message to grassroots

A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, “I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.” No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, as Reverend Cleage was pointing out beautifully, singing “We Shall Overcome”? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging. It’s based on land. A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation. These Negroes aren’t asking for no nation. They’re trying to crawl back on the plantation.
—  malcolm x, message to grassroots, october 10, 1963.


An inventive and innovative record that holds up to this day, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, features energetic and visceral beats, vocals, and excerpt political lyrics that communicate a message that shocked Americans. The leader and writer of the group, Chuck D, delves into topics such as self-empowerment for African Americans, critiques of white supremacy, and exploitation of the music industry, all characterized by black nationalist rhetoric. As explained by BBC Music, “the message was that black music could be reclaimed and re-tooled as a semantic crowbar – screaming to the world that rhythm was as eloquent as words when reminding us of the world’s inequalities”, and so it was. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back incorporated speeches from historical figures such as Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X. Taking from Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots speech, Public Enemy sampled the lyrics “too black, too strong/too black, too strong”. These lyrics reference to Malcolm X’s coffee analogy, which describes the results of a white America diluting the interest of black people:

“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep.” - Malcolm X

This single, along with “Don’t Believe the Hype”, conveyed their message so fiercely and with so much flow, that it caused immediate tension in the press and genuine fear. The record as a whole is an explosive masterpiece that delivers its lyrics with an infectious controlled anger. It’s an album that speaks to you and begs for a debate. 


Two years later, Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet, an equally sonically and lyrically ambitious project. The song “Fight the Power” from this record would go on to become the theme song for Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, “a chilling morality tale of police brutality, telling the story of a deadly choke hold by police, sparking a race riot” (abc news). The film is now recognized as a masterpiece for its superb production, style, and message to the extent that it’s being taught in schools. Even president Barack Obama recognized and praised the film for “holding a mirror up to society”.


“Fight the Power” is a testament to African-American culture with its mentions of civil rights exhortations, black church services and more. The song accurately reflected the tone of Do the Right Thing and became Public Enemy’s most famous song, and considered one of the best songs of all time.