I can smell tear gas.
It’s Saturday afternoon. My phone starts blowing up with texts from my lady. She’s a chef at an Italian joint on Fairfax Ave. One of those neo-retro-post-irony spots that people make reservations for months in advance. Recently the dining room’s been empty, but take-out and delivery business is booming. But there’s a different boom happening just outside. It’s cops vs. citizens; one of them came loaded for bear.
A cop car is on fire.
Three cop cars on fire. A live feed from some stranger’s account gives me a first-hand glimpse of the chaos. My neighborhood streets are lined with hundreds of American citizens holding signs demanding justice. Demanding equality under the law. Demanding we say his name.
A man who should be alive today. Just like far too many casualties of racists abusing their power before him.
We’re closing now. It’s crazy outside. I’ll be home ASAP.
There’s a swirling bird above my apartment. A cruiser idling in my parking lot. The cops are on the ground. They’re in the air. If the protest moves to the middle of the Pacific I’m sure they’ll paddle out to make their presence known.
Dozens of cruisers haul ass down my street. Westbound towards Fairfax. A curfew has been set for the entire city. The mayor is asking for the National Guard to intervene. Things will get worse.
I am angry, sad, and disappointed. In moments like this, I find it best to simply listen. Listen to people whose breadth of knowledge and experience of injustice far exceed my own, including some of the artists who’ve produced the iconic protest songs below.
N.W.A., “Fuck Tha Police”
An obvious choice, but is there a more incendiary tune in the American Songbook? Written by Ice Cube, MC Ren, and the D.O.C., “Fuck Tha Police” puts the LAPD on trial for the years of incessant racial profiling and brutality they inflicted upon the African-American community of South L.A. The trial culminates with a guilty verdict for a police force that is “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker” — their words, not mine. Since its release in 1988, the song continues to stir strong emotions from all sides. In fact, driving down La Brea, a mere 12 hours after tear gas scattered the protesters away, I saw the slogan spray-painted on three different walls. For better or worse, the phrase isn’t going away anytime soon.
Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”
An artist rarely can choose their audience. Art, and songs, in particular, can be interpreted in many different ways, some of which, sadly, are wrong. When Jello Biafra started spotting skinheads at Dead Kennedy shows, he decided to direct his frustration into writing a song that was as clear as the day is long. It doesn’t take a doctorate in Linguistics to decipher the chorus: “Nazi punks, Nazi punks, Nazi Punks, fuck off!”
Released as the lead single off their album In God We Trust, Inc., the vinyl included a sticker with a crossed-out swastika. Forty years later and, unfortunately, we’re still telling them to fuck off.
The Mice, “Not Proud of the USA”
Brothers Bill and Tommy Fox’s Cleveland-based power pop band only lasted a few years, but in their short time, they managed to influence numerous future indie stalwarts such as Guided By Voices and Superchunk. Off their EP For Almost Ever, “Not Proud of the USA” received considerable airplay during the first Bush Administration.
Power-pop is not a genre generally known for anger. So we get the unusual juxtaposition of ba-ba-bas in a song that takes aim at the previous generations for turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of spreading democracy. Fox is the anti-Lee Greenwood when he screams “We can’t raise the flag up everywhere!”
Subsequently, one of Bill’s solo songs, entitled “Men Who Are Guilty of Crimes,” went on to become an anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Clearly we know what side this brilliant songwriter stands on.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Ohio”
Maybe it’s seeing the tanks of the National Guard drive down my street, or that I attended Kent State University for a few years, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include this Boomer classic about a government-inflicted wound that is as fresh today as it was when inflicted in 1970. Written by a fired-up Neil Young, after seeing the photos of dead students in Life magazine, “Ohio” was recorded live in two takes, on the same day as Stills’ ballad for the fallen soldiers of Vietnam, “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Both are direct pleas for an end to senseless bloodshed. An end that has yet to come.
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
New York City, 1939. Billie Holiday is standing on stage at Café Society, the nation’s first integrated nightclub, belting out this indictment of the racism found in the post-Jim Crow American South. The turn of the century saw lynchings in the U.S. reach a high not seen since the pre-Civil War. Singing the song made Holiday shake with fear, but she made it through nonetheless. So moving was her performance that service at the club stopped for those three minutes.
“Strange Fruit” might’ve gone unheard beyond those walls if it weren’t for yet another act of courage. Holiday’s label, Columbia, wanted nothing to do with the song. It took Milt Gabler hearing Holiday perform an a cappella version, which moved him to tears, to put it out on his small jazz label Commodore Records. In 2003, Congress selected the song to include in the National Recording Registry.
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Widely regarded as the anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, the most well-known song on the astonishing To Pimp a Butterfly found inspiration from a trip to South Africa, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and, of course, Lamar’s own experience growing up in Compton. The song even opens with the artist screaming in anguish before lamenting the questions that generations of oppressed people have asked before him: “When our pride was low / Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’”
The song inspired strong emotions on both sides of the fight. After Lamar performed the tune at the BET awards, Fox News gasbag Geraldo Rivera proclaimed that “hip-hop has done more damage to African-Americans than racism in recent years.” Because we all remember that hip-hop song choking out an unarmed citizen.
Body Count, “Cop Killer”
The most notorious song on the self-titled debut album of Ice-T’s heavy metal side project was a scorched-earth revenge-porn response to the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. To say that this tune attracted some controversy is like stating the Hindenburg was an uncomfortable flight.
Censorship enthusiast Tipper Gore made it her personal mission to get the song removed from airwaves. She succeeded, sort of. Ice-T recalled the album and removed the song, opting instead to give it away for free. The irony of ironies is that nearly a decade later, Ice-T has become arguably more well-known playing a cop himself as Detective Fin Tutuola on the long-running NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
Inspired by an unfortunate ordeal at a whites-only motel, Sam Cooke’s breathtaking plea for civil unity is still the high-water mark for protest music. As the story goes, Cooke, his wife, and various members of his band were en route to Shreveport, Louisiana when they decided to stay the night at a Holiday Inn. Despite having reservations, the clerk denied their access to the hotel. Leaving in a huff, Cooke and his entourage drove to another motel, only to find the local police waiting for them, arresting them for disturbing the peace. Channeling his disbelief that a man could be denied shelter based off of the color of his skin, Cooke wrote lyrics that perfectly intertwined the personal and the political.
At the behest of his manager, Cooke first performed the song on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in February of 1964. What should have been a watershed moment in music was overshadowed by the Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show just two days later. Cooke never performed the song live again, claiming that the melody “sounded like death.” And tragically, Cooke was shot and killed at a Los Angeles motel two weeks before the single was even released.
Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
Commissioned by Spike Lee, who needed a theme song for his own rally-cry Do the Right Thing, Chuck D, borrowing the title from the Isley Brothers, wrote the song while on tour in Italy. Remember, Joyce wrote about life in Dublin while sitting in Parisian cafes.
Brought to life through numerous manipulated samples by the Bomb Squad, Chuck D’s lyrics take on the grandiose qualities of a revolutionary leader, pop music as a call to arms. Most shocking and most famous was his takedown of two of white American legends, specifically the King & Duke: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / Straight up racist, the sucker was / Simple and plain” with hypeman Flavor Flav adding, “Motherfuck him and John Wayne!”
Both the movie and the song were huge hits, helping to shine a light on the numerous problems plaguing the nation, including both the AIDS and crack epidemics, as well as the institutional racism that we still see in action today, proving that the fight is far from over.
Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
On June 17, 1966, just after last call, two men entered the Lafayette Bar in Paterson, New Jersey and shot up the place. Two men were killed immediately; another died a month later. There was one survivor, despite suffering a head wound that would cost him an eye. Ten minutes later, police stopped a rental car with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a promising middleweight boxer, and his friend John Artis inside.
Recorded with the Rolling Thunder tour crew for Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, the album’s eight-and-a-half minute centerpiece is a blistering denouncement of racial profiling, filled out by the spectral sounds of Scarlet Rivera’s violin. Dylan’s vocal cords stretched to their breaking point.
The song brought Carter’s case to a national audience in the ’70s, but it took until 1985 for Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin to rule that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturn the conviction. Over 50 years later, America is still dealing with an imperfect justice system; how many more wrongfully convicted people, particularly people of color, don’t receive a mea culpa in the form of a song about them.