December 28, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReadingRemembrances

From Cop Killers to Killer Cops

The news cycle is quite strange now. One of the hottest topics—black men, and boys, many of them unarmed, shot and killed by police—is certainly old news. I have never been shot at by police, or by anyone else for that matter, but in my early teenage years—over 20 years ago—I listened to a lot of hip hop that already documented the rampant, racist state violence now being recorded on smartphones and dash cams every day. Hip hop taught me, all the way back then, that once a black male is targeted by this violence, he enters a enters a time warp in at least two ways. First, he is no longer living in some imagined place of post-Civil Rights, much less post-racial, protections, where he can claim full citizenship and thereby receive the respect he deserves as a member of the public that cops are supposed to serve. Second, if he is a child, like Tamir Rice, time magically fast-forwards and he is treated as a man who is responsible and punishable, by death, even, without a trial. If he is an adult, the clock speeds backwards and he is treated as a child, told where to go and what to do, expected to respond immediately, not to question cops who’ve suddenly become his lords, and he must follow these directions even if, even especially if, he is being pushed, choked, attacked, tased, maced, gassed, shot at, despite every; single; thing we know about traumatic stress and the cognitive disruptions that take hold in life-threatening situations.

That this extant and ongoing violence is now newsworthy does not signal a shift in the conscience of America. I don’t know what it signals—perhaps it signals nothing. But the fact that it is now suddenly newsworthy, even though rappers detailed the situation a quarter century ago, and we didn’t listen as a nation to them then, well, I must say I feel a certain cold distance about these snapchatted snuff films every news outlet and twitter friend says I simply must watch. I do not watch them, for there is nothing worth learning from them that I do not already know—our country is not what is because of a lack of information, thus multiplying bits of data across the cloud will not save us. Besides, we have long had an abundance of information and analysis on these issues, though we’ve ignored it. The first people to give me a document of what decidedly was not covered on the news in the early 1990s were rappers, who were our most articulate voices on such issues. They were variously revolutionary, criminal, college-educated, high school-dropouts, formerly homeless, millionaires, imprisoned, paroled, Christians, Five Percenters, Muslims, atheists, patriots, separatists. I’m talking about Public Enemy, Paris, KRS-ONE, Guru, N.W.A. Later, there would be Immortal Technique, Elzhi, Nas, and others.

Beyond N.W.A. and Body Count, who were the most discussed and, ironically, most censored voices, there were many other voices of rage, patriotism, and revolutionary poetry. There was the legendary Houston group The Geto Boys’ “Crooked Officer” (1993), with its sing-songy, haunting chorus: “Crooked officer, crooked officer, why you wanna put me in a coffin, sir?” The “sir” at the end of the sentence is the ultimate irony, a semblance of respect for an authority figure that deserves none because he is corrupt. The “sir” is the expression of an absolutely minimum conformity to an absurd etiquette of domination that, according to the impossibly twisted expectations of white supremacy, requires  the black man to emasculate himself in encounters with the over-armed enforcers of the social-racial-economic order, be they police or extra-legal vigilantes. It is an etiquette that offers increased chances of survival, but never guarantees survival, since, obviously, the black man does not have the power of life or death here.

The video is interlaced with footage of police brutality in U.S. urban centers and in anti-colonialist struggles abroad. These various locales are not, however, actually separate places in hip hop’s geography of the world, for subordinated people everywhere occupy similar positions of vulnerability, thus the immediate resonance of the hip hop music in the suburbs of Paris, the hovels of Palestine, the townships of Cape Town, the slums of Rio, the high-rises of Chicago, the low-rises of Baltimore. “Crooked Officer” concludes with the inimitable Big Mike deftly explaining how mistaken identities, and by extension wrongful convictions, in criminal investigations are often a symptom of racism, not simply an honest mix-up, not an aberration, but a crucial component of the effective terrorization of black communities in the late twentieth century. This is merely one example of an extensive sonic archive of suffering and perseverance offered by rappers long ago. Perhaps we’re finally ready to hear it. I’ll offer some close readings of the songs that made me think the most, that illumined all corners of the American reality. Hip hop, at least up until the late-90s, tended to be about 20 years ahead of the national conversation on race-related topics. I’m sure there will continue to be articles published in the coming year that re-state what we’ve known for decades—centuries—and hip hop heads like me will scratch our scalps at the furor, the outrage, the outrageous surprise that greets such “news.”