Racism in America has been going on since its discovery, especially against the minorities that live within it. It is a common theme in musicians to use their platform to challenge racial biases through the lyrics and imagery in their songs. Because issues of violence against African Americans has been an unchanging issue for several generations, it is only natural to see common claims in artists despite the fact that their music is written ages apart. For example NWA’S song F*** Tha Police made in 1988 and J. Coles song Be Free made in 2014 both address the issue of police violence against the African American community. Both NWA and J. Cole make the same claim that policemen have racial biases that are unchecked because they are in a position of power. Their power, fueled by the unconscious fear of the other, creates an atmosphere where they are frequently using violence to quell their interactions with the black community. Though the claim may be the same, it is their reaction to this claim that shows their difference in attitude. While J. Cole sets out to shed light on an issue that is still prominently affecting society by using narrative and repetition of language, NWA is using a more aggressive approach by using more violent language to seek a call to action.
As addressed in the introduction, NWA and J. Cole have many commonalities in the claim that they are making in their songs. Both artists are speaking on police brutality against black communities, even though they are writing their songs 26 years apart. When NWA made their hit rap single F*** Tha Police in 1988, the conservative moral panics surrounding the racially marked platform of rap music and gang violence was at an all time high. NWA became popular by using their microphone as a weapon. They used the lyrics of their songs to protest racial injustice and used their platform to share that message with America. The more that radio stations, law enforcement, and the FBI boycotted the song, the more the song became an anthem to the youth. This is because the song placed racial violence on a platform, creating discussions among the public about police violence in black neighborhoods (Edgar 1).
SImilar to NWA, J. Cole is also confronted with situations that are focused on the fact that police are not being held accountable for their trigger finger. 26 years later J. Cole came out with his hip hop song Be Free during a time where the media was putting police brutality in the spotlight. The incident that sparked the creation of this song was surrounded by the killing of Michael Brown Jr., where when yelling “don’t shoot!” with his hands up, he was shot multiple times and killed on the spot. J. Cole uses his voice to shine a light on events like this by highlighting Dorian Johnson’s interview about the death of his friend Michael Brown (Miller 20). Not only did both these songs address moments of police brutality that were unjustified, they were both spurred on through the shared black experience.
Comparison of songs
The big recurring theme in both songs is the anger that they have towards the police because of the way they mistreat African American citizens. In both F*** Tha Police and Be Free the audience can hear and see in the lyrics, the frustration in the artists voices. In NWA’S song F*** Tha Police, the rappers vocalize lines that a court officer would say, mocking the stereotypical white man through the reversal of the power dynamic . By setting up the scene in the courtroom, the rappers are indicating that it is not just the police that are the problem. This is demonstrated when Dr. Dre says to Ice Cube, “Order, order, order! Ice Cube, take the motherf***ing stand. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help your black a**?”.In this line, Dre is claiming that the judicial system as a whole is biased against African Americans. According to the NAACP the rappers are right because African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites (NAACP). J. Cole makes the same argument in his song when he says, “Are we all alone, fighting on our own”. This verse could be interpreted as the law, which is supposed to be there to help, doesn’t do so for African Americans. To this day J. Cole speaks for a lot of black citizens in that a majority of the population feels that they are not being treated fairly in the justice system.
Another similarity that both songs have is their awareness to the senseless killings of black people. In F*** tha Police, Ice Cube says “A young n***a got it bad ‘cause I’m brown. And not the other color, so police think they have the authority to kill a minority”. Here, Ice cube was referring to the racial profiling and discrimination that had rose during the time of writing the song because the release of the song happened right before the government put the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into motion. This made arrest for possession of crack cocaine a hundred times worse than powder cocaine. This really affected the black community because they were the were the main users of it, while powdered cocaine was used for by white people (Glanton). This increased the killing of black people because the black neighborhoods were put into a spotlight which caused more police interactions and raids leading to violence. J. Cole hits on this topic in his line “Can you tell me why everytime I step outside I see my N***as die”. J. Cole is saying that so many people, specifically black males, are being murdered by police so much that it feels like everytime he leaves his house he hears about someone being killed. One of the big reasons for the creation of both songs could have been the amount of blacks being killed in both eras. It’s crazy to think that these songs are hitting the same issue 26 years apart, showing that we have done nothing to fix the issue.
As there are similarities between the songs about the issue, there are also differences. A difference that the two songs have is what their intention for the audience is; J. Cole wants to spread awareness while NWA wants retribution.There are a lot of points in F*** tha Police where the rappers are calling for action, particularly violence. NWA want the police to pay for all the harm that they have caused on the black community. One of the first times that this is referred to is when Ice Cube said “A young n***a on a the warpath and when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops, dying in L.A.”. In this verse Ice Cube is saying that he is so mad that he is seeing red and he wants to take it out on the police. This notion can give the audience the same energy and want to be violent towards police too. MC Ren makes a similar remark in the song when he says, “Taking out a police would make my day”. The song made such an impact that the police restricted them from performing it at concerts (Hinds). The police wanted to shut the song down because of how riled it made the audience, but NWA ended up performing it anyway because they believed that shutting it down would take away their freedom to speak out against injustices (Hinds).
J. Cole had a different perspective on the topic, in that he wanted to raise awareness about the topic rather than wanting people to hurt the police like NWA. In his song J. Cole says, “Somethings got me down, I will stand my ground. Don’t just stand around, don’t just stand around”. J. Cole is sending the message to the audience not to speak up and not let things go unsaid. Nowhere in his song does he any message to be violent, which is the opposite to NWA’s messages. In fact, J. Cole sounds timid when listening to the hook of his song. His hook repeats “ All we want to do is take the chains off. All we want to do is break the chains off. All we want to do is be Free”. When J. Cole says this he is referring to the long history of black people being chained up slaves. These lyrics give off a sense of slaves being exhausted and just wanted for the abuse to stop. They don’t want to fight they just want to be free.
Both F*** tha Police and Be Free have many aspects in them where the music enhances the meaning of the songs.This is demonstrated in J. Cole’s song, Be Free, as the pain in his vocals enhances the idea of him hurting. His hook has him singing softly and when he sings his his verses his intensity and range increase. When signing his verses, the louder he sings the more his voice cracks. This gives the sense that J. Cole is singing from his heart and holding back tears, drawing the audience into his pain. This included the dynamic of the song because throughout the song the tempo was very slow, reflecting a sad mood. J. Cole sang around the tempo by speeding up on some parts to show more emotion but always returning to the slow dynamic in the hook.
NWA’s vocals were very different to J. Coles in that NWA had a strong delivery with high intensity throughout the song. The delivery of the song pumps up the audience about the topic because the artists are yelling and emphasizing different verses throughout the song. This made the song feel like it was in your face along with the cursing that was in it. The tempo of the music portrayed the same feeling because it was fast and upbeat compared to other songs in those days. The tempo made the song more animated because it was music that the audience could bang their head to. The production of the song was good too because there is a point in the song where they play gunshots, which reminds the audience of the whole point of the song: that of police brutality and the senseless killing of black individuals.
F*** tha Police and Be Free are just two of the thousands of songs about discrimination and police brutality. This in due to the lack of change happening about the issue. Instead of just listening to these songs ang going on with the day, America should listen to what these artist are saying because they are pouring out their hearts. The hope of these artists is for brutality and discrimination become a thing of the past. Even though these two songs spread the message differently, they are both speaking to an ever present theme of discrimination and bias against members of the black community. These two songs are powerful because one wants to fight for revenge, while other wants to fight for their rights. In the end, they are both using their platforms to address an issue that is not changing, and has not changed for 26 years. Despite their different ideas of retribution, their songs project the feelings of millions of people who have been impacted by the biases of the police and the courts, and have been the call to action many need to take a stand.