"With the Sean Bell situation, New York is basically saying ‘fuck niggas.’" Who in their right minds can honestly disagree with these words, bluntly stated by rapper/producer/activist David Banner? The April 25th aquittal of three New York City cops, who killed Bell after pumping fifty rounds into his car, sends a clear message to the African-American community: If the police can get away with gunning down one unarmed black man, they can get away with it again. Indeed, it happened several times over well before Bell. It’s no wonder that the verdict has provoked outrage and frustration from religious leaders, local politicians and community activists.
Banner is certainly not alone as a rapper, either. The frustration, sadness and outrage provoked by the verdict has radiated through the entire hip-hop community, reaching even the upper echelons of the industry. Russell Simmons has spoke about the need for the police to be more accountable. His heir-apparent Jay-Z has set up a charity for Bell’s fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell. As always, though, the most meaningful solidarity hip-hop has to offer is that of the artists themselves.
This solidarity has, notably, not just been limited to the sector of "conscious hip-hop," that artificial category created by the music industry in order to cheapen the genre; a diverse array of artists have verbally trounced the verdict, ranging from Ice Cube to Immortal Technique to Chamillionaire. By now, it’s become something of a cliche to repeat Chuck D’s line about rap being "CNN for black people," but the staggering hypocrisy and gutter racism of the case has once again pushed artists into that role.
In the month since the verdict, there have been enough recordings dedicated to Bell to fill a compilation album. Posted on YouTube, Brooklyn MC Papoose (who also penned a song directly following the original shooting in November 2006) calls for a new civil rights movement in "We Shall Overcome." Though lyrically awkward at times, the track almost serves as a blow-by-blow of the entire trial, highlighting the arrogance of Judge Arthur Cooperman, the flimsy defence of the officers, and the complete dismissal of all witness testimony. As the song progresses, Pap lays into the past racist brutalities of the NYPD, bringing up the shooting of Amadou Diallo and the police torture of Abner Louima, and broadens the story even further to immigrants’ rights and the shipping of poor black kids to fight in Iraq: "How can they find find freedom in south Iraq? Please! / They can’t even find freedom in south-side Queens."
Papoose is only the tip of the iceberg. The web has been swarmed by tracks dedicated to Bell, sometimes released withing mere hours of the verdict. Major-label artists like The Game and Joell Ortiz have released songs on the web. Unsigned artists have been able to chime in too. Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X (whose song about the Jena Six was named by hip-hop journalist Davey D as the best political rap of 2007), posted not one but two tracks about Bell on his MySpace page the very next day. A simple Google search for "Sean Bell" and "hip-hop" will yield literally thousands of results.
Artists who haven’t necessarily had the chance to hit the studio in recent weeks have nonetheless done what they can to protest the verdict. The Roots, performing on the David Letterman Show three days afterwards, wore all black in mourning for Bell as well as pins with Bell’s face on it. And then, of course, there is dead prez, whose first show after the verdict in Amhearst, Massachusetts was performed in the memory of Bell. Stic.man, speaking from the event on "Breakdown FM," radio show of hip-hop activist Davey D, summed up the all-encompassing question "what now?": "That verdict’s been cast down on us since slavery. We’ve been denied justice way before April 26th, 2008… But it’s not a time to be demoralized… it’s a time to organize."
It’s been two and a half years since Kanye West appeared on an NBC-televised Katrina benefit to tell the world the obvious: "George Bush doesn’t care about black people." Last year, after the news that a group of black teenagers were being unjustly thrown in jail in Jena, Louisiana, many in hip-hop also protested the town’s style of Jim Crow justice. Now, with the killers of Sean Bell getting off the hook, artists and MCs are once again raising their voices. The sentiments coming from artists like dead prez–that more organizing, more activism, is needed–are for obvious reasons finding resonance not only in the studios, but in the streets and communities. Hip-hop, born out of the deliberate neglect of black America, is finding itself pushed into the political arena more and more. Its message is simple: Enough is enough. Maybe this is the reason politicians find are so threatened by the mere presence of hip-hop.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and socialist activist living in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to Znet, Dissident Voice, and SleptOn.com. His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected].