Police brutality isn’t new. Neither is its documentation. What is new — thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones and other recording devices — is recognition beyond the black community of its frequency, viciousness and, with few exceptions, the impunity with which the majority of abusive officers are treated. Twenty-odd years after the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots, the Eric Garner decision is yet more proof that police brutality is as much a part of our system of policing and criminal justice as it ever was.
Musicians have long attempted to speak to police violence through song. In response to Ferguson, artists including G-Unit, Public Enemy, The Game, T.I. and J. Cole (whose “Be Free” may have been the most gut-wrenching of all) recorded tracks to address police brutality and the harrowing loss of black life. These songs build on a long history of music that protests the horror of police brutality and abuse. There are of course, far too many anti-police-violence songs to round up in a single list. But here, in no particular order, are just 20 of them.*
1) N.W.A. – “Fuck tha Police”: The mother of all contemporary anti-police-brutality songs, N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” is a rap classic and still, more than 25 years later, the ultimate “fuck you” to the cops. Before Dr. Dre was best known for pricey headphones and Ice Cube was a family movie star, the two were part of the outfit that changed hip-hop — for both better and, undoubtedly, worse — launching gangsta rap and putting Compton on the national map. Tipper Gore and the PMRC’s endless pearl clutching over the group’s debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” only helped drive record sales higher (especially among suburban white kids, the only demographic they cared about protecting anyway). Word has it the FBI warned Ruthless Records about the song’s lyrical content pre-release, apparently, to little avail. There’s too many apt and great lyrics to quote here, but the opening lines are a good place to start: “Fuck the police comin' straight from the underground / A young n*gga got it bad cause I'm brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority.”
Other anti-police brutality songs titled “Fuck the Police” include tracks by the late J. Dilla, Styles P. and Lil Boosie. Ice Cube would go on to write a number of anti-police brutality songs including “Who Got the Camera,” “The Predator” and “Endangered Species,” featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
2) The Clash – “Know Your Rights”: The Clash kicked off 1982’s “Combat Rock” with this cut, which outlines your rights — and exactly how they’ll inevitably be quashed by the powers that be. Singer Joe Strummer cheekily sings, “You have the right not to be killed / Murder is a crime / Unless it was done by a / Policeman or aristocrat.” As true today as the day it was sung.“The Guns of Brixton,” from the 1979 double album “London Calling,” sums up police overreach and brutality in a question: “When they kick at your front door / How you gonna come? / With your hands on your head/ Or on the trigger of your gun / When the law break in / How you gonna go? / Shot down on the pavement / Or waiting on death row.” One of the best bands of all time’s best songs, ever.
3) 2Pac – "Trapped": It’s almost impossible to say anything new about Tupac Shakur, a rap giant about whom so much has already been written, spoken, theorized and flat-out made up. He is, obviously, one of modern music’s most well-known artists and rap’s most important figures, even nearly two decades after his death. (In fact, with 75 million records sold, he’s one of the best-selling artists of all time, regardless of genre.) More sensational remembrances of Tupac downplay how keenly conscientious the rapper was of social inequalities — from racism to poverty — a consciousness he displayed again and again on record. Here, on “Trapped,” he raps about the feelings of anger created by the kind of constant, looming terror police harassment creates in poor black communities. He revists the topic — of black oppression and police harassment — on “Holler if Ya Hear Me.”
4) SinÃ©ad O’Connor – “Black Boys on Mopeds”: The sparse, aching beauty of SinÃ©ad O’Connor’s 1990 acoustic ballad belies the searing anger at its core. O’Connor wrote the song in response to two cases of English police brutality against young black men. Nicholas Bramble, 17, died after losing control of the moped he was riding in a chase with the police. Cops claimed they suspected Bramble of stealing the bike, but it was later discovered it belonged to the teenager. Colin Roach, 21, was killed by a shotgun blast to the head in a London police station. Police, in a story riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities, claimed he’d shot himself. (A jury, unsurprisingly, ruled in favor of the police’s fantastic version of events.) After mocking Margaret Thatcher’s faux-outrage over human rights deaths in other parts of the world, SinÃ©ad demystifies England’s fairytale image in just a few lines: “England’s not the mythical land of / Madame George and roses / It’s the home of police who kill / Black boys on mopeds.”
5) Bruce Springsteen – “American Skin (41 Shots)”: This is Springsteen’s ode to murdered Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, who in 1999 was hit by 19 of the 41 shots police fired at him after mistaking his wallet for a gun. The factor of race — and the role of Amadou’s black skin in his and so many others’ deaths — was the titular concern of the song. “Is it a gun, is it a knife / Is it a wallet, this is your life / It’s ain’t no secret, no secret my friend / You get killed just for living in / Your American skin.” When the song was played on Springsteen and the E. Street Band’s reunion tour in 2000, some NYPD groups attempted to organize a boycott of the shows. Taking things a step further, then-president of the state's Fraternal Order of Police Bob Lucente called Springsteen "a fucking dirtbag” and a "floating fag,” which sounds a little like he was stringing random hateful words together. (He later apologized.) All of the officers in the Diallo case were acquitted. The city ultimately paid Diallo’s family a wrongful death settlement of $3 million.
6) Killer Mike – “Don’t Die”: The son of a cop, Killer Mike talks about police violence with an impassioned voice that’s made his takes on Ferguson some of the most insightful, incisive and moving of the last few months. This track, released in 2012, was written with victims of police brutality both recent and historic in mind; he told Pitchfork the song was crafted “[s]o we never forget Fred Hampton, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell and other good men killed unjustly by police in this country. R.I.P. Trayvon." The resulting single, produced by rapper El-P, is an awesome and intense behemoth of a song. Listen, and then check out this op-ed about police brutality penned by Killer Mike earlier this year, in which he states, “Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all.” You might also want to watch this speech he gave before a St. Louis show just hours after the Ferguson verdict — its heartbreaking earnestness and passion is why it went viral.
7) The Violators – “Summer of ‘81”: One of the very best, and shortest lived, punk bands, The Violators released a handful of 7” and 12” recordings in the early ‘80s before summarily falling apart and disappearing altogether. In the years since their demise, they’ve become one of the most influential bands in street punk, with this particular single appearing on countless compilations. Helen Hill’s voice is perfection on a track that slowly builds to barbed life and spills into one of punk’s most cathartic releases. “Summer of ‘81” references the riots across England in 1981 as black and Asian communities grew sick of police brutality and intrusion. As Hill sings, “There’s blood on the streets / And the smell is so sweet / Cause another blue bastard has just gone down … So it’s goodbye to one more facist clown / We’ve got a riot / Can’t keep us quiet / This is our answer to your law.“
8) Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name”: Footage of the Rodney King beating might be considered the first viral video of police brutality. Rage Against the Machine’s debut single, “Killing in the Name,” was released just six months after the Los Angeles riots, sparked by the acquittal of King’s brutal police attackers. Though the lyrics can seem hand-fisted in retrospect — with overly earnest sloganeering taking the place of thoughtful commentary — at the time, they were a raw and unfiltered expression of the frustration and outrage the beating and acquittal had brought to the surface. When Zach de la Rocha sings, “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses,” it is as blatant an indictment of racist police as they come. “For wearing the badge / They're the chosen whites.” Still one of the band’s most recognizable anthems.
10) Gil Scott-Heron – “No Knock”: Known as both the “Godfather of Rap” and the “People’s Poet,” Scott-Heron gave voice to the seething rage bred by racism and injustice in America’s black and poor neighborhoods. On 1972’s “No Knock,” Scott-Heron not only rips into the then-newly instituted policy that allows police to enter a home without knocking, but takes on police overreach and violence in general. After recognizing Fred Hampton, a Black Panther murdered as he slept by Chicago Police and the FBI in 1969, Scott-Heron asks, “For my protection? Who's gonna protect me from you? … Shootin', cussin', killin', cryin', lyin' / And bein' white.”
11) Junior Murvin – “Police and Thieves”: If you’ve only ever heard The Clash’s brilliant reworking of this reggae masterpiece, stop what you’re doing and listen to late singer Junior Marvin’s impeccable original. Co-written by Murvin and reggae and dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, the song put the gangs of Jamaica and the police with whom they’re at endless at war on a par — implying the two were equally lawless, violent and bloodthirsty. Murvin’s 1976 song may have been about his hometown of Kingston, but the message is, sadly, just as relevant in the here and now.
12) Lauryn Hill – “Black Rage”: Lauryn Hill’s lovingly recrafted version of “The Sound of Music”’s “My Favorite Things” is at once a gorgeous and heartbreaking listen. The lo-fi acoustic recording (Hill recorded the demo at home “in [her] living room”), minus the polish of studio engineering, has an enhanced fragility that makes the subject matter — the many and countless disparate and desperate roots of black rage — all the more emotionally palpable. One by one, Hill’s warm alto sounds off the sad and vicious historical and contemporary realities that lead to “wounds in the soul.” Hill, who quietly released the song by tweeting it back in August, dedicated it to Ferguson.
13) Oi Polloi – “Pigs for Slaughter”: One of street punk’s most avowedly political bands, Scotland’s Oi Polloi started in the early ‘80s as outspoken critics of the status quo, and have only grown more vocal — and leftist — in the time since. “Pigs for Slaughter” recounts case after case of police brutality that has tragically ended or stunted the lives of working-class civilians: a 5-year-old murdered while sleeping, a woman shot by cops and paralyzed, prisoners beaten mercilessly by their cop overseers. By the time they arrive at the chorus — “We’re taking no more / We’re booting down the door / Pigs, pigs, pigs for slaughter!” — the sentiment seems like the only reasonable reaction to unchecked police violence.
14) Dicks – “(The Dicks) Hate the Police”: The Dick’s very first single is one of the best punk rock songs ever written, from nearly every standpoint — musically, lyrically and politically. Vocalist Gary Floyd imagines the voice of a hotheaded racist cop, pissed off at the world and aiming his deadly anger — and pistol — at blacks and Mexicans. One of the few openly gay figures in the punk scene in general, not to mention the small hardcore scene in the Dicks’ hometown of Austin, Texas, in the early ‘80s, Floyd consistently wrote about topics of social and political relevance, and might be considered one of the originators of queercore.
15) Main Source – “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball”: Main Source’s debut release, "Breaking Atoms," sits in hip-hop’s hallowed canon despite never gaining a foothold on the charts, a route that never seemed to be the members’ goals in any case. Among the group’s many achievements, aside from making an impression on critics and early ‘90s hip-hop heads alike — as well as influencing conscious rap thereafter — includes the first official recordings of rappers Akinyele and, even more notably, Nas. (Both of whom appear on the song “Live at the Barbecue.”) And this song, which effectively described police’s unfair targeting of African-American men through the metaphor of baseball. Among the standout lyrics includes the lamentation that “Instead of innings / We have endings.”
16) KRS-One – “Sound of Da Police”: KRS-One is a hip-hop legend and pioneer from whom you can draw a straight line to nearly every conscious rapper who followed. An original member of Boogie Down Productions (a product of the “Boogie Down” Bronx), this song appeared on his 1993 first official solo album. In it, KRS-One points out how the role of the overseer on a slave platation is now tranferred to officers, ruling with guns instead of whips. Oddly, 17 years later, the song was worked into the trailer for 2010’s “Cop Out,” a buddy cop comedy starring Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis.
17) Rick James – “Mr. Policeman”: In life, Rick James was mostly known for unashamedly making music about the most hedonistic of pursuits — mostly sex and drugs (and, later, for slapping people and speaking of himself in the third person. As well as some far more sinister stuff.). “Mr. Policeman” is a rare bit of social commentary from the funk singer, in which he speaks to an imagined officer, saying, “It's a shame and disgrace / Every time you show your face / Somebody dies, man.” James, who was once in a band with Neil Young (yep, that Neil Young), died in 2004.
18) Body Count – “Cop Killer”: It’s amazing that Ice-T, the “Original Gangster,” somehow went from performing a song called “Cop Killer” to playing a cop on “Law & Order.” (And let’s not even get into “Ice Loves Coco.”) One of the originators of West Coast gangsta rap, Ice-T co-founded Body Count in 1990 as an outlet for his love for metal. When the band’s first single, “Cop Killer,” was released, it earned the best advertising money can’t buy: Having the President, Vice President and uptight moms declare it obscene. George H.W. Bush called it “sick”; Dan Quayle accused label Time Warner of “making money off a record that suggests it's okay to kill cops”; and Tipper Gore, most ridiculously, compared the song’s “vileness” with slavery and Hitler. The net effect of which was to make the track far more popular than it might otherwise have been, turn Ice-T into a free speech martyr, and land the band a coveted spot on the first Lollaplooza bill. In a New York Times piece from the era, Ice-T responded to the criticism by simply stating, "I'm singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain't never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it."
19) Anti-Flag – “Police Story”: Anti-Flag have long been politically outspoken, both through their music and other forms of activism. (Recently they released a statement that read, in part, “Police violence against black Americans…[is] happening because of an unjust legal system that gives police a license to murder and protects them when they do.”) “Police Story” recounts the 1995 case of Johnny Gammage, an African-American motorist driving a fancy car in a white suburb, for whom a random police traffic stop turned deadly. In a haunting foreshadowing of the Eric Garner case, Gammage’s reported last words, spoken to Police Sargeant Keith Henderson as he was choking to death at the hands of police, were "Keith, Keith, I'm 31. I'm only 31." Though the coroner’s office ruled the cause of death asphyxiation, none of the officers involved were convicted of any crime. As the song notes, “All those cops they walked off free / But him, he's in a grave / His name is Johnny Gammage / One of thousands they have slain.” (For more Anti-Flag in this vein, there's “Fuck Police Brutality” and "Police State in the USA.")
20) Propagandhi – “Pigs Will Pay”: Pop-punk heroes Propagandhi imagine a revenge fantasy, set to music, in which the police (whom they describe as “a fucking war machine protecting the wealth of the employing class”) get their comeuppance once and for all. “They'll pay for the guns they've used / Minorities they've abused / They'll pay for the blood they've spilled / The innocent people they've killed.”
* It should be noted that this list excludes Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke" because, despite the title, that song is actually about the slow response times not of police, but of paramedics.
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