Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2016
17 Seiten, Note: 1,3
2. Background Information
2.1. Racial Profiling, Police Brutality and African-American Activism
2.2. African-American Protest Songs of the Past Decades
3.1. #Black Lives Matter and Modern-Day Protest Songs
When we look at the history of African-American protest, one of the most prevalent issues being challenged is racial profiling and institutional brutality. And when the topics of racial profiling and institutional abuse of power, namely police brutality, are discussed, two facts become abundantly clear: (1) the two are closely related. The tendency of police in the United States to show a bias towards specific groups and the even more disturbing tendency of police officers to use unnecessary physical force against those specific groups unfortunately tend to go hand in hand. (2) The issues are not as recent as some would think, with the major evidence of this being the ubiquity of said matters in popular African-American media culture throughout history.
However, it is important to acknowledge one fact: Movements and reactions to fight racial profiling and police brutality against African-Americans have become increasingly strong with activist groups having managed to use popular media to their advantage to spread a message of awareness and resistance. The fact that almost all modern liberal news providers have sections for the coverage of issues related solely to African-Americans proves that there has been a surge in media interest in the matter as well as the movements which are created as a counterculture to the popular zeitgeist of apathy and obedience to a system which still promotes institutional racism and shows a terrifying tendency to systematically disregard the lives of African-Americans.
Music has always played a major role in the fight against racial bias, especially covering issues of racial profiling and police brutality. From Jazz to Rap music, African-American musicians have, for many years, chosen to use music as a way to challenge political and institutional systems and have been successful in spread their message of discontentment and anger. The discontentment is directed not only at a system which expects obedience from groups it chooses to disregard and systemically prejudge, but also at one which discourages support for their cause. Apart from entertaining people, music is often used as a tool to help people either see the misrepresentation of the African-American community and to encourage changes or to help people who are at odds with their own identity, see that they are, in fact, being misrepresented and prejudged and how to go about finding healthy ways of dealing with those feelings and fighting the issue.
In recent years there has been an increase in media interest in the matters of racial profiling and police brutality as well, largely due to technological advances such as smart phones and cameras making it a lot more likely to catch police in the act of physically assaulting or even killing African-Americans. Such as was the case with Trayvon Martin, a young African-American whose killing encouraged people all over the United States to come together in an attempt to assemble a countermovement against racial profiling. This movement started as a hashtag on the social media forum Facebook and was called #BlackLivesMatter.
The movement encouraged musicians in the American music industry to challenge institutional systems in an attempt spread awareness of people losing their lives due to racial bias. It can be claimed that this recent increase in activism has a lot to do with mainstream music scene while the music scene is profiting from the exposure of the matter. This almost symbiotic relationship between the social activism behind #BlackLivesMatter as the major representative of modern day ‘black’ protest and the mainstream music coverage of the matter and how both have created social change will be shown in this analysis by investigating some prevalent examples.
Activist movements are often established as a reaction to a growing dynamic of social unrest. Therefore, it should be of significant importance to clearly detail the issues which activist movements and popular culture challenge. This should lead to a better understanding of the matter. To give an idea of what is to come: The matters of racial profiling and police brutality in the United States will be summarized and some significant examples of African-American protest music concerning the past few decades will be presented.
Current research suggests that racial profiling and police brutality are a representation of the racial inequality apparent in the United States (Holmes/Smith 2008, 4). So what exactly is racial profiling? What does it represent?
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights defines racial profiling as referring “to the targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities based not on their behavior but rather their personal characteristics.” (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights 2011, 1). This rather vague definition is extended by Robert Staples in his text White Power, Black Crime and Racial Politics, when he asserts that “[it] should be viewed instead as the systemic, historic, and lived experiences of blacks being controlled and punished by the police and a criminal justice system that exercises incredible […] bias”. He offers as a cause that a majority-white public “condones and rationalizes this treatment” (Staples 2015), meaning that racial profiling is a side-effect of the racial bias already commonplace in American society. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights offers an interesting insight into the statistics behind this contention: In the year 2005, black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over and arrested as white drivers. The report also states that Black and Hispanic drivers were car and body-searched at a higher rate than white drivers (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights 2011, 9).
As a counterpoint to Staples assertion that racial profiling is a side-effect of an already deeply racist society, Mathias Risse and Richard J. Zeckhauser argue that the fact that society is racially biased justifies racial profiling as merely a way for police to keep the peace, thereby neglecting to address the underlying issue as a root problem which is truly at fault for all else:
“[…] police and security measures making race an important characteristic in deciding whom to stop, search, or investigate are morally justified in a broad range of cases, including many cases that tend to be controversial ” (Risse, Matthias and Richard J. Zeckhauser 2003).
In an attempt to counter that idea, which further extends Staples’ thesis, Annabelle Lever challenges two arguments made by Risse and Zeckhauser in particular in her text Why Racial Profiling is Hard to Justify: (1) “the harm caused by profiling per se is largely due to underlying racism" and is, therefore, purely expressive; and (2) "the incremental harm done by profiling often factors into utilitarian considerations in such a way as to support profiling.” As a counterargument to these theses, Lever claims that “the harms of racial profiling are not principally expressive; that some of the harms are quite large; and that even where the magnitude is not that great, background racism makes these additional harms harder to bear and to justify.” (Lever 2005, 95) What Risse and Zeckhauser are asking the reader to do is to take the racism out of racial profiling, which, in itself, would be racist in nature and would simply lead to justify the prejudice regarding a race, instead of actively fighting it. Unfortunately, this type of rationalization of racial bias is often still customary in the United States. The idea that racism should simply be dropped as an issue altogether instead of being properly dealt with exists in the minds of many Americans.
Historically speaking, racial bias is old news in the Unites States. African-Americans have had to endure systemic physical and mental abuse by the United States government since the very beginning of its establishment. Although the focus of this text is on the past decades, it is interesting to see that racial bias is something that has plagued African-Americans throughout history. In his essay White Power, Black Crime and Racial Politics Robert Staples reminds the reader that “[a]s early as 1693, court officials in Philadelphia authorized the police to take up any "Negro" seen ‘gadding about’ without a pass from his or her master” (Staples 2015). He also explains that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the matter even more pertinent by threatening “law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens with severe fines if they failed to assist in the capture of assisted runaway slaves, when suspicion could be based only on written claims” (Staples 2015). Moreover, he asserts that these issues went on without challenge until the 1950s. He mentions the Civil Rights Movement as being that which finally challenged racial profiling and police brutality towards African-Americans but also admits that it merely reduced the possibility of whole ethnic groups being targeted when, in reality, it did not change the situation for the better in any significant way (Staples 2011, 32). Throughout the 1960s, the United States experienced many police-minority encounters which commonly led to race riots (Holmes/Smith 2008, 2), often in an attempt to protest the acquittals of officers which were part of the killings of African-Americans. Exemplary of this would be the killing of Arthur McDuffie in 1979 which is detailed in Malcom D. Holmes and Brad W. Smith’s Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma. (Holmes/Smith 2008, 2). Another famous example is the beating of Rodney King in 1991 which led to a growth of racial tension and ultimately a race riot of grave proportions.
This goes to show that racial profiling, police brutality as well as activism to produce social changes have been a fairly steady occurrence throughout history. What has changed, however, is the proportions of action with which those issues are faced and the magnitude and attitude of and towards said events as represented by the mainstream media.
Just like the issue of racial profiling having existed since before the establishment of an American government, music has always been a tool to process feelings of inferiority and institutional disregard. African-American protest music finds its origin in times of slavery, with African-American slaves using folklore as a way to express their political sentiments and protest their predicaments (Dunaway 1987, 275). From 1954 to 1965, the Civil Rights Movement made frequent use of protest songs in their campaigns, adapting traditional songs and melodies for its purposes. Towards the end of the movement, the use of music during marches and protests began to fade (Dunaway 1987, 287). However, out of the Civil Rights Era grew several new movements of black music including funk, with James Brown expressing his desire for a heightened sense of black pride with lyrics such as “Say It Loud / I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and soul music, which consists of protest songs such as Aretha Franklin’s Think. Another interesting development was Afrofuturism which was birthed out of jazz. With Jazz having always played an important role in African-American musical expression, exemplary of this being songs such as the famous protest song Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday, artists such as Sun Ra extended the protest by adding a new and thought-provoking twist: Science-Fiction and the idea of a utopian future for African-Americans in which race would be meaningless and the feelings of discontentment and inferiority would be wiped away. In his book Cultural Moves Herman S. Gray describes Sun Ra as attempting to “signal that he was not of this (earthly) world” and spreading the message that “space was the place of unlimited human possibility” (Gray 2005, 148). The idea of a utopian future was made popular by African-American writer W.E.B DuBois, who was inspirational for the concepts of Afrofuturism.
More recently it has been rap music which has taken hold of popular African-American musical expression and it has given protest a sincere but sometimes angry new feeling. Although rap music found its roots in apolitical party-music, it soon found itself representing a platform of protest and political expression, with groups such as Public Enemy marking “the emergence of rap as a political cultural form” (Rose 1991, 276). It also “ushered in a new rap aesthetic” (Rose 1991, 276). Public Enemy led the way in protesting institutional neglect with songs like 911 is a joke and Fight the power, promoting not only black pride and unity as a way to challenge oppression but using music as a way to revolutionize the situation:
As the rhythm designed to bounce What counts is that the rhymes Designed to fill your mind Now that you've realized the prides arrived We got to pump the stuff to make us tough From the heart It's a start, a work of art To revolutionize make a change nothin's strange People, people we are the same
(Public Enemy, 1989)
On the subject of racial profiling, Public Enemy expressed the following in their song Fear of a black planet from 1990, outlining the racial bias which plagues African-American neighborhoods:
I've been wonderin' why People livin' in fear Of my shade (Or my hi top fade) I'm not the one that's runnin' But they got me one the run Treat me like I have a gun
(Public Enemy, 1990)
The California rap collective N.W.A found a harsher approach to protest racial profiling and police brutality with their very honest 1988 song Fuck tha Police, very explicitly naming the issues and challenging them with outrage and anger:
Fuck tha police Comin straight from the underground Young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown And not the other color so police think They have the authority to kill a minority
All aspects considered, rap represents yet another and perhaps the most recent branch of African-American protest music. Trisha Rose offers an interesting assessment of rap music’s relationship to political activism, detailing also the struggle of it having a real impact on society as institutional powers have tried hard to keep it hidden:
Rap's poetic voice is deeply political in content and spirit, but its hidden struggle-that of access to public space and community resources and the interpretation of Black expression-constitutes rap's hidden politics. Hegemonic discourses have rendered these institutional aspects of Black cultural politics invisible.
(Rose 1991, 289)
Rap-music has lacked representation. Considering that the issues have not significantly worsened proves an interesting aspect of social life: Technological innovations and the Internet in general have not only enabled people to spread messages via mass communication but also opened doors for African-American musical and other artistic expression to make a real impact.
 Direct quote, quoting Risse and Zeckhauser’s text.
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