In 1995 Michael Jackson released the song “They Don’t Care About Us” and recorded two music videos for it. One of them taking place inside a prison. The lyrics and video attack the issue of police brutality and racism in the late 20th century. However, the issue has spread into the 21st century and Michael Jackson hasn’t been the only artist to bring to light these issues. Recent cases such as the Travon Martin case, the Ferguson case with Michael Brown, the Walter Scott shooting in NYC, and the Eric Garner choke-hold case have brought to light that the police brutality and racial tensions against African Americans are far from resolved. In fact, a new case just recently occurred, the Freddie Gray case. For the community against police brutality this was the final straw as Baltimore, Maryland, the city where the incident took place, erupted into a riot-filled hell. However, the music industry is far from staying silent on the issue. In less than a year African-American music artists, specifically Rihanna, Common, and John Legend, have followed Michael Jackson’s footsteps to release music targeting racism and the need for a revolution against police brutality at a faster than ever pace thanks to social media and the internet.. As the United States of America holds its breath to see what will happen following the Baltimore Riots, African American music artists are not; African American music artists are using their talent to vocalize the need for an end to police brutality and racism.
The Baltimore Riots started just as schools were let out on April 27, 2015. Facebook messages had started off to initiate a “purge” in Baltimore. These Facebook messages were sent by a few students who strongly disagreed with the police actions against Mr. Gray. However, it wasn’t until schools were let out and police blocked off ways for students to disperse home that the events truly started to unfold. A scene very similar to the eyewitness accounts published in the “Mother Jones” is portrayed in the lyrics of “Beat it” by Michael Jackson. While the song was released in 1982, it is an accurate description for how the riots of Baltimore started. Eyewitnesses claimed that the police were waiting for the students in full riot gear before anything happened. There was no room for the students to “beat it” despite the heavy police presence sending a message that they didn’t want anyone out after school. In fact, the eyewitnesses also said that the students were all peaceful in nature when school was dismissed (Brodey and McLaughlin).
John legend and Common’s music video published has also featured police attacking peaceful demonstrations during several marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. along with the march in Selma. In the music video for the Academy Award wining song “Glory”, by Common and John Legend, it shows clips of the movie “Selma” and the run in with police during Dr. Martin Luther King’s peaceful march across the Selma bridge. It’s key to note that also the lyrics of the song declare that their only weapon is to remain peaceful. While the Baltimore riots were not depicted by the news media as peaceful, there were efforts to keep the peace. One video leaked depicted an African American man standing between a line of police and angry protestors yelling out “Don’t touch them; Don’t give them a reason.” Another image showed an entire line of people standing between the rioters and the policemen. Staying peaceful is the best weapon at hand because it breaks the stereotype and image surrounding African Americans.
In colonial Spain paintings of the system depicted African’s as very violent and savages. That image didn’t go away; it hasn’t yet. One reason the stigma hasn’t gone away is because of the socioeconomic conditions where a lot of African American’s live. Take New York’s Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods for example. According to the 2011 NYPD Annual Firearms Discharge Report, the highest amount of criminal shootings took place in the Bronx and in Brooklyn; the two areas in New York with the highest African American Population (U.S. Census Bureau) and cities in the top 25 for poverty (citytoplists). The amount of African Americans struck by police gunfire was 43% of all suspects. 56% of all subjects armed with firearms however, were African Americans. Crime rates are higher across the United States, generally, where there is an increased amount of poverty. These impoverished areas are often ignored by city officials and their citizens are usually limited in opportunities. Without the opportunities to be successful or to even find means to be successful outside of the neighborhood, some of the people see that violence is the only opportunity and way to become heard and noticed by city officials. The fact however that African Americans are present in the poverty filled areas and in an environment that almost seems to encourage crime fuels the stereotype that African American’s are violent.
The music industry is trying to change that. For Rihanna’s single “American Oxygen”, an image of tension is depicted in the opening scene. It’s the shadows of peaceful protestors projected onto a city hall, yet upon further examination silhouettes of policemen are standing by. The imagery is making an assumption that where ever there are demonstrations, the demonstrators will become violent. The police are waiting to take action. Just like eyewitnesses claim happened in Baltimore.
After a collage of peaceful and violent protests that have occurred during the United State’s modern history, the last scene of Rihanna’s video goes along with her lyrics. The “New America” that she sings about is one where people of different races are no longer living with tensions. White’s are shown helping African American’s after a crisis and African American’s are shown helping white’s after a crisis. Hopefully, as the nation watches for what lies ahead in the wake of the Baltimore Riots, people will hear and see the message that African American music artists are conveying and will realize that the United States has seen enough of racism and police brutality; America needs to reform it’s ideas, break its stereotypes, and end racism and police brutality.