When the shocking murder of an unarmed Black teenager and its attendant community outrage tears us away from our usual navel-gazing mode, we watch—and really get—Zara McFarlane’s video for the insurrection classic, “Police and Thieves.” I actually visualized the roll call of names of unarmed Black people who’ve been murdered by police and reckless vigilantes from 2006 to the present day. They sped past my eyes like an LED ticker sign: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Shantel Davis, Johnathan Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell. Re-interpreted by the marvelous British jazz singer, “Police and Thieves” treads softly on this jazz-soul version, to bear concerned witness to a community’s suffering.
McFarlane, a Londoner fairly unknown in the U.S., was nominated for a Best Jazz Act award in 2012 by MOBO (the British Grammys). Her gripping “Police and Thieves” cover couldn’t have crossed the pond at a better time. Originally, Jamaican reggae singer Junior Murvin (along with legendary dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry) wrote and performed the song to address rampant gang violence and police brutality in late-’70s Kingston, Jamaica.
Zara McFarlane, who also has family roots in Jamaica, chose to record the song (also a Top 30 U.K. hit for The Clash) two years ago to celebrate 50 years of Jamaica’s independence. It was released on DJ/tastemaker Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings in January 2014.
Where Murvin’s version was a lit match, McFarlane’s is an aloe ointment. It provides some relief for this fresh infection on an open, centuries-old wound that chattel slavery left on our body politic, as yet another cop-assailant is put on desk duty or smuggled out his own sundown town in the dead of night to escape the over-policed community’s wrath.
Meanwhile, our dead have names to lift up, not just surveillance footage to vilify their memory. They’ve left behind traces of their inner lives on Facebook posts and, in Mike Brown’s case, a message to a friend that hauntingly reads like an epitaph for his own headstone. Bless the freedom song that articulates our pain and helps to give us safe emotional passage through these difficult times.—Sun Singleton
Sun Singleton is a Northern Virginia-born singer/journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @sunsing.