It’s five lines repeated over five minutes. The interplay of alliteration and repetition shouldn’t work. The juxtaposition of repeated lines in each verse seems untethered. Jumping from each verse seems to make very little sense. Yet, it is a masterpiece in its own right. Killing in the Name is the crescendo and the unifier for oppression and suffering.
The entire piece ethers complacency of a people that are taken advantage of. Of a people blinded to the reality that their instincts ignore: A people accepting that they are not worthy of the rights of the white American.
It’s the realization that the hyphen was never there.
Repetitions of “Now you do what they told ya” along with verses repeating “Some of those that workforces are the same that burn crosses” along with verses repeating “You justify those that died / By wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites”
This is the entire song. It is the interplay of terrorism happening at the hands of those in power while the masses stay put and orderly in the face of legalized, systemic oppression.
The song, just read as a lyric, has no feel to it whatsoever. In its vocal form, it’s the voice of a generation and a revolution.
Killing in the Name isn’t difficult to understand. It’s angry, loud, exhaustive, and fed up. It’s plain fire.
First released in 1992.
Yet, here we are, nearly 20 years later, with the message in those five lines emanating as powerful as ever. Its relevance burns brighter today.
Zack de la Rocha wanted the audience to focus on one, exact idea. The concept was simple, that’s why he repeats “Now you do what they told ya” 24 times throughout the song.
He’s seen the injustice first hand, being raised as a Mexican-American in Los Angeles and Orange County. De la Rocha has described places like Irvine as “one of the most racist cities imaginable” and said that the only reason you “were a Mexican in Irvine” is “because you had a broom or a hammer in your left hand.”
This song speaks to the fatigue of having to live in a society that only sees you as street trash. Music was exactly De la Rocha’s outlet. In these first four lines, he encompasses everything from standardized, arbitrary sources of power, the hypocrisy of those in charge, and the perversion of honor and respect.
When the very leaders of today have tried to use the song to back racist or backward sentiment, Tom Morello — the guitarist — has spoken out against it:
In many ways, “Some of those that workforces are the same that burn crosses” speaks directly to the ills of white American society.
“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed” — Will Smith
The song layers so much meaning into that single line. The racists of the world never left, and change never really happened. They selectively hid certain parts of their character, continuing to work alongside and interact in society every day. De la Rocha is channeling that same imagery from his childhood in Orange County, California, where he knows the Mexican-American is seen only as the prefix to the hyphenation and never the suffix.
It’s the ultimate euphemism for being seen as less than. You’re a second-class citizen without the formal title.
This song was released in 1992. De la Rocha was talking about the problem starting from his childhood in the late 1970s. Most people have known the fight for basic human rights and equality and civil rights spanning the entire length of America’s existence. This isn’t new.
The entire song crescendos with a single line — the fifth unique line in the song — repeated 16 times:
“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”
A society can’t ignore its inner sickness and pretend that time will normalize and heal pains. Where racists exist en masse, institutionalized racism will naturally exist, too.
Where leadership is poisoned, the people will rise. Where leadership attacks the very people it’s meant to protect, the people will retaliate.
“A riot is the language of the unheard. “— Martin Luther King, Jr.