We Insist: A Century Of Black Music Against State Violence

In the liner notes to John Coltrane’s 1964 album Live At Birdland, Amiri Baraka (then writing as Le Roi Jones) contemplated the gift the saxophonist and his band offered with this music inspired by the horrific deaths of four Black girls in a Birmingham church bombing inspired by white supremacist hatred. “Listen,” Baraka wrote. “What we’re given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin [Jones], rising in the background like something out of nature… a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds. The whole is a frightening emotional portrait of some place, in these musicians’ feelings.” Baraka is describing the transformation in art of unfathomable pain, the human response to violence, into grace. Not transcendence or reconciliation – but grace, the honor of one presence, the ability to face injustice and remain whole and gain the energy to respond. That’s what Coltrane created in his landmark piece, which you’ll find in the middle of the list below, as part of a history that parallels American culture’s development: the story of Black American music and its response to oppression, and particularly, state-sanctioned violence.

In recent weeks, musicians have responded to the crowning of the Black Lives Matter movement as a central force motivating social change by writing new anthems, a remarkable new chapter in protest music. Listeners have connected creative leaps like Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” and Terrace Martin’s “Pig Feet” to the hip-hop classics that challenged police violence in the 1990s and beyond, and to singular historical works like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The truth, though, is that the witnessing, coded or open warnings and encouragement and political dissent communicated through today’s urgent soundtrack characterize the whole of Black American music. From the oldest shout songs that surfaced on the Georgia coast to the spirituals that were revered after Emancipation, shared choruses documented brutality and exhorted people to resist. Jazz and blues songs that, to white listeners, seemed like good fun for dancing were news reports to those who knew how to listen. The civil rights movement codified hymns of resistance, but the soul and funk that poured from radios paid mind to police harassment and other threats too, sometimes more pointedly. There was never a moment, in fact, when Black musicians put aside their commitment to telling the truth of how Black people have been wronged, and survived, and fought back.

The 50 songs discussed in this list often describe specific acts of police violence but they are not limited to that subject. Together they construct a kind of timeline of an ongoing movement within American music, stretching back more than a century. It is meant to be revelatory but not complete. The songs here take on some of the ugliest stories with which America — and, since it goes international, the world — has to reckon. They mourn the dead and fight for the living. Some are easy to identify as protest songs; others feel like a party. Many address police violence directly decades before that subject became a lodestone in hip hop. Some of these songs have been misinterpreted even when their messages are perfectly clear. All contribute to the history of Black people showing what America’s official histories would hide in plain sight: the destructiveness of white supremacy and the uprisings against it that are not only organized and political, but personal. Like music itself, this spirit of resistance takes many shapes, but has never been silenced. As Baraka said of Coltrane, all you have to do is really listen.

Listen to the songs featured below on playlists via Spotify and Apple Music.


1927–1963: Witness & Resistance

Sara Martin
“Georgia Stockade Blues”
(1927)

This Classic Blues from the period dominated by a woman named Ma and a number of Smiths is described by scholar Sarah Haley as, perhaps, “the definitive popular expression of the brutality of southern women’s imprisonment.” The turpentine farm that sets Martin’s scene highlights one of the numerous industries that took advantage of a captive and overwhelmingly Black labor pool in order to build modern infrastructure. The listener knows nothing of why she’s there; the only crime explicitly named is the crime of impoverishment (“They found me guilty without one dime”) that has forced her into shackles in a place without respite or mercy. —Shana L. Redmond

Louis Armstrong
“I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal You)”
(1931)

Perhaps you’ve seen the egregious Betty Boop cartoon, wherein a high-flying Louis Armstrong gets conflated with a tribal savage on an African safari. One year earlier, Armstrong and his band had been thrown in jail for running afoul of Jim Crow in Memphis, released on bail with the condition that they play a benefit concert. In a gesture often cited as Exhibit A for Armstrong’s trickster reputation, that show featured a version of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal You)” — which Pops dedicated to the Memphis Police Department. —Nate Chinen

Ethel Waters
“Supper Time”
(1933)

One might not expect to find a musical revue number in this list, let alone one authored by Irving Berlin. It is both the profundity of the story behind the music and the subtleties of its performance that make it a study in anti-Black state violence. Written for Waters, the song tells the story of a woman struggling to reconcile her daily routine with the news that her husband has been lynched and “ain’t comin’ home no more.” Lynching was a pastime for some in the late 19th and 20th centuries that created its own rules of engagement. Citizens deputized themselves to enact what they considered to be justice, nearly always with the assistance, consent and collaboration of the local police who provided supplies, cover or intel for their mob murders. Families with children often attended, bringing lunches and posing for the photographs that became souvenirs along with bits of rope, tree or the victim’s body parts. Waters’ delivery of the song, full of painful lyrical articulation and gesture, shows the slow resignation to grief that the victim’s loved ones experience. Contemporary lynchings may appear differently but her feeling still speaks volumes. —Shana L. Redmond

Billie Holiday
“Strange Fruit”
(1939)

The song, like the singer, is iconic — and the two have been inextricable nearly from the start. One of the most heralded protest anthems on record, “Strange Fruit” paints a chilling portrait of a southern lynching, using language both lyrically formal and brutally direct. First published as a poem by Abel Meeropol, who’d been horrified by a photograph of a lynching in 1930, the song circulated widely in New York leftist circles before it found its way to Billie Holiday. Her early performances of “Strange Fruit,” during an engagement at Café Society in Greenwich Village, were an instant sensation. (“She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation,” recalled Meeropol, “which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere.”) Because her label, Columbia Records, balked at releasing such charged material, Holiday recorded it as a single for Commodore, a couple of weeks after she turned 24. Backed by Frankie Newton’s Café Society Band, which sets the stage with a mournful fanfare, Holiday sings carefully, in a troubled calm. Her composure is critical, enacting both a plea to empathy and a confrontation with ugly truth: When she curls her voice around “the sudden smell of burning flesh,” it’s a moment made all the ghastlier for its intimacy. Subsequent versions of “Strange Fruit” — by everyone from Nina Simone to Jeff Buckley to Bettye LaVette — would mostly hew to a declarative mode. But Billie still haunts the song, as it haunted her. —Nate Chinen

Vera Hall
“Another Man Done Gone”
(1940)

The mid-20th century field recordings John and Alan Lomax collected became a cornerstone of the folk revival, but they are not infinitely mutable texts. Many reveal the maps and codes that Black rural Southerners created to survive the nation’s ongoing betrayal. This one, shared by the father-and-son duo’s favorite singer, Alabama native Vera Hall, bears witness to the destruction wrought by the carceral system built to contain Black Americans after emancipation. Hall’s spare verses describe a man who – escapes? is killed? — while on a chain gang, one of the mobile prisons designed shortly after emancipation to contain and terrorize free Black people. John Lomax heard something in Hall’s woeful tone, or perhaps in her unrecorded conversation, that prompted him to play “Another Man Done Gone” in 1937 at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the the Emancipation Proclamation’s signing.

Later singers filled in the lines of Vera Hall’s cipher. Johnny Cash, who heard the song interpolated with the voices of witnesses to lynchings on Alan Lomax’s 1957 compilation Blues in the Mississippi Night, added the phrase “they hung him on a tree.” Folk revival originator Odetta also made state violence explicit in her version, changing Hall’s phrase “he killed another man” to the state-implicating “they killed another man.” The song became an emblem of institutionalized violence, used by poets, novelist and activists to demonstrate brutality’s dull repetitiveness. “There is all the pathos of the world poured into a few words,” an Ebony magazine op-ed on the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. declared in 1968, invoking the song. “No one is exempt.” —Ann Powers

Leadbelly
“Duncan and Brady”
(1947)

Outlaw stories far precede 1990s rap in American music, and often document resistance to police brutality. The novelist Cecil Brown, among other scholars, connects the most famous of all — that of Stagolee, the 19th-century father of Superfly and Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” — to this lineage. The Stagolee ballads emerged alongside more explicit accounts of self-defense killings of police, including this one, relaying the story of a Black bartender defending himself against a St. Louis officer intending to “shoot somebody just to see him die.” (The actual Brady case was more complicated, and led to the first time a Black lawyer argued a case in the Supreme Court, though Walter Moran Farmer failed to exonerate the possibly innocent Harry Duncan.) When Lead Belly incorporated the song into the repertoire he mostly performed for white audiences after John Lomax brought him to New York, he performed it with cutting sarcasm, apparently recognizing that this was a chance to note the real threat Black Americans faced amidst what some listeners took as tall tales. —Ann Powers

Louis Jordan
“Saturday Night Fish Fry”
(1949)

Social gatherings have historically offered more than just fun for Black Americans. The rent parties of Harlem, Midwestern “buffet flats” and fish fries of New Orleans provided ways ways to feed the community, pass the hat and gather rent, create informal business networks and, for artists, perfect the music that might eventually bring them fame. These temporary autonomous zones — which have, at times, welcomed the low-level illegal activities dubbed “vice,” like sex work and drug use — are routinely disrupted by police, who often use deadly force. Songs like Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumpin'” and Hot Lips Page’s “They Raided the Joint” turn these dangerous encounters into comedy, as does this classic by Louis Jordan — a song some call the first rock and roll record. Jordan’s account of a rollicking good time abruptly takes a turn when he’s punched in the face by an officer, hustled into a “Black Maria” (or police wagon) and dumped in jail. Jordan’s arch delivery belies the detailed account of the pain police induced in partygoers. In the song, Jordan is bailed out by his girlfriend; “Saturday Night Fish Fry” ruled the R&B charts for twelve weeks and made clear that however much the state tried to regulate the creative expression people generated a the parties, the joints would keep jumpin’ anyway. —Ann Powers

Alex Foster & Michel Larue
“Follow the Drinking Gourd”
(1958)

Little is known about the group that released an album named after this song in 1958 — later reissued as American Negro Slave Songs — except that they were folklore collectors and they once rented the Greenwich Village club the Gate of Horn to perform this repertoire. The story of Black performers in the folk revival still begs to be thoroughly told. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” has been classified as a spiritual, but its meaning is very much of this world — it was meant to instruct people fleeing their enslavers to read constellations like the Big Dipper to map their way to freedom. Foster and LaRue’s interpretation in modern and evocative, conjuring the night that offered some hope of protection on such perilous paths. Its menace keeps alive the original spirit of a song that today is often defused and redefined as children’s music. —Ann Powers

Lord Commander
“No Crime, No Law”
(1959)

The 1950s launched a global Calypso craze, yet commercial success did not surrender the political content of this famed Caribbean musical genre. One of a number of Calypso Lords from Trinidad and Tobago, Lord Commander used the documentary nature of this dance music to tell the story of the fat cat colonial police officers, lawyers and magistrates who, he says, should be kissing the criminals who keep them well paid. —Shana L. Redmond

Abbey Lincoln & Max Roach
“Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”
(1960)

“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in 1964, for an essay commissioned by the Berlin Jazz Festival. He was referring to the music made by Black musicians in America, commonly known as jazz — and while he didn’t name specific artists, it’s no stretch to suggest Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln were rattling somewhere in his mind. We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite was released four years earlier, in 1960. Its cover shows a black-and-white image of a lunch-counter sit in. Featuring music by Roach and lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr., it’s a concept album in every sense, connecting the bitter legacy of American slavery with the push for freedom in South Africa. “Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace” is the album’s striking centerpiece, a rolling tone poem with Lincoln’s wordless vocals out front. In the first section, her incantatory moan evokes both a field holler and the cry of the church; during the final stretch, she sounds spent and becalmed. But the crux of the matter is “Protest,” in which Roach rains a hail of blows on his snare and toms while Lincoln screams and howls: a cathartic, unsparing embodiment of righteous fury. Sixty years later, it rages on. —Nate Chinen

John Coltrane
“Alabama”
(1963)

On Sept. 15, 1963, four young Black girls were killed by a bomb at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala. Two months later, saxophonist John Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” whose dirge-like cadence was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s oration at the girls’ funeral service. The soft rumble of McCoy Tyner’s piano and the ceremonial thrum of Elvin Jones’ toms deepen the gravity of a song that frames protest in terms of a human toll, devastating and irretrievable. —Nate Chinen


1967–1985: Black Power

The Equals
“Police on My Back”
(1967)

After years of effort by Black immigrants in England to rebuild the nation post-World War II, British policy makers in the 1950s and 1960s thanked them with immigration restriction laws as well as housing and employment discrimination, all of which was enforced with assistance from police. The repetitive pop melody of “Police on My Back” mirrors the repetition of police harassment experienced by the singer Eddy Grant, himself an immigrant from Guyana. The passive voice statement that “there was a shooting” offers an oblique reference but no clear justification for the police pursuit that sends him on a sprint via street and railway every day of the week. —Shana L. Redmond

The Lumpen
“No More”
(1970)

The Lumpen was a little-known soul/funk band formed amongst active Black Panther Party members. Inspired by the example of fellow Party member Elaine Brown, who recorded the 1969 protest album Seize The Time, The Lumpen meant to “use popular forms of music that the community could relate to and politicize it so it would function as another weapon in the struggle for liberation.” The Black Panthers were founded with a 10 point program, one of which was “an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people” and this core tenet is at the heart of the group’s sole single. One side, “Free Bobby Now,” was a contemporary funk tune devoted to Party co-founder Bobby Seale, at the time imprisoned on contempt charges and a cause celebre for activists around the world. The other side, “No More,” was performed in a more traditional spiritual style, with lyrics written by Lumpen member Bill Calhoun decrying state oppression “from Watts to Brownsville” but envisioning a future free of “pigs on our streets and poverty.” —Oliver Wang

Marvin Gaye
“Inner City Blues” & “What’s Going On”
(1971)

Despite the well-publicized examples of police violence against the Black community through the ’60s and early ’70s, a star of Marvin Gaye’s stature could ill risk writing an entire song dedicated to the topic. However, on his best-selling, era-defining What’s Going On, from 1971, Gaye still found ways to call out the police on two of the LP’s biggest hits. On “Inner City Blues,” “trigger happy policing” is one of the dozens of laments he lists, alongside rising crime rates and falling wages. Likewise on the title track, his line “picket lines and picket signs / don’t punish me with brutality,” can’t be read as anything but a commentary on how civil rights-era law enforcement often responded to nonviolent protests with swinging batons or worse. —Oliver Wang

Gil Scott-Heron
“No Knock”
(1972)

This “no knockin’, head-rockin’, inter-shockin'” poem by the “Godfather of rap” speaks as clearly and as devastatingly today as on the date of its release. No-knock warrants permit law enforcement officers to forcibly enter a property without announcement. A no-knock warrant was issued for the home of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman killed in her home by police on March 13, 2020. A no-knock warrant was served on the home in which 7-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones slept in the minutes before her 2010 murder by a Detroit police officer. There was also Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta; before her Alberta Spruill in New York. And as Scott-Heron says, the cops “no knocked on [his] brother,” the revolutionary and Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, assassinating him in 1969. —Shana L. Redmond

Archie Shepp
“Attica Blues”
(1972)

Several months after the Attica Prison uprising met its infamous and bloody end, saxophonist Archie Shepp made Attica Blues — a teeming, unwieldy concept album bound by searing moral clarity. Its strength assumes many forms, but none more arresting than the title track, a gnarly funk invocation with urgent singing by Carl Hall. “I got a feeling that something ain’t going right!” he cries. “And I’m worried ’bout the human soul!” —Nate Chinen

Stevie Wonder
“Living For The City”
(1973)

In her book about black radicalism in Oakland, named after this 1973 epic, historian Donna Jean Murch quotes Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton, who himself was imprisoned and then exonerated of shooting a police officer in 1967, about the police presence in his city: “The police … were really the government.” Wonder’s song draws that bottom line. It’s a terrifying inversion of the all-American Horatio Alger story, in which an impoverished boy from “hard time Mississippi” heads to the urban mecca to make something of himself. Instead, as the song’s climactic spoken-word interlude portrays, he’s quickly set up for a petty crime and nabbed by law enforcement. Anyone who’s seen the clusters of blue uniforms on any major city’s downtown street corners may get a chill from the rapidity in which our hero becomes a victim of circumstance — and of racism. The words that greet Wonder’s protagonist upon arrest — “get in that cell, N*****” – became a key sample in hip-hop, employed by artists from Public Enemy to Slick Rick. —Ann Powers

War
“Me and Baby Brother”
(1973)

As with other popular soul-era artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the multiracial Long Beach group War found ways to subtly speak on police brutality. The snappy funk track “Me and Baby Brother,” featured on the group’s 1973 LP Deliver the Word, is ostensibly about reminiscing on days spent hanging with “baby brother” on street corners and “drinking funky wine” until the song hits the bridge and a chilling line appears: “hang on, baby brother / Oh, they call it law and order.” The main hook — “come back baby brother” — returns immediately, but it’s easy to mishear it as “shot my baby brother.” Years later, on War co-founder Lonnie Jordan’s 2007 album War Stories, the version of “Baby Brother” is updated and Jordan now sings, explicitly: “They shot my baby brother, back in 1971 with bombs and guns, and they called it law and order.” —Oliver Wang

Sweet Honey in the Rock
“Joanne Little”
(1976)

Beginning with the defiant and repeated line, “Who is this girl and what is she to you,” this song tells the story of Joan (pronounced Jo-ann) Little, a Black woman who, while being held in a North Carolina men’s jail in 1974, murdered a guard in self-defense against sexual assault. Her eventual trial drew the attention of prison abolitionists and women’s and civil rights organizations, as well as the high-profile support of Angela Y. Davis. Led by the voice of movement artist Bernice Johnson Reagon, the song by Black women’s a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock gives Little full dimension and answers the recurring question by naming her our sister, mama, lover and “the woman who’s gonna carry your child.” —Shana L. Redmond

Fela Kuti
“Sorrow, Tears & Blood”
(1977)

In 1977, Fela Kuti’s creative compound, Kalakuta Republic, was raided and burned to the ground by Nigerian military in retaliation for his political beliefs and public critiques of the government and its military. Kuti, his band and guests were beaten, and his mother thrown from a window, which caused fatal injuries. Instead of silence, he returned with his band Africa 70 to the studio and in 1977 produced a series of albums, including Sorrow Tears and Blood, which, true to form, announces the police and military as the murderers who create a culture of fear and confusion that forces people to “scatter scatter.” —Shana L. Redmond

Rick James
“Mr. Policeman”
(1981)

Funk popularizer James was notorious for being a self-proclaimed Superfreak, and his hits remain party mix staples. But his most successful album – and its cover — showed that he could be a protest artist, too. Inspired by the police shooting of an unarmed friend in his native Buffalo, James wrote a direct and incendiary lyric: “It’s a shame, it’s a disgrace, why every time you show your face somebody dies, man.” He set it to a reggae rhythm in tribute to the 1972 Jamaican film classic The Harder They Come, in which Jimmy Cliff plays a social outsider eventually killed by police. And he styled the iconic Street Songs cover to bring the song to visual life: On the front, James leans against a streetlight as two women in the background struggle in handcuffs, led away by a shadowy lieutenant. On the back cover he’s being frisked by the same officer. This twist on the ubiquitous early-1970s romanticization of the pimp in blaxploitation films and music shows that no matter how freaky, an urban hustler could not escape routine police harassment. —Ann Powers

Nina Simone
“I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them”
(1982)

The obvious choice would be “Mississippi Goddam,” which responds to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, among other outrages during the thick of the civil rights movement. But Nina Simone held her anger close in the years to come, well after expatriating to Europe. On this misleadingly jaunty tune, a staple of her repertoire in the ’80s, she recalls the death of Bob Marley and the dehumanizing treatment that still plagued her, along with a vow: “Now everything will change.” —Nate Chinen

McIntosh County Shouters
“Wade the Water to My Knees”
(1983)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the stories of violence against Black people in America, preserved in music, are as old as the nation itself. This song is a variant of the familiar spiritual “Wade in the Water,” but its roots run even deeper, into the silty banks of Dunbar Creek at St. Simons Island, Ga. There, in 1803, a group of West Africans transported in the Middle Passage revolted at the end of their journey; both history and legend assert that they drowned themselves rather than remain captive. Such narratives were often buried between the lines of the spirituals and shout songs that form the foundation of African-American music. In the past half-century, musical preservationists like Georgia Sea Islands group have revived the original meanings of these songs, reminding listeners that their messages are not piously universal, but hauntingly particular. —Ann Powers

Wynton Marsalis
“Black Codes”
(1985)

Trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis was not yet the institutional figurehead he’d become when he made Black Codes (From the Underground) in 1985, featuring his brother Branford on saxophone along with a fearsome rhythm section. The album’s title invokes laws in the postbellum South that prevented former slaves from exercising their freedoms. Wynton’s slashing horn, and the band’s muscular prowess, stand united in proud rebuke. —Nate Chinen


1985–2012: Policing & Protest

Toddy Tee
“Batterram”
(1985)

Of the long list of decisions made by the LAPD during the reign of now-disgraced former chief Daryl Gates, few were as notorious — and embarrassing — as their construction of a six-ton tank tipped with a 14-foot battering ram. The idea was that the vehicle, officially dubbed a “batterrram,” could be used in hostage situations or drug raids by busting through building walls; the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton dramatizes this in its opening scene. Produced by soul legend Leon Haywood, the 1985 single, “Batterram,” features Compton rapper Toddy Tee warning listeners, “the Chief of Police says he just might / flatten out every house he sees on sight.” Compared with later songs by L.A. rappers, “Batterram” is almost playful in tone, but it was an early example of local artists reacting to overuse of force by the LAPD. After only a handful of deployments, a cavalcade of lawsuits and civic outrage forced Gates to mothball the assault vehicle. —Oliver Wang

N.W.A.
“F*** Tha Police”
(1988)

Arguably the most blatant protest song in hip-hop, 1988’s “F*** Tha Police” left absolutely nothing to the imagination and spoke bluntly to the fractured police/community relations of inner-city Los Angeles. The song not only struck a nerve with countless Black youth in cities nationwide, it caught the attention of the FBI, whose displeasure with the record was documented and sent to the group’s record label. Unfortunately, the song’s relevance hasn’t subdued; over the years it has been remade and re-recorded many times over, most recently by rapper YG during this year’s protest. —Bobby Carter

Tracy Chapman
“Across the Lines”
(1988)

The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through a Georgia subdivision brought into stark relief the threats facing Black Americans when they venture into neighborhoods where they are perceived as strangers. Segregation is one of the most powerful state-imposed reinforcements of American racism, living on informally (and, sometimes, illegally) long after it was supposedly abolished by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Tracy Chapman, born poor in Cleveland in 1965, paid witness as a child to the ways in which poorly enforced integration led to violence against Black citizens in their own neighborhoods. Chapman, whose universe expanded when she received a scholarship to a Connecticut boarding school, brought her political perspective and personal experience of being bullied as a child to her work as a rare Black singer-songwriter in the informally segregated folk-rock scene of the 1990s. This song cries out for all lines to be eradicated even as it contends with the reality that most Americans choose sides, forcing others to run for their lives. —Ann Powers

Public Enemy
“Anti-N***** Machine”
(1990)

New York’s Public Enemy first introduced the phrase “anti-n***** machine” on its 1988 song “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos,” which was a modern-day “Attica Blues,” speaking on the American prison system. On the 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet, Chuck D and his group turned the phrase into a short, 90 second song where the “machine” represents the government and justice systems, implicating policy makers and police alike. That said, Chuck’s most direct barbs are aimed at law enforcement, especially in the song’s second verse: “went to Cali, a rally was for a brother’s death. It was the fuzz who shot him and not the bloods or cuzz.” It was a prescient line, predicting the L.A. gang truce of 1992. On the album, “Anti-N***** Machine” led directly into the next song, “Burn Hollywood Burn,” thus connecting anti-Black racism in law enforcement with racist imagery in popular media. —Oliver Wang

Main Source
“Just a Friendly Game of Baseball”
(1991)

Lead by Queens rapper/producer Large Professor, Main Source turned in one of the more creative early-’90s rap songs about police violence by comparing it to the national pastime: “To the cops, shooting brothers is like playing baseball, and they’re never in a slump. I guess when they shoot up a crew, it’s a grand slam, and when it’s one, it’s a home run.” The group squeezes as much as they can from the analogy over three verses, with corrupt government officials being called umpires and the dugout a metaphor for the graves that victims were sent to after being “gunned down” by an outfielder with a badge and firearm. The song, originally released on the group’s 1991 Breaking Atoms LP, made such an impression that its remix was one of the only songs by an East Coast artist included on the otherwise West Coast-centric Boyz n the Hood soundtrack. —Oliver Wang

Body Count
“Cop Killer”
(1992)

Few songs have sparked as much controversy as “Cop Killer,” released on the self-titled debut by the rap/rock group Body Count in the spring of 1992. Originally written in 1990, “Cop Killer” found the group’s lead, L.A. rapper Ice-T, taking a preemptive “kill or be killed” approach to police violence: “Cop killer, better you than me. Cop killer, f*** police brutality.” The song mentioned both LAPD chief Daryl Gates and beating victim Rodney King; its release came barely a month before the King verdict would ignite protests and riots across the U.S.

Police associations, already reeling from criticism, attempted to deflect attention onto “Cop Killer” instead, arguing that its threats to “dust some cops off” put police lives in danger. They demanded that parent company Time Warner retract the Warner Music release and pressured stores to remove it from shelves. The protest went all the way up to the White House, with both Vice President Dan Quayle and President George H.W. Bush castigating the song as well. “Cop Killer” ignited a fierce free speech debate around censorship and though Warner Bros. refused to pull the album, in the end, Ice T made the decision to remove the song from future versions of the album and he eventually broke from the label out of disappointment with Time Warner’s handling of the situation. —Oliver Wang

Rage Against The Machine
“Killing In the Name”
(1992)

“Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses,” snarled Zack de la Rocha in the first verse of this oracular explosion from L.A. rock band Rage Against the Machine. The line laid bare a long historical connection between law enforcement and racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan — more recently the subject of lengthy FBI investigations. And it announced a new leader in political rock. Radical and unafraid of censure, bursting forth in the moment when the riots following Rodney King’s assault by police had ripped Los Angeles apart, Rage brought the confrontational spirit of both punk and hip-hop to a genre that had grown decadent. The band was denounced as a “hate group” by some but inspired a new generation to scream its protest. —Ann Powers

Ice Cube
“Who Got the Camera”
(1992)

Ice Cube stands as one of the one of architects of hip-hop protest, and has always delivered a message from the perspective of the oppressed. “Who Got The Camera” rings disturbingly relevant, thanks to the sheer volume of police brutality incidents that have been caught on film over the past few years. —Bobby Carter

KRS-One
“Sound of da Police”
(1993)

While the term “racial profiling” wasn’t as prevalent in 1993 as it is today, KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” is a textbook breakdown of what it means to be targeted by law enforcement as Black person in America. “The Teacha” masterfully deciphers this relationship, likening it to that of the slave and the overseer in his signature Jamaican patois. —Bobby Carter

Queen Latifah
“Just Another Day…”
(1993)

A love song to the New Jersey neighborhoods that raised her, “Just Another Day…” reveals a Queen without her title as she’s “just plain old Dana today.” Similar to the scenes of Black life popularized in the late 1980s and 1990s by filmmakers Spike Lee and John Singleton, Latifah focusses on street-level interactions and relationships. In them she sees the complicated beauty of her ‘hood where, in spite of daily witnessing violence at the hands of neighbors and police, she can also sing and play. —Shana L. Redmond

Michael Jackson
“They Don’t Care About Us”
(1996)

Released on Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, “They Don’t Care About Us” was a rare unabashed protest song from the King of Pop, albeit a muddled one. On it, Jackson tries to compare (and conflate) his own legal woes, dealing with accusations and investigations of alleged pedophilia, with a larger commentary on human rights struggles happening globally. “I am the victim of police brutality, now, I’m tired of being the victim of hate,” he sings and on one of the two Spike Lee-directed music videos made for the song, we see images of the Rodney King beating cut into a video mostly set inside a prison where Jackson is dressed in county blues. The other video, shot in a Rio de Janeiro favela, doesn’t reference the prison system but it does include several pointed scenes of Jackson standing defiantly next to uniformed Brazilian police officers. While some previous songs, most notably “Black Or White,” addressed race, “They Don’t Care About Us” was Jackson’s most strident song about racism. It was a stark departure from his chart-topping pop persona to hear him sing lines such as, “Black male, blackmail, throw the brother in jail.” Ironically, the song’s underlying anti-racism message was undermined by criticism that some of his lyrics —”Jew me, sue me, everybody do me” — were anti-Semitic. Jackson issued several public apologies in response. —Oliver Wang

Lauryn Hill
“Forgive Them Father”
(1998)

Songs are open-ended things, their meanings adaptable to new historical moments, making necessary responses. Hill wrote this song as an invocation of Bob Marley’s spirit, interpolating the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle” into her litany of call-outs that range from thoughtless men to capitalism itself. In recent years, however, she has made the message more pointed by extending the song’s ending in her performances and showing a montage of phone- and videocamera- captured incidents of police brutality as she sings. The song becomes a form of sanctified dissent, a cry for reconciliation and reparations, communicating compassion even as it unwaveringly seeks justice. —Ann Powers

Hip Hop For Respect
A Tree Never Grown
(2000)

In February of 1999, four plain-clothed NYPD officers in the Bronx shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, mistaking his wallet for a gun. Infamously, they fired 41 shots at Diallo — that number became a shorthand for the excesses of police force. Diallo’s killing and the subsequent acquittal of all four officers drew widespread condemnation and sparked dozens of musical response, including a project from the 41 rappers who comprised the Hip Hop For Respect project, assembled by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Their 2000 EP included “A Tree Never Grows,” its title a mournful commentary on what was lost with Diallo’s death. On the song’s hook, Mos Def sings of Diallo’s mother: “As the coffin had closed, committed to the earth below, first seed she had sewn, would be a tree never grown.” —Oliver Wang

Gregory Porter
“1960 What?”
(2010)

Led and grounded by upright bass, Porter’s deceptively powerful question—”1960 What?”—refuses the narrative of exceptional or isolated incidences of violence as he sings into one deadly genealogy the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the murder by police of a young man carrying “three pieces of black licorice.” —Shana L. Redmond

Esperanza Spalding
“Land of the Free”
(2012)

As a bassist and composer, Esperanza Spalding makes a virtue out of virtuosity; as a singer-songwriter, she often bends her ebullience toward a pointed aim. “Land of the Free,” a secular hymn from her 2012 album Radio Music Society, tells the tale of Cornelius Dupree, Jr., who spent 30 years imprisoned on a wrongful charge. From this particular miscarriage of justice, she draws a circle wide enough to implicate our entire society. The song ends with a pause where you’d expect to hear the word “free,” followed by the slamming of a cell door. —Nate Chinen


2014–2020: Black Lives Matter

Vince Staples
“Hands Up”
(2014)

About a month after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Vince Staples released “Hands Up,” which became a rallying cry for the protests that followed. Over a manic instrumental, the Long Beach rapper delivers furious bars, mostly focused on the corruption within various Los Angeles law enforcement divisions. The parallels between his personal experiences and the ones reported across the globe are undeniable. —Bobby Carter

Ambrose Akinmusire
“Rollcall for Those Absent”
(2014)

The haunting drone of a Mellotron has a near-liturgical quality as it supports the voice of a young child reading the names of dozens of men, women and children murdered by police and vigilantes. More than once, the voice lingers in repetition of the name Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager whose 2012 murder by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida elicited widespread outrage, public memorials and a personal statement from President Obama. —Shana L. Redmond

Kendrick Lamar
“The Blacker the Berry”
(2015)

Not long after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, Lamar’s “Alright” was adopted as a protest chant across the U.S., beginning in Cleveland among activists rallying against the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by officer Timothy Loehmann. However, the song’s more incendiary sibling was “The Blacker the Berry,” which found Lamar defiantly excoriating anti-Blackness in all its forms: “This plot is bigger than me: It’s generational hatred, it’s genocism.” The rapper had previously taken heat for his views on the role of personal accountability in confronting violence within Black communities. Though most of “The Blacker the Berry” is directed at white supremacy, his last lines reignited the debate: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street / When gang-banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?” —Oliver Wang

Georgia Anne Muldrow
“Blam”
(2018)

Even under assault, generations of oppressed people have done much more than simply survive, or even fight back. They have flourished, nurturing the roots that others would upend. The funky, hypnotically soulful music of Georgia Anne Muldrow evokes the beloved neighborhoods, community circles and cultural hubs that many commenters celebrate when they say the phrase, “I love us.” This song is a call to the battlefield of an “ancient war” – the same one that took out Tulsa’s Greenwood district in 1921, put an interstate through North Nashville in 1968 and bombed Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood in 1985. Muldrow’s groove is steady, the mood she raises coolly defiant, as she leads the chorus: “Before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.” —Ann Powers

Jorja Smith
“Blue Lights”
(2018)

Before she had even released an LP, the British singer-songwriter took a stand with “Blue Lights.” The song is an ode to the Black men of her hometown in the West Midlands of England, who fear the mere sight of those lights in the city. —Bobby Carter

Our Native Daughters
“Mama’s Cryin’ Long”
(2018)

Today’s movement seemed to erupt from the streets themselves, propelled by the rapid-fire distribution of horrifying images across social media. Yet diligent work by artists, journalists and historians has also played a role in shifting American consciousness. The novels of Colson Whitehead and Jesmyn Ward, the films of Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay, the music of Dom Flemons and Cecile McLorin Salvant, and the massive, historically grounded 1619 Project led by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times – as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical Hamilton – have all helped make the buried or overlooked lineage of resistance feel visceral. Rhiannon Giddens has been a leader in these endeavors. On her own albums and with the quartet Our Native Daughters, Giddens has opened herself fearlessly to be inhabited by the stricken spirits of the women who suffered and fought against their own objectification and confinement on the block, in the fields and on the run throughout America. This harrowing song employing call and response and the rhythms of the diaspora is a powerful example — Giddens sings as a child witnessing her mother’s personal revolt against a rapacious enslaver, and that mother’s death. Heartbreakingly beautiful work like this motivates and sustains. —Ann Powers

Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science feat. Malcolm Jamal Warner
“Bells (Ring Loudly)”
(2019)

Social Science, the improvising collective fronted by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, tackled a welter of issues on its 2019 album Waiting Game. The most visceral of them inspired this track, composed in the wake of Philando Castile’s killing by a police officer during a traffic stop in 2016. Debo Ray sings the heartbreaking chorus, while Malcolm-Jamal Warner intones an indictment: “Blue lives try to play Picasso / By splattering red on canvases of brown skin / As if Black lives mattering is a game to them / And not a basic right within.” —Nate Chinen

Rapsody
“Nina”
(2019)

Featured on the 2019 album Eve, “Nina” opens with the piercing voice of namesake Nina Simone, singing her rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Rapsody’s opening line is a reminder of the specter of violence that haunts Black lives: “Emit light, rap, or Emmett Till,” referring to the 14-year-old lynched in Mississippi in 1955. However, “Nina” is ultimately a song about resistance in the face of turmoil, especially by Black women: “Failed to kill me, it’s still me, woke up singing Shirley Murdock / As we lay these edges down, brown women, we so perfect.” —Oliver Wang

Terrace Martin
“Pig Feet”
(2020)

One of the first songs to emerge in the wake of national protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, “Pig Feet” is a furious, frenetic composition by jazz artist Terrace Martin that features rappers Denzel Curry and Daylyt and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, plus cameos from G Perico and Britney Thomas. Curry opens his verse pulling no punches: “Helicopters over my balcony / If the police can’t harass, they wanna smoke every ounce of me.” The music video is no less impactful, built from footage of recent protests and violent police responses against them. The song itself lasts roughly three minutes, but the remainder of the nearly five minute video is given over to a slow, sickening crawl of hundreds of names of Black people killed by the police. This portion passes in silence, yet it speaks with a deafening volume. —Oliver Wang

Lil Baby
“The Bigger Picture”
(2020)

Lil Baby invites us into his consciousness and vividly illustrates the complexities of what it means to be a young Black man in America in 2020. The Atlanta MC struggles with fear for his life, his family and his community at the hands of law enforcement, but brilliantly incorporates messages of hope and resilience. It’s as powerful a protest song as any we’ve heard in decades past. —Bobby Carter

Leon Bridges
“Sweeter”
(2020)

Sweet is not the word most would use to describe our contemporary moment, but for soul singer Bridges, it’s a future worth hoping for. Written in 2019, “Sweeter” feels just as revelatory in 2020, linking the past and present in tragic continuity. With Terrace Martin lending his talents on saxophone, Bridges sings of the terrors of persistent violence against Black communities who, nonetheless, extend care to one another through tears and song. —Shana L. Redmond


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