Though his song drew the most fire from critics, Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots)" isn't the first to tackle the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo. In fact, the Diallo killing galvanized musicians across genres to pen protest songs like no other event in recent memory.
Springsteen, Le Tigre and Public Enemy all use the number "41" for the number of bullets police fired at the Guinea native after four police officers mistook his wallet for a gun as shorthand for their subject without mentioning Diallo by name.
The most recent track, "Bang! Bang!" (RealAudio excerpt), on the From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP by lo-fi dance punks Le Tigre, also packs the most vitriol. Where Springsteen tells a story, Le Tigre wail an impassioned rant inspired by several instances of New York Police Department brutality. The song opens with a sampled news report about Patrick Dorismond, the unarmed 26-year-old Haitian shot last year by an undercover officer.
Former Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna asserts point blank over a sparse rhythm track that the episodes are fueled by white racism. She then refers to the Diallo case specifically ("Who's gonna call 911 when they can't tell a wallet from a motherf---ing gun?") and calls for an end to the reign of tough-on-crime mayor Rudolph Giuliani (Bang bang daddy I want you dead/ Bring me Giuliani's head!").
But the track becomes considerably more chilling when a vocal chorus begins rattling off numbers: "One! Two! Three! Four! Five, six, seven, eight..." It sounds like a familiar rock 'n' roll count-off at first but the voices continue and the listener soon realizes each number stands for a bullet fired at Diallo. At "30" the music drops out and they continue, to 41.
Public Enemy trickster MC Flavor Flav makes the Diallo case an opportunity to hurl sarcastic barbs at the NYPD in "41:19" (RealAudio excerpt) from the 1999 album There's a Poison Goin' On... Like Le Tigre, veteran political activists PE criticize brutality in addition to the Diallo incident, in this case the 1997 broom-handle sodomizing of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by a white officer in a station house bathroom ("Get on the wall, y'all/ Take your worth out your ass in the stall, y'all").
In the second verse, Flav recasts the "COPS" reality-TV show theme "Bad Boys" into a revenge fantasy ("Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do/ If you get caught by our motherf---in' crew?") over beefy beats. He taunts the police, alleging acidically that the officers who hit Diallo with fewer than 20 bullets have poor aim: "Shot 41, only hit 19 they need target practice." Although Flav ultimately dilutes the song by invoking the O.J. Simpson murder case, "41:19" nonetheless helped return Public Enemy to the forefront of political hip-hop.
Considering how much criticism his song attracted, it's ironic that Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots)" (RealAudio excerpt), released today (April 3) on Live in New York City, takes the most even-handed approach to the Diallo killing. The track opens with an aural portrait of the shooting itself but imagines an officer hoping his victim survives: "You're kneeling over his body in the vestibule/ Praying for his life" though it's unclear whether the cop is more concerned for the man on the ground or the firestorm ahead if the victim dies.
Springsteen, too, refers to the confusion that night ("Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life"). He goes on to describe a mother warning her son before he steps out the door for school: "Promise me if an officer stops you, that you'll always be polite/ Never run away, promise me you'll keep your hands in sight." The scenario depicts a society in which some are presumed criminals simply because of their race ("You can get killed for living in your American skin").
Where Le Tigre and Public Enemy clearly choose sides, railing against police brutality, Springsteen uses the song to meditate on larger issues. Just as "Born in the U.S.A." asked the country to look at the state of the union through Vietnam veterans' eyes, "American Skin (41 Shots)" calls on listeners to question the state of American race relations at the dawn of a new decade.