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Songs About Police Brutality

These lessons are earworms. Get woke with these songs about police brutality.

By Ben KharakhPublished 6 years ago • 6 min read

Sometimes a song is the fastest and the most emotionally evocative way to communicate a lesson. You can read a book, watch a movie, and even subject yourself to raw cam footage of grizzly police violence, but what music is able to communicate is simultaneously both feeling and narrative. In doing so, the issue is both illuminated and complicated. That's why songs about police brutality are indispensable; they both shape the conversation and are the conversation in and of themselves. Crank up these jams, get woke, and shut it down! No justice; no peace; no racist police!

To serve and protect? Zack de la Rocha made it plain and clear what the police are really serving and protecting when he shouted, "Some of those who work forces are also those who burn crosses!" What Rage Against the Machine did best was supply us with slogans, and it's hard to top a song full of lines like, "By wearing the badge they're the chosen whites."

"Killing in the Name" is one of the songs about police brutality that has, unfortunately, yet to lose its relevancy. Not just because of recurring police brutality but also because of the reported infiltration of police departments by white supremacists, something that, according to the Intercept, the FBI has been monitored for quite some time. Although, white supremacists doesn't really have to infiltrate policing given the influence of systemic racism, implicit bias, and modern policing's historic ties to slave patrols.

"Sound of da Police" is one of those songs about police brutality that also serves as an invaluable lesson in history. Just let KRS-One guide you through the transformation: "Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer/ Officer, officer, officer, officer/ Yeah, officer from overseer/ You need a little clarity? Check the similarity." You catch that?

Unfortunately, not much has changed between the slave patrols of the past and modern police departments. After all, there are more black men incarcerated today than there were enslaved in 1850. "When it's gonna stop?!" KRS-One opines by the song's end. Sadly, we just don't know when it's going to stop. And what's even worse is that stopping it is so easy; white Americans just need to step up.

Vince Staples' "Hands Up" is one of the densest songs about police brutality. It's unsparing in its indictment of the police and of American society: policing for profit, killing indiscriminately, expecting black Americans to comply with their own subjugation, and how the police themselves create the very criminal class that they arrest.

The song also brings attention to one of the central absurdities of policing: how are you supposed to remain calm when a police officer's telling you to put your hands in the air? That is literally one of the most terrifying moments of a black man's life. "Hands up," is a phrase that countless times we've heard screamed before a black man is murdered. You should be feeling visceral anxiety just imagining yourself in the place of a young black man being asked to put their hands in the air. Although, as Vince points out, a lot of time the police, "shoot him first without a warning."

When N.E.R.D returned after a seven year absence they released a new song that was one of the most blistering and anxiety inducing songs about police brutality. With "Don't Don't Do It" Pharrell puts you in the seat of the car when you're a black man who's been pulled over by the police. In this case, the song is inspired by the real life story of Keith Scott.

The song's driving beat moves the song forward with the same speed as Pharrell's vocals. The effect is that the listener is afforded as much control over their experience as Keith Scott had over his when he was at the mercy of the police. Hands up; hands down. They still shoot. And the phrase, "Don't don't do it," repeats throughout, echoing the cries of Keith Scott's wife as the police murdered her husband. A powerful listening experience.

Another one of the most anxiety inducing songs about police brutality comes from Killer Mike, "Reagan," off the album R.A.P. Music. The song offered a taste of what was to come when the Atlanta native would team up with his R.A.P. Music producer and fellow emcee El-P to form the beloved duo Run the Jewels. "Reagan" features not only a rich account of how class is a tool of systemic racism, but also includes a terrifying description of what it means when profits drive policing, placing the listener in the position of black boys at the mercy of police. It's Kathleen Bigelow's Detroit in the span of 4 minutes and 9 seconds.

"Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" explores a theme that's not unfamiliar to songs about police brutality: why does our society find it distasteful for historically oppressed groups to fantasize about directing retributive justice at their historic oppressor? The answer is simple: we still live in a white supremacist patriarchy. That's why President Sex Criminal is in the White House.

When Killer Mike says, "even if some good ones die, fuck it, the Lord'll sort 'em," he's directing the logic of the ruling class right back at them. This is graduate level hip hop because it exposes how often what's at the heart of our ethics is not an orientation toward the good but unfettered self-interest. This includes the white moderates decried by Martin Luther King Jr. who do more to aid the oppressor than the oppressed because they favor "law and order" to shaking the sheets. The double standard in America is a perk of white privilege.

N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" is one the classic songs about police brutality. Assuming the form of a trial, each verse features one of the emcees taking the stand and delivering a testimony that indicts the police as tools of systemic racism. Whites in America were enraged by the group's success, which is just further evidence of the need for taking on the tone police. The irony is that it's only within the legal system of hip hop that N.W.A. are able to receive a semblance of justice; in the real world of AmeriKKKA a white police officer will not be held accountable and there is hardly an attempt to correct the institutions of policing or justice.

Sometimes a song is inseparable from the film it soundtracks. So while Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" stands on its own, its context in Spike Lee's seminal Do the Right Thing demands attention in and of itself. Lee commissioned Public Enemy to provide him with a hit and that they did. The song is a testament to black excellence and a take down of systemic racism.

Within the film, Radio Raheem brings the noise wherever he goes. He's like Bedford-Stuyvesant's very own Voice of America. Raheem uses "Fight the Power" as his sonic pallet, painting his scenes with images of black pride and white resentment. These two forces come to a head in a powerful scene that bares an all to maddening and emotionally devastating resemblance to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD.

Any talk of "Fight the Power" also demands revisiting the opening sequence of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

PJ Harvey's 2011 Mercury Prize winning release Let England Shake is a powerful anti-war album that draws striking parallels between the horrors of war and the horrors of police brutality. The ways in which the listener bares witness to soldiers that, "fall like lumps of meat," is reminiscent of the far too many videos of black men being murdered by police; while the titular, "words that maketh murder," conjure both the silence of America's white moderates and the oft repeated demand, "hands up!"

The song's coda is especially powerful in the face of repeated condemnations from the UN of America's high incarceration rates, racism, and high levels of poverty. And like the victims of any global conflict, whether it be the Syrian Civil War or the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, we all know what would happen if Black Lives Matter came to speak to the UN: nothing.

Sometimes the best protest songs embrace life and joy as much as they challenge the status quo. "Alright" does just that. It's an anthem of hope in the face of adversity. The song's chorus was chanted at multiple Black Lives Matter rallies and served as the title of Jeff Chang's We Gon' be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.

"Alright" taps into the depths of despair that the black population of America feels far too often knowing that officers kill black men without impunity. And it's when things seem most hopeless that Kendrick says, "We 'gon be alright." It's the power of music to unite in the form of education and jubilation that, in that moment, makes it hard to disbelieve. "We 'gon be alright." It just feels true.


About the Creator

Ben Kharakh

Manic pixie dream goth. With appearances in Fortune, Vice, Gothamist, and McSweeney's.@benkharakh

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    Ben KharakhWritten by Ben Kharakh

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