Return of protest songs | Police brutality and racism in America | June 2020
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Since the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police last week, streaming numbers of protest songs have soared. Here are a few which deal with police brutality, racism and relate to today's protests.
The world of pop, rock and hip-hop have offered up many protest songs over the past few years and there's been a revival of such songs over the last week or two. Streaming sites have noticed a vast increase in listens of such tracks as people around America (and the world) protest against racism and discrimination.
'Killing in the Name' by Rage Against the Machine (2 November 1992)
Released in November 1992, 'Killing in the Name' is a protest song by the Los Angeles band Rage Against the Machine. It was written in response to the savage beating of the 25-year-old African American Rodney King by four LAPD police officers in March 1991.
On 3 March 1991, Rodney King was pulled over by Californian Highway Patrol officers. What followed was a sustained beating to King by LAPD officers who repeatedly stamped on and hit him with batons. This resulted in skull fractures, broken bones and permanent brain damage. Little did the officers know that the attack had been captured on film by a local bystander and was soon to be sent to the local media station KTLA.
The brutality on show resulted in an international outcry. Soon after, four officers were charged with excessive force, and, in April 1992, a trial began 30 miles north of Los Angeles. However, despite the clear video evidence, the end result was an acquittal of the four men. Word quickly spread back to the city and anger turned into five days of rioting across Los Angeles.
'Killing In The Name' criticises the racist attitudes the band felt motivated certain members of the police. The repeated line ‘some of those that work forces/Are the same that burn crosses’ makes a parallel between many in the police force and the racist Ku Klux Klan. In the following verse, lead singer Zack de la Rocha sings, ‘Those who died are justified/For wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites’. This claims that many cops feel empowered to commit racist acts due to their position of authority.
'Changes' by 2Pac (13 October 1998)
'Changes' is one of 2Pacs most iconic and politically conscious songs. The lyrics speak of the deprivation and systematic discrimination facing many African Americans in the 1990s, issues which, again, are still felt by many in America.
Within the opening few lines, 2Pac confesses that,
I’m tired of being poor and, even worse, I’m black
My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch
Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull the trigger, kill a n****, he’s a hero
2Pac poignantly raps about the racism and police brutality his people face and points out the lack of government action to change the situation. The conclusion within the chorus is that ‘that’s just the way it is’. It’s an endless cycle.
It’s war on the streets and a war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
Sampling 1986 hit ‘The Way It Is’ by Bruce Hornsby and the Range (re-sung by Talent), the song was initially recorded in 1992, before being remixed and released in 1998, two years after Tupac Shakur's death.
'Alright' by Kendrick Lamar (30 June 2015)
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s song 'Alright' is a lot more positive in nature than 'Changes'. Over the summer of 2015, the line in the song ‘We gon’ be alright’ quickly became a Black Lives Matter protest rally chant and continues to be so. This week, it climbed to 11th in the U.S. Spotify Chart, proving its message still resonates.
The Black lives Matter movement began in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin in Florida. The need for protest heightened ever further after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. A month earlier, in July 2014, an unarmed African American called Eric Garner died after being wrestled to the floor and then choked by an NYPD officer. On the ground, he repeated the words ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times before losing consciousness. He died in hospital an hour later.
The following year would be a significant one in the Black Lives Matter campaign. On 17 June 2015, white supremacist Dylan Roof shot nine African Americans involved in a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This, as well as countless other African Americans deaths, including the killings of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in North Charleston, led to numerous other nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
It was at the Cleveland State University conference ‘Movement for Black Lives’, over the summer of 2015, that the ‘Alright’ phenomenon began. During a break, someone put on the Kendrick Lamar track and, before long, everyone began chanting the hook, ‘We gon’ be alright’. This rally cry spread to other Black Lives Matter protests and became an unofficial anthem.
What’s it all about? The chant itself is a hopeful message to protestors in the face police brutality and adversity.
In another part of the song, Kendrick Lamar raps about police brutality, saying:
We been hurt, been down before, n****
When our pride was low
Lookin' at the world like, "Where do we go, n****?"
And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure
However, it’s the chorus of the song that is remembered the most.
We gon' be alright
N****, we gon' be alright
Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon' be alright
'F*** tha Police' by NWA (9 August 1988)
'F*** tha Police' is an unashamed protest and anti-police brutality anthem. The song has even seen a resurgence over the last week, with Rolling Stone reporting that there had been a 272% increase in audio streams of the song from 27 May to 1 June. With discontentment and questions about the racism of certain members of the police, it’s not hard to see why.
In the first verse, Ice Cube lets his feelings known.
F*** the police comin' straight from the underground
A young n**** got it bad 'cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
The song was so controversial at the time it was universally banned from radio play and the FBI even wrote a letter to NWA’s record company to protest (yes, protest) that the lyrics were an unfair misrepresentation of the police. Four years later, during the LA Riots of 1992, 'F*** tha Police' became an anthem for the protestors and a spray-paint motto around South Central LA. With police brutality at the forefront again, many have again turned to this song.
'This is America' by Childish Gambino (5 May 2018)
Another song that has seen a resurgence of late is 'This is America' by Childish Gambino, a track which alternates between cheery gospel and hard trap beats. On Tuesday 2 June, the song shot up to No. 2 in the U.S. Spotify Charts (from No. 97 the day before) with 1.117 million streams.
Whilst the video went viral two years ago, the song itself has been a sensation of late on TikTok, featuring in videos about racial inequality and the recent protest movement itself.
'Early' by Run the Jewels ft. Boots (24 October 2014)
Run the Jewels are a politically conscious alternative hip-hip duo consisting of rapper/producer El-P and rapper/activist Killer Mike. On Wednesday 3rd June 2020, they brought forward the release of their new album RTJ4 by two days with a note saying:
'Early' is a track from their second album RTJ2, covering police brutality in the wake of the Ferguson and New York 2014 incidents described above, telling a story of a family stopped by a racist cop.
And in front of my wife, man, I ain't got a gun or a knife
You do this and you ruin my life
And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir
'Cause I respect the badge and the gun
And I pray today ain't the day that you drag me away
Right in front of my beautiful son"
And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said "shut up"
Witness with the camera phone on
Saw the copper pull a gun and put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window
I could see my other kinfolk and hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
'Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I'd be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound
'Black Lives Matter' by Teejaxo (2 June 2020)
'Black Lives Matter' is a new song by young Detroit rapper Teejayx6 about the killing of George Floyd. The dark track questions how death was allowed it happen and pledges support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
From Public Enemy to James Brown, there are many other great protests songs and I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of these songs which you can check out below or on your Spotify app by clicking here.
Thanks for reading.