Music and Social Justice

I’ve been a big fan of System of a Down since Toxicity was released in 2001, and “Prison Song” was one of the songs on that album. Their lead vocalist, Serj Tankian, formed the band in the 90’s with several other Armenian-Americans. Passionate for social justice and having experienced discrimination personally, the band was very vocal regarding political and social justice issues. I was awakening to the fact that deep and systemic injustice was not part of our past but alive and thriving in the present. I was also starting to see that America was on a path of escalating tension, easily manipulated by fear, but I didn’t have the language or context to fully connect all of the dots. In 1999, the Columbine Massacres had occurred, changing the way we interacted with schools, our administration, the growing police presence, as well as how students even viewed each other. There had been a substantial number of bomb threats within my school and then this album, with this song, was released a week before the September 11th attack. The timing of these events and their effect on me personally forced me to really question what I knew about my country and the people in it, both with and without power. I started asking myself what I didn’t know.

When I listened to the Prison Song, the statements that they were making sounded so extreme and outlandish that, at first, I thought they were using hyperbole to get their point across. But as I started to do the research and pay attention to the headlines and stories I was hearing on the news, I began to see that System of a Down was actually trying warn people, to let them know what was really happening in our country. Much of what they sung about I’ve read about in books, articles or witnessed through my community. For example, they state in the song that, “They’re trying to build a prison, Following the rights movement, You clamped on with your iron fists, Drugs became conveniently, Available for all the kids.” Consider the graphic below from prisonpolicy.org. You can see, based on the years, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the response of an uptick in the prison population. Our readings clarify the how: “Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.”[1]
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[2]

 

Later in the song they proclaim that, “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, You don’t even flinch, All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich…” From The New Jim Crow, we can understand what the statistic for minor drug offenders looks like a few years after the release of this song: “…four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in the state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.” (Alexander, 60) Rather than be concerned with the increasing percentage of our population sitting behind bars and asking what we can do differently, our nation responded with fear and the mission to use our taxes to continue to build more prisons. It certainly was a war, but the language around new non-rich is important. I cannot be sure of the bands intention, but there was a rebranding of black and minority America occurring during this time that made a war against them acceptable as long as leaders and people didn’t refer to race. We’d refer to locations (where these demographics were generally the majority), a specific socio-economic status or even a symptom of the deeper disease in our nation (i.e. crack addicts). Rebranding race as the “new” non-rich changed how people could be targeted.

There is so much more that was said in this song that transformed the way I saw my country, the people in it, and understood my responsibility to participate in social justice. Once your eyes are opened you have to make a choice on how you’re going to respond to it. I have to choose whether I will be a mechanism of oppression and injustice or part of the voice and movement against those who would systemically disenfranchise large swaths of people permanently. I am thankful for all of the artists, actors, and creatives who use media like System of a Down did in order to awaken people to the social issues of our generation.

Prison Song (Lyrics)

By: System of a Down

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison

Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated In the prison system, prison system Prison system of the U.S.

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

The percentage of Americans in the prison system Prison system, has doubled since 1985

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences

Utilizing drugs to pay for Secret wars around the world Drugs are now your global policy Now you police the globe

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Drug money is used to rig elections And train brutal corporate sponsored Dictators around the world

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

[1] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow, pg. 60. It goes on to say that from 1980 to the present, there has been a 1,100% increase in drug-related imprisonment.

[2] Wagner, Peter. “Tracking Prison Growth in 50 States,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/overtime.html Written: May 28, 2014

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