social-commentary

Uprising: Re-Examining The L.A. Riots

By Stereo Williams

It's been thirty years since the Rodney King verdict; a watershed moment in contemporary American history. This society has no shortage of racial flashpoints, but the simmering hostilities and racial unrest that was revealed in 1992 Los Angeles have had a lingering effect on American culture. When the world saw the 1991 beating of Rodney King, it blew the lid off of any continuing naïveté about police brutality; when the officers who beat King were found not guilty in April 1991, it was like a taking a match to the powder keg of systemic racism.

And prominent rappers were in the middle of the storm.

In the early 1990s, Hip-Hop was becoming recognized as a generation's sociopolitical voice. Hip-Hop culture sprang from a community that had been neglected and scorned by much of society, and the politics of that community informed the ethos from the very beginning. But as rap music had become lucrative and controversial, and as rappers were becoming icons in a music industry that spent most of the 1980s debating whether or not the genre would even last longer than a few years; the cultural power of Hip-Hop was under a bigger lens than ever.

And in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the April 1992 acquittal of the officers involved, the rage heard on so many rap records now seemed prophetic.

In the 1980s, Ice-T was one of the first L.A. rappers to gain national exposure; and he quickly became infamous his gritty street tales. Ice's music was unfiltered and angry; examinations of life in Los Angeles through the lens of hustlers and bangers. But in 1991, Ice formed a heavy metal band called Body Count, and released what would become the most notorious song of his career: "Cop Killer." The song made Ice a target for political watchdogs, especially the George H.W. Bush White House, which was in the midst of a re-election bid.

"Maybe I underestimate my juice," Ice told ROLLING STONE in 1992. "But there’s people out there with nuclear bombs, people with armies, and the president has time to sit up and get into it with me? But I’m fully aware that the president still has no idea who I am. He has advisers, people with their ear to the street. They’re listening to everything that’s going on and reaching for straws, especially during a presidential race."

In 1992, Tupac Shakur wasn't as established as Ice-T, but the young rap star and actor had suddenly vaulted himself into the middle of the political fray with his debut album 2Pacalypse Now. That project had also drawn the ire of Vice President Dan Quayle, and Tupac found himself at the center of his own police brutality case after he was beaten by the Oakland Police Department for jaywalking.

Tupac sued the Oakland Police Department for $10 million for false arrest and imprisonment. His criminal complaint centered on the use of force, specifically the way he was handcuffed and placed in a chokehold, which supposedly was a banned tactic throughout much of California.

Rappers had been taking the system to task for years. And it was the political fire of acts like Public Enemy, Ice Cube and 2Pac that had given platform to so many hot-button racial incidents around the country. The 1989 killing of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn was amplified by Public Enemy lyrics on their 1990 album Fear Of A Black Planet; as was the incident at Virginia Beach during 1989's Greekfest. On Ice Cube's "Black Korea", he raged against the racism of Korean-American merchants in Black communities following the shooting of Latasha Harlins. She was a 15-year old girl who was killed in Los Angeles by Korean grocery store owner Soon Ja Du in 1991. Du would be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation, fueling the strain between Korean-American and African American communities in Los Angeles.

Looking back three decades, and having witnessed the heightened tensions of the past ten years, it's hard not to feel that American society is trapped in a vicious cycle. Hostilities linger until they explode; in a system that is still hell-bent on marginalizing Black lives. But while the dynamics that breed the unrest remain woefully unchanged, Hip-Hop's role in how society reckons with these moments has shifted.

It may be tempting to suggest that today's rappers are more concerned with luxury and sex than sociopolitical commentary, but that ignores so much of what has happened in recent years involving rappers and social unrest. From J. Cole marching in Ferguson, MO, to Killer Mike voicing his concerns surrounding Ahmaud Arbery, rappers still give voice. But in the age of social media, the rapper isn't necessarily breaking these stories to the public. Thirty years ago, it was Hip-Hop that often informed the public about what was happening—because the mainstream media wouldn't.

In the Black Lives Matter era, it's been easy to draw parallels between what the public is witnessing constantly and the world's reaction to the Rodney King beating all those years ago. And the civil unrest that followed the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown and George Floyd echoed the pain of Rodney King a generation earlier. The cyclical nature of the trauma is what feels so heinous. Yo-Yo spoke to Rock The Bells at the height of the protests following Floyd's murder at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin.

"When George Floyd happened, it took me a long time to even watch the video," Yo-Yo told RTB in 2020. "I don’t think I’ve seen the whole video to this day. It’s because I grew up in South Central L.A. and I’m just so sick of it. My stomach couldn’t even stomach it. I’ve already suppressed all of the deaths I’ve had to witness and all the friends I’ve said goodbye to, just growing up in the hood."


"When this happened, and I saw just a little clip, it gave me horrible feeling. I felt like I’ve been fighting for so long that, in the beginning, I didn’t feel like fighting. But I’d never seen my dad cry about something like this. He’s a Vietnam vet; he was in the Navy. And he was calling me like ‘Yolanda, I wanna do something.’ One minute, he’s like ‘you guys gotta really vote’ and then I heard him crying. He was like ‘I’m sick of this shit.’ That gave me an awakening."

Whereas back in 1992, rappers like 2Pac, Ice Cube and Yo-Yo were twentysomethings seeking to be heard by their elders, now Yo-Yo recognizes the importance of connecting directly to those in positions of political influence.

Hindsight should reveal to anyone who is truly paying attention that what happened in Los Angeles over the course of six days in 1992 was never about lawlessness. It was connected to the same anger that burned Watts a generation prior; and that same anger burned Baltimore a generation later. It's a righteous rage born of witnessing a system that keeps Black lives squarely in its sights. The frustration that burned grocery stores back then is present when there's a collective exhale on social media whenever an officer is found guilty of killing a Black person. It's not relief. It's more an exasperated resignation.

Because regardless of what you may believe; we'd hate to have to tear this muthafucka up.