Protest Song Of The Week: ‘Above The Law’ By The O’Jays
The O’Jays, a well-known rhythm and blues group from Canton, Ohio, that has recorded music for several decades, plan to release a final album before retiring next year. That album includes a tune which confronts the class warfare of the rich and their political defenders in Washington.
The song, “Above the Law,” opens with the chorus, “How much money would you give to live above the law, how many souls would you sell to dwell above the law.” These may seem like questions, but for the O’Jays, they are statements of scorn.
“As long as it’s working in your favor, you love the law,” they add. “Making our lives a living hell—above the law!”
It captures three dynamics: how elites manipulate the law to amass greater wealth, how elites use their influence to avoid accountability for crimes, and how elites wield the law to keep the poor and working class under their control.
As the group summarizes, the plan of those in power is to “re-invent slavery, erase the war on poverty, separate primarily by class—stealthily, carefully.”
“Go ahead and ring that bell,” the group sings. “An open market.” They juxtapose the casino for the rich, which the poor and working class do not and typically cannot access for their prosperity. And they ask, “Do the ones that work the most get to put any money in their pocket?”
Later in the song, it presents the racial disparity that is created by the law. “Black boy on drugs, imprisonment and a heavy fine. White boy on drugs, rehab and treatment to restore the mind.”
A lyric video produced for the song shows Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Fox News. When “making our lives a living hell” appears, the New York police who killed Eric Garner are shown.
It also features a TIME Magazine cover of Brett Kavanaugh, who was recently sworn in as the next Supreme Court justice. They include Trump Tower, as well as newspapers with headlines about banks dodging prosecutions and the rich not paying their taxes.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is shown kneeling as they sing, “Using religion as a weapon, dealing with me unrighteously.”
This is far from the O’Jays first foray into protest music. They may be best known for “Love Train,” but one of their most potent songs, “For The Love Of Money” (1973), was appropriated by President Donald Trump for his reality television show, “The Apprentice.” The song, bolstered by its catchy hook, decried money as the root of all evil.
“For the love of money, don’t let it, don’t let it, don’t let money rule you,” they sing. “For the love of money, how many things have I heard you say. For the love of money, don’t let it, don’t let it, don’t let money fool you.”
In the song, “Rich Get Richer” (1975), class conscious lyrics addressed the growing inequality gap between the super-rich and the super-poor. “The people who live on the hill don’t have time for the ghetto.” They added, “But they make money from the people who live in the ghetto.”
They said there were only 16 families that control most of the world’s wealth and name-checked the Rockefellers and Mellons—elites of the time period. Elites, particularly from these families, always win. They never lose.
As for the poor that live in one-room shacks, it’s “tough luck” for them.
Eddie Levert, lead singer and co-founder of the O’Jays, told Billboard, the song came to the group from producer Steve Greenberg.
“We immediately related to it. What’s transpired since the presidential election and the injustice that’s going on now directed where this song and album are coming from,” Levert shared. “Some things just need to be said. So either we’re going to get a lot of airplay or people aren’t going to play it at all.”
“If nothing else, it will hopefully open some eyes or get us blackballed out of this business [laughs heartily] because there are powerful people who own the radio and media needed for this song to be heard,” Levert added.
Walter Williams, singer and co-founder of the group, said they had to say something about what was happening with the Trump administration. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”
While talking to Billboard, Williams acknowledged this album brings them back to albums in the 1970s, which spoke to social issues.
“We did a lot of message material in the ‘70s. Some things have changed but a lot of things have not,” Williams recalled. “The cover for ‘Ship Ahoy’ [featuring the group in a slave hold] was controversial for its time. Even then we were all trying to figure out how to exist and get along. We were on a good track in those days and those [album] songs helped people understand and learn something as they danced. Now things are a little more tense.”
Listen to the O’Jays new song, “Above The Law” from their forthcoming and final album, “The Last Word” (due February 22, 2019):