Fighting the power
If there’s one way music impacts our lives — and there are many — it’s how it reflects moments in history so we may all learn from them. Think Woody Guthrie in the ’40s, Joan Baez in the ‘60s or Public Enemy in the ‘80s.
All a few of my musical heroes.
With racial tension and violent protest dominating news headlines, I’ve been hoping more mainstream artists would step up to social activism and use their talents to speak to the strife. Like the old days. Then I take one look at popular streaming music and see that “Nasty Freestyle” by T-Wayne and “Time of Our Lives” by Pitbull are a few of the top songs representing today’s cultural landscape.
Something just doesn’t seem right.
Maybe it’s the nature of the music industry and the game that talent has to play to be on top and relevant in sales. I’m well aware that in entertainment, money talks. So does flash. But I’m thinking we need to flashback to times when music was truly reflective of how we operate as a society, as opposed to how much money it can make. I certainly don’t want to be a Debbie Downer about music or my world view. In that regard, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Pharrell’s “Happy” and The Lego Movie’s “Everything is Awesome” all take life’s cup-is-half-full approach.
I’ve been known to sing along to all of the above.
Maybe I’m just looking for some lyrics that represent real-life happenings in 2015. Country singer Alan Jackson did it in 2002 with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” in response to the 9/11 tragedy. More than a decade prior, Public Enemy made a statement with the lyrics of “Fight the Power” for Spike Lee’s 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing.” The Academy Award-nominated film highlighted the racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood.
History has a way of repeating itself.
By no means is my experience in life reciprocal to what is reflected in the “Do the Right Thing” script or the rioting Ferguson or Baltimore has endured. But in 1990, “Fight the Power” was a song that resonated with me and many of my senior classmates as we learned that sometimes the establishment is unfair.
And, like the Rolling Stones sing, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
The day I turned 18, on April 20, 1990, we had a walk-out at my high school for our government/economics teacher. He was a young teacher in his 20s named Mr. Hayes popular with our senior class. The story, as far as I remember, was that he wasn’t being offered a contract to return to teach because another teacher, who also happened to be a football coach, would take his place.
We didn’t think that was right.
In the month leading up to graduation, we rallied around Mr. Hayes, who we had lovingly nicknamed Purple Hayes. Our large group of seniors, and a few juniors who decided to join, chose the rainy April 20, 1990, morning to peacefully protest his dismissal. We made purple arm bands out of fabric and wore them in unity. We chanted “Purple Hayes” and chose “Fight the Power” as our theme song. We took our cause through the high school parking lot and down the main street sidewalks of our little rural town in Indiana.
The administration wasn’t amused. My parents probably weren’t, either.
We weren’t invited to come back for class that day. Instead, one of the seniors threw a party. I had to sit out on a tennis match for my participation in the protest — a big deal for me back then. But that’s not what has stuck with me for the last 25 years. I mostly remember feeling so young and so empowered. So alive.
Even if it was impossible to truly fight the powers that be.
I had so much fire and passion in me that day. The kind we have in youth that burns deep inside us like a coal seam fire before we learn we can’t always get what we want. We knew that what was happening to Purple Hayes wasn’t right. We believed the school’s biggest sport was taking precedence over a staffing decision. We wanted change. We wanted our voices to matter.
History has a way of repeating itself.
We even tried to vote “Fight the Power” as our class song to be played at graduation. Like Mr. Hayes being offered a contract, that didn’t happen. The powers that be weren’t having it. I still believe we had enough votes for the song to be played. Maybe it was a lesson to teach us we don’t always get what we want. Or that life can be unfair and disappointing. That doesn’t mean I think our perseverance ultimately failed. I’m proud my classmates and I share that moment in our own history where we stood up for what we believed.
And that we have a song to show for it.
April E. Clark’s favorite genre of music is old-school hip-hop. That’s a fact. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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