The surprise smash of the year, Straight Outta Compton, which follows the formation and subsequent breakup of gangsta rap supergroup N.W.A., hit Australian screens last week.
The film, produced by its subjects Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, along with Eazy-E’s widow, Tomika Woods-Wright, comes at a time when race relations between police and African Americans in the U.S. are fraught, much as they were around the time N.W.A. (N*ggaz Wit Attitudes) was coming up in Compton in the ’80s and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that punctuate the biopic.
There is no doubt that these are important issues and it’s refreshing to see them being dealt with by Hollywood however, as The New York Times claimed of unarmed black teen Michael Brown gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, Dre, Cube and E are “no angels”.
Much has been written about the misogynist lyrics in N.W.A.’s music, with songs such as “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”, and its members’ abusive history. Dre’s ex-fiance and the mother of one of his children, R’n’B artist Michel’le, claims he physically abused her during their relationship, while his assault on music journalist Dee Barnes in a nightclub in 1991 is widely known. Female rapper Tairrie B has also alleged that Dre punched her twice in the head and face at an afterparty for the 1990 Grammy Awards.
Much has also been written about these women’s absence from the film in an effort to make its subjects and their plights more palatable to a mainstream audience. Is the inclusion of Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and infamous music producer Suge Knight’s unhinged violence towards randoms who park in his spot and dog fights at Death Row Records really pertinent to the trajectory of N.W.A.? Knight’s reprehensibility aside, why take pains to paint Knight in such a bad light while glossing over Eazy-E’s drug dealing beginnings and Dre’s violence towards women? Surely movie-goers are savvy enough to feel empathy towards characters portrayed with nuance, truth and humanity.
Speaking of Tupac Shakur, his brief cameo in Straight Outta Compton (where he is played by Marcc Rose) betrays his prolific rap career that extends to this day despite his death in 1996 at the age of twenty-five. Though his music is at risk of slipping away according to the new generation of Spotify users, he remains my favourite rapper despite the dichotomy between his progressive lyrics and significantly less so actions. (My fave is problematic.)
His portrayal in the film also comes at a time when Dre and Knight took him under their Death Row wing upon his release from prison (the company posted his $1.4 million bail) for the sexual assault of a young black woman in a hotel room in 1993. During Shakur’s incarceration he became the first artist to simultaneously have a number one album on the Billboard charts and be in prison. And we wonder where our reluctance to vilify violent and criminal men who happen to create stuff we like comes from.
Unlike much of N.W.A.’s music, Shakur wrote many pro-women lyrics that can be heard in “Keep Ya Head Up”, “Baby Don’t Cry” and “Dear Mama”. So how do we reconcile his apparent entitlement to women’s bodies with said lyrics?
“Keep Ya Head Up”, for example, could be held up as a feminist anthem that extols reproductive freedom, safety from sexual assault and gender equality in general:
“And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one”
On the other hand, Shakur’s missive could be seen as a precursor to songs such as John Mayer’s “Daughters”; a Nice Guy™ who wants a cookie for demonstrating basic human decency towards people of the opposite sex and other minorities.
But I’m not sure that’s the case with Shakur; released posthumously and featuring Shakur’s side band the Outlawz, “Baby Don’t Cry” explores similar themes to “Keep Ya Head Up” and is actually dually billed as “Keep Ya Head Up Part II”. With shared narration by Shakur, Edi Amin and Young Noble, the song empathises with the molestation, rape, teen parenthood, drug addiction and poverty of a young black woman.
Furthermore, one of Shakur’s best-known singles and Mother’s Day staple “Dear Mama” sifts through the rapper’s mummy issues. Shakur’s mother Afeni was a member of the Black Panther political party, a drug addict, and pregnant with Shakur whilst serving jail time for domestic terrorism charges. The single mother–helmed family moved around the U.S. often and lacked stability. Much of this is rapped about in “Dear Mama”:
“And I could see you coming home after work late
You’re in the kitchen trying to fix us a hot plate
You just working with the scraps you was given
And mama made miracles every Thanksgivin’”
“And even as a crack fiend, mama
You always was a black queen, mama
I finally understand
For a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how you did it”
As illustrated above, Shakur muses often about “black queens” and makes explicit reference to them in both “Baby Don’t Cry” and “Dear Mama”. The strong black woman trope, as explained by Trudy from the black womanist blog Gradient Lair, portrays black women as “unfeeling objects to project pain on based on compliments of us being ‘strong,’ a word often used as permission to dehumanise [us]”. In “Keep Ya Head Up”, Shakur challenges this notion, acknowledging that “Because there’s too many things for you to deal with/Dyin’ inside, but outside you’re looking fearless.”
This empathy for beaten down women extends all the way back through Shakur’s discography to his debut single, “Brenda’s Got a Baby”. Inspired by a newspaper article, Shakur raps about a pre-teen who was raped by a cousin, fell pregnant, briefly abandoned her baby in the garbage but had a change of heart and decided to raise the child on her own. She turns to drug dealing and sex work, and eventually ends up as the headline, “Prostitute found slain and Brenda’s her name”.
And in “Wonder Why They Call U Bitch”, Shakur makes it clear he feels a woman should be able to do whatever she wants with her body, whether that be “Giv[ing] it up free/or make your money on the corner,” but not everyone in his ’hood feels that way. Harkening back to “Keep Ya Head Up” again: “I was given this world, I didn’t make it.”
To be sure, the misogynoir (the intersection between blackness and femaleness) of gangsta rap, and wider culture in general, is rife in Shakur’s music. In “All About U”, Shakur, Snoop and Nate Dogg et al. rap about the “tricks”, “bitches”, “hoochies” and “sluts”—groupies, essentially—who are only after rap stars’ fame and money. Juxtaposed with Shakur’s other music mentioned above, he implies that there are different kinds of women, those worthy of respect and those who aren’t.
Echoes of this notion can be heard in Ice Cube’s recent defence of his misogynist lyrics:
“If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us… If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defence of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn’t be jumping to the defence of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that’s men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.”
One would assume drug dealers and wife beaters would fall under the category of punks, cowards and slimy sons of bitches yet Cube continues to keep company with Dre…
In Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A.’s manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giammati), defends the group when they’re roughhoused by police outside of the studio. “They’re artists. They’re rappers.”
“Rap is not an art,” a white police officer replies.
A lot has changed since the mid ’80s, with performers such as Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Kanye, Kendrick and Nicki helping to redefine the rap game into something explicitly resembling art. Which leads us to ask, can we separate the men from their art? Straight Outta Compton attempts it by denying us any real insight into its subjects. Surely audiences are smart enough to feel empathy for victims of racial profiling, police brutality and human rights abuses who also happen to victimise people themselves. But in such a racially fraught time, maybe Straight Outta Compton’s producers (who are also, without question, protecting themselves) couldn’t risk providing White Audiences with any ammunition.