Sound + Vision: Vic Mensa to Police: Don't Stand so Close to Me
A lifetime ago, when we were callow children and life was full of possibilities, a fresh-faced young businessman decided he was called to serve, and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. And on that fateful June day, sentient rotted jack-o-lantern Donald Trump chose to score his doomsday message with the Neil Young classic “Rockin’ in the Free World”. It was odd that he would use a song of protest in that setting, but then again Trump is the Paul Bunyan of tone-deafness. To play a song like that at a campaign stop is either a move of unprecedented political boldness, calling out the falsehood of American exceptionalism, or a craven attempt to gin up support with pomp and power chords, ignorant of the meaning beyond the chorus.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a candidate has glommed on to a rousing rock anthem, tragically unaware of the actual message of the song. Most famously, Ronald Reagan co-opted “Born in the USA” for his 1984 presidential bid. Springsteen demanded he stop using the song, inaugurating a tradition of mostly lefty musicians refusing to let politicians use their songs. It’s one thing when John McCain uses a song that’s blandly evocative of generic Americana without permission. It’s quite another when Reagan’s dumb ass comes out on stage to a song that is explicitly critical of American involvement in Vietnam. The hypocrisy is exquisite.
Protest songs aren’t written to pump up the clowns in straw boaters who attend campaign events, but to criticize existing power structures. As reportage, a song can tell the story of those caught under those power structures. Some have used their platform to shine a light on the lies that keep these mechanisms in place, or to reject their divisiveness in no uncertain terms. These songs are powerful and necessary, and can galvanize a movement. With the election tomorrow, however, I’ve been thinking about the #alllivesmatter jerkoffs and the terrifying possibility that a man who speaks for them may win the vote. This is a moment in which it’s necessary for music to give the lie to the notion that there’s no such thing as systemic, racist police brutality. The Clash sang about police harassment, although in pretty broad terms. Incidentally, that second song, one of my favorites, is a cover. The singer in that original group would later have a #2 Billboard hit – with a danceable tune about the Brixton riots of 1981.
Springsteen called attention to one man’s fatal encounter with police; Vic Mensa’s new song does the same for another. Mensa, however, replaces the Boss’s trademark melancholy with fury, and a threat, and the same rallying cry we first heard in NWA’s epochal “Fuck the Police”. This sentiment is all too common in rap, and not as a cool anti-authority posture.There is a real, pervasive sense that the police are malign. Some have suggested that the halls of power will get a cleaning. Others have made much more explicit calls to fight back.
I’m not advocating violence of any kind. And I’m not saying that racially motivated police violence will just come to a screeching halt under a Clinton presidency. But I am saying what I assume you already agree with if you’re reading this: We need to take action to make sure the dog at the top of the pile isn’t a dangerous, unqualified, avowed racist. Let’s not give Neil Young fodder for another protest song.