Music, Race

Songs w/ Substance #2: Ben Harper – “Call It What It Is” (A Response to Baton Rouge & Falcon Heights)

A lot of times we lack the evidence. Questionable police shootings culminate in ‘he said-she saids’ that ultimately fail to gain criminal indictments of police officers in a court of law. But for anyone who has ever questioned or failed to fully understand black narratives of police shootings in cases like Michael Brown or Jamar Clark (myself included), the last 48 hours have given us a lot to think about.

The video don’t lie. Sure there are still unanswered questions: Where exactly was Alton Sterling’s gun when the officer opened fire? What preceded the appalling footage taken by Philando Castillo’s girlfriend? But to me, the answers to these questions will likely do very little to convince me that what I saw in those videos is anything other than one word:


Like the cell phone footage, Ben Harper’s song is pretty straightforward. What we saw in those videos are inexcusable slayings. It does not matter that the killer wore a badge. It does not matter if the killer’s ostensible intentions were to protect and serve. No matter what those two black men did or did not do to bring themselves into contact with law enforcement on those fateful nights, no matter what further details from their stories emerge, those two black men did not deserve to die.

The New York Times has a headline calling the Falcon Heights incident a “police shooting.” CNN ran a story where an officer was simply “involved.” In an NPR headline, a police stop in Minnesota mysteriously “ends” in a black man’s death. But Ben Harper is right. If we really want to address the problem of the destruction of black bodies at the hands of law enforcement, than in cases like these where the evidence is so apparently clear, we need to call that problem exactly what it is: Murder.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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