I’m a 40-year-old white lady from the suburbs who just saw Straight Outta Compton at a Sunday afternoon matinée. (I know, it doesn’t get less gangster than that.) But you know what? I couldn’t wait for Straight Outta Compton to come out, and I wasn’t disappointed. The performances were genuine and electrifying. The story was sometimes joyous and sometimes heartbreaking, but always compelling. But I’m not writing this to give you a review of Straight Outta Compton – there are dozens of people already telling you how amazing it is. This isn’t about why it was great, but why it’s important.
I first heard of N.W.A in 1988 when I was in eighth grade. I was sitting in Ms. Davis’s English class when my friend, Tracy (who happens to be black if it matters), passed me a note that said, “Do you know what N.W.A stands for?” I shook my head. She wrote: “Niggas With Attitudes.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I knew that the N-word wasn’t something people around me said. We lived in the suburbs. We watched The Cosby Show. The only rap on my radar at that point came from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
Then the show Yo! Mtv Raps came out. I watched it after school and found a whole genre of music I had never heard on the radio. I discovered Public Enemy, Ice-T, Eric B. & Rakim, and of course, N.W.A. I wouldn’t have had any exposure to hip-hop back then if it weren’t for Mtv. By extension, I wouldn’t have known anything about inner-city life either. Crips versus Bloods. West Coast versus East Coast. For a white girl from Kalamazoo, Michigan, there was a lot to learn.
Then in 1991, four LAPD officers beat Rodney King, and it was caught on videotape. I had been hearing about police brutality in the rap music I was listening to, but I had never seen it before. That didn’t happen in my neighborhood. Remember, this was before cell phones, social media, and even the internet. If your local news didn’t think you needed to hear about something, you didn’t. I was seeing this because a citizen was in the right place at the right time and was able to catch this happening with their VHS camcorder. It was shocking.
When the unthinkable happened and those four LAPD officers were found not guilty, it rocked the country. Los Angeles exploded with frustration and burned with the deadliest riots to happen in this country in over a hundred years. I saw the coverage on television. Rappers had been telling us about police violence for years, but now we were seeing just how tumultuous the situation had become. Ignore a problem long enough and eventually someone is going to make you pay attention.
Fast forward to now. In the twenty-five years since the mainstream explosion of rap music, hip-hop seems to be moving in a different direction. Eminem, Dr. Dre’s prodigy, exploded onto the scene and white suburban kids everywhere were enamored with the white rapper who got constant radio airplay. (Although Eminem didn’t rap about gang life, his rhymes were every bit as dark and violent as N.W.A’s ever were.) After the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, gangsta rap seemed to be winding down in favor of auto-tuned club anthems. For a long time, we stopped talking about inner city life and police violence, at least in the suburbs.
With the prevalence of smart phones ensuring that most citizens have a video camera with them at all times, it was inevitable that someone would shine a spotlight again and force us to pay attention.
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was put into an illegal chokehold and killed by a NYPD officer. Garner was unarmed. The incident was captured on video. The officer responsible was not charged. The following month, John Crawford III was shot and killed by a Beavercreek, Ohio police officer as Crawford shopped at a Walmart holding a toy BB gun he had picked up while there. The incident was captured on store surveillance video. The officer involved was not charged. A few days later, on August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. There was no video evidence this time, and the circumstances were in dispute. Wilson was not charged, and Ferguson erupted in protest. By this point, anyone who was old enough to remember watching the Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of the four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King (on videotape) was wondering how it’s possible that in over twenty years, not a damn thing has changed.
From N.W.A’s song “Fuck Tha Police”, released in 1988:
“Fuck the police, coming straight from the underground,
A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown,
And not the other color, so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority.”
There have been many, many more victims. On April 12, 2015, Freddy Gray was arrested in Baltimore under questionable circumstances, sustained injuries while in police custody, and died days later. This time, the death was ruled a homicide and the six officers involved were indicted. The population of Baltimore is primarily black. What about the police officers involved in the death of Freddy Gray? Three of them were white and three of them were black.
From N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police”:
“But don’t let it be a black and a white one,
‘Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top,
Black police showing out for the white cop.”
So, were the members of N.W.A prescient? Of course not. The same police brutality that was happening in 1988 is still happening nearly 30 years later. I don’t know how we stop it, but I know we have to keep talking about it. We might have 24/7 news coverage and “citizen reporting” via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels, but maybe what we really need is another N.W.A – somebody reporting from the front lines to tell us what’s really going on outside of our own neighborhood, and packaging in a way that people will listen to. We need someone to keep us informed and keep us angry.
Listen, just about anybody my age is going to love the movie Straight Outta Compton. We were listening when N.W.A came out and we remember how revolutionary it was. But I hope that young people are going to see it too. We need to acknowledge how far we haven’t come in racial equality, particularly when it comes to treatment by the police. (Maybe you think we’ve made progress. Watch that Rodney King video again and you’ll see that we haven’t.) So, everyone, go see Straight Outta Compton for the groundbreaking music and the compelling story. You’ll get a valuable history lesson at the same time.