This article contains spoilers for the film, so be warned…
This weekend, the highly anticipated biopic, Straight Outta Compton, opened in theatres to audiences everywhere and made almost $25M on opening night, alone. The film tells the story of rap group N.W.A., members Easy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella, and their rise to fame in the 1980s. While their first album, “Straight Outta Compton” (1988) was a bit before my time, I made up for it by bumping it during high school in the 90s. Although I grew up in Los Angeles, I’m a prep school brat and was born and raised in the suburbs, only passing Compton on the freeway on my way to the beach or the airport. In my youth, the music of N.W.A. represented a culture I didn’t feel I necessarily belonged to, but wanted to understand. As a young person intrigued by the musical revolution of the 1960s, gangsta rap represented an unexpected cultural commentary that coincided with my teen angst perfectly. For my generation, N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” is as controversial as John Lennon’s “Imagine” was to my mother’s and just as meaningful.
The film reminds audiences that, during the time N.W.A. was making music, Los Angeles was the place of the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots, gangs, drugs and the violence that comes with it–all of which the media broadcasted across the country on a daily basis. With “reality raps” (as Ice Cube calls them in the film), N.W.A. shared everyday experiences of the young black man, allowing their music to tell a story that the media didn’t dare.
Not to say that the lyrics of pretty much any and all N.W.A. songs don’t glorify drug use, violence and misogyny, because, yeah, they really do. As a woman, I can’t help but cringe at the recent Rolling Stone interview, in which Ice Cube defends his use of the words “bitch” and “ho”, and there is no doubt that singing about AK-47s and sawed off shotguns venerates a culture of violence that I neither condone nor participate in.
Still, if we listen carefully, “Fuck Tha Police” isn’t necessarily a rally song for killing cops–it is the anthem of young people who were bullied, terrorized and singled out because of the color of their skin on the streets of their own neighborhoods. These artists, young black men from Compton who made good, didn’t go out and shoot cops, they sang about it and channeled that rage into something positive.
It’s a testament not only to the staying power of the music but also to the state of affairs in America that the “Straight Outta Compton” album is just as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. With the deaths of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless others hanging over the heads of American police officers, the scenes of random law enforcement brutality in the film become even more poignant and disturbing. Viewers cannot help but wonder (and acknowledge, at some point, hopefully) that the struggles within black communities have not changed as much as we would like to believe.
Recently, the Altantic posted an article about the social burdens of hip-hop that reviews the influence of N.W.A. and asks the question, “where is the mainstream music that represents that struggle?”
It’s an interesting posit, with a complex answer that I’m not sure I’m qualified to give. What I do know is that artists such as John Legend, Janel Monae, Kendrick Lamar and Common use their celebrity to speak out for communities and create commentary on social justice causes, but today’s world is so much bigger and a yet billion times smaller than ever before. Mainstream media was consistently either kept out of or limited in their coverage of Ferguson during the 2014 protests, and still Twitter and #BlackLivesMatter gave audiences an insider’s view of the unrest. Social media allows people to rally around a cause and to communicate with others in a way that was impossible back in the 1980s, which is why artists like N.W.A. were considered so subversive–because they articulated issues that had never before been broadcast in such a mainstream way.
While problematic, the music produced by N.W.A. remains revolutionary.”Straight Outta Compton” reminds us that N.W.A.’s music was not only a voice for a troubled generation of blacks in America, but supplied white America (and my own suburb) with knowledge about our country and ourselves that we didn’t have before.