The first time Questlove remembers being stopped by police was shortly after the release of The Joshua Tree in 1987: He had just finished Bible study in Philadelphia and was in a car with a friend after buying the then-new U2 album. The last time he was stopped was a few weeks ago in New York City: He had just finished his regular DJ gig at a popular Brooklyn venue and was in a car with his driver. In total, the Grammy-winning Roots drummer estimates that police have arbitrarily stopped him somewhere between 20 and 30 times over the course of his life. Questlove opened up about his experiences with law enforcement and racial profiling in a candid interview with Democracy Now!
"There's nothing like the first time that a gun is held on you," Questlove told Amy Goodman, the TV/radio program's longtime host, as he recalled that first stop in Philly. "We're 16, mind you, like 16, 17 years old," he said. " I remember my father telling me, like, 'If you're ever in this position, you're to slowly keep your hands up.'" (Watch the full two-part interview here and here.)
Questlove said he felt worst after a police stop in Orange County in 2010, when he was campaigning for President Obama. He said he was in a car with actress Jurnee Smollett, on an errand to pick up a housewarming present for his manager. He had pulled over to make a phone call and was soon swarmed by five police cars. "That was the most humiliating experience," Questlove said. "We had to get out the car. They made us spread on, you know, the car." The police then searched the vehicle while Questlove and Smollett waited in the back of a cruiser. They were let go. The next night, he attended the Grammys.
"It is absolutely probably the most humiliating, lowest, lowest feeling a human being can have," Questlove said. "Twice this happened in front of dates. And all I kept thinking about was like, man, like, nothing's more emasculating than to be emasculated in front of a girl that you like. You know, like there's just no coming back from that." Questlove said his most recent stop was conducted at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge a few weeks ago following an appearance at the hip venue Brooklyn Bowl. Officers pulled over his driver, shined flashlights into the car and asked him why he was sitting in the back "like a don," Questlove said. After showing the officers a copy of his new memoir, Mo' Meta Blues, Questlove said he was let go.
"This happens all the time," Questlove told Goodman. The musician is no stranger to critiquing racial profiling. In the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal last month, Questlove wrote a widely-read Facebook post in which he said, "The overall message this whole Trayvon case has taught me: You ain't shit." Questlove told Democracy Now!, "I identified with Trayvon Martin, like I felt like, OK, that would have been me in that situation."
The interview came just two days after a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the New York City Police Department's controversial stop-and-frisk practices had resulted a widespread and systemic constitutional rights violations, including unlawful stops and racial profiling. Questlove said he was "highly shocked" by the court's decision, because he had assumed that stop-and-frisk might simply be an entrenched "way of life" for communities of color. Indeed, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has said police stops in some neighborhoods should be accepted as "a fact of urban life" – despite NYPD data revealing that roughly nine out of ten stops don't even result in an arrest or summons. A New York State senator testifying in the recent stop-and-frisk trial said Kelly once told him the practice is intended to "instill fear" among black and Latino youth. Describing the emotional toll that ongoing, baseless stops can have on a person, Questlove said, "I think there's just a bit of our soul that sort of just melts away when things like this happen."