This Feminist on Straight Outta Compton

I had my reservations about seeing Straight Outta Compton. Admittedly, N.W.A didn't mean as much to me as it did to so many others. I was heavily into hip-hop in our nascent stages, so by the time I was a full-fledged teenager, and N.W.A was at their height, the only hip-hop I could be bothered with was Public Enemy...and LL. I felt "alternative" so, naturally, I was drawn to an "alternative" sound. I was more into The Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees, R.E.M and U2. I was a black girl from the projects who was bussed to a prep school that was something straight out of a John Hughes movie. Surprisingly, I learned more about classism than I did about racism there. I had white friends who were poor, and black friends who were "rich." Thank god I was drawn to something other than music that provided an overly simplified perspective of life in the 'hood. There was more to my life than anger and nihilism. Sure, I saw my first gun at 14, and skipped school with a gang of untended kids who cycled in and out of juvie, but I had a job at 16, indie movies, books, and friends that took me outside of my neighborhood. This made me keenly aware I had options.

I would come back to my love for hip-hop in the Tribe Called Quest era. Like most Gen Xers, I would simultaneously cultivate my appreciation for hip-hop and alternative music. It was all counterculture back then and the inclusiveness of the music, via MTV, somewhat defined my generation.

Dr. Dre would be the first "gangsta" rap artist I would buy. I say artist because I initially appreciated The Chronic as pure poetry, a perfect landscape of the South Central milieu. It was gritty and dangerous. It was a window into the drug-slinging underbelly of America, and it was distinctively black. Nevertheless, after listening to the album a dozen times, I started to notice how utterly depressed it made me. It was all context and no analysis. I started wondering if Dr. Dre and "gangsta" rap was anything more than the pied piper playing the black community to its demise; music that was making a fortune off the pain, dysfunction and suffering of poor black people. After all, post "gangsta" rap, police brutality didn't change, and gang violence only went national. Today, you can find bloods and crips in Cincinnati, and we can never forget that the violence of that time took the great poet Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls from us.

It wasn't only the influence of the message of "gangsta" rap with which I took issue, it was also the fact that a positive impact from the profits of "gangsta" rap was conspicuously absent. It seems not enough money from "gangsta" rap has made its way back to Compton. In 2011, the Santa Monica-Malibu school district had to fight parents in those affluent communities to share their fundraising with schools in disadvantaged districts like South Central. Santa Monica-Malibu is filled with entertainment money. As a result of hefty property taxes and prodigious fund-raising, their kids receive $2000 extra dollars per student for tutors, books and supplies. In South Central, it's a good year if students receive $100 extra dollars for tools to help them learn.

Needless to say, I considered it a foregone conclusion that the state of South Central was, in large part, the product of "gangsta" rap. I considered the body count of black boys and men as much the crime of those who pulled the trigger as it was of those who glorified the life. I thought this way for over a decade, until I saw Straight Outta Compton last weekend.

Not since learning the history of the divestment of South Central have I gained so much insight into the community where I now live. Watching Straight Outta Compton helped me realize that Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and the rest of their crew were simply boys responding to their environment. They weren't the gangsters they portrayed on their tracks. They may have had the balls, the skill and the guns to be those thugs, but they weren't the ruthless, heartless brutes they portrayed in their music. They were kids who made it out of their 'hood the only way they knew how. Their "gangsta" rap was a mirror back to their community. It's unfortunate that the image reflected back was too enticing to reject for a people too desperate to reject it. Perhaps people in South Central were so grateful to have representation on a global scale, they couldn't embrace the catharsis of N.W.A's message. Perhaps, like me, they didn't even hear a message.

As for the misogyny of N.W.A and "gangsta" rap, both Michel'le and Dee Barnes have publicly discussed the violence they suffered at the hands of the young Dr. Dre. This feminist doesn't think Ice Cube helped the case in a Rolling Stone article when he tried to categorize the complex human beings that are women as either bitches and hoes or upstanding females. (Que?? Now, how exactly does that work?) Furthermore, we shouldn't underestimate the impact violence against women has had on the black community. "Gangsta" rap pretty much legitimized the denigration of black women, which is ironic since, historically, it's black women alone who overwhelmingly raise black children.

That being said, I think it's commendable that, in no uncertain terms, Dr. Dre expressed regret and took responsibility for his past in the Rolling Stone article. I hope that he will continue to speak publicly about accountability and the mistakes of his past so that he can influence black boys to be respectful and responsible for black girls, and vice versa. Until just about all black people, especially most black men, take responsibility for black children; until black moguls reach back and help the poor black community with investment (banks) and philanthropy (schools); until black rappers and R&B stars accept their status as role models for the youth, then we will never transform our forgotten places like South Central.

I would recommend seeing Straight Outta Compton. I hope the producers recognize their obligation to the community that is making it such a success. The movie has a lotta heart. Now Cube, Dre, and F. Gary Gray, please show that heart to Compton.