Three years ago I wrote about the N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton and comments surrounding it.
I was intrigued not so much by the biopic, but a statement made by Jerry Heller, N.W.A.'s controversial manager.
While I haven't seen the new N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, I have read several articles about the people who were present during the legendary rap group's heyday. A couple articles have featured comments from N.W.A.'s manager Jerry Heller. In a recent interview, he made the claim that:
"I think that N.W.A picked up where Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would have gone if they hadn't been assassinated," Heller told Grantland. "I think that they did more for race relations in this country than any other entity in history."
Hyperbole or honesty? While no one can deny N.W.A.'s musical legacy, I find it difficult to imagine the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Senator Robert Kennedy endorsing music that glamorized the gangster lifestyle. Let's take a look at N.W.A.'s lyrics and compare them to Dr. King and Senator Kennedy's words. First though, my own experience with rap music and in this case, gangsta rap.
I remember first hearing Straight Outta Compton back in 1989. Around 1986, I stumbled across rap at some dances and to my surprise, I liked it. I picked up a couple of LL Cool J's cassettes and enjoyed some of the songs but nothing left an impression on me to check out some of the other stuff being produced around that time. This changed in 1989 when a co-worker started playing rap music at the pizzeria I was working at. I'd heard rap before but was absolutely floored when I heard "Fuck the Police" and "Straight Outta Compton". At first, I was shocked by the lyrics but the more I listened to it, the more I realized I liked it. Before long, I was listening to the work of Public Enemy, Ice T, the Beastie Boys, and a growing number of artists.
Looking back, I can't help but wonder if my attraction to rap music was the same feeling that the generation before me felt when they first heard rock and roll. It was a music that defied conventions and provided a way to express the anger and frustration that comes with youth. Looking back this anger and frustration may have been groundless but when you're beginning to deal with the uncertainties of life, the world can seem very frustrating.
While I absolutely had no way of identifying with African-Americans, their musical culture held a certain appeal for me, just as it has for generations before me. Whether it's been blues, jazz, or rhythm and blues (which evolved into rock and roll), rap followed a long tradition of African American music finding a mainstream audience.
While N.W.A. was certainly not the first gangsta rap act, they definitely were the band that put the genre on the map. After N.W.A.'s breakthrough success with Straight Outta Compton, gangsta rap seemed to dominate the rap genre. Like any innovation, what followed afterwards saw advancements in the genre as well as cheap imitations that set it back, arguably even harming it. How you feel about the current state of gangsta rap is a matter of taste.
Just as people complained that rock and roll was going to destroy society, people have claimed that rap would lead to the destruction of decent society as we know it. While people will forever debate whether or not gangsta rap (and some would argue rap in general) has led to an erosion of morals, I'd rather look at Heller's comments on N.W.A. and MLK and RFK.
N.W.A. deserves credit for lyrically speaking out on some of society's ills. Whether it's their taking a stand against police brutality ("Fuck the Police"), showing the realities of drug dealing ("Dope Man"), frank and giving a frank look at life in the ghetto ("Boys in the Hood"), N.W.A.'s music was an expression of people's fear, anger, and frustration. While they certainly weren't the first rap act to examine these subjects, their work propelled them to the forefront. They certainly seem as relevant as they did back then.
Music has been a great platform for artists to speak out against social injustice. People who ignore a poignant speaker's plea for equality can be subtly influenced by a musician who sings about the realities of life. Marvin Gaye's album What's Going On broke new ground by addressing the tension that seemed ready to rip America apart. James Brown sang about social ills such as drug use ("King Heroin") and poverty ("Funky President") while Stevie Wonder addressed the brutality of urban life ("Living for the City"). Ironically, all three artists would be co-opted by rappers who sampled their music in their songs (Brown's "Funky President" for instance, was sampled on Straight Outta Compton's "Gangsta Gangsta").
Let's assume for argument's sake that N.W.A.'s songs were a reflection of real life and an expression of how they felt (rather than a desire to cash in on people's frustration with society), how did N.W.A.'s music advance civil rights? While N.W.A. certainly spoke about legitimate social problems such as police brutality and urban blight, they also glamorized the thug life. To put N.W.A.'s work which glorified misogyny and violence with Dr. King who advocated peaceful reform is insulting to Dr. King as well as Robert Kennedy. While Robert Kennedy could be ruthless in his pursuit of civil rights, it is ludicrous to say that he would have felt songs like "Gangsta Gangsta" and "One Less Bitch" advanced the cause of civil rights and were a good way to gather mainstream support for the cause.
Consider a couple of quotes from MLK: "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend" and " Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that". Like Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy advocated non-violence, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago; to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world". He also disagreed with an extremist approach to change, "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what say about their opponents"
Compare these lyrics in N.W.A.'s "Gangsta Gangsta" from Straight Outta Compton:
Editor's Note: Rather than reprinting the lyrics, I've provided a link to them. Please note the lyrics contain profanity and racial epithets. Reader discretion is advised.
While N.W.A. definitely spoke about societal injustice, they also glamorized a criminal lifestyle which in reality is almost always self-destructive. Whether N.W.A. was using its music to speak out against social ills, to lend a voice to a specific group, or to enrich themselves under the pretext of being a voice for change (or perhaps a combination of all three), N.W.A.'s mixed message in no way should be equated with the next step in the methods MLK and RFK used to advance civil rights. Even a cursory examination of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy's methods will show that they hoped to achieve civil rights without resorting to the methods of extremists. N.W.A.'s focus on crime, violence, and misogyny clearly contradicts this, regardless of the reality of their point of view.