BINGHAMTON, N. Y. — A new study brings to light how songs made famous by hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and the legendary group Public Enemy demonstrate and expose a so-called “cop voice,” or a way that police and law enforcement officials “weaponize” their voices around minorities.
Researchers from Binghamton University say “cop voice” is a tool that establishes a “sonic color line.” This concept is a learned cultural mechanism that draws racial differences using listening habits and sound to communicate one’s position as a white or non-white citizen.
“I define ‘cop voice’ as the way in which police wield a vocal cadence and tone structured by and vested with white masculine authority, a sound that exerts a forceful, unearned racial authority via the sonic color line to terrorize people of color,” explains Jennifer Lynn Stoever, author of the study and a Binghamton associate professor of English, in a university release. “Intentionally wielded, although allegedly ‘inaudible’ to its users, cop voice almost immediately escalates routine police interactions with people of color…”
As heard in the Jay-Z song “99 Problems,” the rapper mimics a police officer’s voice as the cop harasses him at a traffic stop: “You was doin’ 55 in a 54. / License and registration and step outta the car. / Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are?”
Stoever says Jay-Z’s representation of “cop voice” is an accurate portrayal of yet another subtle method of subjugation that law enforcement officers utilize when speaking to people of color. Police use this gendered and radicalized way of speaking to provoke fear and compliance in people of color.
“Jay-Z’s performance of this cop marshals the sound of whiteness, and involves accent, tone and grain – but it is more than these things, and yet all of these things at once. It is a cadence, an ideologically rhythmic iteration of white supremacy in the voice, one that surrounds, animates and shapes speech,” she writes. “Jay-Z’s lyrical and vocal performance of cop voice embodies and deliberately grinds against the edge of the sonic color line, calling attention to it and enacting its relations of power by inhabiting whiteness with audible masculine swagger and expectation of immediate obedience.”
Stoever also examined songs by Public Enemy and KRS-One to analyze how they use cop voice as a trope to investigate and interrogate police violence in black communities.
“When rappers re-enact the cadence of white supremacy in their songs, I argue, they use their vocal tone, cadence and timbre to share embodied listening experiences as black men and women,” writes Stoever. “By re-enacting these everyday moments, rappers verbally cite the violence inherent in the masculinist sound of the cop voice itself: the confident, assured violence propelling those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s.”
The study was published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies.