During his concert in Limerick, Ireland last night, Bruce Springsteen dedicated “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song he debuted in 2000 about the February 4, 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo by four plainclothes New York City police officers, as “a letter back home…for justice for Trayvon Martin.” If you haven’t heard the song before, part of what’s chilling about hearing it again in this context is that the lyrics, which describe a black woman talking to her child about how not to get killed by the police, remain as applicable now as they were a decade and a half ago. When Springsteen sings “Lena gets her son ready for school / She says ‘On these streets, Charles / You’ve got to understand the rules / If an officer stops you, / promise me you’ll always be polite / And that you’ll never ever run away / Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight,'” he could be quoting Levar Burton explaining the tactics he uses to try to avoid a deadly outcome during traffic stops by the police.
And the wallet Diallo was reaching for when he was shot could easily have been Trayvon Martin’s skittles and ice tea. As Springsteen puts it, “Well, is it a gun, is it a knife / Is it a wallet, this is your life / It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret) / No secret my friend / You can get killed just for living in your American skin.” The locations and the decades have changed. The results remain tragically the same.
Springsteen isn’t alone in invoking Trayvon Martin’s death on stage. Stevie Wonder has pledged not to play in states with Stand Your Ground laws in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Martin’s death, a substantive response to the laws that made that verdict likely, if not inevitable. Beyonce Knowles held a moment of silence for Martin during a July 14 concert. Soul singer Lester Chambers dedicated “People Get Ready” to Martin and was assaulted for it on stage. And three days ago, Young Jeezy, who’s ventured into politics in his music repeatedly, including on pro-Obama track “My President Is Black,” released “It’s A Cold World (Trayvon Martin Tribute),” which is a broader lament about the violent deaths of young black men:
All of these moments are important, and it’s absolutely important to keep the public emotionally engaged with the fact of Martin’s death. But I hope this momentum last, and that musicians move beyond directionless anger to action. Wonder’s boycott calls attention to a specific set of laws that will be difficult to roll back, but that at least present a target. Let’s hope others join him in focusing on Stand Your Ground laws and other policy issues, as well as the pain of losing yet another black man.