Public Enemy’s ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’ Is an Underrated Black Liberation Anthem Necessary for Today
You’re going to see “Fight the Power” pop up in many retrospectives surrounding the 25th anniversary of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, which was released on April 10, 1990. And reasonably so. Who are we kidding? “Fight the Power” is the hip-hop anti-establishment protest song. The panicked riff is just as instantly recognizable as its sentiments; you will not find a set of bars as revelatory and cocksure black as, “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s--- to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain, motherf--- him and John Wayne.”
With its use in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing, “Fight the Power” is considered the archetypal Public Enemy song. It’s also an entry point for many to Fear of a Black Planet, an album filled with lyrics of pro-black strength and dense sampling ingenuity, which will forever go unmatched (seriously, these sampling laws are no joke). But picture this: what if Rosie Perez was swinging and shadowboxing to “Brothers Gonna Work It Out" instead of “Fight the Power”?
This isn’t about which is the lesser song. That’s arguably a moot point since they have different focuses. “Fight the Power” is a militant surveillance of a system designed against African-Americans, much like Public Enemy's second LP, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” an update of Willie Hutch’s sweeter 1973 song, has a more liberatory focus on the album. Within its complexities lie a simple concept: Chuck D has a vision where the brothers twist in unison in the far out year of 1995. After reclaiming the past, they’re in full ownership of the present.
The song's mix of black nationalist sentiments and fantasy also makes this a succinct synopsis of Fear of a Black Planet’s ethos. Chuck D’s futuristic idealism falls in line with the sci-fi tinge that’s seen on the album cover: the eponymous black planet eclipsing the Earth. On the other hand, Chuck D did note this album was inspired by psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing's theory of "Color Confrontation and Racism,” which partially sees racism as a concept invented to protect the interests of a mostly white few. It’s an inherently gratifying image to see supremacists in power cower in the face of a unified and mobilized black population -- one ready to take the freedom it’s owed.
But the politics and the context are background factors; for five minutes, we groove because we are thrilled. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” sounds like a bacchanal taking place in a wind tunnel, with voices echoing throughout after being summoned from this anachronistic black cultural soup. And look at that Prince sample that twirls amidst the chaos. It’s the out-of-body guitar solo that ends and climaxes “Let’s Go Crazy.” This ecstasy isn’t lost on Chuck D and Flava Flav’s call to action.
Yet, the stakes are higher than momentary exhilaration. Take note on how the concept of sampling applies to the “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.” In the conversation printed on Mark Dery’s famed Black to the Future essay, science fiction writer Samuel R. Delaney notes, “The historical reason that we’ve [African-Americans] been so impoverished in terms is because, until fairly recently, as a people we were systematically forbidden any images of past.” The use of samples both distant and familiar in “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” feel like an answer to that disconnect.
The aforementioned essay was published in 1994, but there’s still that detachment from the past. In textbooks, the history of slavery is often edited down in favor of paragraphs focused on Abraham Lincoln’s heroism. Chris Rock’s Martin Luther King joke from Bring the Pain actually wasn’t really a joke. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” revels in drawing from a darkened past to will a tomorrow into existence in the face of an antagonistic social construct. It’s what makes Chuck D and Flava Flav’s back and forth mid-song much more crucial: “Schools and the prisons / History shouldn't be a mystery / Our stories real history / Not his story.”
The point of “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” lies in its immediacy: compressing time for a clearer sense of current existence. A hopeful future created by a population twisting under one beat. Even at peak militance, Chuck D’s optimism is normally grounded in reality. It’s no different on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.”
Fear of a Black Planet’s 25th anniversary falls around the same time we're experiencing and digesting two black liberation opuses: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Black Messiah. Neither explicitly point to Public Enemy as a reference; To Pimp a Butterfly was partially a dedication to 2Pac, while Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin On is a reference point for Black Messiah. But “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” To Pimp a Butterfly and Black Messiah are similar in how they bring forth the past for a present statement.
To Pimp a Butterfly’s undercurrent of disarray is formed by the shards of influences behind it, from the P-Funk that kicks off the album (“Wesley’s Theory”) to the sections of jazz. D’Angelo’s work features a more spiritual liberation, calling on Prince, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield as the forefathers of this renaissance. He’s been doing so since Voodoo. On Black Messiah, societal trauma plays a bigger role (“All we wanted was a chance to talk / 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk” is definitely going to be referred to when the five-year retrospectives come around).
Why black freedom music is a necessity 25 years after Fear of a Black Planet deserves its own lengthy feature. But the answer shouldn’t be that hard to find after yet another black man was murdered by a police officer earlier this week. Music like this anthem, which pleads for black unity, impacts on an emotional level. Within these soundscapes, black voices -- the ones sampled and the ones spoken to -- reclaim their value. “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” is Public Enemy’s clearest expression of that idea.
Listen to Public Enemy's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out"
See 10 Music Milestones From Great Black Artists