Monday, April 2, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack - #WeAreTrayvonMartin

With each new twist, I can't decide what the worst part is. Obviously the shooting death of seventeen year-old Trayvon Martin by an over-zealous gated community vigilante is tragedy enough by itself. But each new detail seems to make it that much harder to swallow. Whether it's the fact that that 911 instructed him to stop following Martin or the fact that despite multiple recorded phone calls including one where Martin is shot asking his attacker to stop, no arrest has been made. Of course, I know that every year there are dozens of other Trayvon Martins with equally shocking stories, he's not unique. And yet, the fact that this story has grabbed national headlines, that every ounce of available evidence save the killer's own testimony, points to directly to manslaughter if not murder and yet still nothing has been done makes it all the more atrocious.

Yet even with a case this clear-cut there's a dedicated contingent of right-wing media personalities determined to do everything they can to convince us that Martin somehow asked for his fate. There's a desperate scramble to somehow show that this case isn't a prime example of the reality of racial profiling that those of color suffer under every day in America. See, that reality is politically divisive, not everyone believes in that reality. Sure, we may arrest minorities more. Lock them up more. Execute them more. We somehow even manage to "randomly" stop them more (pretty impressive, huh?) but that doesn't mean that America, for all its progress, still has work to do on racism. Or so they pathologically need to believe.

And yet the massive prison-industrial complex we've created to incarcerate a massive subsection of our population, either in penitentiaries or ghettos, isn't just a threat to those living directly under it. While sparing you the trite story of who they came for first, it's important to remember that a things like freedom and security are only ever truly achieved when all have access to them. A society that lets some die for their skin color turns everyone else in that society into accomplices (willing or unwilling) of that violence. When people tweet that #WeAreTrayvonMartin, it's not just a black thing and it's not just a hashtag cause de jour, it's an reminder that a culture that starts ignoring or finding ways to justify racism is one that cannot stand - just ask the Confederacy or South Africa.

As a small show of solidarity, here are six songs to remind us of such things and serve as both a salve and rallying cry for those who mourn all the victims and work to make each victim the last.

Download The Songs As A .RAR
1. American Skin (41 Shots) - Bruce Springsteen  Buy Live In New York City
Amadou Diallo
In the wee morning hours of February 4th, 1999 Amadou Dialo, a Guinean immigrant was stopped by four plainclothes NYPD officers in the Bronx because they claimed he matched the description of a serial rapist. After initially fleeing, he reached into his pocket to produce identification. The officers mistook his wallet for a gun and fired over a hundred bullets at the unarmed man, forty-one of which found their target, killing him instantly. The fact that their actions were within police procedures made the tragedy even crueler, as the officers were acquitted on all charges in the case. In a song never released on an album but played live both at the time of the trial and more recently in response to Trayvon Martin's killing. The song boils down the incident to it's emotional heart - the victim's skin color and violence it justifies. The music features an emotional female backing chorus and a beautiful latter-day E-Street Band build, fade and climax. The fear everyday terror felt by black Americans towards those supposedly protecting them is seen not just in Dialo's fate but in a mother telling her child to never hide his hands from police. "Is it a gun? / Is it a knife? / Is it a wallet? / This is your life." For many in this country, how others answer these questions mean everything.

2. 99 Problems [Grey Album Version] - Jay-Z  Download The Grey Album
One of the biggest singles from one of the biggest rappers of all time, Jay-Z's "99 Problems" shone a light onto racial profiling on a scale that no other pop single can claim. Jay's story-telling abilities are on full display as he conveys both the anger over and the total ordinariness at being pulled over by police while driving. He doesn't back down from the officer who asks if Jay knows why he was stopped, saying "cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low?" Details such as the officer asking "are you carrying a weapon on you? / I know a lot of you are" distill prejudice to a human scale and Jay-Z's ultimate refusal the allow a search of his trunk without a warrant makes gives the song an air of rebel victory. I'm including the Danger Mouse's 2004 Grey Album version which uses the exploding guitars from "Helter Skelter" as a backing track because it's a dazzlingly effective remix although the video below proves that the original doesn't exactly lack punch. The song serves to remind all those weepy singer-songwriters that living a life where heartbreak is your biggest problem is actually luxury of privilege.

3. Police On My Back - The Equals  Buy A Best Of...
"Police On My Back" is one of those Clash covers that for all intents and purposes have just become Clash songs. But while the Clash's wailing-siren guitar and wall-of-sound production do blow the roof off the song, the racial undertones of the original are lost in their version. The original was by a racially integrated London reggae group the Equals, who were most famous for their hit single "Baby Come Back". "Police On My Back" was on the same album and featured West Indian lead singer Eddy Grant describing the feeling of constant pursuit by British police. While the Clash's version makes the repeated refrain "What have I done?" seem angrily confrontational, Grant's original reveals it to be more a tired plea from a innocent man whose skin color dooms him to being seen as eternally guilty in the eyes of the law. Like so many he continues to ask "tell me, what have I done?"

4. Hurricane [Live] - Bob Dylan  Buy Live 1975 - The Rolling Thunder Review
Ruben Carter
No one writes a protest song like Bob Dylan but by the mid-70's it seemed that he'd all but abandoned his political engagement from the 1960s. That is, until he heard the story of Reuben Carter, a professional boxer who'd been arrested on the flimsiest of evidence for a Patterson, New Jersey murder. Over eight minutes Dylan tells the full story the police frame job determined to silence an increasingly politically outspoken public figure ("that sonofabitch is brave and gettin' braver"). By the time Dylan comes to the trial wherein Carter is framed by whites, abandoned by the black community and left to his inevitable fate, nothing seems more accurate than Dylan's assesment that "I can't help but feel ashamed / to live in a land where justice is a game." I'm including a live a version featuring Joan Baez from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Review Tour which features the original's mournful fiddle as well as a shot of energy, energetic bongos and Dylan's plea for Carter's freedom (I love how Bob Dylan wants to get people back out ON the streets and not vice-versa). "Hurricane" was one of the few protest songs (along with Lennon's "John Sinclair") actually powerful enough to help alter the course of events and free their subject.

5. Abner Louima v. Gov. Pete Wilson - Ted Leo & the Pharmacists  Buy Treble In Trouble [EP]
Louima After Police Assault
Abner Louima was a Hatian immigrant living in Brooklyn who got involved in a fight outside a nightclub in the summer of 1997 and was detained by police. After being picked up he was beaten, sexually assaulted and otherwise degraded in a manner too painful to be described with any accuracy around children or polite company. I've been rereading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death and in it he talks about we're surrounded by news stories like that all the time and yet so many people don't even seem to fully register the reality of what they've just heard. Perhaps it's a necessary coping mechanism, after all, really sitting down and trying to comprehend the scale of misery and violence that occurs even in our own city, never mind the whole of this, the world's richest country, never mind the rest of the world, would be enough to fell a stronger man than I. But we still all have a responsibility to know what evil is being done in our names and do something about it. In this song off the Pharmacists' first EP, all Ted Leo can between reading stories of brutality, murder and executive complicity is turn turn to music and others to somehow turn that knowledge into something better. "We can't even function / when we're not in a band."

6. Fuck Tha Police - N.W.A.  Buy Straight Outta Compton
N.W.A. was the first old-school hip-hop act that I (like so many other white kids) really listened to as I first explored the genre(after cutting my teeth on the likes of OutKast). Although I won't defend a lot of what's on their musically brilliant but disturbing masterwork Straight Outta Compton, the power and import of "Fuck Tha Police" cannot be denied. It's an extended exercise in cathartic role-reversal wherein racist police offices are put on trial by N.W.A., illustrating what a racist criminal and legal system feels like on the receiving end. A precursor to songs like "99 Problems", it gave white audiences a view into the violence and discrimination that are a fact of life for many blacks. Interspersing scenes of arbitrary police harassment with the "testimony" of prosecuting attorney's MC Rand, Ice Cube and "Easy Muthafuckin E" give context to their seething revenge fantasies and show that their seething violent anger as a mirror of their experience. The fundamental distrust of police and feelings of dehumanization are most humorously and poignantly illustrated by Ice Cube simple accusation - "you're rather see me the pen / than me and Lorenzo rollin' in the Benzo"

1 comment:

  1. Passionately felt and well articulated--a great post