This piece is part of a special National Black Music Month series for pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up for more stories from the past century of policing and Black music in the South throughout the month of June.
The summers in Memphis are always long, but since the pandemic started, it feels like they're getting longer—and everyone finds their own way of dealing with it. A couple summers ago in 2021, I noticed how a family down the street from me had a steady routine on weekends when the weather got extra humid: they'd spend the whole day playing music.
Before noon, a tent would appear in their front yard, with lawn chairs, speakers, and a mic underneath. Then the music and chatter would start, and keep going for hours—four, six, sometimes eight hours. You'd get your Black summer standards, of course: Frankie Beverly & Maze, Cheryl Lynn, Prince, The Gap Band. Some days, you'd know folks were dancing under the tent just by hearing the claps and steady drumbeat of the "Cupid Shuffle." As soon as the sky started looking like the burning end of a cigarette, parents would start taking their kids home. I always knew when the after-party was on because the mood would turn on a dime: one time, the playlist went directly from Kirk Franklin to Too $hort, and I almost expected to see lightning strike our tiny dead-end street.
I never had any complaints about my neighbors' tent music, even when the loudest notes sank into my apartment's thin walls like the remnants of a pill dissolving into my tongue. I never heard anyone else complain, either. These sounds helped make up the neighborhood's weekly soundtrack: just like my neighbors' kids playing on the sidewalk, the motorcycles revving up a block over, or the slight brush of a stray cat slinking through uncut grass. But in a city like Memphis—where near-constant police occupation is a fact of life—loud music can be a real risk.
In August of that summer, Alvin Motley, Jr., a 48-year-old disabled Black man visiting from Chicago, was parked at a Kroger gas station in east Memphis when a white subcontracted private security guard and former Mississippi police officer named Gregory Livingston approached him. Livingston got into an argument with Motley "over loud music coming from Motley's car." When Motley got out of his car and walked toward Livingston, the security guard shot Motley in the chest, killing him within minutes. (A grand jury indicted Livingston for first-degree murder later that year, and he's scheduled to go to trial this October.)
As the Memphis Police Department faces a "budget-buster" lawsuit and Justice Department review over Tyre Nichols' murder—while continuing to pile up incidents of violence against civilians—it can be easy to forget that the struggle against policing is far from new. Long before the Black Lives Matter era, before the long Civil Rights movement, for as long as police have existed, Black folks have fought for different forms of safety. The same has also been true for Black musicians in and of Memphis, who've challenged this city's brutal system of human caging in unexpected ways over the past century—as the legacy of Black music in Memphis has been shaped by the steady consolidation of police power of all kinds.
In 1912, composer W.C. Handy, the so-called "Father of the Blues" published "Memphis Blues." The song became Handy's first hit, and it's a major part of how blues music transformed from a constellation of regional folk styles into a popular sensibility. And the blues left traces on everything that came after, including a radical politics of feeling, one that was built from below, and tinted the color of war.
Since the mid-20th century, police across the country have attached deep political meaning to the color blue. These days, it's common to see T-shirts and flags referencing the "thin blue line" that enforces law and order, and pro-police advocates have latched onto the phrase "Blue Lives Matter" in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Tyler Wall, Sociology professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, calls attention to the racial subtext at play here in an abolitionist critique of the "thin blue line" titled "Inventing Humanity, or the Thin Blue Line as 'Patronizing Shit'":
"The TBL fiction isn't merely that cops police the line dividing civilization from savagery… rather, police power is imagined as the actual line. Police are the front lines, the barricades, the ramparts that hold back an invasion of savage hordes threatening to devour civilization."
Here in Memphis, for nearly a century, blues musicians and their progenies in other derivative genres like soul and hip-hop have continued a shared commitment to refuse the police state's constant death-making. Two such men, legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and Stax Records soul singer John Gary Williams, come to mind because of how they directly confronted the Memphis Police Department's overreaching power and authority, which took both men into custody three decades apart.
These artists suggest another way of thinking about the history of abolition: not as a recent development by a few organizations and thinkers, but as something that's baked into the fight for Black liberation (and the progression of Black culture) in our cities.
Grand and small, raucous and subdued, citywide and block-specific, Black music has made room for every form of resistance you can imagine—and those yet to come.
1931: The Man with the Horn
There's a famous story about Louis Armstrong, the legendary New Orleans trumpeter, singer, and bandleader whose bold, playful performances rewired jazz between the two World Wars. It's been told a thousand different ways, but there are some details that are always present.
Armstrong, his band, and his white manager's white wife arrive in Memphis on a chartered bus. When police see the white woman sitting with one of her Black tourmates, they arrest everyone on the bus, releasing them just in time to perform for a rapt white audience. During this performance, Armstrong dedicates a song titled "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" to the Memphis Police Department. The band tenses up as they play, waiting for the officers to process the joke, but backlash never comes. In fact, the cops thank them afterwards, even shake their hands: what an honor, they say, that the great "Satchmo" had a song just for them.
Ricky Riccardi's Heart Full of Rhythm, a 2020 biography that covers the middle of Armstrong's career, offers the most detailed version I've found of that week: Riccardi pairs media accounts with personal testimonies from Armstrong himself, along with several of his bandmates and associates. We can start on October 6, 1931, when Armstrong arrived in Memphis on a private greyhound bus from Jackson, Mississippi—accompanied by a ten-person band and his manager's wife, Mary Collins. When the group tried to change buses for the next leg of their tour, they were harassed by the Memphis bus terminal's staff while a perplexed crowd stared at them.
The new bus was much smaller than their current one, with much less room to sleep; as Collins argued with the driver, who refused to take them, the band refused to transfer to a downgraded bus. The police were called, but the group continued to hold their ground. Eventually, officers arrested everyone except guitarist Mike McKendrick, who ran to a Western Union to call the band's manager, Johnny Collins.
The band's brief stint in jail was punctuated by a moment of levity when Armstrong was placed in a cell with his friend and valet, "Professor" Sherman Cook. When Cook told Armstrong that he'd accidentally brought a joint with him, the two smoked together—"we can't be in any more trouble than we are in right now," Armstrong said.
Soon enough, though, any potential charges were dismissed, and the band prepared for nine gigs in downtown Memphis throughout the week. The first was a radio broadcast at the Peabody Hotel—and this is where Armstrong dedicated his song to Memphis' police chief. Just as the retellings highlight, the band was surprised to see that their white audience wasn't upset. As trombonist Preston Jackson recalled in Heart Full of Rhythm, "After we were through there was a rush towards the band stand which frightened us after the experience of the previous day. But they were appreciative as they did not understand what he meant."
Much of the band's stay in Memphis was spent on Beale Street, a powerhouse of Black culture and capital during the 1920s and '30s. Still, many of these shows were only for white crowds: for example, Beale Street's Palace Theater hosted regular whites-only vaudeville shows called "Midnight Rambles." During that week's Ramble, Armstrong recalled that "the place was so crowded I had to climb over the floor to get to where I had to play;" more importantly, Preston Jackson spotted that "the first five rows of seats were filled by policemen and their families." Days after harassing and jailing the "Master of Modernism," officers came out in droves to see him blow his horn—a voyeuristic show of police power in an antiblack city.
What was the Memphis Police Department like when they caged "Satchmo" 92 years ago? What selective pressures might have set the stage for his arrest? There are real echoes of that old Memphis in today's city. As the Great Depression wore on, for example, Memphis frequently topped lists of the highest homicide rates in the country, which had been a consistent trend since the turn of the 20th century. In national media, Memphis was the "Homicide Capital of the World"—a title that might give Memphians today a jolt of familiarity. Brandon Jett, History Professor at Florida SouthWestern State College, has argued that "geography, demographics, and culture" all played a role in the Memphis' violent reputation: as a major transportation hub, the city cultivated a large transient population and a robust underground economy, overseen by a network of crime bosses and rival gangs.
It's fascinating to see how city officials tried to sanitize their image. Politicians and journalists often questioned if the numbers were calculated correctly; a common talking point was that many of the deaths attributed as murders were due to out-of-town victims who were brought to Memphis hospitals. The Commissioner of Public Safety, Clifford Davis, took a different approach. Speaking at a Black Baptist convention in 1930, Davis argued that white citizens placed most of the blame—and responsibility—on their Black neighbors: "it is up to you people convened here, as the religious leaders of your racial community, to see that Christian principles bring practical results in the form of a lowered negro homicide rate."
We also wasn't really allowed to be mad about the death of King or what we had seen in that museum. The Museum—the motel where King was assassinated—now is the Black hole around which this constellation of white economies of new Memphis thrives.
Throughout this period, most of Memphis' recorded murders occurred between Black assailants and Black victims. Segregation and job discrimination pushed many people into crowded, dilapidated areas, which became some of the city's major "vice districts" and created pressure for violent encounters. Nevertheless, we also have to treat historical police data with a certain skepticism: we must consider that this data includes a number of false arrests, and excludes murders that were never formally reported or investigated (like lynchings or police killings).
Statistics from this period were also fundamentally skewed by officers' routine practices. For example, police and judges made supplemental income through targeted raids under bogus charges: "sheriff's deputies raided Black residences and made wholesale arrests, usually on Saturday nights," writes Jett. "Regardless of the transparency of the charges or the inadmissibility of the evidence, justices of the peace rendered guilty verdicts and exacted exorbitant 'fees' in lieu of jail sentences."
When Black folks challenged the social order—or were perceived as doing so—policing was used to quell it. According to Jett's analysis of police reports in Jim Crow Memphis, "police, detectives, night watchmen, and streetcar conductors accounted for 66 percent of white-on-black killings" in Memphis between 1917 and 1926, mostly from attempted arrests—and lynchings by civilian mobs commonly went unpunished. At the same time, in the years after World War I, public discourse suggested that as much as 70 percent of Memphis policemen were Klan members. In fact, Commissioner Davis was himself a former Klan member, who'd previously run for city judge with the Klan's endorsement. Memphis police had a vital job patrolling the borders of Jim Crow society. They didn't just enforce segregation laws, or turn arrests into profit-making schemes—they enforced the unspoken social rules that make white supremacy feel tangible in our daily lives.
So when Louis Armstrong's chartered bus pulled into Union station on October 6, 1931, this was the police department that came to meet him. As Riccardi details in his book, officers bombarded the band with threats as they were processed in jail:
"While standing around, one officer alerted them, 'I'm going to tell you right now, you niggers, you ain't gonna come down to Memphis and try to run Memphis—we'll kill all you niggers.' The talk continued as they entered their cells, Jackson remembering, 'While we were held in jail they kept talking about how they were getting short of cotton pickers, how they needed cotton pickers, and how they needed this and needed that.' Zilner Randolph later recalled the officers still unable to get over the way McKendrick was with Mary Collins on the bus. 'This big, burly blankety-blankety-blank was sitting on the arm of the seat that this white woman was sitting,' one officer said. A captain responded, 'Why didn't you shoot him in the leg?'"
Perhaps these officers saw Armstrong's tour group as outside agitators in a way—breaking with the city's normal image of its economic and racial hierarchy, and threatening social order as a result. As Black folks were being blamed for Memphis' high rates of violence, it's telling that newspapers focused on one aspect of the band's arrest: police found six pistols tucked under their seats, which the band kept for self-defense while traveling through the South. According to saxophonist George James, "we figured if there was any trouble down there we might as well fight back."
The original "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You" was written in 1929 by Black singer-songwriter and comic actor Sam Theard. "Lovin' Sam" was a few years younger than Armstrong, a fellow New Orleanian just starting to record after years spent in the vaudeville scene. Theard's song quickly became a jazz standard: it got covered by some that era's biggest jazz vocalists, like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. In April 1931, six months before arriving in Memphis, Armstrong recorded "the most enduring rendition."
If you take the lyrics at face value, you hear about a man who's been sleeping with the singer's wife. The tone is menacing, but also tongue-in-cheek—"I'll be tickled to death when you leave this earth, you dog!"—and just about every cover you'll find chooses to give it an upbeat swing. But Armstrong makes the song political by changing the context in which it's being sung. He signified (to use a term popularized by literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), turning its mood and lyrics into a biting inside joke.
We often don't talk about Jim Crow explicitly as a policing issue. But when we take all the parts of this story together—the band's refusal to be denied equal service in the face of a violent police force, Armstrong's choice to publicly insult them as he performed for them—we can see how much these musicians risked to say "no" to the city's order, even as they had to survive within it. As Armstrong hopped from syllable to syllable at the Peabody, imagining the end of a policing system that saw him as disposable, the song's life-and-death stakes became real.
1968: Our Minister of Defense Was a Tenor
When I first came to Memphis for college, I was in the city, but I didn't know it well. I knew an image of Memphis that's been cultivated for people who are new: the image that tells you what neighborhoods to avoid, what cultural touchstones are most important, and what history is worth remembering. A key example is the city's civil rights legacy, which is undoubtedly Martin Luther King-centric. When you hear people talk about race in Memphis, there's a special fascination with the 1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike—and beneath it, a collective guilt over being the place where Dr. King was killed. As I learned the ropes of community organizing in the mid-2010s, I noticed how the older Black folks I met would often talk about two Memphises, one before King's death, and the one I live in now. But in the midst of that talk, I kept hearing about another, under-discussed part of that history: a Black power group called the Invaders, who were unfairly painted as "outside agitators" during the Sanitation Workers' Strike, and some of the last people to meet with Dr. King before his assassination.
From 2015 to 2017, I interned at a Memphis nonprofit that was known for working on public transit issues, homelessness, renters' rights, and criminal justice reform. I met several Invaders throughout my time there, at city council meetings, house parties, and sometimes when they stopped by the office. On one memorable weekend, my boss and I spent an afternoon with Coby Smith, Invaders co-founder and one of the first Black students to attend my alma mater.
After going to church with Coby and his wife Constance, Coby drove with me and my boss to the house of another ex-Invader, Juanita "Mule Train" Thornton. There were boxes of chicken, pockmarked with grease, and glistening 40s; the neighborhood was lively, that Sunday-after-church kind of lively where everyone just wants to be around other people, where the porches turn into traffic jams—all that coming and going.
As the three of us packed into Ms. Juanita's small bedroom, we settled into a rhythm of steady conversation. I don't remember what I contributed, to be honest, but I remember Ms. Juanita's kindness and frizzy white hair, how welcoming she was to me in a moment when I was still finding my footing in the city.
And I remember when the topic turned to music, of course: Ms. Juanita and Coby reminisced on folks in their circle who ran with local soul groups like the Ovations and the Mad Lads, a vocal quartet that was once signed to Stax Records' Volt imprint. In fact, the Mad Lads' lead singer, John Gary Williams, became the Invaders' Minister of Defense in 1968; a year later, Williams went to prison "for his disputed role in the nonfatal shooting of a Memphis police officer." Williams left his mark on the long Civil Rights movement in a brief moment where Black radicalism was front and center in the city.
The Mad Lads' four members met as tenth graders at Booker T. Washington High School, initially calling their group The Emeralds. After impressing Stax co-founder Estelle Axton and landing a record deal in 1964, they changed their name to something that reflected their "prankster" personalities. According to Mad Lad William Brown, the title fit "because we acted the damn fool."
Their sound also stood out in Stax's packed roster: less influenced by the funk and gospel commonly found in Memphis soul, The Mad Lads drew from 50s and 60s doo-wop that was more popular in Philadelphia and Chicago. Over the next two years, the group released a few singles that placed on R&B charts, like "Don't Have to Shop Around," "I Want Someone," and "Patch My Heart." But in 1966, Williams' career was, in his words, "rudely interrupted by the draft"—and he was sent to Vietnam "in a long-range reconnaissance patrol unit… taking part in missions that penetrated deep into enemy territory."
In early 1968, Williams returned to Memphis, rejoined the Mad Lads, and went right back to recording solo and group work. As the Mad Lads started their first studio session as a reunited group that March, Memphis sanitation workers had already been on strike for weeks—and the Invaders were mobilizing Black citizens to support it. It's around this time that Williams met John Burrell Smith, a key leader in the group who'd returned from Vietnam himself in 1967. In Prichard Smith and J.B. Horrell's documentary on the group, Williams describes how "John B. Smith took me under his wing, and he taught me about organization, and he taught me about my responsibility to the community." John B. tapped Williams to be the group's Minister of Defense, and Williams began trying to reconcile his music career with his newfound radicalization: "I tried to walk a narrow line—I tried to play both sides. I wanted to continue to record for Stax, but I also wanted to be an Invader."
The Invaders are an interesting counterpoint to the common image of larger Black leftist organizations during the long Civil Rights movement. Although there was a core leadership, the group's structure was largely fluid and autonomous, with small cadres taking on projects under the "Invaders" banner across north Memphis, south Memphis, and downtown. Ideologically, members drew from elements of Black revolutionary nationalism, Third World socialism, and anti-imperialism; Coby and Invaders co-founder Charles Cabbage were initially connected through SNCC chairman Kwame Ture during a stay in Atlanta, and the group often sought out disaffected Vietnam veterans like Williams and John B.
The Invaders are most well-known for their support of the 1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike: they encouraged strikers not to concede early in their campaign, and turned out high school students to picket lines and protests. They distributed Black nationalist literature and maintained "survival programs" similar to those of the Black Panther Party, like free breakfast and clothing programs, and tutoring for schoolchildren. Women cadre like Ms. Juanita (who were sometimes called "Invaderettes") routinely provided the on-the-ground labor necessary for these programs, and raised bail money when members were arrested. They also frequently did their own work outside the auspices of male leadership, like distributing birth control and recruiting sex workers in defiance of their pimps.
Undermining police power was key to the Invaders' approach. In the documentary, Coby recalls trying to defuse gang conflicts during the group's earliest stages:
"We would explain to guys that we did not need to fight, that our real enemy was not the guy from another neighborhood. The real enemy was the power structure, and the power structure did not come talk to you themselves; they sent their thugs, called 'the police.'"
Their experience in the Sanitation Workers' Strike made this antagonism even clearer. When Dr. King led a protest downtown on March 28, 1968, the climate grew chaotic, and MPD quickly stepped in to shut it down. In the process, officers shot and killed a Black 16-year-old, beat and tear-gassed protesters inside a church, and arrested more than 200. As Williams later recalled, "When we peeped around that corner and saw all these officers, it looked like they were preparing for battle, and we were only prepared for a march."
At the time, many in the city blamed the Invaders for turning the march violent. Former Invaders have consistently denied this: in fact, the group knew that police were already targeting them before the march began, and much of the core leadership either stayed away or supported on the periphery. Memphis police director Frank Holloman alluded to this ongoing surveillance in a press conference soon after the march: "We know that a group of young people have been threatening to take a riot action for some time." But ultimately, the police's interest in the Invaders went far deeper than one march or strike. As Williams would find out, the danger they faced was existential.
Stacks of files from the FBI's COINTELPRO program—a Cold War counterintelligence campaign aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, and sabotaging political dissidents—detail an extensive effort to dismantle the Invaders and take its members off the map. "At the time, I couldn't imagine the FBI taking any notice to us," said Williams. But they interrogated Invaders' friends and relatives, worked with journalists to publish negative news stories, and sent undercover MPD officer Marrell McCollough to serve as the group's Minister of Transportation—offering members rides in his Volkswagen station wagon. Later in 1968, after Dr. King's assassination permanently altered the Memphis landscape, Williams would find himself caught directly in the police's grasp.
In the immediate aftermath of King's death, as sanitation workers negotiated with the city to end their strike, "burning and looting resulted in more than $400,000 in damage to property" in Memphis. The spring and summer were dominated by fears of riots and anti-police violence, reflecting the larger uprisings that spread in over a hundred cities across the U.S. Over one weekend in late August, Memphis newspapers reported several "sniping incidents" and firebombings that were allegedly connected to the Invaders.
In one incident, a 23-year-old police officer named Robert James Waddell was shot in the leg as he was sitting in his squad car. MPD claimed that Williams, his cousin Oree McKenzie, and two other 18-year-olds had ambushed Waddell with high-powered rifles, intending to kill him as revenge for another Invader's arrest. Bullets and cartridges from the scene were sent to FBI ballistics experts in Washington, and MPD searched the office of a federal anti-poverty program where some Invaders had worked.
MPD claimed that they'd identified their four suspects after interrogating a 16-year-old acquaintance of McKenzie who said he had seen them just before the shooting. Media narratives of the shooting came almost exclusively from police, at a moment when officers and journalists were trying to connect the Invaders with crimes across the city. It's unclear how many of these charges were substantive—and a number of people charged as "Invaders" had questionable ties to the group—but whenever police name-dropped the group, newspapers jumped at the chance to cover them again. Six months after Williams' arrest, Coby Smith told religious leaders in a press conference that "almost every man labeled by the local news media as a 'black militant' has been thrown into jail."
Williams' trial took place in February of 1969, and prosecutors repeatedly brought up his Invaders ties to suggest his guilt. "A brown plastic medallion marked 'Invaders' found in Williams' car" was used as evidence, though defense lawyers tried to have it removed. Meanwhile, his co-defendant Ben Heard Berry received a separate trial after agreeing to testify against the other three. The Commercial Appeal claimed that when Berry's lawyer received evidence of his client's guilt, "he refused to plead [Berry] innocent and urged him to plead guilty instead."
Although Williams admitted to driving the group around on the night of the shooting, he denied being involved, and testified that he "went along in an effort to dissuade the others, particularly his cousin." Reporters who were in the courtroom described Williams as "a thin-faced, thoughtful type," "speaking in a low, almost inaudible voice, and frequently wiping his eyes" as he was questioned.
Nevertheless, Williams was convicted of "intent to commit voluntary manslaughter," and sentenced to two years in prison at the Shelby County Penal Farm. His cousin Oree McKenzie, on the other hand, received a longer sentence, and he had been already convicted in a separate case for an alleged "riot at Carver High School." When the judge asked them for comments after sentencing, newspapers reported these words from McKenzie, who was just 19 years old: "The verdict is fair and just and I accept it. I add only what the Bible says, 'A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.'" If Williams had anything to say to the judge, journalists didn't include his words. According to the Commercial Appeal, Williams mostly had music on his mind: "[he] said he will use his freedom on bond till March 18 to lead his Mad Lads in making some new recordings."
When he was released from prison, Williams went back to work with the Mad Lads once again, but it felt like their moment in the spotlight had passed. The group continued releasing music over the next few years, but by 1972, the Mad Lads split up. In 1973, Williams completed a self-titled album for Stax, which has mainly been remembered for its single, "The Whole Damn World is Going Crazy." Later in life, Williams became a strong advocate for culture and community in South Memphis, while dealing with various health issues. He struggled with PTSD for a long time, and lost his voice because of throat cancer a year before his death in 2019.
Williams' work with the Invaders challenges traditional ideas of how Memphis' Black musicians related to the Civil Rights movement. Stax Records was known as politically forward-thinking in the 1960s, initially because of their integrated staff and studio sessions. As "Black Power" became a mainstream concept and Stax hired its first Black chairman, Al Bell, the label "amplified the musical and lyrical 'blackness' of its recordings, used nationalist rhetoric in its advertisements and public statements, and allied with African American political organizations in order to force the issue of racial disparity in the music business." But in the face of rampant police warfare, this approach could only go so far. In his book Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, Rhodes College professor Charles Hughes argues that "the label's relationship to the era's racial militancy was more ambivalent," and that businessmen and politicians played on Stax's "integrated Memphis sound" to downplay the city's unresolved racial tensions.
The Invaders broke from liberal ideas of respectability and integrationism that often shaped civil rights leaders' interactions with police—and that may be one reason why law enforcement was so invested in destroying them. As ex-Invader Willie Henry says in the documentary, "We weren't preaching nonviolence, we were preaching self-defense. And so, we were an easy mark for people to try to blame."
Not long after Williams' conviction in 1969, FBI agents in Memphis sent a memo to national director J. Edgar Hoover, with a copy of a newspaper article from the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Titled "Invaders vs. the Law—Box Score to Date," the article details more than 30 alleged Invaders who had been arrested or convicted by that time, including Williams. Sections of the FBI's short memo have been redacted, but its final phrase stands out through the smudged ink and lines of static on the page: "every effort will be made to discredit this black power group at Memphis, Tennessee."
The Blues are the Colors of War
The development of blues music in the Jim Crow South was deeply connected to the everyday labor of surviving an antiblack world. In his 1998 history of political struggle in Mississippi Delta, the late Black Studies scholar Clyde Woods sees the blues as an analytical framework, a political philosophy of the Black working class: "what is being expressed in the blues and its extensions is a critique of plantation culture in all its manifestations." It's no coincidence that imprisoned Southerners crafted many famous blues "work songs" behind bars for public consumption, sometimes through coercion by the prisons themselves.
If we extend Woods' argument, we could consider American police forces and prisons as another relic of the plantation—and we could see the despairing outlaw common to blues music as a reflection of policing's inherent flaws and limits. What's a plantation without the people deputized to enforce its order?
Incarcerated musicians have crafted some of the most iconic songs in American history, but from convict leasing to JPay, Southern prisons have also been the sites of cultural and creative extraction, offering performers little in return.
Memphis has long served as a site of innovation for Black music and the Black radical imagination: a place where the political conditions of Black life were translated into something that spoke to a wide range of feeling and experience. Throughout this year, Tyre Nichols' murder at the hands of MPD has felt like a reckoning—the latest in a long history of local reckonings that have exposed the brutality of police departments nationwide. But the national spectacle of cases like these can also obscure the routine conditions that shape Memphis' justice system: like the city's 26.5 percent Black poverty rate, a county jail that's seen 40 deaths in the past five years, and the scores of people whom MPD has killed before they made it to jail at all.
Black musicians in Memphis have frequently called attention to that everyday routine of state violence—the way that racialized police abuse is simply a fact of life. There's maybe no better example than Memphis hip-hop, which has birthed a new class of superstars in the past decade while influencing other hip-hop scenes across the South and East Coast. When community organizers recently pushed Memphis City Council to ban the use of pretextual traffic stops—in which officers use minor traffic infractions to investigate drivers for other crimes—I was reminded of the late "King of Memphis," Young Dolph. On "The Land," a track from his 2020 album Rich Slave, Dolph describes a traffic stop not far from what Nichols experienced:
"The police pulled me over for nothin', just because she racist / two minutes later, it's five police cars, they got me face down on the pavement / just cause I'm a black man in America / that's what give them permission to treat us terrible."
The music video features a battered squad car, covered in graffiti of "R.I.P."s and protest chants; Dolph shakes a can of spray paint in anticipation, circles the car with a baseball bat, stands on its roof, shatters its windows. Every scene in the video pops with the color blue: like Dolph's baseball caps, the pulsing glow of sirens, and the bits of glass piling up on the car's hood. In one especially intense moment, cops shove Dolph's face into an American flag on the ground, his cheek brushing against the flag's blue corner. "They say this the land of the free," he raps, looking straight at the camera. "It seem like the land of bullshit to me."