the historical pedigree that allows him to act the perfect counterweight between the movement’s past, present and future.

The word ‘movement’ is important here because hip-hop is nowadays often thought of purely as a genre of music rather than the cultural juggernaut, consisting of five elements – MCing, DJing, Breakdancing, Graffiti and Beatboxing – that it remains to this day. This is a trap which this series also succumbs to but not so in Episode One, The Foundation, which skilfully interweaves the birth of those elements with the political and societal eruptions of the late 60s and early 70s.

It is startling to remind oneself that DJ Kool Herc’s first party in the Bronx in August 1973, considered to be the epicentre of this movement, took place only five years on from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This was one of a series of political assassinations that shook America in this period and foreshadowed an ongoing epidemic of state violence against the black liberation movement.

Physical violence was not the only method. A quote displayed in the opening episode from Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, details another tactic:

‘We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’

As another of hip-hop’s most respected voices, the rapper KRS One, reminds us ‘hip-hop comes from oppression’. Spiralling heroin use was used as a tool by the Nixon administration to launch a widespread crackdown on dissent from black communities in the form of CIA Chief J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTEL Program of ‘vigorous law enforcement’. But as one of the series most authoritative speakers, academic Leah Wright Rigueur, points out, while it did sabotage a wave of political activity it failed to ‘stem rising black consciousness’ which was very much manifested in the music of the period. This is demonstrated in a brilliant sequence highlighting the likes of The Lost Poets, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and many more.

Precedence is given to The Isley Brothers’ Fight the Power, perhaps unsurprising given the phrase’s later adoption by Public Enemy, but nonetheless a sign of the times that a group who up to that point was associated with more sentimental hits was producing such punchy material. The drum break of these records would go on to be broken down by Kool Herc and co to provide ‘the yolk of the egg’ of hip-hop parties and beats for decades to come. The ‘break’-dancing battles that those beats provoked offered an alternative arena for gang violence, which was also rife in New York during the mid-70s. They would also spark another cultural shift in the dance world – although disappointingly there is little more said about this element of the culture in the series. Perhaps the less ostensibly political realm of dance doesn’t lend itself quite so easily to documentary as the music.

Meanwhile the strategy of ‘benign neglect’ offered up by another of Nixon’s advisers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as a method for countering New York’s social issues would indirectly lead to the flourishing of another hip-hop cultural explosion, graffiti writing – now often benignly packaged as ‘street art’.

The barely guarded train yards provided a perfect place for young men and women to express themselves through the medium of spray cans and ink pens on the largest portable canvases in city, the subway trains. The inclusion of Lee ‘LEE’ Quinones, one of the originators of graffiti, whose work includes Stop the Bomb and Heaven is Life, is a real coup not just for his knowledge of his art form but the period as a whole. His inclusion also reflects the important contribution of the Puerto Rican and Latin communities who made up around half of the Bronx population during the 1970s.

It was a community that would continue to suffer at the hands of its government throughout the following decade and the election of Ronald Reagan. The 1980s saw hyper-militarisation of the police force, the crack cocaine epidemic and an escalation of the phony ‘war on drugs’ that still continues to do huge harm to black and brown communities in the US. Footage of Reagan visiting the Bronx during his election campaign and being hounded by local people demonstrates just how unpopular he was.

The opening film reaches its conclusion by returning to the music and its breakthrough moment – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s – The Message. It is a timeless song that sounds as good today as it must have done when it was first released in the summer of 1982. Melle Mel’s breakdown of his ‘A child is born with no state of mind’ verse shows exactly why it such a profound political record. Although it was created just 18 months into his presidency it is surely the anthem of the Reagan era.

Under Siege and Culture Wars, the meat of the four-episode sandwich, continue to deconstruct the long, brutal shadow of the ‘law and order myth’ that blighted the US throughout the 1980s and 1990s and hip-hop’s fierce, vocal resistance to it. To the series’ great credit both episodes refuse to hold back on where the blame lies. Figures like LAPD Chiefs William Parker and Daryl Gates and their hostile, invasive style of policing come in for deserved and clinical criticism, with Dr. Jody Armer a particularly incisive voice.

The murder of graffiti artist Michael Stewart at the hands of NYPD officers and the death of Michael Griffiths following a racially motivated attack in Howard Beach, Queens, are highlighted as two cases from the 1980s that incited a fightback against the duplicitous authorities. Both incidents provided inspiration for Spike Lee’s breakthrough movie Do The Right Thing as well as also inspiring the rage of Public Enemy who had an instantly game-changing effect on hip-hop – providing a raw burst of repoliticisation to the culture. Their potent combination of education and entertainment is rightly given its due credit.

A focus on the 1992 presidential election shows that as hip-hop moved from ‘the ghetto streets to main street’ it became a political football which Bill Clinton was all too happy to kick about. The analysis of his calculated back-and-forth with the eloquent organiser and activist Sistah Souljah is exactly the type of sequence that makes this such a strong series – rooted political analysis through a cultural lens. The conclusion to that third episode which highlights the role of female MCs and icons such as Roxanne Shante and Queen Latifah has the potential to feel a little ‘tick-box’ but again dissects the issues so well that it comes off as a vital part of the series.

The finale is a twisting, turning affair showing how hip-hop now has a huge role in mainstream politics in the US right up to the presidential level, not just in the election of Barack Obama but also Donald Trump who has appeared in numerous lyrics and been photographed with many a hip-hop star. Thankfully though, it reaches the right conclusion back in the streets where the movement and the music collide.

You may think that a hip-hop history which barely mentions Nas, Wu-Tang Clan or A Tribe Called Quest may lack credibility but the fact that a fiercely political group like Dead Prez are given their dues says all you need to know about Fight the Power: it’s all about the message.

Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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