This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.
Beyonce may have slayed the Internet with her new song, “Formation,” and its images of a post-Katrina New Orleans and a line of police officers in riot gear facing off against a young black boy. But Monday’s 58th annual Grammy Awards show belongs to Kendrick Lamar, whose best-selling single “Alright,” became the semi-official anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer.
The rapper and his album To Pimp A Butterfly racked up 11 nominations, the second-highest number of nods in a single year. (Michael Jackson is still king of nominations in a single year, with his 12 mentions for 1984’s “Thriller.”)
Police brutality and racial injustice aren’t new themes in hip-hop. Last year’s N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” was a reminder that the West Coast group’s most popular song was 1988’s “F--k tha Police.” (Sample lyric: “They have the authority/to kill a minority.”)
The themes emerged more strongly with the rise of Black Lives Matter, after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and coincided with the growth of social media and a flood of videos — recorded on cell phones and police cameras — that depicted the often-fatal encounters between black men and law enforcement.
In honor of the Grammys, here are some of the most notable songs and music videos about policing in 2015:
Kendrick Lamar: Alright
Who he is: A 28-year-old Compton native who is also a darling of the culture elite. The likes of the The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, and NPR have fawned over him. President Obama said “How Much a Dollar Cost” from To Pimp a Butterfly was his favorite song of the year.
Don’t-miss video moment: A thickly mustached white cop making a gun gesture at Lamar, who is perched on top of a light post. Lamar then falls backwards in a bloody cloud.
Nigga, and we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho
Nigga, I'm at the preacher's door
My knees gettin' weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon' be alright
Brainiest fan: Writer Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize winner, annotated the lyrics of another one of Lamar’s hit songs, “The Blacker the Berry,” on the website Genius. (Genius allows users to comment on a song’s text). One of the song’s lyrics on Genius: "Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy (...): that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man."
Run the Jewels: Close Your Eyes (And Count to F--k)
Who they are: The duo consists of Atlanta-based Killer Mike and New York rapper/producer El-P, the only white rapper of the list. Both were critics' favorites in their solo careers before joining forces in 2013. Their second album — where this song comes from — topped many year-end lists in 2014. The video was released last March.
Don’t-miss video moment: A never-ending wrestling match between a white cop and a black man has neither a winner or a "bad guy.""Our goal was to highlight the futility of the violence, not celebrate it," said director A.G. Rojas.
My solitary condition's preventin' conjugal visits
Though mainly missin' my missus, they keepin' me from my children
Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision
The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious
A cop in the family: Killer Mike, the outspoken half of the duo, is a son of a police officer. So he's cautious not to lay all blame at the feet of all law enforcement officers. “I’m more concerned with the culture of policing. The culture is becoming more militarized, and that makes me afraid,” he told Spin magazine.
Vince Staples: Norf Norf
Who he is: The 22-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., released his first album, Summertime '06, last year. The critics loved the dry beats, and it appeared on a number of best-of-the-year lists, including in Rolling Stone and SPIN. In interviews, he tries to not glamorize gang life, calling it stressful: "You’re not going to make no f--king money, somebody’s going to end up dead, and you’re not going to be able to pay for his funeral."
Don’t-miss video moment: The way Staples treats being arrested as an ordinary fact of life. In the video, he doesn't stop rapping in the interrogation or while being carried to his cell.
I ain't never ran from nothin' but the police
From the city where the skinny carry strong heat
Norfside, Long Beach, Norfside, Long Beach
A fact check: In an interview, Staples said the guns and violence laced through much of hip-hop’s lyrics didn’t reflect everyone’s experience, including his. “We watched Pokemon. We skateboarded. We did everything everyone else did. I remember when I was in high school, T.I. was catching flak because he said his favorite TV show was ‘Friends’ Why does that not make sense? Where I grew up, the white people were across the street, the Asians lived two houses down, the Mexicans lived right here. We were all from the same neighborhood. We all did the same things."
Scarface: Mental Exorcism
Who he is: The 45-year-old Houston native, born Brad Terrence Jordan, has been on the hip-hop scene since the late 1980s as a member of the Geto Boys. The music video of Mental Exorcism, released in September, is a montage of recent news headlines that involve cases of police brutality and hate crimes.
Don’t-miss video moment: Pictures of newspaper clippings from the Charleston, S.C., church massacre are interspersed with images of Black Lives Matter protestors and video footage of a South Carolina police officer shooting motorist Walter Scott, 50, in the back.
FOX news tried to justify him
And ain't no way that you can clarify
In cold blood our lil homies dying
Another sign of the times but it's terrifying
That you could kill us off have us outlined in chalk
Thoughts on policing: “I feel like we're being hunted, you know? And yeah, I'm not cool with it,” Scarface said during an April interview on HuffPo Live.
Janelle Monáe: Hell You Talmbout
Who she is: The R&B singer has a unique voice and visual style, inspired by Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis.” She has released two albums since 2010, and received six Grammy nominations. On Twitter, where she has 664,000 thousand followers, she has spoken many times about police brutality and gun control. She was the headliner of a REDF benefit in 2014.
Don’t-miss moment: Monáe didn't make a video for this song, but she appeared in some protests like this one, shot at Millennium Park in Chicago, to perform it. Watch when Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland's mother, joins the stage to sing the names of other people killed after confrontations with police officers.
Red, white, and blue
Here come the sirens
Only to dance
With the little girls on the corner
There's a war in the streets
And now a boy laying on the ground
Cut short: In August, Monae appeared on NBC's “Today” show to perform "Tightrope." Then she opened a speech about police brutality, saying: "We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know we stand tall today. We will not be silenced..." The camera moved away, and the anchor called for commercials. The hard break was planned, according to NBC, but fans were furious.
Alicia Keys and Jussie Smollett: Powerful
Who they are: Megastar Keys, 34, — raised in Manhattan — appeared in several recent episodes of the FOX series “Empire” and played fictional pop star Skye Summers. In November, Keys’ character belted out the ballad, a homage to the Black Lives Matter protest movement, along with actor Jussie Smollett, 32, who is depicted as R&B celebrity Jamal Lyon on the show.
Blink-and-you-missed it moment: You won’t hear “Powerful” on the radio anytime soon. The song debuted on the show and hasn’t attracted much attention, but fans can find it on the Empire: Original Soundtrack, Season 2.
How can we sit there and hide
The criminal justice plot lines of “Empire:” Actress Taraji P. Henson plays the show’s matriarch, Cookie Lyon, a former felon who speaks openly about her prison stay. (Henson won a Golden Globe this year for Best Actress in a Television Series Drama.) Her ex-husband on the show, Lucious Lyon, who is played by Terrence Howard, was arrested for murder during the first season, locked up in prison (Chris Rock appeared as a fellow inmate), and was released on $1 million bail during season two.
Charles Hamilton featuring Rita Ora: New York Raining
Who they are: Harlem nativeCharles Hamilton shook up hip-hop in 2008 when he released more than 100 mixtapes. He quickly signed a contract with a major label but struggled with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. After being fired, living in an abandoned building in Staten Island and forcefully institutionalized in a mental health clinic, he spent eight months in prison for assaulting a police officer. This song was his first recording after he disappeared from spotlight and was featured in the "Empire" soundtrack.
Don’t-miss video moment: The black-and-white video follows a young couple as they fall in love while participating in protests during the 1960s civil rights era. At one point, they romantically lock eyes as they join a line of demonstrators.
Love at first sight, but it was blocked by pain
So for you, I'll exceed the top 5 in the game
Protest as a love story: Hamilton explained to a reporter why he decided to turn the video into a visual history: “Now that I’m starting to see some clashing going on amongst the races and the powers that be, I felt it to be very poetic to describe the element of love in a tumultuous time.”