12/20/2011 05:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Who Got the Camera?": Hip-Hop's Quest for Social Justice

In his book Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, former United States prosecutor and George Washington University Law Professor, Paul Butler suggest that hip-hop has "the potential to transform justice in the United States." Butler's simple assertion is that "Hip-Hop exposes the American justice system as profoundly unfair." The annals of hip-hop are filled with examples of artists scrutinizing law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the most famous example being, N.W.A.'s "Fuck the Police," which begins with the explicit claim, that the group was putting the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on trial for abuse and misconduct -- two years before the Rodney King beating. Too often such moments are reduced to a nostalgia for a so-called more "conscious" era of rap music, yet recent film shorts by B. Dolan and Pharoahe Monch, suggest that hip-hop's critical eye for social justice is as keen as ever.

More than twenty years ago, on the evening of March 2, 1991, motorist Rodney King was stopped by LAPD officers for speeding. King's subsequent beating was videotaped by passerby George Holiday and quickly became the most famous evidence of police brutality, though the four officers who were charged with brutality were later acquitted of charges. The Rodney King beating was digital confirmation of what many Blacks experienced in relationship to law enforcement in the 1980s and early 1990s, whether exemplified by the choking death of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, the shooting of the elderly Eleanor Bumpurs and of course the beating of King.

In an era marked by the increased presence of law enforcement in Black communities -- a by-product of buy and bust forms of policing, that fed the expansion of the prison industrial complex -- young Black men were particularly susceptible to blatant forms of police brutality. As such, so-called "gangsta rap "-- in spite of its problematic narratives with regards to gender, sexuality, and violence -- was likely the most organic documentation of police brutality in Black communities. As political scientist Lester Spence notes in his book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics, he was "hard pressed to find a single song that was uncritical of the police." The Rodney King beating highlighted, the power and importance of counter-surveillance of law enforcement in this country--a value that was instilled within the Black body politic twenty-five years before the Rodney King beating, by the Black Panther Party.

To be sure The Black Panther Party (for Self-Defense), with founders the late Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, were not the first individuals within Black communities to attempt to hold law enforcement accountable, but at the height of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement the Black Panther Party became the most visible proponents of the power of policing the police. As Alondra Nelson notes in her new book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, the Black Panther Party was founded on the premise of "afford[ing] protection for poor blacks from police brutality." In its earliest incarnation in late 1966, armed Black Panther Party members oversaw police activities in Black communities from a distance allowable by law. The Mulford Act, which outlawed loaded guns in public, was passed by the California State legislature a year later, in direct response to the activism of the Black Panther Party.

Twenty years later, Hip-Hop culture reanimated this particular activist thread, lyrically reporting on the nature of unfairness of the judicial system and the abuse of power by law enforcement. Yet even in that mode, Hip-Hop narratives seemed to lend itself to visual sensibilities and the coming digital revolution. In his book In Search of The Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, political scientist Richard Iton observes that Black Popular Culture became "suddenly, particularly, and violently public...a development that led to a range of gatekeeping responses from those committed to restricting the circulation of certain kinds of information within black communities and maintaining 'order'." (104) According to Iton, this heightened visibility and "policing" was coupled with the "proliferation of hand-held and surveillance video cameras, camera phones, and the awareness of these new technologies," creating the "internalization of the expectation that one is always potentially being watched." (105)

That sense of being watched was manifested in the popularity of a series like Cops which premiered in 1989, and offered a pro-Law Enforcement view of criminal justice, and represented one of the most sustained representations of so-called Black criminality; Cops was one of the longest running series in television history. Hip-Hop became a natural counter-balance to this dynamic, particularly as the Hip-Hop generation embraced cutting edge technologies from, beepers to hand-held cameras. When Ice Cube recorded "Who Got the Camera," months after the officers in the King beating were acquitted, he spoke to a generational ethos that reanimated the spirit of the Black Panther Party, armed with cameras and microphones, instead of assault weapons.

Arguably, the hyper-visibility of Hip-Hop and Black Popular Culture since the mid-1990s--in the context of celebrity culture--has functioned as a form of surveillance, which has diverted attention away from the ways that power and finance has been consolidated in the past generation. The amount of scrutiny that Kanye West and Russell Simmons generated in response to their appearance at #Occupy protests is evidence of how effective this surveillance has been; there are a generation of Americans more knowledgeable of the net-worth of Lebron James, Shawn Carter, Tyra Banks and the Real Housewives of Atlanta than they are of the Board members of the most powerful financial institutions in this country, many of whom were complicit, if not direct agents, in the financial collapse that instigated the #Occupy Movement.

The brilliance of recent projects by B. Dolan and Pharoahe Monch is that they re-purpose the very technological platforms that have increased the surveillance of American citizens and literally adjusted the frame to offer counter-surveillance and critique of American institutions like law enforcement. The presence of social media and accessible technology has allowed such projects to circulate in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. Neither project needed, for example, 106th and Park or Hot 97, for example, to find their audience.

B. Dolan's song and video for "Film The Police" featuring Toki Wright, Jasiri X, Buddy Peace, and Sage Francis is an update of N.W.A.'s classic "Fuck the Police," which in light of the visible abuses of law enforcement in the past few years--Sean Bell and Oscar Grant immediately come to mind--is more than timely. Yet there is a more specific context for "Film the Police," as law enforcement organizations have sought to criminalize the filming of police officers.

Such efforts came to the forefront a few years ago when a Simon Glik, videotaped with cell phone, Boston police offers beating a man. Police officers arrested Glik, an immigration attorney, and charged him with an obscure wiretapping statute, which was quickly thrown out of court. Glik and the ACLU filed a countersuit against the police department and in August of 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, "that Glik was exercising clearly established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause." Propelled with a documentarian sensibility, "Film the Police" is as much offering evidence of police brutality and misconduct, as it is a call to "point and shoot"--an open declaration of the right of American citizens, in the midst of militarized crackdowns on public dissent, to hold their institutions accountable.

Concerns about police misconduct also inform the short film for Pharaohe Monch's "Clap (One Day)," which was the featured single from Monch's stellar 2011 release W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Directed by Terence Nance, who also shot the short film Native Son for Blitz the Ambassador, and starring Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire's Chris Partlow), "Clap (One Day)" is set on a Brooklyn morning in the aftermath of a cop shooting. An informant provides a detective with information--in a cash and carry exchange--about where the shooter's family resides, cautioning, that the shooter is rarely present there--and presumably wouldn't be so, if he is suspected of the shooting. A SWAT squad is dispatched to the apartment complex, and though the officers rush into the wrong apartment--1B instead of 1D--and accidentally kill a black child who was using the bathroom, there is every indication that such a fate would have been met by the family of the cop shooter. In either instance, the confrontation draws attention to the general lack of regard for life by law enforcement officers charged with policing--or occupying--Black neighborhoods; the death of the young boy would be viewed by some within law enforcement as simply collateral damage.

"Clap (One Day)" resonates in the aftermath of the accidental shooting death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was sitting of the couch with family member, when members of a Detroit SWAT team bumrushed their apartment--with reality TV cameras in tow--and officer Joseph Weekley fired a single shot to Stanley-Jones head. Weekley was recently indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

The family and neighbors in "Clap (One Day)" would not have such recourse, as they take retribution into their own hand. Whereas a term like "Clap" invokes gunfire in many urban communities, Monch uses the term as a metaphor for the deep knowledge that many possess in Black communities regarding the misconduct and abuse of law enforcement officers; community members literally break out into rhythmic clapping whenever they confront the offending officer, who not so surprisingly, lives in the very neighborhood where the killing occurs. That the officer (portrayed by Akinnagbe) lives in a working class community is a subtle reminder of the economic status of many officers as municipal employees; an irony that has not been lost on many who have witnessed officers on the frontline of abuse of #Occupy protesters.

Whether employing a documentary style or the conceptual art, "Film the Police" and "Clap (One Day)" offers further evidence of the critical role that Hip-Hop culture continues to play in the pursuit of social justice; a reminder of the power and responsibility that individual Americans also have in that pursuit.