Free Library resources for term papers exploring the roots of the rage at the extrajudicial killings of black men and black children in the United States. Part 5: Primary Resources in Music

By Adam F. RSS Fri, December 5, 2014

[Editorial Note: This is the fifth of a six part series intended to demonstrate for teachers and students the use of special Free Library of Philadelphia resources for conducting research into issues raised by events in Ferguson, MO during the last 4 months of 2014. In the wake of failure to indict police officers in the case of Eric Garner's death, the shocking last few seconds of Tamir Rice's life, and uncountable or at least uncounted other deaths, this posting carries an altered title from the previous.  This series covers gathering background information, finding and acquiring books, finding and acquiring periodical literature, accessing the newspaper record, utilizing primary sources, and finally adding interesting data and other materials in an appendix or elsewhere within the text of a paper.]

As a music librarian, I often think of Bob Marley’s thesis on Trenchtown Rock and Dead Prez’s reiteration of it on Hip-Hop: “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” Personally, I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of pain to process. With the cuts of history running so deep, it’s not clear that music is enough to heal these injuries.

Artists, particularly musicians, won’t stop trying though, even in the face of extreme pressure. In the 1990s, Ice T’s rock band Body Count wrote and released a single called Cop Killer, which faced bipartisan, civic, professional, and corporate condemnation. Eventually, he relented at the pressure and removed the song from their full length. Years later, he explained one of the essential absurd frustrations of being a black artist facing critics who fail to grant the literary and dramatic tools of hyperbole or irony equally among all artists:

"I'm singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain't never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I'm a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut." (a Wikipedia! citation too perfect to ignore)

David Bowie can fantasize about being Major Tom to parody the British space program, but Ice T can’t turn his rage at a lived experience of brutality at the hands of the police into a character who speaks through song. Nowadays audiences are either more sophisticated, or music has become less threatening to our culture. Below we've assembled a playlist of songs creatively, often furiously, responding to the role of policing in society. Students could examine any one of them as a primary document from its era.

The challenge for researchers is to hear these songs and parse the artists’ intents at the time when they wrote the music. It must be said that none of these texts are beyond reproach. The astute writer will ask questions about sexuality and gender, misogyny and homophobia, solidarity and selfishness as well as questions about language, posturing, and so much more.

For some hearing will require a certain kind of gymnastics. Especially from those who might already struggle with empathy for people who face systemic racism regularly.

(Christopher Ingraham. Washington Post Wonkblog. Nov 27, 2014)

As the Public Religion Research Institute study above shows, few white Americans have black friends. Without those close relationships, some white people are probably making the embarrassing mistake of substituting the black characters they encounter in fiction (such as Ice T’s Cop Killer) with real flesh and blood human beings.

Then again, the above playlist isn’t even entirely populated with critical narratives of policing penned by people of color for white Americans to misunderstand. It also includes the allied anger of what you might call “class conscious” white people working through popular and purposefully unpopular genres. Interestingly, viewed another way it’s the ongoing lack of class consciousness among police officers, that makes the tensions exposed within these lyrics so heartbreaking. It’s become a cliche to say it, but crime in the suites has always dwarfed crime in the streets when it comes to our culture's preferred measurement: money.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that songs condemning (or more rarely, supporting) the police are a recent phenomenon. Certainly they span the history of recording. For some students, looking backwards might make these class tensions all the more apparent. A good way to explore this history is through our streaming music databases: Music Online is the portal to search the other six sub-collections: American Song, Classical Music Library, Contemporary World Music, Jazz Music Library, Popular Music Library, and Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries. Here’s a playlist of songs about the police from this premium service for library card holders:

A personal favorite tune from the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century comes to my attention from the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem via film called The Free Voice of Labor - The Jewish Anarchists.

An interesting research paper would examine common and different threads in the musical and lyrical expressions of anger at the role of policing in society of the past and society today. Armed with all the background from the techniques outlined in previous posts, "reading" these primary documents becomes much easier to do.

[Editor: Up next: the final installment covering an Appendix and Postscript]

*This image from our Rare Books Department is of a letter to the London Police from the household of Charles Dickens. At the date of writing, the London police force is barely a generation into its modern form. Dickens wants to throw a theatrical house party and needs a bouncer, so he requests a policeman from the city. Police interfence with unlicensed basement shows or even fully licensed clubs with clientel deemed undesirable by the police have long been a point of contention between police, musicians and their fans. But apparently not here, at the birth of the modern municipal police force.

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Hi Adam, I would add to your playlist the song Early by Run The Jewels which was released this year.
Peter L.
Friday, December 5, 2014

Excellent selection, Peter! The track from three of our favorite MCs (Killer Mike, El P, and Boots) is now in the mix.
Adam F - Free Library - Music Department
Friday, December 5, 2014

Excellent playlist and thank you for all the work you have put into this blog series.
Peter SM
Friday, December 5, 2014