I spent my teenage years in Watts, California. It wasn't uncommon to hear, and even see, rogue policemen harassing inner-city residents and often roughing them up without provocation. It was common knowledge at the time that if you found the wrong cop on the wrong day and irritated them, you would find yourself in jail, sometimes after having illegal drugs or weapons planted on you to make the charge stick. Looking back also brings to mind how many times my friends and I were "jacked up" by the police. This was a term that was used to describe being pulled over, removed from our vehicle and either being ordered against the wall with our hands up, seated on the curb, or lying flat on the pavement while the police searched our car looking for drugs or weapons. After the officers concluded their search, we were free to go and would hope that we could get to our destination and return home safely, without being jacked up again. This was just a way of life for young black men in the inner-city at the time. When you were driving and saw the police, you learned to cross your fingers and hope that they were too busy fighting real crime to notice you. In the back of your mind, however, you knew that if they did notice you, more often than not you were going to be stopped.
This was during the mid-80's to early 90's. Incidentally, during that same time span I remember a notable surge of crime and murder amongst blacks in the neighborhood. It seemed like every day we received news of someone dying at the hands of a person who was his or her same hue. The feeling of death permeated our streets. It seemed strangers and friends alike were being shot and killed at every turn. These senseless murders were becoming so common that the authorities came up with the phrase "drive-by shooting."
In December of 1988, this culture of violence came to my very doorstep. At 16 years old I laid on a cold, poorly paved concrete sidewalk, bleeding from the mouth and gasping for air. A victim of violence - the perpetrator - not brutal police, but men the same color as me. Somehow they found the brazenness to attempt to end the life of someone they'd never even met. I survived, and by the grace of God, I thrived. But that wasn't the tale of most young men I grew up with in my neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to move and as my exposure increased, I began to evolve, grow and succeed. Though I know what it's like to be antagonized, I can't say that I've ever been physically brutalized by an officer. As a matter of fact, an officer was the first person to arrive at the scene of my tragedy. He came to my aid and encouraged me to live. I realize my encounter is a rarity among those who have had barbaric experiences with law enforcement, but if it weren't for that officer, my story would have come to an end nearly 27 years ago.
I know far too well the chilling effect cold and desensitized hands have played in crimes and murder against people of the same color and background. There are many factors that played a part in desensitizing young men and women of inner-cities. The culmination of those factors attributed to the sharp peak in murder and violence during the 80's and 90's. I'm not claiming to be an expert on the desensitization of blacks in urban America, but having lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country, I witnessed some obvious suspects.
Without question, the breakdown of family units played a major role. Many young people like myself grew up in homes with only one parent - usually the mother. Certainly, the lop-sided criminal justice has ownership too. The system consistently handed out stiff prison terms to defendants of color, while fairer-skinned and better-resourced counterparts received probation and rehabilitation. It could be argued that the unfair and inhumane treatment of citizens from select officers added to the lack of regard for human life. But there was another silent culprit that is rarely discussed. While this culprit is not solely responsible for creating the problem, it became a lethal accelerant to the epidemic. This culprit was given the name "Gangsta Rap."
Eerily ironic is that I began to write this article on the exact day that marked the 27th anniversary of "Straight Outta Compton," an album released by the group NWA. The founding member of the group, Eazy E, was known as the Godfather of gangster rap. At the time of the assault that took me to the brink of death, it was one of the most popular rap albums on the streets in the neighborhood where I grew up. The album was released just four months before I was shot. Recently, I re-listened to the lyrics of the "Straight Outta Compton" album. Instantaneously, it occurred to me that what happened that night could have easily been a verse from any number of songs on that album. The night I was straight out of Compton, I was left for dead on a sidewalk less than a mile outside of the border that demarcates the Compton city limits.
One of NWA's most popular and provocative songs was titled "F-ck The Police!" It was an apparent response to the aforementioned police brutality and harassment that was prevalent in communities like ours. Throughout the nation, many could identify with the anger and outrage expressed in the music because of their personal accounts of abuse from those who were sworn to protect and serve them. "F-ck The Police!" caught on fast and so did the group NWA. Finally, it appeared music was giving voice to the voiceless. The lyrics perfectly expressed the frustration and outcry of many communities' at that time. The value in the musical production was great. For those who could relate, the songs were clever and catchy. It made for a perfect storm. However, there was an issue being stirred up that was much larger than the hateful and violent feelings towards cops. There were other themes that would ultimately outlive the spirit of the anti-police protest that launched the music. It was a theme of anti-anyone, and the rising gang culture drank it up like water to a thirsty soul. This theme of violence and murder is captured in the very first verse of the hit song "Straight Outta Compton," from NWA's first album. The first verse reads:
Straight Outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz with Attitudes
When I'm called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off
You too, boy, if ya fuck with me
The police are gonna hafta come and get me
Off yo ass, that's how I'm goin' out
For the punk motherfuckers that's showin' out
Niggaz start to mumble, they wanna rumble
Mix 'em and cook 'em in a pot like gumbo
Goin' off on a motherfucker like that
With a gat that's pointed at yo ass
So give it up smooth
Ain't no tellin' when I'm down for a jack move
Here's a murder rap to keep yo dancin'
With a crime record like Charles Manson
AK-47 is the tool
Don't make me act the motherfuckin' fool
Me you can go toe to toe, no maybe
I'm knockin' niggaz out tha box, daily
Yo weekly, monthly and yearly
Until them dumb motherfuckers see clearly
That I'm down with the capital C-P-T
Boy you can't fuck with me
So when I'm in your neighborhood, you better duck
Coz Ice Cube is crazy as fuck
As I leave, believe I'm stompin'
But when I come back, boy, I'm comin' Straight Outta Compton
On Friday, "Straight Outta Compton," a film that seeks to portray the intense emotions of that time will be released nationwide. Its release comes at a very interesting time in our nation. NWA pioneered a new genre of popular music and experienced meteoric success and influence. But did they achieve that success at a cost greater than they anticipated? Did the parallel skyrocketing of their music and the rise of gang violence and murder have any correlation? Was it all fun and games as cultural and artistic expression, or did their efforts contaminate culture with the glamorization of gang life, violence, and murder? Was NWA's exposing of the injustices of police brutality in the inner city more righteous than the brutal, violent and murderous lifestyle that it's music glorified? With the recent crisis in our nation surrounding police impropriety, violence and even murder, is our nation ready for the re-popularization of the music that gave us the "F-ck The Police!" chant? Will it guide our nation towards a conversation about real solutions?
In the perfect world, it would be an opportunity to address and correct the issues of race and law enforcement. It could bring healing or it could take us backwards, perhaps even to a point of no return? When I think about the possibilities, I'm concerned.
I was blessed to survive the violent wave that gangsta rap helped to fuel. According to the New York Times, that wave lost its force and gang-related crimes dropped 40% from 1994-2013. Now, as I raise two young black sons of my own, the question that brings me the most angst is: Will retelling NWA's story create a new surge of black on black violence and murder which has declined significantly since the popularity of the group?
Above all, the most meaningful question I must pose is could this be a moment of redemption for America through the storytellers and remaining former members of NWA? Could this movie create a platform that presents us with an opportunity to re-write history? Can open, honest and perhaps, even remorseful dialogues take place? Is it possible for us to look back to see where we went wrong, and commit to a better way forward?
I don't know what the film "Straight Outta Compton" will center around or highlight, but I'm looking forward to seeing it. My prayer is that through looking back at where we've been, with reflection and contemplation, we'll find clues and perhaps keys to where we need to go.