I finally got my act together and went out to watch Straight Outta Compton. People, if you haven’t seen it, you need to. The film is raw, the casting and the acting are great, the direction is fan-fucking-tastic!!!!! Seriously go watch it, but be prepared for the tsunami of emotions that will hit multiple times over the course of the movie. Okay, that’s as far as I am going to go with my review of the film.
Today, I want to touch on some things that are covered in the film but aren’t necessarily tied solely to the film. In particular, I want to touch the aspect of the violence that hip-hop portrays. That’s something that tends to be a major criticism of hip-hop culture, and arguably one of the most misunderstood elements of the culture.
I will freely admit that my perspective on hip-hop and certain elements of the culture is something that I struggle with constantly in my love of the genre. I actually hate a lot of the violence that hip-hop is associated with, but I get where it’s coming from and I think that it is completely necessary. A lot of this perspective is lost on people who have never been around hip-hop and are mainly on the outside looking in.
For my part, I moved to the Bronx, which is classically considered the birthplace of hip-hop, around 96/97. To paint a picture of the timeline and where that falls, this was around the time that Dre started Aftermath Entertainment, which is where the Straight Outta Compton movie ends. This was also coming in the 11th hour of hip-hop’s incredible “East Coast – West Coast” feuds. Tupac had just died. Biggie was about to die. There was a lot going on at the time, and that was the world I stepped into without ever knowing what any of it was about beforehand. I grew up in hip-hop culture and with hip-hop culture at least tangentially. That’s the perspective that I am coming from when I say some of these things.
The fact of the matter is that America is a place with a VERY violent history. Anyone who tell you otherwise is either lying or completely ignorant of the facts. If you take even the most cursory look into America’s history books, you will find that its pages are littered with bloodshed through war and other means, systemic oppressions of various socioeconomic and racial/ethnic classes, and many other injustices that were consistently glossed over.
Artists, particularly in the Black community, never shied away from talking about these things. You can clearly see it in the lives and works of people like James Brown, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, and so many others too numerous to mention. But what made acts like NWA, like Biggie and Tupac, and many others of that generation so powerful was that they expressed these frustrations in a way that is raw and in your face and completely unfiltered without giving a damn about the consequences.
Rightly so, it made a lot of people uncomfortable and very angry. Before that, many of the privileged classes in America could feign ignorance about things like police brutality and racial profiling, but they couldn’t do that anymore once the groups started being very vocal about their lives and their experiences. Especially after the beating and subsequent acquittal of all the officers who nearly killed Rodney King, people could hardly deny that there was at least some element of truth to incredible levels of violence that some of these groups were talking about as reflections of the communities that they were living in.
The streets loved these guys because it was the first in a long time that they really felt that someone was giving a voice to their struggles and frustrations, particularly because these people had lived it and been around it and could articulate it in a way that was captivating. To me, that is a major part of why these guys became so successful. In today’s generation, it has become a formulaic tool for success in the industry, especially because a lot of artists don’t have that lived experience to back up the gangster bravado and braggadocio that they portray to the world.
When gangster rap came to bear on the public consciousness, a lot of people didn’t know about or didn’t know to care about many of the things that were going on in America’s inner cities. But once gangster rap gained hold on the public’s imagination, you were faced with the question of what to do next. In short, there were three options:
- You could suppress it, which failed miserably.
- You could ignore it, which also failed miserably, or,
- You could address it, which is still a work in progress.
Fast forward to modern day when issues of police brutality, racial profiling, mass incarceration are back in the foreground of America’s consciousness. The presence of social movements Like #BlackLivesMatter, #LatinoLivesMatter, #NativeLivesMatter, and many of their compatriots is evidence of the fact that the issues that a lot gangster rappers were talking about 20-30 years are still present today and have acutely worsened in some cases.
I would love to see a day when hip-hop grows up and away from the more violent elements that many have come to associate with the culture. Hip-hop is far bigger than those elements but those elements dominate the conversation in some circles. That said, I also recognize that the in your face violence of gangster lyrics not going to change without fundamental changes to the power structures that made that violence a necessary survival strategy, facilitated it as a calculated career move, and glorifies it as an aspirational goal.
Image via In Flex We Trust