From Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" to N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" and beyond, artists in a variety of genres have used their platform not only to draw attention to police brutality, but to recount their own experiences and actions in response to continued violence against people of colour under the guise of "upholding the law."
In George Tillman Jr.'s film adaptation of Angie Thomas's 2017 novel The Hate U Give, protagonist Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. Facing pressure in the environments of both her majority white prep school and majority black neighbourhood, Starr looks to find her voice and stand up for what's right.
Before The Hate U Give arrives in theatres on October 5, look below to find six songs that recount the continued injustice of police brutality and violence.
"Sound of Da Police" - KRS-One
This song and its iconic hook arrived five years after N.W.A first proclaimed "Fuck tha Police," with KRS-One writing in similar spirit. The song's second verse finds him comparing law enforcement to plantation slavery, first using lyrical dexterity to bend the word "overseer" into "officer."
The comparisons continue as KRS rhymes, "The overseer rode around the plantation / The officer is off, patrollin' all the nation," following by, "The overseer had the right to get ill / And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill / The officer has the right to arrest / And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest."
"Police Get Away wit Murder" - YG
The closing track on YG's political, personal 2016 LP Still Brazy finds him referencing cases of police brutality in which the offending officers were never charged. As he says on the song's intro, "Y'all badge don't mean y'all got the right to take one of my n***a's lives."
YG also feels he can't fully protect himself should he encounter the law, rapping in the second verse, "Gotta watch how I walk and wear my outfit," and "We'll put our hands up and they'll still shoot."
He further acknowledges the no-win scenario by rapping, "They give us years for guns and we can buy 'em off the shelf / But you'll get life in the coffin if you don't protect yourself."
"The Charade" - D'Angelo and the Vanguard
One of the more expressly political tracks from D'Angelo and the Vanguard's Black Messiah, "The Charade" takes stock of how racial equality in the United States is precisely that - a charade. D'Angelo sings that his people are "Crawling through a systematic maze to demise / Pain in our eyes... Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries."
The song's striking chorus leads with the lines, "All we wanted was a chance to talk / 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk." As D'Angelo told Rolling Stone in 2015, "It just shows how ongoing this shit is, because I wrote that even before the Trayvon Martin thing happened. It's crazy that we're still in the streets protesting the same shit. That song was just about the state of society in general - when I say 'A chance to talk,' that means a chance to come to the table and exercise rights that are supposed to be ours already."
"Blue Lights" - Jorja Smith
On her breakout single, Jorja Smith examines the fear and tension that men and boys of colour from her community feel towards the police, regardless if they have committed a crime or not. As she recalled for Genius, "These 11-year-olds, I was like, 'Oh, what do you think of the police?' They were like, 'Fuck the police! I hate them.' And I was like, 'What have you done?' 'Nothing, but I hate them,' And I was like, 'It's sad,' you know? It's sad because we're kind of... It's instilled in us to have, well, fear the police."
Smith's chorus finds her wishing the blue lights of a cruiser siren were as pleasant as "fairy lights," while she urges the song's protagonist in the verse, "don't you run when you hear the sirens coming," changing her tune in the song's bridge after her subject is caught in a bad situation.
"16 Shots" - Vic Mensa
Vic Mensa's "16 Shots" was written following the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald in the rapper's home city of Chicago. The rapper takes lyrical aim at the city's law enforcement, politicians and offending officer Jason Van Dyke, rhyming, "This for Laquan on sight, when you see Van Dyke / Tell him I don't bring a knife to a gunfight."
"16 Shots" was included on Mensa's 2016 EP There's Alot Going On, which features an illustration of himself as a shooting range target as the cover art. "This record is like self-defence," he said of the track in a statement. "Because to me, Laquan McDonald represents Emmett Till, which represents every name down the line. Since then, a lot of things have changed, but one main thing hasn't changed is that our lives are not respected."
"Hands Up" - Vince Staples
Vince Staples lends his pen to experiences with police brutality both in his native Long Beach, CA and beyond. He opens the track rapping, "North Division tryin' to stop my blackness / I'm watchin' for them badges when out in traffic," urging listeners, "Them 9-11's been a tad bit frantic / If lights start flashin', please don't panic."
Staples makes specific reference to the 2013 death of Tyler Woods, a Long Beach man who was shot at more than three dozen times while fleeing a vehicle stop. Court records show the officers believed he was reaching for a weapon.
After highlighting instances of continued injustice in his second verse, Staples concludes, "They expect respect and non-violence / I refuse the right to be silent."
Catch 20th Century Fox's The Hate U Give in theatres October 5.