February 4th 2018 is the 19th anniversary of the death of an unarmed African immigrant in New York called Amadou Diallo. The 23-year-old had the misfortune to match the description of a wanted criminal and was shot dead by police in the street outside his Bronx apartment building in a tragic case of mistaken identity. A subsequent enquiry revealed that the police officers had collectively fired 41 live rounds, 19 of which hit their target. This astonishing fact is immortalised by American storyteller Bruce Springsteen's most controversial song, American Skin (41 Shots).
"No other song I'd written, including Born in the USA, ever received as confused and controversial a reaction as American Skin," Springsteen wrote in his autobiography in 2016. "It truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race, and in America, to this day, race cuts deep."
The police reported that Amadou Diallo had made a dash for the door to his apartment building and ignored their calls to stop. When he reached into his jacket, they believed he was reaching for a gun and opened fire. It was clear afterwards that he had in fact been reaching for his wallet. Four officers were charged with second-degree murder. Social justice campaigners and critics of the police considered the barrage of bullets exceeded reasonable force so overwhelmingly that the killing could not possibly be justified, but all four men were acquitted.
In the book, Springsteen recalls being inspired to write this mournful song, which takes pains not to be inflammatory or apportion blame for Amadou's death. American Skin had its first airing in Atlanta. The New York Post picked up on it prior to Springsteen's upcoming concert at Madison Square Garden and kicked up an outcry against Springsteen, with a leading New York police spokesman describing the singer as a "dirtbag" and a "floating fag", a nonsensical insult which Springsteen has enjoyed mocking since.
There were numerous calls for him to omit the new song from his New York show. By the time the E Street Band got to New York City, the atmosphere was tense with expectation. The show was recorded for posterity, making this the definitive recorded version of American Skin, although Springsteen later recorded it for his studio album High Hopes. At the start of the song you can hear what Springsteen describes as "incongruous" hand-clapping, which he tries to silence.
"I could hear some scattered booing," Springsteen says in his book. "Regardless of what they say it is quite distinctive to the ear from 'Bruuuuuuuce'-ing! Well, that was to be expected. Then several angry young men, one flashing a badge and saluting me with the New Jersey state bird, rushed to the front of the stage. They stood for a moment shouting at my feet; what, I can couldn't quite tell, but it wasn't greetings and salutations. They were shortly hustled away by Garden security. We played on to a mixture of supportive applause and boos with the Diallos [Amandou's mother and stepfather, who had asked to attend] in view in their seats and that was it... You could feel the audience in the Garden breathe a sigh of relief. The world had not ended."
"I worked hard for a balanced voice," he explains, hoping to get through to those who insist on taking sides. "I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted help people see the other guy's point of view... The first lines you hear after the intro are from the policeman's point of view: 'Kneeling over his body in the vestibule, praying for his life.' In the second verse, a mother tries to impress on her young son the importance of his simplest actions in the neighbourhood where the most innocent of motions (your hand reaching for your wallet or moving out of sight) can be misinterpreted with deadly consequences."
You can learn more about Bruce Springsteen here
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
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