Mind your language
A black man killed by a police officer. Were you shocked after reading the previous sentence? Probably not. Nothing new, right? Last year, in 2019, 250,52 million residents of the United States of America were white. 370 were shot to death by the police. That’s 0.000148%. In the same year 44,08 million residents of the USA were black or African American. 235 were shot to death by the police. That’s 0.000533%. This means that Black people / African American people are 3.6 times more likely to be shot to death by the police. Facts. (Source: Statista.com)
Straight Outta Compton
Didn’t you promise a history related blog? Yes. And here it is. In 2015 a movie called ‘Straight Outta Compton’, was released into the cinemas worldwide. The movie tells the story of the rap group N.W.A ( N*ggaz With Attitude) in Compton ( This is how dangerous this city is), Los Angeles. The movie was named after the first studio album N.W.A released in 1988. It was revolutionary in the Hip-Hop scene. Group member Ice Cub describes it as ‘Reality Rap’. Now it’s mostly known as ‘Gangsta Rap’. At first the radio refused to give N.W.A any air time. ‘Who could possibly be intrested in this kind of music?’ N.W.A. used their lyrics to show their interpretation of their reality, of ‘the shit they were going through’. The song ‘Fuk the Police’ is a perfect example of this:
‘Fuck the police comin’ 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 thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fuckin’ with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics’
‘Fuk the Police’– N.W.A, 1988.
So yes, back in 1988 the topic of black people being shot to death by the police was already relevant. N.W.A used their platform, lyrics and voice to draw attention, spread awareness and fight the wrong. To make people aware of what was happening in the neighborhood they called home. The movie does a great job showing all the layers in the N.W.A story. The struggle before the fame, the fights with the authorities during the fame and the consequences after the fame, it’s all well shown in the movie and in N.W.A’s music in ‘real life’. Issues like racism, discrimination, violence and segregation are dealt with. It offers people a visual and vocal reenactment of the social, cultural and racial conflicts black people went through back in the day. The movie’s director F. Gary Gray tells us that this is exactly what they were aiming for during the production of the movie. ‘We wanted to transport you back in that time’, Gray says. Looking at the statistics I presented earlier it is still relevant to this day. Ice Cube, also producer of the movie, even claims nothing yet has changed in Compton. As a bonus Straight Outta Compton has an completely black main cast and a black director. ‘Hollywood’ shows its capability of diversity. And Hip-Hop proves it’s relevance for public historians. More about this later.
Reception by critics and public
The movie was received well by the public. Straight Outta Compton currently is worth a 7,8 /10 on IMDB. Rottentomatoes rates the movies 89%/100%. Both websites are very famous for movie reviews by the public. Established media like ‘Rollingstone’ (3,5/4), ‘The Guardian’ (3/5) and ‘Het Parool’ (4/5) also reward the movie with predominantly positive rewards. One of the most important points of critique was that ‘the movie fails to get perspective on the misogynistic culture of hip-hop.’ The movie had a $28.000.000 production budget. Worldwide the movie raised $202,182,98: 7,2 times the production budget. Financially Straight Outta Compton can also be considered successful. (Source: The-Numbers.com)
Why (public) historians should not ignore Hip-Hop culture and Rap Music
For those who are not familiar with Hip-Hop culture and Rap Music, a quick summary: Rap music is only a part of the entire Hip-Hop culture: Fashion, dancing, language, gangs and music. Rap ( Rhythm and Poetry) is the genre of music that was created within this culture during the seventies and eighties. ‘Gangsta Rap’ or ‘Reality Rap’ are subgenres in rap music. Dr. Eithne Quinn wrote in ‘Nuthing but a ‘G’ thang’ that ‘Gangsta Rap’ reflects the depressive reality of the lower classes in society’. (Public) Historians should use these reflections. It could offer a greater perspective and better understanding of the struggle the lower class of society has to go through. Racism, discrimination and police brutality towards black people is still happening. It’s reality. ‘Gangsta Rap or Reality Rap’ is the interpretation and perspective of people that have lived this reality. Movie directors identified Hip-Hop as a source for their product. For public historians this could be an excellent source for a bottom-up approach to history writing. It’s the history you need to listen to.
Insipired? Listen to this ‘Gangsta Rap’ playlist on Spotify.
Wesley van Bavel