Straight Outta Compton and the Social Burdens of Hip-Hop

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Adrienne Green, THE ATLANTIC

 

(The Atlantic) — A few decades have changed a lot about hip-hop, but arguably not that much about America. In 1986, the five black teens who eventually became the legendary rap group N.W.A. struggled to navigate life in Compton amid routine police brutality—not unlike many cities today. The biopic chronicling the group’s rise, Straight Outta Compton, comes at a precarious time in the national conversation surrounding racial politics and police violence—one year almost to the day since 19-year-old Michael Brown was killed by an officer in Ferguson.

The film arrives to the joy of hip-hop fans, many of whom remember Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella and followed their controversial rise to fame. But because N.W.A. made inherently political music—and did so while facing the real-life pressures of excessive policing and racism—it’s impossible to watch without seeing Straight Outta Compton’s urgency and relevance. The biopic highlights how the rappers— particularly the former-drug-dealer-turned-frontman Eazy-E, the hot-tempered lyricist Ice Cube, and the beat master Dr. Dre—were driven to make music by the heavy hand of law enforcement, including the events surrounding the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots.

Straight Outta Compton reminds viewers that N.W.A. became famous for not holding back about what it was like to be young and black and terrorized by the police. And they did so at a time when the music industry was beginning to figure out how to sell rap music to a broader audience. In tracing the history of N.W.A., the film also highlights a divide that has since sprung up in mainstream hip-hop between the more explicitly political rappers, whose music could alienate many white consumers, and the rappers whose music doesn’t overtly tackle social issues and is agreeable to large swaths of listeners. At a time when the #BlackLivesMatter movement and increased coverage of police killings is dominating the public discourse, Straight Outta Compton raises questions about the responsibility of rap artists in bearing witness, as N.W.A. did, to the problems affecting their communities.

 

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