Relationship Status with Hip Hop? It’s Complicated…Part 1

I said I wasn’t going to do it. And I really wasn’t. I was NOT going to see Straight Outta Compton.

I had a long and intellectual conversation with my 17 year old son and his girlfriend about NWA’s  biopic and why I didn’t feel I could support it with my dollars. As an evolving feminist, I am now able to see how destructive their music was for Black women. They ushered in a time of brutal disrespect towards women that remains appalling. But they also spoke up on police brutality and profiling of Blacks and brought it fearlessly to nationwide attention. At a time where life after life is being reduced to a mere hashtag as a result of police murders, there is a huge part of the story that is absolutely significant, right now. Going to see that movie felt like it would be very counter to what I say believe and who I say I am.

But y’all know I went, right?

And the movie was amazing. Well cast, well written, funny dialogue with great character development. I really felt like I was getting to know more about Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. While a movie about multiple people doesn’t always lend itself well to exploring each one in depth without missing out on the group dynamic,  for all of the obvious history that was missed, the story remained about NWA and their impact as a musical group and I felt that was done very well. I didn’t want to like it. But I loved it.

Here is the complicated part of my relationship with Hip Hop.

In 1985, I was in the sixth grade. I lived in Los Angeles, California with my Grandmother and older sister. I had recently been sent from North Carolina to live with my Grandmother due to my parents divorcing and some painful incidents as a result. In a plane ride, my life had completely changed. While I had visited L.A. many summers as a younger child, I was only exposed to Disneyland and the sheer joy of being outside in my Grandma’s backyard during a Cali summer. I was totally unprepared. My little country bumpkin, naive self was about to change forever.

Everyday, I was expected to walk to school. We lived on Angeles Vista Blvd. Our part of the street was upscale and nice. Further down the street in one direction our neighbors were Norm Nixon and wife Debbie Allen and also Ray Charles, Jr. But heading toward school it was a different story. The homes became more and more modest. On my trek to Audubon Middle School, I encountered a fascinating array of new people and experiences that would forever shape my life. I walked further away from the affluent homes and closer to Crenshaw Blvd. On my way to school I would hear the Mu’adhin calling the Adhan, the beautiful Muslim call to prayer. It was my first experience with Muslims. Strong, beautiful and friendly Brothers would be standing outside the mosque on my way home, hawking the “Final Call” and bean pies in pink boxes. Invariably, they would speak and say “And how are you today, little sister? How was school” I never for a moment felt unsafe on my walk sensing I could always run to the protection of these bow tied, disciplined men and be taken care of. Once arriving at school, I would pass through metal detectors and possible bag searches. The school was loud and noisy with students bustling through the halls, each group seeming to represent an individual island. Black students, Latino students a few whites here and there. A far cry from the low key mostly white schools I had attended in N.C.

After school, I would come home and immediately pull out my brand new red, double cassette boom box. Pulling the metal antennae all the way out, I would slip in a cassette tape and hope and pray I was swift enough to record my favorite songs.

I’d been listening to Whitney Houston and Sade mostly. But one day, I heard something fresh and new that I’d never hear before. The song opened with scratching and then I heard the infamous “Batter Ram” by Toddy Tee. What was this type of music? I loved it and I wanted more. Soon I was listening to “Rock the Bells” by LL Cool J and any other rap song I could hear. I replaced Sade with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam “I Wonder if I Take You Home” and life was complete. For all of the confusion, anxiety and sadness I felt, I could lose myself in this music. It resonated with me so deeply and I just couldn’t get enough. I decided I wanted to be a radio DJ and soon enough, I was recording full shows of myself announcing songs and creating playlists on cassette tape. I had a pink Member’s Only jacket, a cabbage patch kid and my radio. Life was good. The music was my oasis. I had World Class Wreckin’ Cru “Turn Off the Lights” on steady repeat and this was my introduction to Dre, DJ Yella (the mixologist of the crew) and of course the tender voiced Michel’Le on the hook. I didn’t know it then, but Michel’Le was Dre’s girlfriend and he was very abusive towards her. All I knew was that I loved the music.

By 1988, “Straight Outta Compton” had been released by NWA and I was back in North Carolina being thoroughly exposed to East Coast Rap. I think this was what turned me into a lifelong fan of the music. While everyone else was polarized and felt they had to choose East Coast vs West Coast, I had been exposed to and could appreciate both. Many people at that time weren’t even terribly familiar with what the other coast was playing. I could talk about music that no one had heard before and I loved it. I had moved from Nikki B radio personality (in my head) to Lady N…rapper. My good friend Tracey or Lady T and I recorded our first “single” in the basement of her house, rapping our verses over an instrumental of Heavy D and the Boyz “Mister Big Stuff”.

At this point I was listening to Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, EPMD and Big Daddy Kane. It was official, I was a fan of what was now Hip Hop. It was all I talked about. It informed my clothing, my hair my vernacular. Through Hip Hop I was able to visit New York and Los Angeles while sitting in my bedroom. Hip Hop provided the soundtrack of the majority of my teen and young adult years and I can even today, pinpoint where I was and what I was doing based upon hearing any particular song.

But as time passed, while my love for the music ran deep, my concern for the portrayal of my sisters bothered me. I remember my personal shock when Dre slapped television host Dee Barnes. I remember being completely confused by Tupac, whether he loved or hated Black women. I was incensed at the growing misogyny from the music that had previously caused me to feel empowered. Although Dre has since issued a very belated apology, it smacks of convenience so many years later.

“I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.

“Twenty-five years ago, I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life,” Dre said. “However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I’ve been married for 19 years and every day I’m working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way. I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again.”

-Dr. Dre

Much like anyone’s history, we tend to revel in the happy moments and gloss over the bad, especially when we consider it “our” history. The problem doesn’t lie with the movie Straight Outta Compton. The problem lies within a collective resistance to acknowledge that some of the music from our most beloved artists also came at a price. How do you separate loving the art and despising what the artist as a person does? Our social climate today finds the Black community calling upon others to acknowledge their complicity in the disparity between Black and Whites. How different is this mindset when we set our gaze upon our own music and how Black men treat and portray Black women? The reality is that some of the art that we love, that defines generations of childhoods has an ugly side that we cannot ignore, but must instead acknowledge for what it is.

I do not blame myself for loving NWA or the movie based upon the group. The truth is, at the time, I didn’t really care enough that Dre was abusive. I didn’t care that the group was misogynist. I didn’t even know what that was. I let it slide. But today, I do care. The only thing I can do when speaking about this is to accept that I was one of the people that chose the music over the totality of the message. I chose to selectively see and hear what they were saying. And as empowered as I may be today, I didn’t reject those messages then, I supported them and gave them my buy in.

I chose to ignore what was being said, and so did alot of us.

Watching the movie brought all of these complicated feelings to the forefront. The only thing I can do now, the only thing we can do, is to hold ourselves to the same standards that we demand from others. Acknowledging our complicity in the issue. Acknowledging that we allowed the unthinkable to happen because we were entertained by it and in many cases continue to be entertained. Acknowledge that it is still a struggle to stand up against such things when they are in our own backyard. Today, we must be vigilant to not fall in love with any more music or any other art form that defiles, denigrates or disrupts just because it feels and sounds good. We have to attack the thinking that makes these things okay. We have to refuse to give any play to anything that harms members of our community and we are all smart enough to know what those things are whether we choose to admit it or not. I can’t do anything about the ignorance of my youth. I can do something about who and what I support today. I went to see the movie. And as convoluted as this issue is for me, NWA did provide a platform to voice complaints that are as relevant today as they were back then regarding police brutality. Watching the scene unfold where the group opts to play “F*** Da Police” after being threatened not to and the ensuing mayhem gave me absolute life.

I said I wasn’t going to, but I did. I don’t regret that choice because it forced me to confront where exactly I stand on the values I claim to espouse. I swear, I’m going to continue to try to do better, to be better. But I loved NWA. Like I said, it’s complicated.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mercedes Bowman says:

    What a talented author. Looking forward to seeing more thought provoking writing.

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