The first 28 seconds of the music video show Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old black man shot and killed by a white police officer outside a Baton Rouge convenience store.
Before the gunshot, the picture cuts away. “They shot him?” someone asks, as a woman cries.
The rest of the video is a striking visual display of collective pain. Close-ups show African Americans of various ages with tears streaming down their faces. Common rhymes, rapid and fierce, “Trayvon’ll never get to be an older man/Black children, they childhood stole from them.” At the end of the track, Stevie Wonder croons, “We are rewriting the black American story.”
Hip-hop commenting on police brutality is not new terrain. N.W.A did it and earned the ire of the FBI. Ice Cube released an entire album in the aftermath of the the Rodney King beating and verdict and Los Angeles riots. KRS-One, Public Enemy. The list goes on.
But in recent years, videos showing fatal police encounters with black civilians have become more frequent. Technology has allowed bystanders to capture and distribute footage of these shootings with a speed and ease that were impossible before. The videos have become headline news, fueled a national conversation and given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And musicians aren’t waiting for months to craft an artistic response. We’re seeing more using digital tools and their platforms to instantly disseminate new songs — sometimes rough versions — that directly tackle events that just took place, as they still weigh heavily on the collective consciousness of many Americans.
Within days of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., J. Cole dropped “Be Free,” which sampled interviews from people who said they were eyewitnesses.
A few weeks after Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, the Game assembled 10 rappers for “Don’t Shoot.” The song, which references Brown’s death, features Rick Ross, 2 Chainz and others.
Less than 48 hours after Sterling’s death, Americans woke up to another video of a dying man. This one was of Philando Castile, 32, who was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Minnesota on July 6.
Then five officers in Dallas were shot and killed by a lone gunman after a peaceful protest over police shootings turned chaotic.
By the end of the week, Jay Z released his first song in three years, titled “Spiritual.” On Tidal, he wrote, “I made this song a while ago, I never got to finish it. Punch (TDE) told me I should drop it when Mike Brown died, sadly I told him, ‘this issue will always be relevant.’ I’m hurt that I knew his death wouldn’t be the last.’ ”
Swizz Beatz and Scarface released “Sad News” the week of the Sterling and Castile shootings.
Like Common, T.I. released a more polished and produced song and video in response to the string of shootings. “Warzone,” which came out last week, dramatizes the circumstances of the Tamir Rice shooting, but with a white child and black officers.
“Like every weekend it’s a man down,” T.I. raps.
“They pull you over, ask you where your license at/Be careful reachin’ for it, you know you can die for that,” he continues. “And this ain’t nothin’ new, just got cameras so you can see the s—.”