For most of white America, the Sony video camera footage of Rodney King being pulled over and beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers on March 3, 1991, wasn’t the type of protocol that could be justified. For Black America, it was long-overdue evidence of racism and brutality at the hands of the police. And Hip-Hop’s growing popularity often played a part in taking a stand through words and music.
Much like we’ve seen at contemporary Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, there would be no return to normalcy. Either you were for change or you were against progress.
History shows that Hip-Hop artists have long been the voice of Black America.
On September 25, 1991, 2Pac’s response to police brutality came in the form of his first single, “Trapped” from his debut album, 2Pacalypse Now. In the song, 2Pac tells a story about getting revenge on police officers who have harassed him:
“Tired of being trapped in this vicious cycle / If one more cop harasses me I just might go psycho / And when I get ‘em, I’ll hit ’em with the bum rush / Only a lunatic would like to see his skull crushed / Yo, if you’re smart you’ll really let me go, G / But keep me cooped up in this ghetto and catch the Uzi / They got me trapped.”
A few weeks after the song’s release, what was a fictionalized story became very real. On October 17, Tupac was crossing the street in downtown Oakland, California, when police officers Alexander Boyovich and Kevin Rodgers stopped him. They accused him of jaywalking and asked to see his ID. In the police report, they referred to Tupac by his middle name, Amaru, and called him angry and hostile. They said Tupac told them, “This is just two white cops who want to stop a n-----.”
A month later at a press conference, Tupac told his side of the story. As he was preparing to enter Union Bank, the officers approached him. Tupac asked why they were requesting to see his ID. He accused them of having a slave-master mentality before allegedly being thrown onto the concrete, cuffed, and choked until he was left unconscious. He was put in jail for seven hours for resisting arrest and later released.
Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor for the US Department of Justice, professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, acknowledges that Tupac’s experience represents a perversion of justice that was meant to be corrected in 1857.
“When police officers forcibly detain someone and then frisk them, which means to put their hands all over the person’s body, the message is that you don’t have any bodily integrity,” Butler says.
“There’s the famous [Dred Scott] Supreme Court case which says that the Black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. What the act of frisking does is to communicate that same racist sentiment.”
Tupac sued the Oakland Police Department for $10 million for false arrest and imprisonment. His criminal complaint centered on the use of force, specifically the way he was handcuffed and placed in a chokehold, which supposedly was a banned tactic throughout much of California. Butler believes Tupac wasn’t piloted by monetary compensation. Rather, he was critiquing police violence, specifically the use of chokeholds, which became a national topic in the wake of the Rodney King incident.
Yet in 1992, a year after the King beating, an LAPD survey indicated that 92 percent of officers believed they should have the right to use the chokehold.
Former LAPD sergeant and defense attorney Darryl Mounger, who represented police officer Stacey Koon in the Rodney King case, told the Los Angeles Times in May 1991, “Normally, you spin him around, choke him out and nobody gets hurt. But when they took that tool away, you were forced to physically fight with people and that’s when officers began sticking people.”
On November 12, 1991, the same day Tupac filed his complaint against Oakland police, 2Pacalypse Now appeared in record stores. It was the first major rap release for Interscope Records. While “Trapped’ established 2Pac’s precedent of speaking out against injustices, the album double-downed on the practice.
According to Butler, Black men who face constant police intervention handle it in two different ways. In both instances, he asserts that when they leave their houses, their lives become heightened performances.
“One reaction — and I think the typical reaction — is what’s called ‘learned helplessness,’ ” says Butler.
“It makes a lot of Black men in communities where they’re subject to being stopped and frisked reluctant to leave their homes. When they do leave the home, [they] engage in performances to assure the whole world that they’re not thugs. They might wear their high school or college T-shirt. In Chokehold I tell the story about a group of high school football players in Brooklyn who got stopped and frisked when they were walking down the street together after practice. They asked their coach if they could wear their uniforms when they’re in the street, because that way they wouldn’t get stopped. Again, that’s what the impact of being stopped and frisked over and over does to a person, and the police exploit that. Another, [that] I think is healthy, is anger and outrage. And I think that we see that response consistently from 2Pac.”
In the song “Words of Wisdom,” also on 2Pacalypse Now, 2Pac charged America with “400 years of rape and murder.” He also introduced himself and his Black Panther family as the “American nightmare.”
Tupac’s lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department was settled for $42,000. When a case settles, typically there’s a stipulation that neither side admits fault nor liability. In this instance, both sides were admitting that the legal fees for each would probably outweigh any potential judgment if a lengthy trial ensued. However, Tupac's entanglement with law enforcement was just beginning.
On April 11, 1992, on a desolate stretch of Highway 59 in Jackson County, Texas, state trooper Bill Davidson stopped a Chevy Blazer to issue a ticket for a missing headlight. The driver, Ronald Ray Howard, an eighth-grade dropout, was listening to 2Pacalypse Now on cassette. As the trooper approached, Howard was simultaneously loading a .9 mm pistol.
He fired several shots striking Officer Davidson in the neck before taking off in what turned out to be a stolen car. Howard was eventually arrested and reportedly confessed. Officer Davidson died three days later as a result of gunshot wounds.
His wife, Linda Sue Davidson, a homemaker and mother of two, was understandably outraged at her husband’s killer. But she also placed blame on the artist who created 2Pacalypse Now.
“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that my husband would still be alive if 2Pac hadn’t written these violent, anti-police songs and the companies involved hadn’t published and put them out on the street,” Linda Sue Davidson said.
“I’m sure Tupac has no feeling for me or what happened to my husband. He obviously has a great anger toward law enforcement. All he cares about is singing his songs and making his money, no matter who he hurts.”
Howard’s court-appointed attorney Al Tanner prepared his defense strategy. He also placed the blame squarely on 2Pac’s music.
“In all my years of defending inner-city clients I have never introduced music before as a mitigating circumstance in a murder case,” said Tanner of his unique strategy. “But I do believe it applies in this case. Without the music riling him up, I do not think that this incident would have occurred.”
Howard told the grand jury that before the shooting he was listening to “Soulja’s Story.” In the song, a black teenager is pulled over by police and opens fire. The lyrics are: “Cops on my tail so I bail ’til I dodge them / They finally pull me over and I laugh / “Remember Rodney King?” / And I blast on his punk ass / Now I got a murder case / What the fuck would you do? / Drop them or let them drop you? / I choose droppin’ the cop!”
In July 1993, a jury convicted Howard of capital murder and sentenced him to death. The next day, Linda Sue Davidson moved forward with a lawsuit against 2Pac, Time Warner, and Interscope Records. She didn’t believe that 2Pacalypse Now merited First Amendment protection, alleging that the music was obscene, contained what she called “fighting words,” defamed officers like her husband, and incited imminent illegal conduct in individuals like Howard. More specifically, 2Pac’s music ultimately led to her husband’s demise.
“Our goal is to punish Time Warner and wake up the executives who run the music business,” said Jim Cole, the attorney representing Linda Sue Davidson. “This suit isn’t just about some storyteller spouting militant rhetoric here. 2Pac is dangerously serious. This suit is about stopping giant corporations from shamelessly making money off music designed to incite impressionable young men to shoot and kill cops like Bill.”
Attorney Cole and Linda Sue Davidson’s hypothesis that Hip-Hop music promoted actionable violence was not a standalone occurrence. In 1995, attorney Ann T. Bowe tried what was referred to as the “rap defense.” She alleged that 2Pac’s guest verse on South Central Cartel’s ’N Gatz We Truss was what led two Milwaukee teenagers to shoot and kill a police officer.
“The violent anti-police lyrics appear to have acted as command hallucinations which influenced his behavior,” said Bowe. “This young man insists that certain passages in these songs are so much a part of his consciousness that it was as if they just kept playing over and over in his head that night.”
On March 28, 1997, Judge John D. Rainey, who presided over the libel suit Linda Sue Davidson brought against 2Pac, concluded: “2Pacalypse Now is both disgusting and offensive. That the album has sold hundreds of thousands of copies is an indication of society’s aesthetic and moral decay. However, the First Amendment became part of the Constitution because the Crown sought to suppress the Farmers’ own rebellious, sometimes violent views. Thus, although the Court cannot recommend 2Pacalypse Now to anyone, it will not strip Shakur’s free speech rights based on the evidence presented by the Davidsons.”
The verdict seemed to establish a clear precedent that Hip-Hop lyrics were protected under the First Amendment, yet the 2012 conviction of rapper Jamal Knox suggested that they existed in a gray area.
Knox, who performed under the moniker Mayhem Mal, and Rashee Beasley, who went by Souja Beaz, wrote and recorded a song titled “Fuck the Police.” A video of it was posted on Facebook and YouTube while both were awaiting trial on previous charges of drug and gun possession. The video contained the names and calls of violence against the Pittsburgh officers who had arrested them.
The lyrics stated: “Let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good / Pullin’ out your Glock out ’cause I live in the ‘hood / So now they gonna chase me through these streets / And I’ma jam this rusty knife all in his guts and chop his feet / You taking money away from Beaz and all my shit away from me / Well your shift over at three and I’m gonna fuck up where you sleep.”
In 2013, the court found Knox guilty of terroristic threats and witness intimidation for writing and performing a song, rejecting his arguments that his song was protected under the First Amendment. The court deemed that the song amounted to what was called a “true threat.” Knox was sentenced to prison for to two to six years and Beasley was sentenced to one to three years.
Knox appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which upheld the previous ruling. Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor stated in the ruling that the song “is of a different nature and quality” and that the lyrics “express hatred toward the Pittsburgh police” describing them as “threatening and highly personalized to the victims.”
According to Butler, this established a dangerous precedent.
“I think it’s unconstitutional when art is used against an artist to implicate them in a crime,” he says. “The First Amendment provides that people have free expression, and I think with Black men the lens — we’re evaluated almost exclusively through a criminal lens. And so what would be art in the eyes of, or at the creation of, one person becomes a crime when it’s created by a young Black man. Again, it’s good that the judges pushed back against those attacks on 2Pac’s artistry and his constitutional right, but we’ve seen that since that time, prosecutors have continued to use rap lyrics to try to chill free expression.”
* Banner Image: Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur (Photo by Ke.Mazur/WireImage)