It seems like you hear about the police more often than usual these days. Whether it's the death of Mark Duggan that's inciting the London riots or the killing of Kelly Thomas that's shaking up the Fullerton PD, the news is rife with reports of police misconduct, and it's been a long time since events like these became par for the course among the world's tragedies. The following is a list of songs about explicit or subtle forms of police brutality and injustice. Protest songs about the police in hip-hop and punk rock are abundant enough as to warrant entire subgenres. A few of the most memorable, as well as songs outside of rap and punk, are listed after the jump.
1. “Fuck the Police,” J Dilla
The quintessential anti-police song is undisputedly NWA's “Fuck tha Police,” a song which spoke to the persecution of inner-city blacks and predated the 1992 Los Angeles riots by four years. It's become the anthem for all petty and substantial forms of police hatred, while the reality of police brutality in the U.S. has endured over time. Responding to circumstances in his native Detroit, the late J Dilla produced his own version of “Fuck tha Police,” where he raps about the cycle of arms and drug dealing spread by corrupt police: “Now tell me who protects me from you? / I got people that buy TECs and weed from you.”
2. “American Skin (41 Shots),” Bruce Springsteen
In February 1999, 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot to death by four NYPD police officers after the wallet he withdrew from his jacket was mistaken for a gun. During the subsequent trial, activists, politicians and celebrities condemned the killing and organized protests throughout the city. Responding to the four officers' acquittal the following year and ignoring censures from the city's police union, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band performed “American Skin (41 Shots)” as part of their 10-day tour of Madison Square Garden. In the lyrics, a mother warns her child of dangerous encounters with the police: “On these streets, Charles, you've got to understand the rules / If an officer stops you / Promise me you'll always be polite / That you'll never ever run away / Promise mama you'll always keep your hands in sight.” The song title references the 41 times the victim was shot by the police.
3. “Justifiable Homicide,” Dave Goodman & Friends
Dave Goodman is best known as the sound engineer and producer for the Sex Pistols' earliest recordings. His raw cuts of the band's demo sessions became popular bootleg versions of the band's hits. In 1978, Goodman put together a band and released “Justifiable Homicide,” a protest song aimed toward the killing of 39-year-old Liddle Towers by British police. After being arrested outside of a Durham County club, Towers spent a night in jail where he was brutalized by police. The injuries he suffered resulted in his death less than a month later. An inquest into the incident determined Towers' death as “justifiable homicide,” while a second verdict two years later arrived at “death by misadventure.” Towers' death became a popular subject for many British punk bands at the time.
4. “Police Story,” Black Flag
Los Angeles punk band Black Flag has had less than amicable relations with police over their 10-year stint. The band's aggressive stage presence often elicited violent reactions from audience members and resulted in destructive run-ins with police. Coinciding with the Reagan presidency, their anti-establishment position was an empowering force for the country's disaffected youth. “Police Story,” a single off of the band's 1981 record Damaged, courted controversy through its Raymond Pettibon-illustrated flyer, which depicted a police officer being held at gunpoint. More than two decades after their break-up, Black Flag continues to inspire younger generations of punks. This past July, two founding members of the band, Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski, played a brief reunion set at Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, where security struggled to stop the swell of crowd-surfing and moshing fans.
5. “They Don't Care About Us,” Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson's “They Don't Care About Us” was meant to target racism and police brutality, but its use of anti-semitic words backfired on the King of Pop. The offending words, Jackson claimed, were taken out of context by the media. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding the song resulted in its little to no airplay in the US. Director Spike Lee directed two videos for the single, one filmed in a Rio de Janeiro favela and the other in a U.S. prison. The song's hand-clap beats and Jackson's embattled voice are a stirring reminder of the social ills which continue to plague Brazilian society, American prisons and the rest of the world.
6. “Sound of da Police,” KRS-One
“Whoop, whoop! That's the sound of the police!” is one of the most famous hooks in hip-hop music and part of the song which launched the rap pioneer KRS-One's solo career, which boasts hardcore production and politically conscious lyrics. “Sound of da Police” suggests that the use of police force in black communities is the same form of social control practiced by overseers during the time of American slavery. KRS-One raps in a dextrous bit of verbal mashing, “Yeah, officer from overseer / You need a little clarity? / Check the similarity!”
7. “Biko,” Peter Gabriel
Rock musician and producer Peter Gabriel wrote “Biko” in response to anti-apartheid protests in South Africa. The song's title is a tribute to activist Steve Biko, a black South African who was arrested, imprisoned and beaten by state police. Biko suffered massive head injuries leading to a coma and his eventual death in 1977. The opening lines of “Biko” depict the everyday nature of violence and repression in South African society: “September '77 / Port Elizabeth weather fine / It was business as usual / In police room 619.” The system of apartheid would not end until 1994, almost two decades after Biko's murder.
8. “The Death of Emmett Till,” Bob Dylan
This protest song by a young Bob Dylan is not explicitly about the police as it recounts the 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till and the acquittal of his murderers by an all-white jury. It does, however, remind its listener of the ways in which law enforcement and the legal system can fail to bring about justice. The death of Emmett Till may be just one instance of such shortcomings, but his example, made into song, represents all groups—women, immigrants and the mentally ill among others—who continue to suffer violence and neglect under the criminal justice system.
9. “Jolly Coppers on Parade,” Randy Newman
Randy Newman has been writing and performing songs for almost a half-century, but younger audiences may only know him for his work with the Toy Story movies. His songs may seem like quaint, harmless bits of Americana, but underneath the surface is an acerbic eye for irony and satire. “Jolly Coppers on Parade” sounds like the observations of a child who looks up to local police officers as heroes: “Oh, mama / That's the life for me / When I'm grown / That's what I want to be.” Yet another line, “How their feet hardly touch the ground,” suggests the image of goose-stepping fascists, and the equation of officers with “angels” from “Paradise” can be none other than the blind whimsy of a child. What if this child, when he's all grown up, continues to lionize the officers and regard them as beyond reproach? Unfortunately, such a position, when adopted by adults, helps to legitimize and condone wrongful actions by police. People are free to sing their praises, but it is just as important to speak up when those in positions of authority commit corrupt or wrongful acts.
10. “Parties in the USA,” Jonathan Richman
This song by singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman recounts a night in Huntington Beach, where friends are gathered for coffee and music. Sadly for the group of friends, a police officer arrives in response to a noise complaint and tells everyone to go home. This is a familiar story for any teenager or college student who's thrown a house party. Yet the song's narrator, who says he's from the '60s, remembers a different era, a time of “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lou.” The song's melody covers the famous rock & roll standard by Richard Berry, but the tone of the song is more mournful than celebratory: “So people are staying home more, not having fun / A cold, cold era has begun, has begun / Now things were bad before / There was lots of loneliness / But in 1965, things were not like this.” Richman describes an America that is more fearful and docile, unwilling or too afraid to stand up to a society which has become more authoritarian and disconnected. The final refrain, however, is a call to arms: “We need more parties, yeah, in the USA / All right, yeah, shake it up.”