Bruce Springsteen has been giving a voice to the voiceless for close to 50 years. His heart-on-his-sleeve anthems have helped shine a light on important social issues throughout his career, using his god-given gift of storytelling to open up dialogue. Perhaps, The Boss’ most vital hour was his civil rights anthem ‘American Skin (41 Shots) which immortalised Amadou Diallo, who was brutally killed by New York City police officers.
The track was originally released in 2000, shortly after the officers were acquitted of all charges in the case. In a pre-social media world, the track helped bring Diallo’s murder back into public discourse and made sure that people didn’t forget about the brutal, needless death he suffered at the hands of NYPD. When ‘American Skin’ was released, it caused huge media controversy. While Springsteen was being praised by some quarters of society, those voices were largely drowned out by the mass hysteria of people who were offended by the anti-police sentiment. Despite The Boss confirming this was a misinterpretation and the song was, in fact, anti-brutality, not anti-police, the anger grew.
Springsteen described the thought process behind creating such a volatile track in his 2001 published lyric collection, Songs. “Though the song was critical, it was not ‘anti-police’ as some thought. The first voice you hear after the intro is from the policeman’s point of view,” he said. “I worked hard for a balanced voice. I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view.”
His efforts to use his platform to humanise Diallo is a testament to Springsteen’s character and epitomises everything he represents. Using his voice for good, Springsteen set about trying to help create a better, more unified world. It is something that has always been a key feature of The Boss and his career in the limelight.
It’s staggering that, rather than accept responsibility, Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, urged New York City officers to boycott Springsteen’s nine-night residency at Madison Square Garden in 2000 because of the song, which, all things considered, is an extremely petty move.
Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, was thankful for the track and has said she took it as a sign that people cared about her son, restoring her faith in society along the way. But Mayor Rudy Giuliani was incensed by it suggesting that it is wrong to condemn the officers who were acquitted of murder and other charges in February — without realising that their acquittal is the absolute reason why ‘American Skin (41 Shots) was so vital.
“There are still people trying to create the impression that the police officers are guilty, and they are going to feel strongly about that,” Giuliani said. The Mayor’s words sparked a protest by police offers not to provide security at Springsteen’s shows which says more about the petulance of the force. It inadvertently led to more people being aware that the police officers who caused Diallo’s death had suffered no justice for their actions.
Some 20 years on, Springsteen’s track is sadly still as relevant now as it was then, after the murder of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor. On his Sirius XM radio show in June which was dedicated to Floyd, The Boss opened his programme by playing ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’.
“That song is almost eight minutes long. That’s how long it took George Floyd to die with a Minneapolis officer’s knee buried into his neck,” he poignantly said. “That’s a long time. That’s how long he begged for help and said he couldn’t breathe. The arresting officer’s response was nothing but silence and weight. Then he had no pulse. And still, it went on,” Springsteen said from the heart.
“It remains the great unresolved issue of American society,” he eloquently remarked. “The weight of its baggage gets heavier with each passing generation. As of this violent, chaotic week on the streets of America, there is no end in sight,” Springsteen sadly conceded.
Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, The Boss has never been one to stay quiet on social issues, as the years have gone on. He is still as key as ever in helping society progress to the sort of world that he has always been fighting for. ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ is the perfect example of Springsteen risking his career for the greater good, the reaction of Diallo’s mother shows the importance of using music as a force for change.
Many assumed he would avoid the pressure and the song entirely on that night. Instead, he picked up his guitar and spoke his truth. Diallo’s parents were in the room that evening and thanked The Boss for his thoughts.