Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of hip-hop group N.W.A, seems to have struck a nerve amid a steady stream of highly publicized police violence toward black men. The film frames the group as political artists who verbalized an experience that had yet to be articulated; Ice Cube has called their songs “truth-telling street knowledge.” It’s hard to listen to their most famous song, “Fuck Tha Police,” and not feel like it could have been written today:
Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
To be beatin on, and throwin in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
But even as the movie breaks box office records and collects accolades, the film has gotten widespread criticism for the omission of Dr. Dre’s violence against women (specifically his attack on journalist Dee Barnes) and for its one-dimensional female characters. Their lyrics fare no better. Another track from a reissue of Straight Outta Compton, “A Bitch Iz A Bitch,” hardly had lofty political ambitions:
A bitch is a bitch
So if I’m poor or rich I talk in the exact same pitch
Now the title bitch don’t apply to all women
But all women have a little bitch in ’em
It’s like a disease that plagues their character
Taking the women of America
And it starts with the letter B
It makes a girl like that think she better than me
See, some get mad and some just bear it
But, yo, if the shoe fits wear it
So how do we make sense of righteous, relevant rage on the one hand and violent, dismissive language about women on the other? Why does the former feel so timely if the latter comes off as retrograde? N.W.A was slightly before my time; in 1988, I was busy obsessing over Jordan Knight from the New Kids on the Block. But even when I became a hip-hop fan and gave them a listen, I didn’t remember them being as socially conscious as the movie portrayed. Just how political was N.W.A’s music, anyway?
“They gave voice to unheard stories from the West Coast,” says hip-hop historian, activist and radio DJ Davey D. He says N.W.A and later Ice Cube’s music conveyed real themes from their lived experiences that black audiences around the country could relate to. Their songs were valuable documentation; in a scene in the film where the group’s members are at a press conference, Ice Cube calls himself “a journalist, just like you, reporting on what’s going on in the hood.” With the release of Straight Outta Compton (the album), the arrests in Detroit, and Ice Cube’s and Da Lench Mob’s altercation at the New Music Seminar—all scenes in the movie—Davey D told me that “everyone began to realize California wasn’t just about sunshine and palm trees.”
Next to more explicitly political groups like Public Enemy, Brand Nubian and X-Clan, N.W.A stuck out. Hip-hop artist and activist Jasiri X told me that when N.W.A first started, “it was a shock that black people would call themselves ‘niggas.’” While Davey D appreciated N.W.A as artists, he was one of several DJs who boycotted their music on his radio show. “We felt we had a responsibility for the types of messages we were putting out to the youth,” he says.
Not that there wasn’t political value to N.W.A—the title of their most famous track is a three-word criticism of the police state and, as the biopic portrays, “truly gave soundtrack to the Rodney King riots,” as Jasiri X puts it. But the ensuing debate over N.W.A was ultimately more about hip-hop and censorship than about the police state, and the group’s relationship to politics was always muddled. Eazy-E railed against America’s racist police, but he also visited the Bush White House in 1991 because he had donated to the Republican Party—a move that was later mercilessly mocked by Ice Cube in his infamous battle track, “No Vaseline.”
When asked if racism existed outside of Compton by SPIN magazine in 1990, Eazy-E replied, “The black police in Compton are worse than the white police. Chuck D gets involved in all that black stuff, we don’t. Fuck that black power shit; we don’t give a fuck. Free South Africa; we don’t give a fuck…We’re not into politics at all.”
At another point in the interview, when Eazy is asked about the difference between “women” and “bitches,” he explains, “A bitch is someone who fucks everybody except me.”
When it comes down to it, N.W.A were performers. Their rise to popularity was in large part due to their ability to create characters that were perceived as fearless. Mainstream America didn’t care as much about racial justice as they did about salacious lyrics and controversy set to a good tempo.
N.W.A’s ability to sell themselves as political revolutionaries falls in line with their talents as “savvy artists and media producers,” says Jay Smooth, founder of the hip-hop radio show Underground Railroad and the popular video blog Ill Doctrine. Their songs and personas were “inspired by real-life experience and offered real, important insight at times, but at the end of the day they were selling an over-the-top, calculated cinematic fantasy.”
And the misogyny in their lyrics went hand-in-hand with the characters they created. From a song titled “She Swallowed It,” from their 1991 album Niggaz4Life:
And if you got a gang of niggaz, the bitch would let you rape her
She likes suckin’ on dicks, and lickin’ up nutz
And they even take de broomstick in the butt
Just to say that she did it with a rapper
When asked about his use of “bitches” and “hoes,” Ice Cube has responded several times that he is talking about a “specific woman,” not all women. In a recent Rolling Stone interview he says:
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 defense of these despicable females…I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.
Perhaps when Ice Cube peddles this response he is in character, but it’s still a character that imitates life, albeit in an exaggerated form. Rap music is hardly the first sighting of the “Madonna/whore” complex, the belief that there are some women worthy of respect and dignity and some who are not. In the face of a culture of violence and sexual assault, the idea that some women are not “upstanding” inadvertently justifies such violence. It’s a hop, skip and a jump away from, “Well, why was she wearing that short skirt if she didn’t want to be raped?”
Still, like the cruelly sexist “Bye, Felicia” scene in Straight Outta Compton, most of N.W.A’s misogyny is played up for laughs. “They found it funny to disrespect women, and correctly guessed that America would find it funny as well,” Smooth says. “They took the locker room talk, the casual misogyny men indulge all the time in private, and packaged it for public consumption, in a rawer form than people were used to in a pop song. And this let N.W.A and their audience get the thrill of breaking a taboo without actually risking much, since misogyny really isn’t taboo in America, and never was.”
Just because sexism was good business didn’t mean feminist hip-hop fans weren’t grappling with the cognitive dissonance between the call for racial justice and casual misogyny. Eisa Davis wrote in the 1994 anthology To Be Real, in an essay titled “Sexism and the Art of Feminist Hip-Hop Maintenance,” that when she listens to hip-hop, “I consume the performance of sexism, thereby assuring myself that the reality of the sexism depicted in the lyrics is happening to an imaginary woman, not a real one.”
When I read this essay 20 years ago, it resonated with me as a young feminist who loved rap music. Reading it now in context of N.W.A, it feels profoundly generous.
Some feminists weren’t quite so forgiving. “I have to say, I enjoyed the movie more than I enjoyed N.W.A at the time,” Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, told me over the phone. Morgan coined the concept of “hip-hop feminism”—the ability to participate in hip-hop culture while bringing awareness to its exclusion and harmful attitudes about women. “Fuck Tha Police” was “a brilliant song,” but N.W.A was her “line-in-the-sand moment” when it came to what kind of rap she would and wouldn’t consume or endorse. She wrote later, in a review of Ice Cube’s album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, “It’s no secret that I found Straight Outta Compton nothing short of demonic.”
And yet there was always context to hip-hop’s misogyny: Tricia Rose writes in her 1994 book Black Noise that the “creative stories about the abuse and domination of black women” are perhaps created to “protect young men from the reality of female rejection; maybe and more likely, tales of sexual domination falsely relieve their lack of self-worth and limited access to economic and social markers for heteromasculine power.” Historically, those who feel oppressed and emasculated will oppress others even more powerless than themselves.
This battle of how to be a feminist while still partying with and consuming hip-hop mirrors the role of women in other political movements. If we are to believe that hip-hop is about revolution, it falls in line with the tradition of racial, nationalist or identity politics. The language of revolution is often filled with the imaginings of life after freedom. From anti-colonial struggles to the American civil rights movement, women—despite often fighting side-by-side with men—have either been recast in traditional roles for the good of the community (or nation) or told their issues will be prioritized when other rights are won.
Apparently not much has changed from N.W.A’s heyday when it comes to priorities. When New York Magazine writer Allison P. Davis dared to ask Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray about that “Bye, Felicia” scene, he told her she was “digging.” Instead, he said, “we should be focusing on how the police are treating innocent American citizens.” Then he hung up on her.
The renewed obsession with “Fuck Tha Police” signals that police racism hasn’t gotten better in decades. Whether the misogyny in hip-hop has improved is less clear. Today some of N.W.A’s more sexist lyrics sound outrageously dated to me—but is that because hip-hop has changed, or because I have?
Gone from most hip-hop “is the overt shock treatment deployed by N.W.A,” Davey D says, but themes of “sexual dominance and conquering” are still prevalent in rap music. Jasiri X tells me that while there is still an “economic benefit to portraying people of color in a cartoonish way,” because of tools like social media and blogs, “women, and specifically black women and women of color, can talk back and hold people accountable for their portrayal of women.” Straight Outta Compton may have made $60 million the first week it was released, but more than 2 million people read Dee Barnes’ rebuttal on Gawker—which might have ultimately led to Dr. Dre’s recent public apology.
It’s tempting to watch Straight Outta Compton and assign our political aspirations onto it, especially now that the deaths of black men at the hands of cops have resulted in a national movement. But gone are the days where we can look the other way when it comes to the relationship between racism and sexism. As Alicia Garza, organizer and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, told Dissent in January: “When we say black lives matter, we mean black queer lives, black trans lives, black disabled lives, black poor lives, black incarcerated lives, black women’s lives—all black lives.”
This N.W.A renaissance presents an opportunity to push back against a sanitized, myopic history. In a 1992 editorial in The Source, activist, writer and filmmaker dream hampton wrote in response to Dr. Dre’s altercation with Barnes: “Hip-hop music must take responsibility for the destruction of the Black community, i.e. the abuse of the black woman. It has no place in revolutionary music.” If we are to believe in the revolutionary potential of hip-hop music, we have to also believe in its ability to evolve by holding some of its most powerful storytellers accountable.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a NYC-based digital strategist, writer and author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life.