NWA + Black Lives Matter Part 2
by Joshua B. Hoe I am probably going to see ‘Straight Outta Compton’ this weekend. Probably...I am a bit reluctant.
NWA was important to me. So this movie could depress me pretty easily.
Most of the early reviews I have read suggest that it is not a very good movie, not surprising since they had to run most of the content past several of the living members (some of whom are now considered family friendly).
But, I am not sure I want to see a safe, consumable, NWA….I am not sure I want to feel like MC-Ren or Easy or Ice Cube or even Dre were just a bunch of normal kids fighting the power (honestly, I feel this same thing everytime I see Ice Cube on TNT sitcoms or commercials for his bad movies)....(let me also give a shout out to another shadow member The D.O.C).
I mean, in one sense, that is what they were...But, in another way, they were revolutionary precisely because they refused to be gentrified into a convenient (white) narrative.
Public enemy took white nightmares about blacks and put them defiantly in public on display (Flav' was the crackhead, S1W’s were black militants, etc)...Part of the point was saying if that's what you think we are - deal with it. Part of it was to make fun of the caricatures...and Part of it was to re appropriate them and destabilize them (911 is a joke).
In this way, PE was operating much like Bikini Kill and the other Riot Girrl bands did when they wrote demeaning misogynist terms on themselves and started a steely public standoff with cultural imperialism and sexism (Harper Valley PTA writ large).
Yes, this sounds like college cultural warrior talk...But I have lived in cities, I have been poor, I have been to prison….I have also been upper middle class, educated, and successful. I have seen this from both sides..You might hate what I have to say, but I have certainly earned the right to comment (if nothing else).
NWA were more radical (although I suspect that PE was engaged in a more consciously political project)....NWA was scary because they were not dressed like America’s worst nightmares...they were America's worst nightmare...they were not apologetic...they were not remorseful...they were not doing it to destabilize or redefine…The message was something like - you created it, so, ‘deal with it.’
Why NWA was Good and Dangerous
Basically, NWA were the face of the period at the end of Jim Crow’s sentence.
This is what they represented,
- White flight took all the business out of America’s cities after Brown v Board desegregated schools...Brown banned actual segregation so white flight created de facto segregation.
- Tax laws made it impossible for urban schools to succeed (schools are funded mostly by local taxes - poor neighborhood = low taxes).
- Real Estate offices made it virtually impossible for anyone of color to graduate to truly desegregated neighborhoods (Check out American Apartheid if you want to know more about this).
- The War in Drugs let urban areas become figurative and often literal war zones where increasingly militarized police forces invaded daily (pretty funny that everyone just discovered in 2015 that police forces have become militarized).
- Welfare became a constant target of right wing anger (still is) and of course Willie Horton became the face of American fear for an entire election cycle.
- The only option for real upward mobility in urban areas became drugs. And drugs required violence because they were illegal and there was a drug war. In addition, because many families and people were caught in the crossfire, a strained and often violent distrust arose to become the norm between citizens and police in these areas.
NWA were terrifying...because, they actually were not reducible to descriptions in any language that anyone from outside Compton (or other militarized zones could understand).
Watch Fox news today..things have not changed. Old, angry, white America still wants Jay-Z to be punished for his drug dealing and they want to elect Ben Carson because he is “a neurosurgeon and not a black man (my pp)”
In other words, there is one dominant narrative from the last 50 years that went something like this:
America is a white picket fence, a big house, friendly neighbors, a good job, and a happy family. If you work hard and do a good job saving and planning, your kids will go to college and do even better than you did.
America is a place where anyone can make it if they really try, when people fail...no matter what circumstances they faced...they have betrayed the system and should be expunged...Unless, they fully embrace the error of their ways and remain repentant.
People are always responsible for their own choices...and when they make bad choices it shows their true character.
And a very different second outsider narrative that emanates from urban neighborhoods that goes like this:
Jim Crow laws were repealed but we live in a separate and unequal country.
All of our white picket fences were bulldozed and burned and the difference between how laws work for you and for us is consistent and easily proven.
America created and enforced ghettos where official violence became a permanent feature for everyone who lived there...sinner or saint...criminal or community leader.
The answer to every cry for help or frustrated explosion was the same...More police, more force, more laws, more prison, and less money...less money for schools, less money for welfare, less money for urban renewal, less money for urban businesses.
If our criminals should never be forgiven, neither should you be forgiven (or your lawmakers and soldiers/police).
We live in occupied territory and you declared war on us. Sure you said it was to ‘end the scourge of drugs’ but it was our kids that were killed, our neighborhoods that burned, and our schools that died. And still no progress in your war.
We refuse to apologize for defending ourselves or trying to earn a living. In your war against drugs, you made all of us your enemy...and you were willing to accept any collateral damage as long as it served your goals.
We are that collateral damage.
Looking Truth in the Face
NWA was the first proudly defiant and righteously angry face of that collateral damage. Even seeing that face changed us all for the better. It gave lie to every other story. Many had terrible things to say about NWA, but smart people understood.
I do not want NWA reduced to a hallmark card.
I am not at all saying that violence is justified or that drug crime is good. I am saying that we erase our part in that violence and in that drug crime when we make the messenger into the boogeyman (and sole perpetrator). Do not characterize me as pro-drug or pro-violence (I have literally never hit anyone in anger in my life...even in prison).
I am not glorifying violence, I am refusing to wallpaper over the complexities of our country or reduce them to a simple morality play.
I am also not saying the police are all bad. In truth, we put them in a war...there are casualties in wars. The problem might be police (small percentage of bad cops, inherent violence, racial policing), but it is mostly the war itself.
But, this is about NWA….and I guess I get why they made the movie.
In fairness, it is not the now near 50 year old members of NWA’s responsibility to keep it real.
They have every right to be lionized and celebrated and (pardon the phrase) whitewashed. But, it is kind of sad that the historical record will likely place them in the traditional “heroes journey” storyline…The idea that Dre or Eazy were just traditional oppressed heroes waiting to rise up using nothing but their skills and chutzpah is appealing and probably even somewhat true..but they were..they were/are more than that.
People finding them will not understand that they represented real revolutionaries. They will not understand that they changed the system...That they were part of cracking the wall of subtle institutional racism that allowed a Black President and is starting to erode unchecked police power.
These are all steps in becoming a truly just society...we still have a long way to go.
Live Our Principles
Here is the thing. Many people reading this will think I do not believe in America….
That could not be further from the truth. I believe so much in America that I want us to live up to our promises..every single time and for every single American.
If this is white guilt, color me white and guilty (both are factually correct).
If you were alive when NWA broke out, when you listened to their rage, when you looked at them, you knew we were not living up to our own promises. They could not be saying what they were saying in a world where our stories were true.
Their words gave lie to our mythology
When we said NWA was celebrating violence, we were ignoring our part in that violence, our own willingness to use violence against large segments of our own population..often no matter the consequences.
We were ignoring our willingness to let our fears dominate our love for our fellow citizens. Our willingness to accept that a majority of all the men in these areas would spend time incarcerated.
We should have never been so afraid of desegregation that we abandoned urban areas and left them to bleed.
We should never have been so afraid of drug addicts that we were willing to kill to prevent them, that we were willing to kill bystanders, that we were willing to incarcerate whole populations, and that we were willing to declare war on urban America (and many other countries).
Drug addiction is a terrible thing...addiction is a terrible thing...but nothing suggests that the War on Drugs in any way prevents or reduces it. The costs have been incalculable...I have seen it first hand (in prison).
I saw that despite being a minority, at least 2/3ds of everyone in prison was black and even more were of color. I saw that the vast majority were in prison on drug charges. I saw the damage the war on drugs was doing to the people incarcerated and to their families.
The drug war would be fine under two conditions:
- It actually worked - well even this might not be enough, it should show that it works enough to justify the damage it causes. But, since it has never worked, it seems pretty crazy (like prohibition but never ending).
- It actually reduced addiction, or it’s operators gave two damns about addicts. Given how we seem to be willing to kill to prevent ‘innocent people’ from getting access to drugs...shouldn’t we care enough to treat addicts instead of incarcerate and exile them?
Lets be honest...It is partially about people choosing to make money from drugs, it is partially about people (us) refusing to be honest (the war failed) and perpetuating a war that cannot be won no matter what the costs.
I am saying that we have to live up to our promises.
We need to be a land of opportunity. We have to really promise that people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have to really live up to our promise that people have the right to be free in their own homes.
We are a nation of laws, but those laws are governed and contained by a Constitution that limits the power of governments to intrude on the lives of its citizens. And this should be true for all of the amendments (not just the second).
Unfortunately, too often, when we are frightened or feel threatened, our response is to pass more laws and to ignore that Constitution.
And sometimes, our laws are stupid, and ineffective, and should be repealed.
In other words, why will we allow military occupation before we refuse to allow one child to go to a substandard and unsafe school?
Why do you we care more about the belief that every person can make it (regardless of circumstances) then we do about the circumstances we create that are massive barriers to people ‘making it?’
Why are we willing to stand silent, tacitly accepting a drug war that has accomplished literally nothing but pain, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides, and has been shown to be enforced selectively based almost entirely on race?
How is that American?
If we are a city on a hill, people below can see the reflections of the bars on our towers and hear the explosions emanating from downtown.
We need more NWA….Not sanitized NWA...we need more NWA’s
So, that is why, while I probably will see the movie...I am not sure I will like it.
And, since I am here now we need to do some things...We need to:
End the war on drugs.
End it not because drugs are good but because the war is worse.
Make sure all schools are funded and that all American kids have the same exceptional opportunities to learn.
We need to do these things because we need to live our values.
The city on the hill might be our birthright...But, we actually have to pay attention to the upkeep and the management.
You may be saying I am a radical, but I really just want us to live up to our ideals...Not just when they are easy, but when and where they are the hardest.
What is your take on the movie? Or do you think I am totally insane? How do you feel about NWA? Feel free to let us know...leave a comment!