I'm at my part-time gig last week having a discussion with two guys I work with, both of which are serious hip-hop enthusiasts. They are talking about the new biopic Straight Outta Compton. The film chronicles the rise and fall of the Compton-based hip-hop group N.W.A and the sometimes turbulent relationships between members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller.
Both guys support the general consensus of the film being well-made and riveting in its storytelling — as I am sure it is — but our conversation takes a turn when I share my reservations about supporting a group that has contributed so much to the prevalent image of thug culture and violence that ultimately plagues the black community.
Both of my coworkers are in their mid-30s and, although from the South, they both have much respect for the historical origin of hip-hop as a relatively new art form created by urban youth in the Bronx. We all agree hip-hop has changed since the original days of being a socially aware voice for a community that sometimes felt voiceless. Talented artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One whose albums Fear of a Black Planet and By All Means Necessary, respectively, heralded an era of socially conscious music with anthems like "Fight the Power" that epitomized the struggle felt by a generation of young activist committed to challenging the status quo, much like the present "#BlackLivesMatter" movement. There is a lot of hype around Straight Outta Compton and N.W.A, a group some say revolutionized hip-hop. I do not agree. I think N.W.A definitely changed hip-hop culture, but derailed a revolution that had already begun and, through it's influence, contributed to the pervasive image of thug culture, misogyny and violence that has unfortunately become a mainstay and theme in present hip-hop culture.
You see, it was by design that the powers-that-be saw the potential threat of a generation of socially conscious, educated and committed young folks and decided to lift up a group of artists that would be the antithesis of everything the current culture of activism stood for. Besides, many of these artists do not even rep the lifestyle they have sold to the general public. Isn't it time we stop trying to legitimize and give mogul status to artists who, for all intents and purposes, created, packaged and sold black culture through mainstream corporate partnerships that allow a few artists (like Dr. Dre) to build empires? At what cost does this come to the larger community, from which the art form originated? And yes, we can say these were hungry, impressionable artists seduced by the success and instant wealth. But what about when you have the opportunity to own and produce your own product as an independent agent? Why do you continue to crank out the same themes of consumption, misogyny and violence? N.W.A basically continued to pimp the larger community while cutting out the middle man.
Poet Audre Lorde said, "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."
Imagine for a moment how different things may have turned out if the movement started by artists like Public enemy and KRS-One had been allowed to grow unchecked. Maybe that is exactly what the powers-that-be feared.
My coworkers and I continued our discussion about the evolution, or maybe more accurately, the de-evolution of hip-hop. One, named Brandon, shared an example that I believe exemplifies the current state of hip-hop. During a red carpet interview for the BET Awards, Atlanta-based artist Young Thug was questioned about the shooting of Mike Brown and the subsequent protest that followed and this was his response: "Leave that up with the critics and the laws and all that other shit. We having fun, we iced out, we having money. That's how we doing it." There is your legacy of apathy.
Here we are experiencing an epidemic of institutional violence against brown folks and you would think that an art form originated as a voice of the people would be overflowing with music and work as a counter-agent. But no, strangely, many are silent and continue to spin the same thug life rhetoric.
When we finished our discussion I agreed that, cinematically, the N.W.A biopic is most likely a compelling story. But given the present state of hip-hop, I am not in any rush to see the film as I am Straight Outta Patience.