by Nigel Webber
“There could never be justice on stolen land” – KRS One
I immediately thought of that scene from “Network.” “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” It feels like the whole world is there right now. As it should be. But there was another, less quoted, line from that same monologue which stood out, “I’m a human being, goddammit, my life has value!”
The prescience of good, meaningful art, whether in films like “Network” or rap music, is that it has the ability to deliver universal truths in a context everyday people understand easily. Meaning, in extraordinary times like those in which we live, music will not solve any problems. But, the hope is, the right music can deliver a message in a clearer, more memorable way than regular speech can. Examining the history of music can also help provide some semblance of context for the current raised awareness of police brutality on communities of Colour. This list is by no means comprehensive, but includes a mix of classics, brand new tracks made in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and local favourites.
Black Lives Matter.
NWA – “Fuck The Police” 1988
There’s a reason this song is still the most known anti-police brutality song. While not inventing the sub-genre, even within rap music, “Fuck The Police” perfected it. Few songs in the history of rap can stake claim to there being a ‘before’ that song, and then a definite ‘after.’ “Fuck The Police,” arguably the most important five minutes recorded on wax, is documentary evidence of the LAPD’s brutal gang mindset in the 1980s. Verses by Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy E detail the harassment they experienced at the hands of racist cops on an everyday basis. Seeing this song blasted on loud speakers in front of the police headquarters was a beautiful sight.
Main Source – “Friendly Game of Baseball” 1991
Leave it to Large Professor to come up with the best metaphors, using baseball as an analogy for police violence. The anger in Large Professor’s voice is palpable as he raps memorable lines like, “My life is valuable and I protect it like a gem,” and, “dead is my antonym.” By presenting the same material as most of the other songs on this list, but through the metaphorical lens of baseball, Main Source created one of the most thought-provoking, ear-worm songs listed here.
State of Mind – “Jus’ Talkin’” 1992
Winnipeg’s first ever official, physical release of rap music, “Jus’ Talkin’” is a response to the uprising in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police who were caught on camera attacking Rodney King. Released as a cassingle only a few months after the LA uprising, “Jus’ Talkin’” is a plea for unity, a humanist approach. Rapper Chris Knight’s commanding delivery and the catchy chorus make the track a classic.
KRS One – “Sound of da Police” 1993
NWA “Fuck The Police” is the greatest anti-police song, but it is thoroughly from the street-level viewpoint. Of course, it’s the Teacher, KRS, who gives us the defining philosophical argument against police in rap music. Every song on the topic since owes something to KRS and his ability to connect modern policing and its racist beginnings in slave patrols, all through the words, “officer” and “overseer.” “Need a little clarity? / Check the similarity!” Coupled with the unforgettable chorus, Showbiz’s boom-bap beat, and KRS One’s knowledge, “Sound of da Police” should be taught in schools.
Rondo & Crazy Rak – “No Justice, No Peace” 1993
Another response to the Rodney King verdicts, this little known Bay Area duo delivers a raw yet funky entry to this list. “No Justice, No Peace” is a street-level response to police brutality. Over a staccato beat and a jazzy saxophone, Rondo raps lines like, “it’s going down in history / World War III is what it finsta be / cops getting off scot-free gets me,” expressing a revolutionary anger that was boiling over in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts, particularly in California. Adopting a Malcolm X-like “by any means necessary,” mentality, Rondo’s closing lines, addressing the listener, say, “keep pushing the issue, Black / use force if you have to.”
Fermented Reptile – “The Law” 1999
Taking on the characters of a cop and a boss, the Fermented duo of Gruf and Pip Skid make a visceral connection between forms of power on “The Law.” The cops are there to protect the boss and their property, not the people or their lives. When the massive problems with police are presented from one of their own perspectives, in an unvarnished way, there’s no hiding from their systemically destructive nature. Winnipeg’s own Fermented Reptile were so ahead of their time we’re only just starting to catch up.
Kairo – “Sound of the Police” 2018
Indebted to many of the earlier tracks off this list, local rapper Kairo distills the sub-genre down to its essence on “Sound of the Police.” Over an eerie Hoopaloop beat, Kairo’s raps create a vivid picture in the listeners mind. As he details the cops intimidation and harassment techniques, you feel the anguish and exasperation in Kairo’s delivery. An important voice in contemporary Winnipeg hip-hop, Kairo speaks some truth on this track.
Super Duty Tough Work – “FTP” 2019
Owing more to the J Dilla version of “FTP” than any other, local heavyweights Super Duty Tough Work bring a modern and Canadian context to anti-police brutality rap songs. 30 years earlier, artists like NWA were targeted by politicians and conservative activists for their anti-police songs. In 2020, Super Duty Tough Work was put on the Long List for the Polaris Music Prize and nominated for “Rap and Hip-Hop Artist of the Year” by the Western Canadian Music Awards. The song itself calls out cops for sexually assaulting women, something largely ignored previously on this list; mentions the Colten Boushie case; body cameras failing; and the structural issues that allow police to get away with their violence. Put it on repeat.
YG – “FTP” 2020
Released on June 12th, it’s no surprise that YG has a ‘fuck the police’ song. Already having a song against the fascist-in-chief (“Fuck Donald Trump”) YG is unapologetic in his hatred for police. Breaking down all allusions of neutrality, YG raps, “it’s the Ku Klux cops, got hidden agendas / It’s the truth, I won’t stop.” Tragically, hip-hop was robbed from the opportunity of hearing Nipsey Hussle on this track when he was murdered last year. YG does it justice on his own, bringing it home with lines like, “I’m tired of being tired of being tired.”
Lil Baby – “The Bigger Picture” 2020
Also released on June 12th, Lil Baby was one of the first major trap artists to put out a response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Expressing sentiments that are far too universal, Lil Baby raps, “I see blue lights I get scared and start running / that shit be crazy / they supposed to protect us.” Lil Baby was previously not necessarily the most political rapper, but his message on “The Bigger Picture” connects police brutality to systemic and historical racism. Acknowledging his own status, he raps, “I got power, now I gotta say something.” The brilliance of Lil Baby, however, is his ability to package such an important message on a track that makes you want to hit replay every time. “You can’t fight fire with fire/ I know, but at least we can turn up the flames some.” More songs like this in 2020.
Body Count – “Cop Killer” 1992
2Pac – “Trapped” 1993
Geto Boys – “Crooked Officer” 1993
J Dilla – “FTP” 2001
Killer Mike – “Don’t Die” 2012