Type keyword(s) to search


PBS's Fight the Power Only Tells Half of Hip Hop’s Story

The four-part series about the genre’s political impact barely acknowledges its failings.
  • Chuck D. (Photo: BBC Studios/PBS)
    Chuck D. (Photo: BBC Studios/PBS)

    When the Black vocal group The 5th Dimension released their 1969 anthem “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” they sought to capture their community’s skepticism about the government. Taken from the counter-cultural musical Hair, the song’s lyrics are a call to action: regain control of your environment, let the sun shine in, and you will have “no more falsehoods and derisions.” Three years later, when Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman to run for president of the United States, she echoed those sentiments in her announcement speech, calling for a need to “reshape our society and regain control of our destiny.” Music captured the feelings of a community, and the community responded with an organized social movement. The New PBS documentary Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World argues that this call and response helped hip hop become a tool for Black Liberation, but as it seeks to prove that thesis, it skims over the inherent challenge of advocating for radical political reform while trying to appeal to a mainstream audience.

    Hip hop’s lyrics are imbued with the emotional and the practical. Lyrical poetry in the genre conveys the human pain, outrage, and revolutionary joy of Black and brown communities experiencing systemic oppression. Simultaneously, concrete calls to action in those same lyrics provide a strategy for liberation. To demonstrate this ongoing synergy, the series identifies a pattern that began to emerge even before the genre’s earliest iteration and continues to the present day: music establishes the harm caused by policymakers against communities of color; the community celebrates that music; and this helps mobilize efforts to eradicate the harm.

    Throughout four episodes — which are executive produced and (according to PBS press materials) “authored” by Chuck D, leader of the politically charged rap group Public Enemy — Black history scholars, policy wonks, MCs, and DJs parse an exhaustive set of facts. President Reagan’s dismantling of social services, Robert Moses’ displacement of entire Black neighborhoods, Mayor Giuliani’s belief in the broken windows theory, and LAPD Chief of Police Daryl Gates’ expansion of stop and frisk are all meticulously presented as the foundation of an environment specifically designed to oppress people of color. Toddy Tee’s “Batter Ram,” Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” are the bugle calls from a community determined to regain control of their surroundings. These declarations fuel a range of political and social movements, including but not limited to Black Lives Matter and the election of President Barack Obama, whom the documentary dubs the “hip hop President.”

    However, the show struggles to reflect on a different dualism in hip hop: achieving mainstream success while advocating for grassroots social change. Chuck D. and his collaborators, including producer Lorrie Boula and series director Yemi Bamiro, can’t quite articulate whether the genre’s ability to attain the former weakens its ability to carry out the latter. In fact, that internal struggle is only briefly referenced, even though it’s implied as a crucial battle to protect hip hop’s soul.

    Legitimizing hip hop as a genre meant carefully curating its leaders and sound for mass appeal. In 1989, then 14-year-old Roxanne Shante competed against other MCs in the “Battle for World Supremacy,” a competition that crowned the winner as a leader in hip hop. During an interview in the documentary, Shante recounts her domination throughout the competition, up to the final round when a judge tanked her with an unusually low score, costing her the title. Years later, the judge confessed to Shante that he had purposefully lowered her score to protect hip hop’s image, since he felt it would be detrimental for a teenage girl to be dubbed a leader in the culture. Chuck D. and his team say almost nothing about what hip hop lost by snubbing Shante and creating a precedent to overlook community voices while ostensibly advocating for that very community. Amongst interviewees she is recognized as having paved the way for women hip hop artists, but that recognition means little without a probing discussion of what happened to her.

    With its entry into the mainstream, hip hop’s messaging became a tool for aspiration instead of agitation. That aspiration was for a uniquely American version of success: the supposedly equal opportunity to achieve excess material wealth via hard work. For hip hop, that American dream was embodied in Donald Trump, who between 1989 and 2016 was mentioned at least 318 times in rap lyrics, according to CNN. But while Trump was embraced by hip hop, he also advocated for racist policies. In 1989, he even paid for full page ads in four New Yok City newspapers demanding that the state introduce the death penalty and apply it to the Central Park Five.

    In some ways, then, hip hop wasn’t so much changing the world as it was partaking in the bread and circuses that so effectively prevent a community from liberating itself. That’s a serious identity crisis that the show treats as something akin to growing pains. It is not enough to factually report that the genre pivoted from advocating for systemic reform to individual wealth. It is equally important to discuss why that happened. Communities of color may have lost faith in policy after having generational wealth stolen over decades through a system built by racist laws: in that case, investing hope in an American dream that promised individual wealth might have seemed more plausible. It may also be that as hip hop went mainstream, its fanbase became more white and less interested in the policy reform that transferred power from themselves onto communities of color.

    These are all potential blinders that, if studied, could provide useful guidance on how to prevent the genre from losing its way again. But in their understandable quest to frame hip hop as a catalyst for social movements, Chuck D. and company ironically silence a crucial part of the story. The genre’s impact is arguably even more profound when we fully acknowledge its complex connections to the community where it was born.

    Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World premieres January 31 at 9:00 PM ET on PBS.

    Alexi Chacon is a theatre and culture critic based in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Body, Theatrely, The Brooklyn Rail and more. 

    TOPICS: Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World, PBS, Chuck D, Lorrie Boula, Yemi Bamiro