Before delivering his opening monologue last night at the Academy Awards, host Chris Rock walked on stage to Public Enemy’s 1989 anthem “Fight the Power.” The night’s broadcast ended with the song as well. Given Rock’s lacerating material about the film industry and the Oscar’s annual tradition of hardly nominating any cast or crew members of color, some have commented that Rock should have used the Public Enemy single “Burn Hollywood Burn” instead.
But Rock’s song selection may also have been a nod to the Academy’s snubbing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing after its release in 1989, just as it was jump starting an incremental increase in films from black film directors and surely influencing the comedian. The movie about race relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood on a single summer day was one of the most critically acclaimed and controversial pictures of that year. It not only featured “Fight the Power” during the film’s propulsive opening credit sequence, it’s what continuously plays on character Radio Raheem’s D battery-eating boombox. Of course, when the Oscar nominations came around, Do the Right Thing was only recognized in the secondary categories of Best Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello (who lost to Denzel Washington in Glory) and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Spike Lee (who lost to Tom Schulman for Dead Poets Society). “Under the Sea” from Little Mermaid ended up winning the Best Original Song that year, setting the scene for a decade of Disney dominance in that category.
As to whether there had been any push to get “Fight the Power” nominated for an Oscar back then, Bill Stephney of the Bomb Squad, the production crew who put together the song, explains that the single and soundtrack were officially released through the R&B-oriented Motown Records, not Def Jam, Public Enemy’s usual label. “The idea was to just get as much radio play as possible, which was difficult at that point because radio was hesitant to play any rap music, especially quote unquote that sort of rap music,” says Stephney.
These events all came just as hip-hop was beginning to cautiously deal with mainstream attention. A year earlier the Grammys introduced the Best Rap Performance category, then decided not to give out the award during the television broadcast, which resulted in a protest featuring several of the nominees that was organized by Def Jam’s founding publicist Bill Adler. Yet feelings about about this industry recognition in the first place were mixed. “There were a number of us who were against the Grammys even adding a rap category,” says Stephney. “We thought it was besides the point, that the music wasn’t intended for artistic competition in that way and that the folks who would make that determination wouldn’t have a sufficient understanding or knowledge of the music to make a capable decision.”
Thirteen years after “Fight the Power” would have been eligible, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” became the first rap song to be nominated for an Oscar and the first to win. “For what it’s worth, the music business has always been more integrated than the movie business,” says Adler, the former Def Jam publicist and current hip-hop historian. “The movie business has always been notably backwards when it comes to any kind of comfort with black culture and black people. It’s true to this day.”
Stephney acknowledges that he’s a friend of Chris Rock and was pleasantly surprised to hear “Fight the Power” last night, but that if the Academy Awards wanted to recognize something he did now, it still wouldn’t mean much to him. “I’m not a fan, at all,” he says. “When you think about what Public Enemy and groups like Public Enemy were supposed to mean, that sort of industry acknowledgement is completely besides the point.”