Fight The Power: the story behind the BBC’s new hip-hop documentary

Public Enemy (Picture: Alamy)
Public Enemy (Picture: Alamy)

“A work of art, to revolutionise, make a change,” came the furious flow of Chuck D on ‘Fight The Power’. When the Public Enemy leader wrote the iconic 1989 song, he was speaking to past, present and future.

By the summer of that year, hip hop had been established as a radical political force in the United States and beyond for more than two decades, from its fiery foundations in the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the first hip hop party on Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx in 1973, though to the rise of the genre’s five pillars that same decade, and its explosive return to protest and social consciousness in the 1980s, as Public Enemy led the musical charge against racism and inequality.

The rapper was reckoning with the genre’s legacy, as well as his own new-found place at the treasurer of its potent social currency. The political work he put in during Public Enemy’s heyday, encapsulated so viscerally both in the five minutes of ‘Fight the Power’ and the 90 of the film it was written for, Do the Right Thing, would also lay down a blueprint for legions of conscious rappers to come, from Common and Mos Def to Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar.

Who better, then, to lead us through the BBC’s scintillating new four-part history of hip hop as a global political force? Conceived after Chuck D delved into The Clash’s history of social commentary for a BBC Sounds podcast last year, Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World casts him as our guide through what is a remarkably expansive document of the genre’s rich history and societal impact. “He was the best person to tell this story,” says producer Shianne Brown, who also directed part three of the series. “He’s been there since the beginning.”

His heroes might not appear on no stamps, but many of them do show up as part of an incredibly broad range of talking heads assembled for Fight the Power, which runs the gamut from hip hop titans like Eminem, KRS-One and LL Cool J to key figures of the underground, including Monie Love, MC Lyte, Abiodun Oyewole. Crucially, though, it casts the net much wider than just the artists, with key contributions from every corner of the hip hop community. Towering political figures in their own right, like the Reverend Al Sharpton, make contributions, as does Lee Quiñones, the influential graffiti artist and Dancin’ Doug Colón, one of the first b-boys.

“Chuck acknowledges the importance of the five pillars of hip hop,” says series producer Helen Bart, who also directed episode four. “We wouldn’t have had credibility in making the series if we hadn’t reached out to the pioneers. There’s a huge mix of cultural voices, from artists to professors of African-American history, but they all have a message in common, which is one of liberation, freedom, self-expression and black power.”

The series opens with footage from Killer Mike’s emotional comments to Atlanta’s black community at the height of the fallout from George Floyd’s murder in 2020, as a signifier of the series’ tracking of the intertwining of hip hop and protest right up to the present day. “I remember being at the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and the soundtrack to them was hip hop. That’s the way it’s always been,” says Brown. “It’s become a tool for resistance, for speaking to the oppression that black, brown and Hispanic communities are feeling. Protest is at the heart of hip hop.”

With D at the centre of Fight the Power, the series is primarily focused on the US; on the birth of hip hop in New York City, on the backdrop of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, on the rise of the genre on the West Coast in the 1990s. Election cycles and hip hop’s involvement on them emerge as a pattern, from the catastrophic consequences of the Reagan administration for underprivileged communities to the false dawn of Bill Clinton and then the symbolic importance of Barack Obama’s victory and the hip hop world’s response to the rise of Trumpism.

“We wanted to show how hip hop shaped, informed and intersected with not just politics, but revolutionary ideas,” says Bart. “It’s about black, brown and hispanic people constantly looking for the means to express anger and frustration at a tie when the rest of the country is hostile towards them. And, despite that, how they found a way to live with dignity and self-determination. What Chuck’s narration and insight does is tie all those threads together.”

The importance of intersectionality is underlined throughout Fight the Power but particularly during episode three, which delves into the relationship between hip hop and misogyny and celebrates the work of often unsung female figures within the genre. “We can’t write women out of this story,” says Brown, one of a number of women in key roles on the documentary, along with Bart and Lorrie Boula, D’s production partner. “Female MCs played a fundamental role in the development and success of hip hop, from the 70s through to MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté in the 80s, and then by the time we hit the 90s, you’ve got Queen Latifah absolutely killing it and pushing the boundaries. These are women that need to be given their flowers, and as women ourselves there was no way they weren’t going to make it into the series.”

It’d be easy to come away from Fight the Power feeling that there’s a bittersweetness to it – feeling in awe of the scales of the hip hop community’s changing of the global social fabric and yet frustrated at the relentlessness of the struggle. “But we want people to see the joy in the series,” Bart explains. “Hip hop came from the grassroots, a working class movement that grew into this enormous genre. It’s for the people, by the people, and we were determined to share its revolutionary impulse.”

Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World streams in full on BBC iPlayer from January 21. Episodes 1 and 2 will air on BBC Two on January 21 at 9pm. Episodes 3 and 4 air on BBC Two on January 28 at 9pm