#144: N.W.A, "Straight Outta Compton" (1988)

144 Straight Outta Compton.jpg

There’s a long tradition of white people talking about N.W.A., particularly white dudes like me. As much as N.W.A. influenced pop culture and helped bring their brand of rap into the public sphere, they’re still largely a byword, a synecdoche of all of the things white people are afraid of in rap. In the times that I’ve mentioned having listened to N.W.A. to white friends and family, particularly the song “Fuck tha Police,” there’s always a bit of shock, like I’ve admitted to low grade theft or punching someone and running away. This is not to say that I don’t get it, to some extent. N.W.A. was an important group in the evolution of rap, but Straight Outta Compton is not without its problems. Constant profanity, graphic descriptions of sex, misogyny, threats of violence, and homophobia are featured in the album. And while we can appreciate that even words that are often offensive like “bitch” can be used in complex ways, that doesn’t change the flaws of the album and how it has to be read in context.

Which is what we’re afraid of the most, I think. And by we, I mean white Americans, particularly the middle class, the ones who see ourselves as living on the threshold of wealth and poverty, of the ultimate capitalist risk and reward. Whether that’s true or not is another discussion entirely. Listening to an album like Straight Outta Compton in context, listening past the difficult sections and the sometimes obvious issues in some of the lyrics, requires more of us than listening, it also asks us to give up control over our own narrative.

*

During the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, Coldplay relinquished the spotlight to Beyonce and Bruno Mars for a time. During her segment of the show, Beyonce performed sections of her single “Formation” off her new visual album Lemonade. The aesthetic of the album was unapologetically and multifacetedly black, the imagery in “Formation” in particular intentionally political and referencing key moments in black American history. In the halftime show, Beyonce and her dancers were styled after the Black Panthers. This image of Beyonce saying “Ok, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” as they danced in lines dressed like black power activists sent shockwaves through white America. People found it hateful or divisive in the middle of the #BlackLivesMatter protests and conversations, and one of my friends summarized it for her husband as “anti-cop,” even though there was nothing in the performance about the police or even #BlackLivesMatter, which itself isn’t anti-cop. Predictably, any vision of black power is seen as violent, antagonistic, and anti-white. The usual garbage. What might have offended white people the most was how inscrutable Beyonce’s symbolism was in the halftime show and the album as a whole, how unapproachable the references she made and how inaccessible for a general white audience. Beyonce didn’t care that we didn’t understand Black Panther iconography or felt uncomfortable with a black woman being strong, calling herself a “black Bill Gates in the making.” White America, on the other hand, declared that there was a war on police when that year cops were safer than they had been in decades. These songs were for Beyonce, from her experience, and to listen we had to let her have control over her narrative and, to some extent, ours. White people are accustomed to being in control of the national story, and any act that infringes on their control feels like “an affront to America and common decency,” or whatever. None of this backlash hurt Beyonce’s clout as an artist, but it likely cost her multiple Grammys she deserved when white and inoffensive Adele took the honors over her.

But: we’ve gotten off track, sort of. You see, 28 years before Beyonce and her dancers somehow managed to dance on artificial turf in heels, N.W.A. took control of a national narrative about race and law enforcement. Their narrative was so radical that it got them labeled the “World’s Most Dangerous Group” and in trouble with local police and the FBI. This isn’t the first time a black group did this, but it was significant. Calling out police corruption has never been that popular because admitting that the watchmen are corruptible means admitting that the laws could be too, even though we’ve got a long history of fallible and corrupt police in the pockets of the mob, beating prisoners, killing unarmed citizens in public, turning a blind eye to or participating in lynchings, brutalizing nonviolent civil rights protestors, sharing racist memes and conspiracy theories in private Facebook groups, and so on. As Rage Against the Machine succinctly put it: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” Police brutality and racial profiling is nothing new, and in LA just three years after N.W.A. dropped Straight Outta Compton, the LAPD would brutally beat an unarmed Rodney King as he tried to run from the police. The officers would be found not guilty of any wrongdoing, which would lead to a six-day-long riot which would do one billion dollars in damages and result in the deaths of 63 people. While the riots wouldn’t necessarily repeat, the cycle of police committing murder or assault on unarmed black men and then being acquitted in court would.

*

I’ve lived in Oklahoma since 2012. In the time I’ve been here, I can think of at least three incidents off the top of my head where police in Oklahoma shot an unarmed minority male and killed him. That might not seem like a lot from a raw numerical perspective, but even one is too many and the way these incidents played out are indicative of other abuses that go unseen. In one instance, the shooter wasn’t an official police officer, but a reserve deputy on a ride-along. An older white man who had been an adamant supporter of the Tulsa PD had been granted a reserve deputy position and would assist police during their patrols on a regular basis. During one ride-along, an unarmed black man named Eric Harris ran from the police and was gang-tackled onto the concrete. The civilian, reserve deputy drew his pistol instead of his taser and shot the man, apparently by accident. Harris pleaded with the officers that he couldn’t breathe because he’d been shot and was suffocating under their weight. In response an officer yelled, “Fuck your breath.” Eric Harris died not long after that. He’s just one of dozens of names added to a long list every year of unarmed people of color who have died at the hands of cops.

So much of this has happened since Straight Outta Compton dropped that it can feel disconnected from the album. Present events can’t precisely be read backward into past events, or at least, they can be, but not as causality. But the point is: Harris’s murder isn’t new. Tulsa was also home to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (formerly known as the Tulsa Race Riot) where thousands of wealthy black citizens in Tulsa, an area called Black Wall Street, were assaulted and displaced by white rioters. The white rioters burned down houses and destroyed black-owned property, and 36 people were killed. Tulsa rezoned the destroyed property into an industrial district so that community and generational wealth was basically shut out of Tulsa forever. The history of the event was actively suppressed and was intentionally not taught in Oklahoma History classes. City and state officials tried to erase the event as much as possible but were, fortunately, unsuccessful. From Eric Harris to the Massacre and back again across the timeline, narrative control by the white majority remains the same. Why listen when you can erase your faults, reframe the enforcers as pure arbiters of the law, and pretend that history never happened? But of course, N.W.A. very publicly says, “No, no, you don’t get to do that…”

You see, “Fuck tha Police” isn’t just about how the legal system is racist. Oh it’s about that too, but it’s not only about that. It’s about creating a story where the police get held accountable for being racist. What gets missed in the controversial nature of the song is how thoughtfully constructed it is. The song itself was partially inspired by an incident where the police harassed N.W.A. not long before the song was recorded. In response, N.W.A. structured the song as a court session where Dr. Dre serves as the judge while Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E give testimonies about police abuse they’ve experienced. In the end, Dre finds the police officer in the song guilty of being “a redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker,” holding court outside the justice system because the justice system can’t hold its own accountable. As Audre Lorde put it, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” N.W.A. knows this and even though their conviction holds no real legal bearing, in the court of public opinion they begin to shift how we consider the abuse of power.

This is not to say violence against police officers is necessarily productive or good. This isn’t an amoral process that gives carte blanche to anyone who has been wronged, though it’s worth noting that N.W.A. never actually advocated for that. Before I or anyone oppose methods or call for civility or whatever usual white moderate stuff we hear, I need to understand what “fuck the police” means. What abuse informs that position? What is it pushing back against? Why 11 years later would Dr. Dre, in his solo album 2001, continue to say “motherfuck the police”? Why have rappers and social critics alike used the refrain as a way to point back to systemic abuse and mistreatment? That’s not a comfortable place to sit because it implicates me. Because, look, I benefit from systemic racism even if I denounce it. If I like rap, it’s charming or comical. After all, there’s a ton of white joke rappers who play off the ridiculousness of how they rap, of them rapping at all. From Weird Al, the Lonely Island, and Macklemore, to even more serious guys like Lil Dicky, very few rappers can become totally serious and accomplished like Eminem. Even Shady’s first album contained a ton of quips and jokes that some of his later stuff doesn’t. I can step into a controversially space like “Fuck tha Police” or Straight Outta Compton and come out pretty socially clean by virtue of my whiteness. Other people like Trayvon Martin die because some dude thought he looked threatening while wearing a hoodie and minding his own business. Listening in a way that allows for someone else to tell me my guilt and admits that I’m part of the problem is dang hard, but the thing we have to do, the thing I have to do.

The common mistake I make at this juncture is to assume that N.W.A. somehow represents the totality of black experience and life. David Andrews, Ronald Mower, and Michael Silk call this concept ghettocentrism, or positioning all black narratives as flowing out of and through the ghetto. From a ghettocentric perspective, any black experience outside the stereotypical ghetto reads as inauthentic. This, to undersell it, ain’t a great way to look at black experience. Because through ghettocentrism, I’m still controlling their narrative. I get to decide what is authentic instead of listening to groups like N.W.A. and understanding that they are just one narrative that I need to attend to. Instead of resisting tokenism, the “I have a black friend” fallacy, the “I voted for Obama twice” white moderate syndrome. Sitting in the ambiguity of not coming to narrow conclusions about the experience of another group of people except what they tell me. Allowing my thoughts to remain open.

So I’ve managed to write from a white experience to an assumed white audience about an album by black artists from a particular black experience. How has this accomplished anything? How am I not appropriating? I don’t know, honestly. I don’t know exactly how to talk about this in a way that doesn’t benefit me in some sense. All I know to say about their experience is that we need to pay attention to it. To take it seriously. I could also tell you that Dr. Dre’s beats are insanely good (“Still Dre” will never not slap) and his headphones aren’t awful if a bit overpriced. Dre’s proteges like Snoop Dogg and Eminem have been mainstays in hip-hop for decades. Eazy-E’s “Boyz in the Hood” is smoothly delivered though problematic as he brags about assaulting women. His death from AIDS at 30 was tragic but also important in continuing to bring awareness to AIDS and show the white, middle class public how horrible HIV really was. Ice Cube has somehow managed to star in comedies, serious dramas, and family films while being an incredibly successful rapper, writer, and producer. Each of the members of N.W.A. are complex and flawed, but integral figures in the evolution of rap and discussions about race in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, and ‘10s. They fought with each other, made up, collaborated, and made one of the most important albums of the ‘80s. And yeah, they said “fuck the police.” And they weren’t entirely wrong to say it, much as I know the vitriol of that phrase makes me uncomfortable. Ice Cube’s defense of Straight Outta Compton has been that “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” a reality that was uncomfortable, violent, problematic, and one shaped by a racist country and system that privileges me as much as it demonizes them.

—Josiah Meints