Rodney King was born on April 2, 1965; he was found dead at the bottom of his house’s swimming pool on June 17, 2012. However, the world will always remember him for the events of March 3, 1991. King was driving while intoxicated. When the 25 year-old saw a LAPD car following him, he put his foot on the pedal. Frightened he would violate his parole with a DUI, he led the police on a high speed chase before pulling over in front of an apartment building and giving himself up. What transpired after this are events that are burnt into the images of every American thanks to this footage caught by amateur photographer George Holliday.
Four police officers hit King 56 times with power blows from batons, tased him and kicked him several times for good measure. This was not the first time police officers had been overzealous when subduing African-Americans – but this was the first time someone was there to film it. King’s attorney said of the video, “We finally caught the Loch Ness Monster with a camcorder.” No longer could the LAPD turn a blind eye to the brutal measures taken by their officers. More so, considering it was on film, King’s assailants could not reasonably be acquitted… Could they?
Three acquittals and a mistrial on an excessive force charge later all four officers were free. Forget the outraged urban communities, forget the agonizing video, forget civil rights. This blatant act of police protection is what sparked the LA Riots, six days of looting and violence that erupted after the jury decision. Large Sections of Central Los Angeles, South Central Los Angeles and the community of Sun Valley were caution taped off as buildings burned and people died. The rage of blatant injustice fanned by the lyrics of Hip Hop combusted into utter chaos.
When asked what he thought of the LA riots, Rodney King uttered the phrase he is best remembered by, “Can’t we all just get along?” We couldn’t. Rioters looted businesses and set them on fire. Then some of them shot at the firemen who came to put out the fires. Madness swept the city and Hip Hop was at its heart. Government buildings were burnt to the ground by passion, fury, anger and beats.
KRS-ONE said of the Rodney King beating and verdict that, “They were the confirmation of everything we had been speaking and rapping since the early 70s.” The people had every right to be angry and Hip Hop told them so. Ice-T, backed by his band Body Count released a song called “Cop Killer” dedicated to the Daryl Gates, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. N.W.A. said “F*ck the Police.” During the Riots people wrote that apt phrase on the side of buildings and shouted it as they stormed police headquarters. It was the theme song for the riots – the riots that claimed the lives of 53 people, injured thousands and caused an estimated billion dollars in damage.
That was twenty years ago; now Rodney King is dead. His death was admittedly anti-climatic. After surviving a vicious beating by police, he apparently drowned in his own swimming pool. Although a toxicology exam is being done, no foul play is expected. Not only is Rodney King dead, Trayvon is also dead. Trayvon Martin: a bag of skittles, an Arizona Ice Tea and a bullet made him famous. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, apparently shot him for wearing a hoodie in a gated community. There were no riots, but people did wear hoodies and make songs!
Plies made a pretty good song about the tragedy. Elsewhere, Willie D. teamed up with Geto Boy member Scarface, Propain, and D. Boi to create a rousing track simply titled “Hoodiez.” The video ends with a heart-wrenching letter penned from Trayvon’s point of view where he thanks all of the people supporting his cause and pleas for George Zimmerman, his murderer, to be brought to justice. In New York, Mos Def teamed up with Dead Prez and mikeflo of the RBG Collective to spread some outrage over Nas’ “Made You Look” beat. stic.man was particularly insightful when he said, “Before the outrage burns out misdirected/ What can we do so our community protected?” He offers several solutions including community patrol and self-defense classes being taught to community members. This is where Hip Hop is at its best, not just voicing problems but also attempting to offer answers for them.
The Hip-Hop community did not only make songs, it also made statements. Bun B said the profiling was wrong and Killer Mike said each black family should have a black gun and know how to use it.Chuck D asked Rick Ross via Twitter to drop a track about Trayvon. In response Rick Ross posted this picture. 50 Cent, The Game, Young Jeezy, Nas and other big name emcees interviewed with MTV to speak out against the brutal murder.
Hip-Hop has done a good job keeping Trayvon Martin in the forefront of American consciousness, just as it did with Rodney King two decades ago. However, just speaking out on this particular tragedy is not enough. With unprecedented acts of police brutality across the country and the heinous shootings of Ramarley Graham in New York, Rekia Boyd in Chicago and Seth Adams in Florida we need Hip Hop more than ever. More so, we need Hip-Hop’s most visible artists to also be its most vocal artists when it comes to atrocities like Trayvon Martin.
I never thought I would say this but maybe it is time for Hip Hop’s biggest acts to be more like Plies. We need more songs that directly speak against these atrocities. What if Kanye made a song like “We Are Trayvon” about Rekia Boyd’s brutal murder by an off-duty cop? What if Jay-Z teamed up with some of his fellow New Yorkers and crafted a song for Ramarley Graham shot dead by cops in front of his grandmother? What if Rick Ross revisited a classic Hip-Hop instrumental with some of the MMG artists and made a song about Seth Adams execution at the hands of a Florida police officer? What if these were the songs that were being played every five minutes on the radio station? What would happen?
For too long Hip-Hop Culture, particularly rap music, has only been unified in its self-indulgence and shameless self promotion. Maybe now it has cause to not only be music people can party to; maybe now it will be music people can rally behind and march to. Maybe it could be more than the theme song to a riot; maybe Hip-Hop could be the theme song to a revolution. Bet that would make Rodney King proud. Word.