In the late 1980s when the gangsta rap pioneers of N.W.A were hitting the scene, I couldn’t relate to their music. It was vile, misogynistic and testosterone-filled, and I hated it. At the same time, “The Cosby Show” was all the rage and if there was an entertainer to whom I thought I could relate, it was Bill Cosby.
Ironic now, huh?
The N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” opened last weekend to impressive reviews and even more impressive box office numbers. It’s a must-see if you want to understand the deep fissures that exist in tough neighborhoods between the police and the people who tend to need law enforcement the most.
It also beautifully explains why young African-American men growing up under siege in the gang and drug-infested neighborhood of Compton, Calif., could pen a song called “(F-word) Tha Police.” And why that song would become an anthem for a generation.
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Still, the movie and the music have their flaws, which I'll address later.
I grew up on Chicago’s South Side in a fenced-in community where residents were striving to be middle-class. But the area just outside the gate, just across the street, had a lot in common with the beleaguered Compton, where N.W.A members Ice Cube (born O'Shea Jackson), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and the late Eric “Eazy-E” Wright were coming of age.
Both were places where police officers (black as well as white) reigned with the same degree of ruthlessness as the gangbangers. A young black man, no matter whether he was gang-affiliated, was fresh meat to both.
One might think that poverty alone consigns residents to these types of communities, but it’s often a series of systematic and systemic failures. Garbage isn’t removed as consistently as in other neighborhoods. Streetlights aren’t replaced. Schools aren’t as good. The Constitution doesn’t exist when it comes to policing. There’s a lack of jobs. A lack of opportunity.
One movie can’t begin to drill down into how complicated this is, but I especially recommend “Straight Outta Compton” to the readers – most of you who identified yourselves as white men – who wrote to me last week about my column on how video has helped illuminate some police-involved deaths of African-Americans.
You kindly offered advice regarding how blacks should act during traffic stops and other encounters with the police:
“Dawn, I’m a white guy who was pulled over for the exact same offense (as Sandra Bland). Believe me, I was furious. The reason I wasn’t arrested or shot was because I still respected the officer and I was courteous. … Why can’t blacks understand this?”
I’m not sure if this type of advice is wishful or magical thinking. It suggests that the only thing black people have to do is act like white people and everything would be fine and just. My advice: See the movie, because apparently real-life videos aren’t enough.
The N.W.A’s rhymes were obscene. But so were the conditions that gave rise to the songs.
In the movie, Ice Cube says at a news conference: “Our art is a reflection of our reality.”
And, sadly, it’s a reality that still needs reflecting.
My biggest problem with gangsta rap is that it still glorifies violence and gang rivalries, bravado and excess. I can find nothing redemptive about any of this.
And then there’s the misogyny.
In “Straight Outta Compton,” the women serve solely at the pleasure of the men and are one-dimensional, brainless sex objects. (If I never see another thonged, gyrating derriere, it would be too soon.)
The exception is the character who plays Tomica Woods-Wright, the wife of Eazy-E, who gives her husband proof that he’s being cheated by manager Jerry Heller. But her role is a tiny one.
I’ve never followed rap music closely. But I do know that N.W.A and other early rap groups wanted to be socially conscious as well as capitalists.
The social consciousness gave rap music a poignancy, an urgency, that helped validate the existence of people living in tough neighborhoods. The lyrics were equal parts mirror and lifeline.
There are artists who are trying to speak truth to power today. But we don’t hear them as much. That’s because, for years now, the music industry’s big concern has been with crossing over, rather than reaching back. It’s the negative stuff that’s amplified.
As the movie credits rolled, one of the N.W.A members said, “Our music was our weapon.”
I wish that were more the case today, figuratively and literally.
Dawn M. Turner is a Chicago Tribune columnist. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.