Living in your “American Skin”
Bruce Springsteen and Police Brutality in Today’s America
What comes to mind when you think of Bruce Springsteen? A singer, songwriter, musician, romantic, voice of teenage angst? Along with all of these common associations, Springsteen is also a political activist who has called out the state ever since his first album in 1973. Springsteen has supported several presidential candidates over the years, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Few artists besides Springsteen have an entire section dedicated to politics on their Wikipedia pages. From recording songs like “Lost in the Flood” to “Born in the USA,” Springsteen has taken risks early in his career to stand up for what he deems is right.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” is a poignant song about the death of Amadou Diallo in 1999, when four police officers in plain clothes shot at him 41 times outside of his apartment in the Bronx. Nineteen of the shots hit Diallo, killing him. Diallo was reaching for his wallet when the officers mistakenly assumed he had pulled out a gun. This mistake cost Diallo his life.
Springsteen immortalizes that moment in the lyrics, “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? / Is it a wallet? This is your life.” The song’s lyrics highlight racial issues that continue to be prevalent in our country decades after the civil rights movement. The explicitly political song comments on police brutality toward people of color. The song’s live recording was released in 2001, two years after the incident, but Springsteen performed the song live for the first time in June 2000. Springsteen has continued to remind audiences of the song by singing it to honor other victims of police shootings, like Trayvon Martin.
“American Skin” critiques the state, specifically the police who killed Diallo and the institution of racism as a whole. Lyrics like, “You can get killed just for living in your American skin” specifically call out racial profiling while, at the same time, unite every American regardless of skin color for having “American” skin. The song angered the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association so much that the organization pushed fans to boycott Springsteen shows in June 2000, when the song was performed in New York for the first time. In 2000, The New York Times reported that the mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuiliani, and then-police commissioner Howard Safir disproved of the song for criticizing the police officers involved in the incident. The four police officers were acquitted of murder in February 2000.
Another verse demonstrates what black mothers say to their children because they know they are more susceptible to police brutality. The mother in the song tells her son to “keep your hands in sight” if an officer stops him and to “never ever run away.” This conversation is taking place in the home of a family of color. It is safe to assume that a white mother would not have the same conversation with her son because white people face significantly less police targeting and racial profiling than people of color.
The New York Civil Liberties Union found that in 2003, just four years after the death of Diallo, 54 percent of those stopped by the New York Police Department for a stop-and-frisk procedure were black, while only 12 percent were white. This gap continues to widen in 2019, with black people making up 60 percent of stops, while white people made up a mere 10 percent.
It is impossible to listen to Springsteen’s music without acknowledging his tumultuous, push-and-pull relationship with religion throughout his life. In “American Skin,” the line “We’re baptized in these waters / and in each others’ blood,” explicitly points to the Christian sacrament of being baptized into a church. Springsteen was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school until the ninth grade, but rebelled against the traditional values of Catholicism, like celibacy, during his teen years. In his 2016 autobiography, Born To Run, he wrote, “…once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic…I’m still on the team.”
Despite his numerous attempts to rebel against the Catholic faith, Springsteen recognizes that themes of Catholicism are strewn throughout his music. He can’t escape his Catholic roots no matter how hard he tries. “American Skin” is no exception of a song. In a filmed live performance in New York City in 2000, Springsteen extended his right hand out above the crowd in the beginning of the song, emulating a priest’s blessing. His arm quickly fell to his side when he began uttering “41 shots,” emphasizing the contrast between a holy place and a murder scene.
Racial profiling has long plagued the criminal justice system in the United States. Springsteen is just nudging the issue into the public’s radar again and plastering it there.
The aforementioned verse, “It ain’t no secret / no secret, my friend / you can get killed just for living in your American skin,” reveals that Springsteen is aware that he is not presenting a new idea to his listeners. Racial profiling has long plagued the criminal justice system in the United States. Springsteen is just nudging the issue into the public’s radar again and plastering it there. Creating a studio recording of the song in 2014 cements it as a legitimate piece of music that is going to be remembered for years to come. Springsteen still performs the song live to bring the message to a new audience. I was one month from being born when he first performed the song in 2000, but have a newfound appreciation for the song through his 2014 recording and recent live performances.
I had the opportunity to watch Springsteen perform the song in 2016 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. An image of Springsteen with his hands raised at his sides, eyes closed, whispering “41 shots” is ingrained in my mind like I witnessed it last night. Despite the massive, 65,000 plus crowd he was preaching to, his performance made it feel like the venue was an intimate local pub. Every person in the audience was silent. Phones in the air were lowered. Every person in the audience, ears open wide, grasped onto every word Springsteen uttered into the microphone.
A string section nestled in the back of the stage, shrouded by darkness, played several string instruments to open the performance, setting a somber, funeral-like tone for the audience. Band members whispered in the shadows over and over again “41 shots” as Springsteen sang the main lyrics. The repetition of the number of shots fired indicates that Springsteen does not want the audience to forget that number. Each police officer that day had 41 opportunities to intervene in the murder of Amadou Diallo. Toward the end of the performance, a single red spotlight illuminated Springsteen as he repeated “you can get killed just for living in” until the phrase haunted every person in the stadium. Springsteen looked as if he was about to burst into tears as he groaned into the microphone.
Jake Clemons, the nephew of Clarence Clemons, took over for his uncle as the E Street Band’s Saxophone player when Clarence died in 2011. On that September night in Foxborough, Clarence would have been so proud of his nephew. Clemons performed his saxophone solo perfectly, then receded back into the darkness with his hands raised high above his head. Clemons, a black man, is following the mother’s instructions in the song: “keep your hands in sight.”
Springsteen’s recent performances of “American Skin,” in which younger generations like mine are present in the audience, are bringing the song to an entirely new audience and movement. Most people in the Generation Z age range probably cannot identify Amadou Diallo. But they can tell you who George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are.