I was a pre-teen racist. Okay, maybe “racist” is a bit harsh, the term implying a proactive, energetic nastiness. Instead, I might describe my 13-year old self as a “casual bigot,” spending all my time with kids like me, watching TV shows and movies about people like me, and listening to music made by people I identified with. Heavy rotations of classic rock, new wave and punk music spun on the record and cassette players in my room in my family’s spacious home in a comfortable slice of Long Island, New York.
I grew up happy and advantaged, my biggest fears whether I’d score tickets to The Who at Shea Stadium or worried just how bad the Mets would be that summer. Music was for me a constant, my family’s massive record collection spurring me to build my own. Most conversations with my friends came back to music – Moon or Bonham, Boy George or Adam Ant, Hot Rocks or Hot Rocks II – these were the topics we cared about. And we’d judge kids by what they listened to – “He likes Black Sabbath? He seemed so normal,” or “I’d love to date her, but a guy can endure only so much Madonna,” were regular threads as we rode our ten-speeds around town. And we grew up judging people in other ways too.
The Long Island I remember was more tribal than racist – few people ever went out of their way to make trouble, just as long as everyone kept to their own. My tribe - the Irish/Italian Catholics of Garden City - was known for its manicured hedges, robust backhands, hefty bank accounts, Izod shirts, madras shorts and a proud rejection of anything different than what we knew as our tribe’s way of life. Long Island was more fondue than melting pot – stick to your own sauces and let that eternal flame of “What Are You Looking At?” burn equally for everyone. I had no other frame of reference and figured the jokes we’d tell each other were just what you did, like campfire stories of our identity. I later realized you didn’t say certain things in public, but back then, my sense of race relations could be best described as, “Adolescent ignoramus with a hint of condescension.” We had our part of Long Island, and other people had theirs, and it was best if everyone left it that way.
You know you’ve been isolated when Vermont’s the most diverse place you’ve ever been. But it was there, in college in the late ‘80’s, where I discovered it wasn’t cool to tell jokes like we did back home. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were different. A Methodist, a Jew, a Catholic and an African-American at the same party? Is this the United Nations? I learned quickly to keep the inane bigotry to myself and did my best to get educated.
I dove into the Black American experience more than any and read book after book – James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcom X – these were the guideposts to this journey I’d stumbled into. Above all, music opened my world. In the mid ‘80’s in New York, rap music started to take shape. If I dared, I’d nudge the radio dial past the Springsteen A to Z Weekend and hear snippets of “Rappers Delight” or Run DMC’s “Rock Box,” but I’d usually get confused and head for the safety of what I knew back down the dial.
By the time I finished my freshman year in college, I was far more aware of a broader world, and rap music was my private passport. The Beastie Boys, KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy and reruns of “Yo! MTV Raps” on cable became a constant, this music a way to fend off my past perspectives. I held those cassettes close to me, not like a sinner’s hair shirt but as a celebration of my unplanned, uneven and meandering pilgrimage to make myself comfortable with me.
So many of these memories flooded back to me a few weeks ago as I watched the film, Straight Outta Compton. This movie depicts the rise, rage and revolution in rap music launched by the group NWA in the late ‘80’s in Los Angeles. If you were a sentient being back then, you saw the news reports of this rap group inciting violence against the police, its most popular song an exclamation against what it saw as racial profiling and unprovoked police brutality. You remember how the FBI sent NWA a letter warning the group not to sing certain songs, and you might have a vague recollection of how this unvarnished, raw music provoked lengthy debate among politicians, police and pundits about the limits of free speech – you may even remember Tipper Gore in front of Congress asking for warning labels on record albums. To think the phrase, “Black Lives Matter” is considered incendiary speech today – America’s wimp factor may be at an all-time high when you listen to what NWA rapped about almost three decades ago.
Early on in the film, we see NWA hassled by cops for being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, sparking its members to create a masterpiece of rap music that remains just as divisive today as it was in the fall of 1988. The music explodes on the screen, and it’s impossible not to get swept away into the cultural and societal events NWA unleashed on America. Hearing Ice Cube sing, “They think they have the authority to kill a minority” felt like the whack of a truncheon to my head – in a good way.
Straight Outta Compton captures much of NWA’s rise to fame and infamy as it chronicles the beginning, ascendancy and eventual collapse of the group, its five members sparking creative genius in each other before collapsing under the weight of their success. The film is twenty minutes too long, gets overly maudlin for its own good, and no doubt sanitizes certain events (I can only imagine when a scene involving automatic weapons, drugs, unclad female fans and creative use of adjectives is a “sanitized” version of what really happened . . .), but I found it riveting and relevant.
I can implore you to see Straight Outta Compton, but chances are you won’t. It’s filled with enough cursing for a lifetime of sailor bar crawls, and the misogyny might scare off the more sensitive, and I understand that. But to skip it is to ignore an important cultural movement in America’s recent history that gave a voice to millions of Americans who’ve been marginalized for generations. NWA doesn’t sing about tomorrow’s math test or unrequited teen love. They spit out lyrics that speak to their rage at the way their world was, and, sadly remains today. At one point, as their manager waves the FBI’s warning letter in the air, the group insists it won’t back down, adding, “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” For me, this film reminds me how someone else’s reality can prod me to change for the better, one beat at a time.
Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, is rated R for all sorts of R-related things, including bad words, bad decisions, bad business deals and bad behavior; still in theaters and not to be missed.