Straight Outta Compton and the Social Burdens of Hip-Hop

A few decades have changed a lot about hip-hop, but arguably not that much about America. In 1986, the five black teens who eventually became the legendary rap group N.W.A. struggled to navigate life in Compton amid routine police brutality—not unlike many cities today. The biopic chronicling the group’s rise, Straight Outta Compton, comes at a precarious time in the national conversation surrounding racial politics and police violence—one year almost to the day since 19-year-old Michael Brown was killed by an officer in Ferguson.

The film arrives to the joy of hip-hop fans, many of whom remember Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella and followed their controversial rise to fame. But because N.W.A. made inherently political music—and did so while facing the real-life pressures of excessive policing and racism—it’s impossible to watch without seeing Straight Outta Compton’s urgency and relevance. The biopic highlights how the rappers— particularly the former-drug-dealer-turned-frontman Eazy-E, the hot-tempered lyricist Ice Cube, and the beat master Dr. Dre—were driven to make music by the heavy hand of law enforcement, including the events surrounding the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots.

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Straight Outta Compton reminds viewers that N.W.A. became famous for not holding back about what it was like to be young and black and terrorized by the police. And they did so at a time when the music industry was beginning to figure out how to sell rap music to a broader audience. In tracing the history of N.W.A., the film also highlights a divide that has since sprung up in mainstream hip-hop between the more explicitly political rappers, whose music could alienate many white consumers, and the rappers whose music doesn’t overtly tackle social issues and is agreeable to large swaths of listeners. At a time when the #BlackLivesMatter movement and increased coverage of police killings is dominating the public discourse, Straight Outta Compton raises questions about the responsibility of rap artists in bearing witness, as N.W.A. did, to the problems affecting their communities.

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Hip hop has historically been one of the ways for black Americans to see a reflection of their lives in mainstream art, and the ’80s and ’90s were no different. “Rap was the black community’s CNN,” says Akil Houston, a hip-hop scholar, DJ, and assistant professor at Ohio University. In Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. believes as much. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” says Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) in the film. He even refers to himself as a journalist who’s “reporting on his community” more honestly than the media itself. When N.W.A.’s manager urges the group to work instead of watching a video of the officers on trial for the Rodney King beatings, they answer: This is the work.

In the film, Eazy-E is thrown against a cop car as officers insult his mother in front of their home, and the incident opens him to Dre’s idea of investing his drug money into music. Some time later, local police officers accost all five members of the group in front of their recording studio. After the confrontation ends with their manager vouching for their presence at the studio, Ice Cube immediately goes in and writes “Fuck Tha Police,” which catapults N.W.A. into the national spotlight. During their subsequent tour, the federal government and the Detroit police force threaten legal action if N.W.A. perform the song. They do it anyway, get arrested, and inspire an audience in Detroit that is navigating a tense racial climate in its own city.

When N.W.A.’s manager urges the group to work instead of watching a video of the officers on trial for the Rodney King beatings, they answer: This is the work.

So many moments in the film feel like immediate reflections of American life today. Straight Outta Compton shows the rappers’ relief that King’s beating was captured on video, as well as their hope for justice—echoing the emergence of dashboard-cam footage and citizen-taped videos of encounters with police. At the same time, viewers get to see their disappointment when the two officers accused of attacking King are found not guilty—akin to the reactions of people upset with the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the exoneration of Darren Wilson.

But the film also implicitly raises the question: What do the deaths of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sam Dubose, and countless others mean for hip-hop today? A new generation of rappers today is experiencing what it means to be young and black and have their communities suffer unwelcome surveillance from law enforcement, but where is the mainstream music that represents that struggle?

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Hip-hop has had a number of socially conscious champions. The genre was birthed out of politically personal storytelling, and artists from KRS-One to Nas to Talib Kweli to Tef Poe have been carrying that torch for decades. But all but a few of the most popular artists—Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Kanye West—seem to be shying away from offering commentary, or doing so with much more reserve and subtlety N.W.A. did. That’s because most rappers are incentivized to uphold the status quo and talk about more commercial-friendly things: money, sex, and partying, says Houston.

The members of N.W.A. made a name for themselves by being outspoken, creating a genuine counterculture, and connecting to people with their honest experience. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive are examples of artists who’ve channeled that purgative, venting style of rap. Some claim that Kendrick is the new king of hip-hop because he’s true to his experiences as a black kid growing up in Compton—which happened to be at around the same time N.W.A. was telling the same city to “Fuck Tha Police.” The chilling video for his single, “Alright,” shows a black teen lying dead in the street, another running from a Klan-like group, and officers slamming one more to the ground. Lamar performed the song on top of a graffiti-covered squad car at the BET Awards. Protesters at Cleveland State were shown chanting “We gon’ be alright,” the chorus to Lamar’s song, at police officers at demonstrations that followed the killing of Samuel Dubose.  Slate’s Aisha Harris suggested that it had become the “new black national anthem.”

In the final track of “Forest Hills Drive,” J.Cole praises the protesters in Ferguson:

Shout out to everybody in Ferguson right now still ridin’, still ridin’/ Everybody else asleep, y’all still ridin’./ And it's bigger than Ferguson, man that shit is fuckin’ nationwide man./We gotta come together, look at each other, love each other. We share a common story nigga that's pain, struggle.

N.W.A.’s success was especially remarkable because the industry hadn’t figured out how to package “gangsta rap” as a product, and thus the artists had freedom to decide what they wanted to say, Houston says. But with the broader commercialization of rap that followed came the rise of hip-hop artists with lyrics and attitudes that were less confrontational—who could appeal to the mostly white music listeners of America. “I think there are a lot of people now that don’t want to say anything that’s offensive to a demographic because so much of who they are is based on being liked,” Houston says.

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It’s no surprise that Drake’s listener-friendly If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is the most downloaded and streamed album in the first half of 2015. Three hip-hop songs were also among the top 10 on-demand singles streamed: “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap; “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth; and “Post to Be” by Omarion featuring Chris Brown and Jhene Aiko. Despite the fact that songs like “Alright” are gaining traction with like-minded listeners, the success of less critical songs reinforces the idea that artists can’t have the best of both worlds: Being black, visceral, angry, critical, and also commercially successful often don’t go together. As Shaun King, an activist and writer who focuses on police brutality, says, “All artists have to make a decision: Do I make music that might have the chance of helping me pay the bills or do I make music that represents my heart, my community, and how the country is going?” With so few big artists successfully choosing the second option, it’s hard to fully condemn those who pick the first.

Many rappers struggle with the need to feel that their work is authentic. Lamar grew up in Compton, lived in L.A. during Rodney King riots, and knows people who are incarcerated. So of course it makes sense that he’d make music criticizing the prison-industrial complex, or lamenting the effects of poverty, or coming to terms with his own newfound fame and wealth.

So it’s perhaps unfair to expect all rappers, some of whom don’t have the lived experience to back up their two cents, to use their music to fight for a cause. “I think their biggest responsibility is to be a real person so that other people can respond to their genuine humanness,” says Irvin Weathersby, a professor at CUNY who uses hip-hop in his classes.

And it’s here also—in capturing N.W.A.’s bare humanity—that Straight Outta Compton also succeeds. Sure, the film has the over-indulgent flair of any biopic: With the exception of showing how Eazy recorded his first song, the film takes a fairly romantic view of the way the group produced their music. One minute, they’re being harassed; the next minute, they’re in the booth making magic. It also leaves out many claims of misogyny against the rappers—perhaps expected of any biopic co-produced by its own subjects (Dr. Dre and Ice Cube). But overall the film manages to tell an entertaining story about N.W.A.’s origins, while making the rappers feel deeply relatable. Their pain, their humiliation, their anger, their fear, their exuberance are all the audience’s.

The film doesn’t shy away from the seemingly unchanged nature of police brutality and the hardships of being black in America—it’s not trying to sell audience a comforting illusion about progress and reconciliation. But it does believe in the ability of artists and everyday citizens to be honest and critical about their situation. At a time when so little popular hip-hop music is eager to champion that same message, Straight Outta Compton and N.W.A. offer a welcome reminder of that collective power.

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This article was originally published on The Atlantic.