Police Brutality in America: A Hip Hop Perspective
By: Solomon Comissiong
Year by year, nothing tangibly changes in America regarding the deadly issue of rampant police brutality within myriad communities of color. Unarmed black and brown people continue to be systematically brutalized by rogue state sponsored police officers. This issue is far from anything new to the fabric of American society. The so-called multi-colored “tapestry” of America is stained with blood and tears. Unfortunately as each year passes more and more unnecessary blood spills onto the already tainted cloth. Police officers, for generations, and before them gangs of white men (is there a difference?), have systematically hunted down black men as if they were wild game. There needed to be no “real crime”; the color of their skin was crime enough. Black men in American have always been persona non grata. This is justification to treat black men as if they were canines. In several instances, killing a black man will get you less time than if you were to take the life of a dog. This sadistic and inhumane culture is a part of the contradictory culture of the US—accepted by everything from the corporate media to government itself.
When we juxtapose the cases of Michael Vick and the murderous Oakland police officer, Johannes Mehserle, we clearly see a case in which a black man (Michael Vick) received more jail time than did Mehserle. Vick’s crime was that he was facilitating pit bull fights. Mehserle’s crime—-he executed an unarmed 22-year old black man as he lay face down, handcuffed, and on the pavement. Killing a man in that manner should be considered a brutal crime in any justice oriented society, punishable by life behind bars, however this is America—justice does not reside here—especially if you are black or brown. As street poet Monte Smith says, “the darker you are, the more hunted you are”. This has been the law of the land tracing back more than four hundred years. Witnessing police officers murder unarmed black men, and then get away with it, is an American tradition. The government’s inactions illustrate that they don’t give a damn. The media could care less. And many white people will consciously seek out ways to justify it…if they even give it a second thought at all. There were scores of white people protesting in the streets against Michael Vick for hosting dog fights. How often do we see scores of white people protesting the routine police executions of black and brown men? America is a cesspool of institutional racism that habitually drowns people of color…each and everyday.
There is no getting around it; institutional racism and white supremacy are the reasons why police brutality runs rampant within black and brown communities. They are also the reasons why the corporate media will place more time reporting on the sexual peccadilloes of Hollywood stars than they do on people of color being murdered by the cops. It doesn’t matter if it is MSNBC, CNN or Fox News—-none of them could care less. And because they won’t report on it in its gravity—much of the public remains consensually apathetic. Despite America’s complicity regarding the systematic killing of people of color there is a cultural medium that has continually spoken out in the most vociferous manner regarding police brutality. That medium is none other than RAP (rhythm and poetry) music.
Non-corporate backed rap music has never shied away from confronting police brutality head on! Underground rappers routinely speak truth to so-called power. They are able to express themselves with creativity in a manner that many corporate influenced rappers dream about. However, they cant—-the strings attached to them are far too tight. Some corporate backed rappers have bought in to the idea that the money thrown at them will free them. The sad irony—-the dirty money attached to many corporations that are backing them only serves to methodically build sturdier “cages” around them. As the progressive underground rapper, Wise Intelligent, said “It has always been my position that the black rapper is NOT allowed to address or lend his voice to any issue that confronts the community from which he comes, knowing that if he did…he would lose his major corporation sponsorship, i.e., his contract!”
Large corporations (record labels, radio conglomerates, fast food chains, etc) could care less about the number of unarmed black people killed each year by the police. These corporations are like blood sucking leeches—they pursue capital at all costs. They operate with little impunity and feel as though they owe nothing to various communities from which much of their business derives. The communities that produce many of artists these corporations “promote” will never see any tangible returns from these corporations. They care only about the money the black and brown skinned artists can produce for them. Those communities can languish within the bowels of injustice for all they care. And these major corporations certainly don’t give a damn that the system of American policing is institutionally racist in and of itself. A few “well intentioned” police officers cannot change this type of system….only deconstructing it can. It is a system that must be deconstructed in order to be reconstructed if there is ever to be an elimination of the widespread injustice within that very system. It is a system that is woven in to an already broader system of institutional racism commonly referred to as American society. Only within a society that has become complicit with the mass oppression of certain demographics of its population will one find an institutionally racist system of policing operating like a well oiled machine. America has been that racially ignominious society for a very long time. So long in fact that millions of Americans have been mass programmed to see those injustices as somewhat justified, or to not see them at all. However, not all segments of “American” society choose to remain silent in the face of rampant police brutality. What has now become known as “underground rap” remains steadfast in its commitment to raise the specter of consciousness surrounding this human rights issue—as well as many others.
Hip Hop artists that use their talents to routinely speak out against social issues, like police brutality, have been labeled “underground” for one simple reason—they have become suppressed. Their progressive music has been forced “underground” in a similar manner that Harriet Tubman’s “Underground Railroad” movement was. Messages that are counter to the objectives of the “dominant’ hegemony often are prevented from operating throughout the “mainstream” society. In a systematic manner they are forced to find alternative means to reach the populations they primarily seek to serve, empower, and/or emancipate. Like various factions of the US government, media corporations like Viacom (and Clear Channel, Radio One, Time Warner, etc), selectively pick and choose the “safe” Hip Hop artists to promote. Those are always the ones whose messages fit the “cookie cutter” mold they manufactured. Artists who are easily malleable frequently apply. However, artists like the Main Source will never hear their most politically powerful work played on government backed, tax payer financed, mainstream airwaves. Main Source’ 1991 classic, Just a Friendly Game of Baseball, remains one of the most politically aggressive and salient Hip Hop works confronting police brutality in communities of color:
“Aww shit, another young brother hit…
Cause to the cops, shootin brothers is like playin baseball
And they’re never in a slump
I guess when they shoot up a crew, it’s a grand slam…
A kid caught on, but I don’t know where the brother went
The umpires are the government
I guess they took him out the game, and replace him
with a pinch-hitter, in the scam he was a quitter
So the cops usually torment, I mean tournament
Win em I was sayin
You can’t let the umpires, hear ya speak and battle
like the other kid you won’t be playin
Cause they’ll beat you til your ass drop
A walking gun with a shell in his hand is their mascot
And when they walk around let it be known to step lightly
Main Source (Just a Friendly Game of Baseball)
Throughout the song “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” Main Source tackles the often deleterious issue of police brutality in a manner that corporate media appointed so-called “leaders” never do. The lyrics listed above speak to the sensibilities of scores of black and brown youth residing within the police states of urban America. This is a major reason contemporary songs addressing police brutality are methodically kept from mainstream airwaves. The use of popular culture stands as a powerful tool to galvanize disenfranchised youth. Those who continue to use Hip Hop as a meal ticket (so-called hip hop activists), without addressing these issues or without constructively mobilizing youth of color, are a part of a larger problem. They are what some would accurately call, “poverty pimps”. The author is in fact a hip hop inspired social activist. I cannot conceivably imagine using Hip Hop without constructively inspiring youth of color to, not only pursue knowledge, but to also begin political mobilization and organization activities. After all, historically some of black America’s most effective activists were youth when they began their political mobilization activities, a la Fred Hampton. Those that would dissuade the use of Hip Hop for political mobilization of African/black youth, I can almost guarantee, have ulterior motives that are antithetical in the best interests of African youth. They know that if they take the “safe” route their speaking engagement honorariums will remain uninterrupted. Placating the media corporations, and the ineffective conferences, that hire them to speak on Hip Hop is ostensibly more of a priority than radically mobilizing black youth to control their own destinies.
The political mobilization of any group of oppressed youth is critical to their social development, self sufficiency, as well as their communities’ gradual amelioration. Any group of people that are politically inept, within a society such as “ours”, is doomed. Politics is not the alignment with a political party, as we are taught to believe—-they are the forces that control much of what happens within any given community. African youth are taught to think of politics in a limited fashion, especially to blindly wed themselves to self-serving “political” parties like the Democrats or Republicans, so that they remain as the underbelly of US society. Issues like police brutality are never on the national platform of either corporate party (Democrats and Republicans). This is sound indication that they care very little regarding the issue of unbridled police brutality. It should be known that as long as we place police brutality solely within the hands of such political parties things are unlikely to ever change. It is the people most affected by these kinds of issues who must consistently rally, mobilize politically, and organize if there is to be tangible change in the policing policies within America. The pressure must remain relentless!
Speaking out publically and having one’s voice heard is an important step towards political galvanization. And this is why Hip Hop’s radical voice has been (and is) so very important. Songs like NWA’s “Fuck the Police” and KRS-ONE’s “Sound of the Police” capture the frustration of legions of African/black youth demanding an end to rampant police brutality and even racially motivated stop and frisk “procedures”.
“Fuck the police comin straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
for a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
to be beatin on, and thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell”
NWA (Fuck tha Police)
“Check out the message in a rough stylee
The real criminals are the C-O-P
You check for undercover and the one PD
But just a mere Black man, them want check me
Them check out me car for it shine like the sun
But them jealous or them vexed cause them can’t afford one
Black people still slaves up til today
But the Black police officer nah see it that way
Him want a salary
Him want it
So he put on a badge and kill people for it
My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My GREAT grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great… when it’s gonna stop?!”
KRS-ONE (Sound of Da Police)
As the corporate driven US media system continues to deliberately ignore any kind of critical analysis on systemic police brutality; progressive rap music remains one of the best mediums to deliver that analysis—especially to youth. Rapper Jasiri X delivers this kind of critical analysis with his song and video, “Enough is Enough”. The US media system is completely influenced by capital and not by professional integrity. It is a system that pales in comparison to media found in other parts of the world. The American media system in a word is a “joke”. While seven year old African/black girls, like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, are being murdered by police—-the US corporate “news” media are dedicating airtime to the personal lives of Hollywood actors. It is more than a safe assumption to say that if Aiyana Stanley-Jones was a little white girl the news coverage would have been unyielding and it would still be a major television story today. Only an intellectually dishonest (or blatantly racist) person would deny this. Given the unconcealed unprofessional nature of the US media system, the African/black community must continue to expand on the creation of alternative means of media. Getting news, and critical analysis of that news, to the community, is essential in the quest for political engagement and mobilization. Hip Hop Culture continues to play a role in providing a perspective of that much needed critical analysis—-the often marginalized perspective of African youth in America. It is songs like Pharoahe Monch’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” that sounded off a clarion demand for justice:
“They murdered Sean Bell
They murdered Amadou Diallo
They murdered Timothy Stansbury
And it’s time to say NO MORE!
NO MORE!, NO MORE!, NO MORE!, NO MORE!”
Pharoahe Monch (Welcome to the Terrordome)
The power of “progressive” oriented rap music to motivate, galvanize and to mobilize is undeniable. It is a most powerful force which is why many white media executives and a handful “house Negros” within the corporate media system, do all they can to suppress revolutionary rap music from reaching the masses. They do this while promoting racist images which are comforting to their warped sensibilities. White corporate media executives continue to work overtime towards their goal of completely co-opting Hip Hop Culture. They have done a good job in reshaping and selling to the public a fraudulent image of Hip Hop. This, in turn, has made terrible impressions upon the psyches of black and brown youth towards embracing ideals that are encumbrances towards their empowerment. They are also converse to their necessary resistance. Despite this premeditated and deliberate ploy; “underground” rap music is resistant. Many of these artists are unrepentant social activists who will never cease in making revolutionary music. It cannot all be kept down. This music will make its way to conscious minded fans that will do what they can to spread the message to others. The progressive political mobilization of youth via Hip Hop won’t stop. It can’t be stopped. So long as there is injustice Hip Hop will find a way to tell the stories that need to be told—from the perspectives of the oppressed. And as long as there are pernicious social issues like widespread police brutality within black communities you will have rap groups like Boogie Down Productions asking police:
“You were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?
Every time you say “That’s illegal”
Doesn’t mean that that’s true (Uh-huh)
Your authority’s never questioned
No-one questions you…
Lookin’ through my history book
I’ve watched you as you grew
Killin’ blacks and callin’ it the law
(Bo! Bo! Bo!) And worshipping Jesus too
There was a time when a black man
Couldn’t be down wit’ your crew
Now you want all the help you can get
Scared? Well ain’t that true
You were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?
Or should I say, who are you protecting?
The rich? the poor? Who?”
BDP (Who Protects Us from You)
Solomon Comissiong is an educator, community activist, author, public speaker and the host of the Your World News media collective (www.yourworldnews.org). Solomon is the author of A Hip Hop Activist Speaks Out on Social Issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org