DJ Yella Says Police Violence Won’t Stop Until A Cop Goes To Jail For A Long Time
During the same week millions of Americans are celebrating (and others rebuking) the removal of Confederate monuments and statues in New Orleans, millions more are acknowledging the anniversary of yet another example of America’s complex, racially disparate society. On April 29, 1992, what have since been coined the Los Angeles Riots began, engulfing the city in civil unrest for days. 25 years later, the country is taking a collective look back at that chapter in history, continuing to compare it to similar events in the past, but, perhaps more prominently, to today’s climate.
As police violence and systemic racism against Black and Brown Americans continue to be disgraceful realities in our lives, the treatment of Rodney King by police in 1991 and the acquittal of the police officers involved reminds us only of how far we still have to go. Around the same time, N.W.A.’s explosive reality raps helped suburban White kids learn that America’s Black youth have always been victimized by the system, and, in many ways, predicted the forthcoming riots. As such, DJ Yella’s perspective on the state of racial unrest on the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King riots is one of the most directly connected to the historic uprising.
Speaking at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum in celebration of its new exhibition Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics, the founding member of the seminal Rap group took a few moments to reflect, saying “the first time I saw the Rodney King video, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these cops just got 100 years in jail.’ Obviously that didn’t happen. How many hits does it take to get a man [down]? I’d never seen a beating like that in my life. And by an officer no less. If that isn’t guilty, I don’t know what is.”
He goes on to place that violence in historical and personal context, saying “Before the L.A. riots, I’d only heard of the original Watts riots. But I’d also seen violence like that close up, but in smaller scenarios. When the riots happened though, it was just crazy. [Rioters] were tearing down their own city and that was the heartbreaking part. Then, a couple days later, they’d realize they burned everything down. There were no more stores, no more neighborhoods.”
Yet he emphasizes that the behavior of the “rioters” was in direct response to centuries of injustice boiled over. “I also understood the pressure that they were facing. Growing up, you always heard of cops beating people up behind buildings and letting them go,” he says. He sees a drastic difference in how police behave today. “Now they just shoot them. But back then, I was put on the ground [and] asked to get out of cars. It happened all the time. Three Black guys was automatically a gang. The only big difference today is we’re catching them on cameras. It’s not all cops today, just like it wasn’t all cops back then. It’s just a few. But now they’re getting caught.”
It’s then that he brings up his work with N.W.A., and how their pre-riots material was a play-by-play of the conditions that allowed for a Rodney King beating to happen, and the resultant riots, too. “Straight Outta Compton was a direct response to being harassed like that,” says the famed icon. “Back then, everybody knew what to do, but [N.W.A] had the balls to say it. That album was real, so different and so unheard of at the time. And it took nothing to make. Thirty days. It just clicked – the words, the lyrics, the titles – and it stands out today because we said what we wanted to say. The album was raw – but we weren’t trying to be. And nowadays, it’s still selling – but in places like Malaysia and Korea – and still by young kids. A quarter century later, that album is still a voice for people in the ghetto.”
In closing, Yella touches on where we are in 2017. “I don’t see the violence stopping, from the L.A. riots 25 years ago to the Baltimore riots from 2015 to today – at least, not until a cop goes to jail. Until someone gets 30 to 50 years – something substantial – I really don’t think it’ll stop. Right now, all they have to say is: ‘I thought they had a gun.’ And even when they have the right to shoot, you don’t have to shoot a person 10 times or in the back as he’s running away.” That’s likely a response to the murder of Walter Scott by a police officer, a murder caught on cell-phone camera and which led to the officer being charged with murder.
But that’s not to suggest that progress is bountiful. In fact, artists like T.I. – who recently made a powerful statement in which he says the only way change will happen is if communities of color have full power of those communities – are continuing what seems to be an endless fight for true civil equality in this country.
The remainder of DJ Yella’s statement can be seen in Rolling Stone‘s report.