In popular music, a long history of anguish and indignation at police brutality

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Almost a century ago, in a song called “The blues of the police dog” skillful guitarist Blind Blake portrayed racial intolerance as a woman who “said she didn’t like my gender”. The woman had a vicious police dog: “His name is Rambler, when he gets the chance / He leaves his mark on everyone’s pants.”

Dom Flemons, the contemporary “American singer” who records music from the folklore tradition – he was a founding member of Carolina Chocolate Drops – quotes several songs from his repertoire that refer to police harassment. Charley patton “Tom Rushen Blues” (1929) speaks of a notoriously abusive Mississippi sheriff, says Flemons. And that of Rosa Henderson “The Chicago Police Blues” is a vaudeville blues with a message, “They’re firing you for absolutely nothing at all.” ”

A few years ago, Flemons was in a North Carolina field at night, filming a video for his recording of “In prison now.”

“It was meant to show the symbolic nature of being in the headlights, he said. During the shoot, “the cops came and asked what we were doing.”

He first heard Jim Jackson “Goodbye, goodbye, policeman” on a compilation of songs from medicine shows from the 1920s and 1930s. The lyrics describe an illicit game of craps and an officer who swears to end it, “He said, ‘Stop it, boy! I’m the law, I’m going to shoot you, Bill ‘/ I turned around and looked at him, I said,’ Do you think so? ‘ ”

The styles evolved, but the theme continued. Sonny Knight, a fellow R&B singer who made his debut in the 1950s, has composed a new song called “But Officer.” While the musical setting is a playful “Hucklebuck” style R&B dance tune, Knight’s one-sided “dialogue” with a policeman quickly turns from comedic to heavy: “Officer, I can’t put my hands higher! . . . Listen, officer, will you let me in? The song ends ominously, with the sound of a slamming prison door.

Modern jazz artists, playing a predominantly instrumental form of music, have protested in their own way against police brutality. Shortly after the Selma March of 1965, guitarist Grant Green recorded an eight-minute song called “Marche Selma” it reflected both the desperation and determination of the protesters, who were assaulted by state soldiers and segregationist vigilantes.

In 1972, saxophonist Archie Shepp recorded the album “Blues of Attica” with a feverish and funky title song inspired by the recent riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, NY, where the predominantly black prison population protested the inhumane living conditions. More than 30 inmates and 10 correctional officers were killed. Singing the words to a poem written by drummer Beaver Harris, guest singer Carl Hall and a pair of backing singers, Joshie Armstead and Albertine Robertson, capture the clamor of the riot and the collective angst: “I worry. for the human soul. “

Then as now, the younger generation was wary of police misconduct. Ironic political songwriter Phil Ochs envisioned America’s interference in foreign affairs as another type of aggressive police in savage satire “Cops of the world” (“Our guns are hungry and our temperaments are short… Our boots need a shine, boys”). In England, a group called The Equals – starring a young Guyana native named Eddy Grant, who would go on to become the 1980s solo pop star – recorded “The police on my back” a song made famous in the cover of The Clash.

Throughout the 1970s, many international musicians tackled the scourge of police violence head-on. Junior Murvin “Police and thieves” (1976) – “all peacemakers became war officers” – would become one of reggae’s most enduring hits. (It was also covered by The Clash.) Nigerian conductor Fela Kuti, whose political music infuriated the government army so much that 1,000 soldiers attacked his compound, recorded several songs about the conflict, including “Tears and blood of grief. “

In the UK reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant, recorded the powerful “Sonny’s Lettah”, in which the narrator writes to his mother from prison. Sonny killed a cop while defending a friend who was unfairly brutalized when accused of a crime he did not commit. The song is captioned “Anti-Sus Poem”, according to the so-called “sus” law in the UK, which allowed police to arrest and search anyone who simply looked “suspicious”.

Several notable cases of injustice were commemorated in song in the 1980s. In 1980, Gil Scott-Heron, who recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” released a title. “Angola, Louisiana” in honor of Gary Tyler, a state prison inmate who, despite his innocence, was the youngest person on death row at the time. That same year, Peter Gabriel “Biko” publicized the murder in custody of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko to the world. In England, outcry over the shooting death of Colin Roach in 1983 in the lobby of a London police station prompted Sinead O’Connor to write “Black boys on mopeds.” England, she sings, is not the “mythical country of Madame George and the roses / it is the homeland of the police who kill black boys on mopeds”.

The late ’80s and early’ 90s, now considered the ‘golden age’ of hip-hop, brought not only the famous NWA rap with the unprintable title, but many other songs about harassment. young black men policeman. Public Enemy denounced the apparent contempt for communities of color on “911 is a joke. “ On his 1991 debut album, Tupac Shakur rapped about the continued police intimidation on “Trap.” KRS-One made the siren call from the streets of New York – “woop woop!” – a recurring pattern on “Police sound, “ on which he compared the officers to the “overseers” of the plantations: “Change your attitude, change your plan / There could never really be justice on stolen land.

While popular music history has all this and many other examples of songs about inequality before the law, the recurring incidents documented in the age of cellphones and body cameras have started a barrage of recorded songs. in just indignation. On tour in 2012, Bruce Springsteen relaunched his song “American skin (41 strokes)”, about the 1999 police shooting of an unarmed Amadou Diallo as he grabbed his wallet – “Is it a gun, is it a knife, is it a wallet? / It’s your life “- in honor of Trayvon Martin. Two years later, Lauryn Hill released her song “Black Rage” in response to the murder of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, Mo. As if in tandem, Vince Staples released a song called “Hands in the air,” and the game released “Do not pull.”

After the death in custody of Sandra Bland, the artist known as Blood Orange wrote a reflection titled “Sandra’s smile.” And Jay-Z rushed to the single “Spiritual” – “No, I am not a poison” – following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

But one of the most powerful songs on this sinister subject could be that of Ben Harper. “Call it what it is” released in 2016. “They shot him in the back / Now it’s a crime to be black,” sings Harper.

Call it that, he insists: murder.

James Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.


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