In 2020, in the turbulent wake of the murder of unarmed black man George Floyd in America, the rapper Killer Mike made an emotional speech to protesters in Atlanta. In this powerful monologue, made on the night of May 29, among impassioned pleas for calm he said: “It wasn’t just Dr. King and people dressed nicely who marched and protested to progress this city and so many other cities. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise.” The speech makes for a hard-hitting opening to the new four-part BBC documentary Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World.
It resonates with the central idea of this wide-ranging series, which dives deep into the political and social issues that have shaped and continue to shape hip hop – how the form can and has been used as an effective tool for change. Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who also serves as an executive producer on the show, calls hip-hop a “collective movement” and “by-product of what comes out of the people.
“The Black Lives Matter protest wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for hip-hop,” he says now.
Venturing back to late 1960’s New York City, the series highlights the political backdrop against which the art form would begin to come into being. The revolutionary decade was not exactly swinging for everyone. Social and political divides were as yawning then as they are today. Racial conflicts shaped the period – areas with high ethnic diversity often saw low levels of investment and funding.
Issues of deprivation led to increases in violence and a growth in gang culture, increasing crime rates in the city, which at one point was seeing four murders occur every day. Archive footage of legendary singer James Brown, interviewed on growing tensions and violence in a television broadcast from 1969, shows him saying: “We don’t want the survey, the survey is out in the streets.”
The unrest in marginalised communities led to the rise of political voices among ethnic minorities, including the formation of the Black Panther Party, while Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm aimed to raise the voice and political profile of black people by throwing herself into the running as a presidential candidate in 1972. Footage of her campaign during this period is used in the first episode, with her speech declaring, “Join me in an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny.”
Chisholm highlighted the plight faced by ethnic communities living in inner city New York – as well as the US as a whole. Black people were particularly targeted by the police and by the government. Harsh policies brought in by then President Richard Nixon inadvertently or otherwise targeted black people on two fronts: resistance of conflict (during the Vietnam War) and combatting the heroin epidemic at the time.
John Hopkins University professor Leah Wight Rigueur, who features in the documentary, says: “The policy that came out of the Nixon administration, particularly those policies that are focused on the war on drugs, on crime, are actually designed to punish black people.”
This is made starkly clear in an interview with former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, published in Harpers Bazaar, in which he says: “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 criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
While divisive political policy continued to raise community tensions, with crime, drugs and social issues rife in the underfunded communities of New York, mindsets were starting to shift. The 1970’s brought a sense of fabulousness to NYC, with the rise of disco music and the iconic Studio 54 bringing some of the biggest names in showbiz, including Sir Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Cher, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein and Sir Elton John to the famous dancefloor.
With the disco scene dominating the streets of Manhattan, a different kind of dance was taking hold in the less glitzy, more gritty suburbs. The Bronx was going through its own changes – building from the end of the disco era, a new revolution was taking hold, the beginning of hip hop.
Starting from the sounds of musical legends including Marvin Gaye and James Brown, this was the beginning of a new sound, pioneered by DJ Kool Herc, who NYC rapper KRS-One describes as “the spark that ignited hip-hop”. It reverberated through to the more recent “old-school” sounds we know today, from artists such as Grandmaster Flash.
The artform became the voice of the working class, often delivering messages of protest against current inequalities and unfair policies that would detrimentally affect ethnic minorities should Ronald Reagan come to office.
Grandmaster Flash’s hit The Message is highlighted as a pioneering work: a wholly protest track, delivered as a party record, delving into the issues facing New Yorkers in the 1980’s – though lines like “Can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station” will resonate more loudly than viewers might be comfortable with.
The raw honesty and sheer catchiness of the record had the whole city talking. The track became iconic in hip hop and synonymous with the idea of hip-hop as a revolution, setting the early foundations for groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A.
As the next episodes take us through a timeline of hip hop up to more recent times, some of the genre’s biggest names, including superstar rappers Eminem, LL Cool J and Fat Joe, give their own views on its importance. What is clear is that hip hop, from its earliest forms, was precision tooled to generate social and political change in the communities it centres around – and has an innate ability, even when laced with rage and frustration, to find positivity in the darkest of times. Executive producer Lorrie Boula puts it poignantly: “You can put your foot on someone’s neck – people will still find a way to find joy.”
Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World is on BBC Two on Saturday January 21 at 9pm