The musical biopic Straight Outta Compton, which focuses on pioneering American hip-hop group N.W.A., is currently enjoying dual success both with critics and at the box office. The film charts the rise of the Californian based rappers who redefined hip-hop music in 1988 with their debut album entitled, Straight Outta Compton.
The group comprising of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren and for a brief time Arabian Prince, courted controversy throughout the group’s career despite being regarded as one of the seminal groups in hip-hop history. They popularised West Coast hip-hop and introduced rap to the masses with their explicit lyrics about gangster lifestyles, violent crime, drug use and misogynistic references to women.
The group also fostered a deep rooted mistrust of the police. The second track on Straight Outta Compton, aptly titled, Fuck the Police, clearly states the groups feelings towards law enforcement in America. The FBI took exception to the track’s message and issued a warning letter to the group’s distributer, Priority Records which only served to increase audience interest in the group. Straight Outta Compton went on to become a double platinum selling album.
The release of a biopic about N.W.A. seems timely considering the current relationship between black America and the country’s law enforcement agencies. This month a violent incident involving a young African American; Tyrone Harris and police in Ferguson, Missouri on the first anniversary of the death of African American teenager Michael Brown has sparked demonstrations and social unrest leading to a state of emergency being declared in Ferguson.
When Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014, it sparked a public debate about the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement officers and the use of excessive force. These current events in Ferguson bear resemblance to the LA Riots in 1992 sparked by the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King trial. Only four years prior to that South Central native Ice Cube and the rest of N.W.A. had been rapping about the harassment and brutality young black Americans faced living in these Californian communities.
Despite the controversial nature of many of N.W.A.’s lyrics the group provided a social commentary for the anger and resentment of young African Americans living in abject poverty, in ghettoised communities, where the use of crack cocaine was reaching epidemic levels and the police were taking a hard line stance on how to deal with it.
Rather than glorifying a life of crime, these early songs are about oppression. Statistically, young African Americans are more likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, be a victim of homicide or spend time in prison. It’s disappointingly clear what fuelled the anger in N.W.A.’s lyrics. They provided a voice for young African Americans who knew they were living in a racist system but who lacked the power to change it.
Despite the emancipation of slaves after the American Civil War, African Americans were subject to the apartheid-esque Jim Crow laws and “Black Codes” which created a segregated society until the 1950s. In government liberal policy decisions on issues ranging from housing, education and the minimum wage all prevented the economic advancement of African-American communities.
When the album, Straight Outta Compton was first released, it was feared that its message would incite violence particularly against the authorities. But hip-hop is not the cause of cultural violence, rather a symptom of it. To understand the true meaning of the genre is to take into account the historical and political circumstances surrounding it. It is a form of political advocacy in the fight against the social, political and economic oppression of African Americans.
To this day hip hop provides the soundtrack for the young black protester. In July 2015 students attending a Black Lives Matter conference at the Cleveland State university began protesting at the state polices treatment of African American teenage arrested for intoxication. Demonstrators could be heard to be chanting lyrics from Kendrick Lamar’s track Alright which is itself about being able to withstand tough circumstances.
However, since the dissolution of N.W.A. in 1991 the political content in hip hop has slowly vanished, with a greater emphasis on money, sex and the gangster lifestyle. This only serves to make it more interesting that in the current political climate audiences are revisiting the point in hip hop history when a group of rappers unsettled the authorities with their acute message about the violence, discrimination and oppression facing African Americans.
With a state of emergency in Ferguson and police dealing with violence and unrest in riot gear it seems N.W.A’s music is as relevant today as it was when Straight Outta Compton was first released. There is a very sobering dose of reality in that statement, one that suggests that America is not as free or progressive as it would like to think it is. But, as the almighty rap group said if we “witness the power of street knowledge” then we are likely to hear an awful lot of uncomfortable truth.