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Songs That Reflected the Civil Unrest Then and Now

LOS ANGELES, CA-JUNE 3, 2020: Members of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Dept. look on as protesters march along Spring St. in downtown Los Angeles, demanding justice in the killing of George Floyd. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I can smell tear gas.

It’s Saturday afternoon. My phone starts blowing up with texts from my lady. She’s a chef at an Italian joint on Fairfax Ave. One of those neo-retro-post-irony spots that people make reservations for months in advance. Recently the dining room’s been empty, but take-out and delivery business is booming. But there’s a different boom happening just outside. It’s cops vs. citizens; one of them came loaded for bear.

A cop car is on fire.

Three cop cars on fire. A live feed from some stranger’s account gives me a first-hand glimpse of the chaos. My neighborhood streets are lined with hundreds of American citizens holding signs demanding justice. Demanding equality under the law. Demanding we say his name. 

George Floyd.

A man who should be alive today. Just like far too many casualties of racists abusing their power before him.

We’re closing now. It’s crazy outside. I’ll be home ASAP.

There’s a swirling bird above my apartment. A cruiser idling in my parking lot. The cops are on the ground. They’re in the air. If the protest moves to the middle of the Pacific I’m sure they’ll paddle out to make their presence known. 

Dozens of cruisers haul ass down my street. Westbound towards Fairfax. A curfew has been set for the entire city. The mayor is asking for the National Guard to intervene. Things will get worse.

I am angry, sad, and disappointed. In moments like this, I find it best to simply listen. Listen to people whose breadth of knowledge and experience of injustice far exceed my own, including some of the artists who’ve produced the iconic protest songs below.

N.W.A., “Fuck Tha Police”
An obvious choice, but is there a more incendiary tune in the American Songbook? Written by Ice Cube, MC Ren, and the D.O.C., “Fuck Tha Police” puts the LAPD on trial for the years of incessant racial profiling and brutality they inflicted upon the African-American community of South L.A. The trial culminates with a guilty verdict for a police force that is “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker” ⁠— their words, not mine. Since its release in 1988, the song continues to stir strong emotions from all sides. In fact, driving down La Brea, a mere 12 hours after tear gas scattered the protesters away, I saw the slogan spray-painted on three different walls. For better or worse, the phrase isn’t going away anytime soon.

Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”
An artist rarely can choose their audience. Art, and songs, in particular, can be interpreted in many different ways, some of which, sadly, are wrong. When Jello Biafra started spotting skinheads at Dead Kennedy shows, he decided to direct his frustration into writing a song that was as clear as the day is long. It doesn’t take a doctorate in Linguistics to decipher the chorus: “Nazi punks, Nazi punks, Nazi Punks, fuck off!”

Released as the lead single off their album In God We Trust, Inc., the vinyl included a sticker with a crossed-out swastika. Forty years later and, unfortunately, we’re still telling them to fuck off.

The Mice, “Not Proud of the USA”
Brothers Bill and Tommy Fox’s Cleveland-based power pop band only lasted a few years, but in their short time, they managed to influence numerous future indie stalwarts such as Guided By Voices and Superchunk. Off their EP For Almost Ever, “Not Proud of the USA” received considerable airplay during the first Bush Administration.

Power-pop is not a genre generally known for anger. So we get the unusual juxtaposition of ba-ba-bas in a song that takes aim at the previous generations for turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of spreading democracy.  Fox is the anti-Lee Greenwood when he screams “We can’t raise the flag up everywhere!”

Subsequently, one of Bill’s solo songs, entitled “Men Who Are Guilty of Crimes,” went on to become an anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Clearly we know what side this brilliant songwriter stands on. 

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Ohio”
Maybe it’s seeing the tanks of the National Guard drive down my street, or that I attended Kent State University for a few years, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include this Boomer classic about a government-inflicted wound that is as fresh today as it was when inflicted in 1970. Written by a fired-up Neil Young, after seeing the photos of dead students in Life magazine, “Ohio” was recorded live in two takes, on the same day as Stills’ ballad for the fallen soldiers of Vietnam, “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Both are direct pleas for an end to senseless bloodshed. An end that has yet to come. 

Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
New York City, 1939. Billie Holiday is standing on stage at Café Society, the nation’s first integrated nightclub, belting out this indictment of the racism found in the post-Jim Crow American South. The turn of the century saw lynchings in the U.S. reach a high not seen since the pre-Civil War. Singing the song made Holiday shake with fear, but she made it through nonetheless. So moving was her performance that service at the club stopped for those three minutes. 

“Strange Fruit” might’ve gone unheard beyond those walls if it weren’t for yet another act of courage. Holiday’s label, Columbia, wanted nothing to do with the song. It took Milt Gabler hearing Holiday perform an a cappella version, which moved him to tears, to put it out on his small jazz label Commodore Records. In 2003, Congress selected the song to include in the National Recording Registry.