Cop voice: Jay-Z, Public Enemy songs highlight police tactic to frighten people of color

January 16, 2019, Binghamton University
Jennifer Lynn Stoever is an associate professor of English at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Credit: Binghamton University, State University of New York

What do songs by artists like Jay-Z and Public Enemy have in common? They feature representations of 'cop voice,' a racialized way of speaking that police use to weaponize their voices around people of color, according to faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Jennifer Lynn Stoever, associate professor of English at Binghamton University, studies what she refers to as the "sonic line," the learned cultural mechanism that establishes racial difference through listening habits and uses sound to communicate one's position vis-à-vis white citizenship.

"In the United States," said Stoever, "the ideology of the sonic color line operates as an aural boundary: sounds are racialized, naturalized and then policed as 'black' or 'white'."

According to Stoever, police use a racialized and gendered way of speaking known as 'cop' voice' to provoke fear and extreme forms of compliance from people of color. In her new paper, Stoever identifies the phenomenon of the 'cop voice' and analyses how three hip-hop artists have deployed it as a trope in their songs to interrogate in black communities.

"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," wrote Stoever. "Intentionally wielded, although allegedly 'inaudible' to its users, cop voice almost immediately escalates routine police interactions with people of color..."

Stoever argues that hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, Public Enemy and KRS-One represent 'cop voice' through shifts in their rapping flow or by using white guest rappers.

"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," wrote 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."

Jay-Z's "99 Problems," features an interaction between a white police officer and the black man he has pulled over. According to Stoever, Jay-Z changes his cadence in the song to take on the sound of state-sanctioned white supremacy that he hears in the cop's voice.

"The contrast in the interplay between the white cop and the black driver highlights the racial scripting inherent in the cop's rhythmic vocal aggression," wrote Stoever. "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. 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."

Identifying and listening closely to these examples of cop reveal how people who are raced as 'white' in the United States mobilize this subject position in their voices through particular cadences that audibly signify racial authority, while at the same time, never hearing themselves as doing so, wrote Stoever.

"In each of these songs, male rappers vocally emphasize how cops sound to them; parroting this speech amplifies how white people weaponize their voices in these semiprivate encounters to exert unearned racial authority via the sonic color line," she wrote.

Explore further: What does a 'normal' voice sound like?

More information: Jennifer Lynn Stoever, 'Doing fifty-five in a fifty-four': Hip hop, cop voice and the cadence of white supremacy in the United States, Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies (2018). DOI: 10.1386/jivs.3.2.115_1

Related Stories

What does a 'normal' voice sound like?

May 8, 2018

Have you ever turned the dial on the radio or switched the television channel because you found the quality of the presenter's voice grating? What is it about a person's voice that can be soothing, aggravating or even sensual? ...

Upgraded Deep Voice can mimic any voice in mere seconds

March 6, 2018

Via whitepaper which they have uploaded to the arXiv preprint server, a team at Baidu (China's answer to Google) has announced an upgrade to their text-to-speech application called Deep Voice. Now, instead of taking a half-hour ...

Police view blacks as 'suspects first, civilians second'

March 22, 2016

Most of the Ferguson protestors believed police view black people as worthless thugs and white people as innocent and superior - perceptions that, true or not, affect police-community relations in an era of persistent racial ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 16, 2019
This is not an empirical study. Experience suggests this kind of voice is used by all police of whatever "race" to assert authority when they feel to asset it over those that might "cause trouble". That question needs to be investigated empirically.
Da Schneib
3.3 / 5 (7) Jan 16, 2019
Having been subjected to this myself I have to say that it doesn't seem to me to have much to do with race.

It's just how cops interact with people. And this is much more of a problem than racism.
5 / 5 (5) Jan 16, 2019
In a situation where someone is unruly or agitated, the first thing a police officer should do is to get that person to recognize authority and tone it down. That's why beat cops wear uniforms. If that doesn't work, they use a command voice.

Using a tone of voice to indicate authority is a tactic that every police officer uses, regardless of race. It's either that, or show where your authority comes from by brandishing a weapon. Without hesitation, I think most people would agree that the former should be tried before the latter.

I can't tell where Dr. Stoever gets the idea that this is somehow "racist." It's not in the article. It may be nothing more than a political assumption to garner interest.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 16, 2019
"What do songs by artists like Jay-Z and Public Enemy have in common? They feature representations of 'cop voice,' a racialized way of speaking that police use to weaponize their voices around people of color... sonic color line..."

-Degeneration of the typical academie intellect. How many brainless buzzwords can you count?

Consider that the music of artists like Jay-Z and Public Enemy, who advocate shooting cops and victimizing white people in general as well as other people of color (blacks), consists of weaponized tribalist language and dialect meant to intimidate and alarm.

"All but one of the murder victims in St. Louis last year were Black, and everybody accused of those murders were also Black. Those were the statistics that prompted one of the city's top law enforcement officials to make a personal plea to his fellow African-Americans: Stop it now."

-Apparently the problem is self-correcting.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 16, 2019
Having been subjected to this myself I have to say that it doesn't seem to me to have much to do with race
Still stealing candy bars from the wawa in your antifeh ninja jammies? What do you expect?
not rated yet Jan 16, 2019
It is easy to guess the race of the posters, their political affiliation, and their socioeconomic status.

But yes, a great percentage of the USA police is hardcore racist and display patterns of abuse.

It was not even my idea. When I went to study to the USA, my white upper class roommates and buddies from school gave an intro to the real USA as many of them called, telling me that since I was not from there, I had the TV version of it. One thing that they independently asserted, and I think it was true, was that the known bullies, open racists, sexists, most hateful people from their highschools became police officers. It would be typical that someone with psychopathic personality would try to find a job where he could have access to people to assault them.

But like everything else, one can not generalize, because I had the opportunity of interacting with police officers in the USA that were not racist at all. But in general, the pattern of their behavior is clear.
not rated yet Jan 16, 2019
Respect is good, fear works. SHUN ICKY. Just walk away from a cop, you'll find out soon enough if he has PC / RAS. Loudly assert your right to silence. Loudly assert your right to counsel. Do not resist. Save your contempt of cop until afterwards.
not rated yet Jan 16, 2019
But yes, a great percentage of the USA police is hardcore racist and display patterns of abuse
Cops can be tribal too, especially when they're constantly having to deal with hardcore tribalists who feel biologically that they have the right and the duty to victimize members of competing tribes, whether real or imagined.

"Primeval man", [darwin] argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on other tribes" (Darwin, 1871)

-If not the enemy themselves, cops at least prevent tribalists from exercising their most basic instincts re their enemies.

Tribes have their own laws, their own penalties, their own hierarchy of authority. The man ain't none o dat.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2019
Ms. Stoever is exhibiting all of the classic signs of a cop-hating "neo-progressive" academic race-baiting malcontent who sees a rogue cop hiding behind every police badge - just itching to shoot some poor innocent person of colour to prove his manhood. It is Whites like this woman who is setting back the clock on real equality as she exaggerates the behaviours of those who are sworn to protect the public of whomever needs protecting - regardless of race/colour, gender, etc.
It is this kind of rabble-rouser who likes to incite the distrust and fear of law-enforcers amongst those communities who need them the most. The problem is that there will be some who believe her lies.
not rated yet Jan 17, 2019

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.