8 songs exploring police violence, from nina simone to nwa

Last week, American police violence reached a new tipping point following the consecutive, wrongful deaths of black men and a sniper assault on a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest targeted at police officers. The instances motivated artists like Jay...

by Emily Manning
11 July 2016, 5:15pm

Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddam," 1964: This Civil Rights era protest anthem is considered the political turning point in the visionary Simone's career. Though it does not draw direct influence from police violence, it is considerably shaped by black Southern citizens' experiences with the criminal justice system. The song lifts part of its inspiration from the 16th St Baptist Church bombing — the white supremacist terrorist act that killed four small girls, and inspired John Coltrane's "Alabama" (a lyricless jazz composition that mirrors the cadence of Martin Luther King's moving eulogy for the children). Simone performed the song at the Selma to Montgomery march, where she, James Baldwin, and other Civil Rights activists crossed police lines.

Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On," 1971: The seminal 70s soul album often regarded as one of the 20th century's most important pieces of music is also a bold conceptual record from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to find his country stricken with injustice and violence. After Four Tops member Obie Benson witnessed the events of "Bloody Thursday" — in which police descended upon anti-war protesters in Berkeley — and spoke to Gaye about what he'd seen, Gaye felt compelled to take a stand: "With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?"

The Dicks, "Hate the Police," 1980: You wouldn't need to do too much digging to find an 80s hardcore punk song about toxic relationships with authority figures. But pioneering four piece The Dicks faced a bit more adversity. Based in the deep South (Texas, to be more precise), the band was one of the few groups at the time with an openly gay lead singer. Its breakout record is written from the perspective of a trigger-happy officer, and considers how bigotry and prejudiced thinking is inherited and indoctrinated.

NWA, "Fuck tha Police," 1988: The iconic Compton rap outfit's stronger worded smash is one of the more inflammatory tracks on its wildly influential debut album Straight Outta Compton. The song is a parody in which Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy E act out court testimony as prosecuting lawyers condemning the actions of their local police force — from physical violence to racial profiling — to sitting judge Dr. Dre. "We wanted to highlight the excessive force and…the humiliation that we go through in these situations," Ice Cube said.

Public Enemy, "Fight the Power," 1989: This explosive protest piece was commissioned by director Spike Lee for his film, Do the Right Thing — which sketches a diverse neighborhood's racial dynamics, class distinctions, and the ways the two inform each other. In the film, selective policing sees non-black business owners benefit from protection, while young people of color's actions are criminalized. Ultimately, one of the film's main characters is publicly strangled by police officers as they intervene during a riot — a scene that crossed into reality when Eric Garner was choked to death on NYC streets two years ago this week. Lee asked the thrash-rap outfit to deliver a song that would be a bonafide summer anthem to herald the film's release; they delivered one that still feels tragically relevant.

Sinead O'Connor, "Black Boys on Mopeds," 1990: On her sophomore album, the outspoken Irish musician revisited the questionable circumstances surrounding young black Brit Colin Roach's suicide in police custody. Roach's 1983 death came at a time in which many activist groups were calling for inquiry about the mechanics of policing in London's Hackney borough, citing violent harassment and wrongful detention among other illegal actions targeting people of color. O'Connor took sharp aim at then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's televised response to Tiananmen Square violence while turning a blind eye to issues at home.

Fugees, "The Beast," 1996: Weaving together live instrumentation and interstitial skits, the New Jersey trio's seminal sophomore album The Score boasts a richly layered sound that's widely hailed as one of the era's most distinctive. But it's the Fugees' powerfully dexterous lyricism — much of which considers how police omnipresence affects lower income communities of color — that makes The Score a modern classic. Lauryn Hill's opening bars on "The Beast" are explosive: "Conflicts with night sticks/ Illegal sales districts/ Hand-picked lunatics, keep poli-TRICK-cians rich." Her second verse in the track is equally poignant: "High class get bypassed while my ass gets harassed/ And the fuzz treat bruh's like they manhood never was."

Bruce Springsteen, "American Skin," 2001: Bruce Springsteen's music has long considered American sociopolitical issues (so much so that Ronald Reagan foolishly attempted to co-opt his breakout record Born in the USA in an attempt to bolster working class voters during his 1984 campaign). Following the police murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999, Springsteen penned an anthem that repeatedly emphasized the 41 shots fired at the unarmed 23-year-old. In recent years, he's dedicated performances of the song to Trayvon Martin.

Blood Orange, "Sandra's Smile," 2015: Before releasing Freetown Sound — an album exploring the richness and complexity of the contemporary black experience — Devonte Hynes released two singles following instances of police brutality and racially motivated violence. The first, "Do You See My Skin Through the Flames?" was a sobering implication of his friends and fans who remain silent during instances of racially motivated violence, such as the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. It was followed by "Sandra's Smile," an 80s funk ode to Sandra Bland — the Texas woman who died in police custody last year after being detained for a traffic stop. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Christelle de Castro

police brutality
Black Lives Matter
Protest Songs
police violence