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New American Songbook

Hip Hop for Respect


In 1999, four New York City police officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo, a 22-year old immigrant from Guinea. Diallo was struck by nineteen bullets—the police had ultimately fired 41 times. It was a fatal case of mistaken identity: the police thought Diallo was someone else, he ran and they fired.

The killing became a quilting point for activists and artists to speak out for justice for Diallo, and to raise awareness, in general. The result was a four-track EP called ‘Hip Hop for Respect’, featuring 41 emcees and producers, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, J-Live and Dead Prez.

Hip hop’s apparent antagonism with the police was not new then, nor is it old now. Eight years earlier, in 1991, Large Professor rapped about the tension between police and the black community in the song ‘Friendly Game of Baseball’. Two years later, KRS-ONE’s debut album ‘Return of the Boom Bap’ contained two songs exploring the roles played by police. And it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of a certain NWA song …

Among citizens, it is difficult to form consensus on what hip hop culture has clearly identified as a police problem. On the one hand, Americans have benefited greatly from the artistic and economic contributions of hip hop culture. On the other, hip hop is an art and culture whose canon includes violence by and grievances against police. The new American songbook is both a hymnal and an indictment.

Amadou Diallo’s four killers were eventually acquitted of all charges. This has also become a part of hip hop canon.