The great thing about music is that it can turn serious and depressing topics — like police brutality and the killing of innocent Black people — into beautiful, and sometimes even catchy, songs.
Here, we’ve rounded up five tracks from local Bay Area artists and bands that address these topics and pay homage to those who have died.
1. “Officer Don’t Shoot” by J. Stalin
The bouncy, synth-riddled production of this catchy single by West Oakland rapper J. Stalin belies the serious nature of its lyrics. In it, Stalin gives shoutouts to the many Black lives that have been slain by police, including Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Sandra Bland, and he also mentions the 2015 shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. But it’s the song’s hook, which goes, “Officer, I got my hands up. Please don’t shoot,” that really brings home the message of this track.
Memorable Lyrics: “Serve and protect / But they’ve been knocking us off lately.”
2. “Running Man” by Rexx Life Raj
Though the bulk of this song by Berkeley rapper Rexx Life Raj is about making moves in life, and not just fronting — “I’m not fooled by the game face,” he sings in the chorus. “You niggas still in the same place” — the end of it addresses the racial disparities and the targeting of Black people that is such a pronounced problem in our country. Raj speaks from the heart in this track, candidly expressing his feelings about the numerous deaths and police shootings that have been making headlines far too frequently of late.
Memorable Lyrics: “Black lives lay on the curb/ They say we matter, that’s only words/ Watch us swimming in pools of blood/ While the world seems undisturbed.”
3. “Cops vs. Phone Girl” by Third Eye Blind
This San Francisco band, and especially its leadman Stephan Jenkins, have long been known to be politically vocal, penning articles against the RNC for the Huffington Post and even designing their own line of anti-Republican/anti-conservative T-shirts. With the release of their first single from their 2016 EP, We Are Drugs, the band took their activist stance a step further, dedicating an entire song to Shakara, a high school student in South Carolina who was violently attacked by a police officer because she used her cell phone during math class.
Memorable Lyrics: “Office came and threw Shakara backwards against the wall/ I mean he flipped her just like a rag doll and broke her arm.”
4. “6 Shots” by Mistah F.A.B.
In this Mekanix-produced track, Oakland emcee Mistah F.A.B. decries the preponderance of Black deaths and urges his Black and Latino brothers to “stand in solidarity and fight together.” The song’s title comes from the number of bullets used to kill Alton Sterling at point-blank range, and the rapper also makes mention of other unlawfully-killed Black innocents, like Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, and Tamir Rice. A lot of the song is directed at “White America” and you can hear the anger and frustration in F.A.B.’s voice as he sings about how “this shit ain’t nothing new.”
Memorable Lyrics: “You pick cotton for the master as a chained man/ Now you pick cotton for fashion, it’s the same man/ So for all you white folks that say we all equal/ I bet you wouldn’t trade pigmentation with my people/ Everybody wan’t to be a nigga ’til you gotta be a nigga/ Until your son is the one dead from a trigger.”
5. “Revolution” by Nina Grae
In this thundering, piano-laced ballad, San Francisco singer-songwriter Nina Grae speaks out about police brutality and racial profiling. With her throaty, heartfelt voice, Grae’s messages ring through loud and clear, and the music video accompaniment to the song is even more striking, featuring news footage of the deaths of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, as well as the recent Frisco 5 hunger strike.
Memorable Lyrics: “Keep the riptide/ Keep the folks blind/ Teach the boys to fight/ The girls to hide.”