While police brutality has reentered the political mainstream with the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2012, this violence has always been a defining part of what it means to be Black in America. We now know that Black people are three times more likely than their white peers to be killed by the police, and that police violence is not correlated with crime rates. These statistics as well as a history of slave patrols, stop-and frisk-tactics, and broken windows policing, exemplify the street-level racialized criminalization of Black Americans by the police.
Tensions between the police and the Black community are captured artistically through rap music. Perhaps one of the most identifiable songs within this theme is N.W.A.’s 1988 “Fuck Tha Police.” The song’s controversies, including a condemning letter from the FBI, and political stance sparked a lyrical protest that has inspired generations of hiphop artists. For instance, in his song “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar raps, “And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’” several times over in the chorus of his award winning track.
Another example of this anti-police brutality activism can be found in Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga,” released in 1999. In this song, Mos Def makes it clear that Black people are subjugated under an oppressive racial hierarchy, and are therefore subject to police harassment, regardless of other factors such as class status. Mos Def exemplifies this by rapping about a Black man who is “under thirty years old but [already a pro],” and who can “afford to get up and be anywhere he go.” However, despite the man’s financial success, “the po-po stop him and show no respect.” Mos Def poses the question, “‘Is there a problem officer?” To which he answers, “Damn straight, it’s called race / That motivate the jake (woo-woo) to give chase / Say they want you successful, but that ain’t the case / You livin large, your skin is dark they flash a light in your face.” The narrative Mos Def spins is one of perpetual irony as the main character believes he has achieved greater proximity to whiteness through financial gain, but continues to be racialized through police harassment.
Using a more socio-historical lens, Police State by Dead Prez, released in 2000, zeroes-in on the historical legacy of the police state, from the War on Drugs to the school-to-prison pipeline, and the ways it continues to define the lived experiences of Black and brown people. The duo even expands on the collateral consequences of the police state, including reduced employment opportunities, gendered violence, and poverty: “The average Black male / Live a third of his life in a jail cell / Cause the world is controlled by the white male / And the people don’t never get justice / And the women don’t never get respected / And the problems don’t never get solved / And the jobs don’ never pay enough / So the rent always be late / Can you relate? / We living in a police state.”
Despite two decades of hiphop’s critiques of the police, Lamar’s “Alright” still received notable backlash. In response to Lamar’s critique of police violence, FOX News commentator Geraldo Rivera remarked, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” Geraldo’s comments, suggesting that the brutalization and killing of Black and brown bodies at the hands of law enforcement is less dangerous than hiphop, resulted in Lamar sampling the comments and using them in his 2017 song “DNA.” In the song, Lamar replies directly to Geraldo’s comments, rapping, “You motherfuckers can’t tell me nothing / I’d rather die than to listen to you.”
This overview, although not exhaustive, illustrates the orientation of rap music in a longstanding tradition of criminal justice activism. The genre has always lent itself to exposing social issues that impact the Black diaspora, often honing in on the “boys in blue” that serve as gatekeepers of America’s racial hierarchy. It is this latter aspect that makes rap music standout as a pertinent form of creative expression and social critique – its propensity to contextualize oppression, while calling out oppressors. The artistic genius with which this is written, produced, recorded, and performed reflects a deeper level of thought and intricacy than the average political leader could ever bring themselves to use.