Feat. The Music of N.W.A.
“Our Art is a Reflection of Our Reality.”
It’s no coincidence that I am writing about the biopic featuring the iconic African-American hip-hop ensemble N.W.A. on the same day the NAACP National convention kicks off in my hometown of Cincinnati. Racial tension might be at an all time high right now in this country. The recent police shootings of young black men, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Minnesota sparked nationwide protests. Last week during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas one man shot 10 police officers, killing five of them, seemingly out of retribution for the shooting of Sterling.
This atrocity surely widened the divide between police and people of color even further. Police by and large will respond to the murder of their brethren the only way they know how, by carrying a bigger baton. Beef up the armor, more vehicles, gadgets and weaponry. Deploy more drones, tighten the leash on future public demonstrations. Do whatever it takes to protect the lives of fellow police officers. Can you blame them for wanting protection?
Undoubtedly for most officers, what happened in Dallas is unforgivable. They will remember this event for the rest of their lives as well as every time they see a black man who seems at all menacing. With a gun in hand many will unload it even faster now, out of fear for their lives and the lives of their comrades. Absurd as it is to say, one man’s actions can and will tarnish the reputation of an entire demographic, at least in the minds of those who are already prejudiced.
The situation is extremely sobering. I believe there is only one way to transcend the racial divide, or any divide between people for that matter; we must open our minds and our hearts in order to listen. This task is daunting for sure. Yet, I believe there is no greater imperative. There is nothing in life more profound or important than developing the capacity to understand and relate to what another person is thinking, feeling, and trying to communicate.
This post is my attempt to understand, through the music of N.W.A. and this film about them, a community and an art form (hip-hop), which I am mostly unfamiliar with. I can make no promises as to the accuracy of my perception, only that I have deliberated over my impressions on this topic for quite some time and I now hold a personal conviction that there is meaning in the ideas and associations I have established, which I will now share.
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Through their art, N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) gave voice to thousands who before had none – people predominantly of color living in impoverished, crime-ridden, drug-infested, environmentally toxic neighborhoods all across the United States. The band forwarded such ideas as social justice, racial equality, and artistic expression. Surely these ideas are of common concern to many of the individuals you’d finding gathering inside the Duke Energy Convention Center this weekend in downtown Cincinnati. Unlike these more upstanding community leaders, however, the self-proclaimed LA gangsters forwarded their agenda not with civil discussion but with scathing lyrics, dope beats, and an uncompromising meanstreak attitude.
They took pride not in being respectful of, or agreeable to authority, but in being authentic in the face of it, if their song F**k The Police, is any indication of that. The song, combined with the enthusiasm it generated among their fans, got them on the FBI’s public enemy list.
Yet, the band made no apologies for their bitter lyrics, nor did they censor themselves. For, to them they were merely projecting the true world as they saw it. “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” Says the band’s chief lyricist, Ice Cube, during a press conference in the film (seen below).
So what is their reality exactly? Straight Outta Compton offers this information in raw detail. And I laud the film for not sugar-coating any of it. It’s all in there. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The character flaws, the sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll. For instance, the film opens with Easy E as he partakes in a drug deal gone sour. E soon finds himself staring down the point end of a Beretta and is saved only when a platoon of police officers in full tactical gear raid the premise behind an armored car. The ensuing chaos gives us the impression that E’s neighborhood in Southern LA might as well be in war-torn Iraq or Afghanistan.
In another scene, Ice Cube (played by his real life son, which is pretty cool by the way) is writing lyrics on his high school bus when a gang of CRIPS stops the bus and boards it. They threaten some students sitting in front of Cube at gunpoint. (Did anything like this ever happen on your school bus?)
The band also partied as hard as any of their fellow Rock n Roll Hall of famers. Yes, N.W.A was inducted into this elite club last year. While touring they trashed hotel suites and VIP lounges. They did drugs, and slept with too many women to count. SPOILER ALert if you’re unfamiliar with the band’s history: Easy E died of aides at the age of 31.
In my view, the band’s ascension to fame and the lavish lifestyle that followed was not a celebration; it was a revolt. Outwardly they revolted against police brutality. The infamous beating of Rodney King in 1991 and its subsequent effect on the band is a focal point in the film. Inwardly, however, they revolted against the absurdity of their life situation and the situation of their fellow blacks. Their psychology became warped by the crippling burdens of systemic racial injustice and all that entails, the social, political, and economic inequality, for example. Ice Cube said their art was a reflection of their reality. I would argue their personalities were as well.
In The Myth of Sisyphus the Modern French Philosopher, Albert Camus, laid out his notion of the absurd. For Camus, absurdity arises when the human need to understand meets the unreasonableness of the world, when “my appetite for the absolute and for unity” meets “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle” (Camus, 1942).
Camus wrote about absurdity as a metaphysical concept. However, by modifying the context slightly we can imagine how it is relevant to N.W.A. Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and the like, may have become psychologically entrapped by the absurd injustice facing their existence, namely growing up in poverty as a member of a minority in a country that has a history of enslaving and oppressing minorities.
Perhaps the knowledge of this fact turns it into a manifesto of sorts. Instead of living with the absurd injustice of your life, you revolt against it. Author, Anthony Burgess writes in a Clockwork Orange (1962) “The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen.” I believe what Burgess meant was that one feels a strong inclination to revolt whenever an authority, whether it be God, the police, or even a guardian, prevents the individual from living as he/she is destined to.
The subconscious thought process of this revolt in the case of the members of N.W.A might go something like this: “I will not become subservient to my society like my ancestors did. Instead I will revolt against, and by doing so conquer society.”This could be the psychological mechanism responsible for the group’s antisocial behavior. For example, their disregard for authority, their objectification of women, etc.
Camus further lends credence to this notion when he writes, “There is a metaphysical honor in ending the world’s absurdity. Conquest or play-acting, multiple loves, absurd revolt are tributes that man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance.” Perhaps the members of N.W.A. chose to respect themselves at the expense of society, precisely because their society did not seem to care about their wellbeing in the first place. Their ruthlessness and lavish lifestyle, i.e., the gold, guns and girls were manifestations of this unconscious decision to place “I” before “you.”
It is a question of having a Big Ego vs. a big Superego. Sigmund Freud described the former as the psychological mechanism that allows a person to obtain what he/she wants, while the latter is what makes a person concerned about the broader implications of his/her behavior, its effect on other people, and how those people judge the individual accordingly. There are advantages to each, of course. For Dr. Dre, E, Cube and the gang, Ego ruled predominant. They appeared far more concerned with getting what they wanted, i.e., having power and a means of expression, and less concerned with their image and the impact of their behavior on other people.
This feature of their personality was likely due to their growing up the hostile neighborhood of Compton. And if I had to guess, that’s probably the biggest difference between me and you, Dre; I wasn’t raised in a war zone.
And “War cannot be negated.” Camus writes. “One must live it or die of it. So it is with the absurd: it is a question of breathing with it, of recognizing its lessons and recovering their flesh. In this regard the absurd joy par excellence is creation. “Art and nothing but art”, said Nietzsche, “we have art in order not to die of the truth.”
The quote rings similar to Ice Cube when he says that “art is a reflection of our reality.” However, according to Nietzsche, art isn’t just a reflection of our reality, it is a necessary response to our reality. By this we see how essential it is to have a mode of creative expression, a voice for lack of a better word, especially when one’s reality is harsh. Artistic expression allows us to cope with the stressors of our existence. It also allows us to connect with the people who are willing to listen.
Starting this blog has allowed me to appreciate how hard it is to truly listen and understand anything. Every movie I have written about thus far I have watched several times over, in attempt to fully understand it. I know I have not truly succeeded in comprehending all that each film has to offer.
To me, if you want to understand something such as film or a person, there is simply no alternative to spending considerable amounts of time with it. In terms of being able to relate to our fellow human being, I believe this is precisely our challenge: are we willing and able to invest the time and energy required to thoroughly listen to the other? If the answer is no, then we will never understand the other. And if we never understand the other than we will continue to live apart from them, in a fragmented reality, and in a world of hatred and hostility. If, however, we develop the capacity to truly listen, by opening our hearts and minds through practice, we will be better off for it.
EFC 05 Soundtrack: “Boyz In Da Hood” by N.W.A. (WARNING: Explicit lyrics)