In September, Californian rapper Vince Staples was moved to tweet a blunt clarification about one of his best songs: “Hands Up is not about Ferguson.”
Many people hearing Staples’ blazing lyric about police brutality towards black Americans assumed that he was referring to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staples’ comment didn’t exactly make them wrong. A good song very quickly transcends its author’s intentions and lives a life of its own. During the Vietnam War, songs like Buffalo Springfield’s 'For What It’s Worth' and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 'Bad Moon Rising' became anti-war songs because anxious listeners demanded them to be. Similarly, if someone feels that 'Hands Up' is about Ferguson then there is nothing Staples can do about it. It crackles through the public imagination without him.
'Hands Up' is one of several songs to address either Ferguson or the broader issues of racist policing, including 'Don’t Shoot' by the Game, 'New National Anthem' by TI, 'Early' by Run the Jewels, 'Be Free' by J Cole, 'We Gotta Pray' by Alicia Keys, 'Tell the Children' by Tink and 'Black Rage' by Lauryn Hill. Those who think that hip-hop has neglected its sociopolitical conscience since the militant heyday of Public Enemy might be surprised, but then protest music’s tenacity and adaptability is often underrated.