African American Music and the NWA

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8th Feb 2020 Music Reference this

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        African American musicians have used music as a way make their voice heard and spread the message of the ongoing civil rights movement. One of the most notable groups to do this was Niggaz Wit Attitudes (N.W.A.), a hip-hop group that consisted of five members: Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. Drawing on their personal experiences of police brutality, racial profiling, and growing up on the violent streets of Compton, CA, they pioneered the hip-hop subgenre, gangsta rap. Their debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton, featured one of their most well-known songs titled “Fuck Tha Police”. The song is based around a mock trial with Dr. Dre as the judge and Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E as prosecutors who are presenting evidence against the police department. Although the content of the song was alarming, it effectively created conversation about racism and police brutality. In the same way that different styles of black music have done throughout history, “Fuck Tha Police” has influenced and given a voice to African American youth and brought awareness to the fight against discrimination and police brutality and it continues to do so today in the Black Lives Matter movement.

       In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs that created conditions conducive to police brutality that targeted black communities. The war on drugs increase police funding in order to crack down on drug control. New policies like mandatory minimum prison sentences were established for drug related offenses. In an interview with journalist Dan Baum, Nixon’s former domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman admitted that this campaign targeted the two enemies of the White House at the time: “the antiwar left and black people” (Baum). Ehrlichman was also quoted saying:

 “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news” (Baum).

Police presence in minority communities increased and they were essentially given reason to stop and search the members of these communities more often. The over-policing of these areas and increased contact created hostility between these two groups which made it more likely that these interactions would end in violence. Which often times they did.

          “Fuck Tha Police” was written in response to N.W.A.’s own experience with violent and discriminatory policing and their experiences mirrored those of other black youths. In the documentary The Defiant Ones, Alonzo Williams, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube described the specific events that led up to Ice Cube writing the song. Eazy-E and Dr. Dre were shooting paintball guns

out their car window on the freeway. The police pulled them over on the freeway and made the two members lay face down on the ground with their guns drawn. Dr. Dre was then arrested and was sentenced to weekend detention, which is having to report to jail every weekend and being released on the weekdays (What’s the Real Story). Interactions with police were similar to this for many African Americans. Lyrics like “Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product, Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics” (N.W.A.) resonated with the communities that had become strongly policed. Despite the lack of air-time on radio stations and no record label, the song became an anthem for the black youth and went double platinum because they were able to relate to what N.W.A. was saying. The aggressive tone of the song spoke very bluntly what they were feeling.

This aggressive style of music, called gangsta rap, became the new voice for a different generation of the same marginalized group on a mainstream platform. Gangsta rap accurately documented experiences faced by African Americans in communities like Compton, LA. Theresa Martinez explains that, “The criminalization, surveillance, incarceration, and immiseration of black youth in the postindustrial city have been the central theme in gangsta rap, and at the same time, sadly constitute the primary experiences from which their identities are constructed” (11). This style of music explicitly presented the anger and aggression that many young black people were feeling towards society and law enforcement. Gangsta rap music spoke truth of what African Americans were going through which lead to its popularity and success in the mainstream market. It broadcasted these African American’s intent to resist the discrimination and the unjust treatment of their communities in a style of music that no one had done before.

Similar to what previous African American artists and older styles of black music did for previous generations of African Americans, “Fuck Tha Police” encouraged resistance and activism in African Americans. Before the hip-hop sound was even created, African American artist had genres like blues, jazz, and rock n’ roll. Even slaves sang song of their struggles but also songs of freedom and survival to uplift their spirits. Many of these songs are still know today, such as “Wade in the Water”, “Go Down Moses”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. During the civil rights movement, songs like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” told stories of struggle, rage, and violence but also of hope for change. These songs evoked emotion and inspired individuals to stand up for their rights and spread a message to people outside of black communities that African American were being treated unjustly and would no longer accept it. With this song, N.W.A. spoke for a disenfranchised community and confronted those outside of these communities with the realities of the African American experience.

The explicit lyrics of the song were not well-received by law enforcement and this added to the hostility between the police and African Americans. The only kind of mainstream representation that these communities had for their specific struggles with police was this song. It was anthemic for the black community and they would proudly sing along or blast from their speakers lyrics like: “When I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops, dying in L.A.”, “Taking out police would make my day”, and “A sucker in a uniform waiting to get shot by me, or another nigga” (N.W.A.). These lyrics depict extreme violence towards cops and law enforcement felt threatened and insulted by the violent lyrics. So insulted, in fact, that the FBI

got involved. According to Andrea Dennis, “In 1989, the FBI sent a letter to N.W.A.’s record label accusing the song “Fuck Tha Police” of misrepresenting and disrespecting law enforcement, and of encouraging violence against the police” (16). The combination of the lyrics of the song and the FBI letter added fuel to a fire that was already raging between these marginalized communities and police. Police were already seen as a threat to African Americans, but now African Americans who played that song could be seen as a threat for police officers.

The lyrics of “Fuck Tha Police” foreshadowed and inspired the events that occurred during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In 1991, motorist Rodney King was brutally beaten and tasered by police after leading them on a high-speed chase. King was left with nine skull fractures, shattered eye sockets and cheekbones, a broken leg, a concussion, and facial nerve damage. Four Los Angeles police officers were charged with the assault and were later acquitted of all charges (Ford). This decision angered citizens who were awaiting justice for King and sparked a series of protests. For five days, African Americans of Los Angeles began to raid the streets and chaos ensued. They looted stores, set fires, and participated in violent assaults. These assaults were targeted towards the non-black residents of Los Angeles and were similar to the ones N.W.A. described inflicting upon police in their song. In the documentary, “Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots,” rapper Kurupt said “[‘Fuck Tha Police’] was a unification song for anybody that’s in the streets. ‘Hey, it’s time to stand up and riot out.’ And N.W.A. was basically saying, ‘We gon’ lead the parade.’” The song became a theme song for the riots. It motivated the energy of the rioters and gave them a method to let out their frustration: violence. African Americans of Los Angeles were truly fed up with their police department and what they were able to get away with and began to exact the same type treatment that had been given to them onto other citizens of Los Angeles.

 The riots gave “Fuck Tha Police” a mainstream platform to share the message that the song was trying to send to law enforcement across America. As the days of the riots went on, more and more news stations nationwide began to broadcast the events. African Americans had been struggling to be heard for years but this amount of media attention was able to “establish legitimacy and favorably move the public opinion needle” which is important to the mobilization of any social movement (Dennis 4). This national coverage gained the movement a lot of attention and made it clear to those who had heard “Fuck Tha police” that the feelings behind the song were rooted in bitter truths. The riots forced non-black Americans to see the just how real the frustrations were and to really look at how deeply these communities were affected by police brutality.

 The struggles described in “Fuck Tha Police” are still very relevant for African Americans today. The relationship between African Americans and police ae still just as strained as they were when N.W.A. first released the song. The lyrics, “Police think they have the authority to kill a minority” (N.W.A.) are still an accurate representation of what African Americans feel towards law enforcement. Black people are still fighting the same fight against racism, oppression, and police brutality but under a new movement, Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is a national movement that was created in response to the deaths of African American citizens like Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and numerous others. The movement has held dozens of protests over the years and some of them show protester chanting, “Fuck the police.”

Works Cited

  • Baum, Dan. “Legalize It All.” Harper’s Magazine, Harper’s Magazine Foundation, Apr. 2016, harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/.
  • Dennis, Andrea L. “Black contemporary social movements, resource mobilization, and black musical activism.” Law and Contemporary Problems, Summer 2016
  • Ford, Mark. “Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots.” Youtube, commentary by Snoop Dogg, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcfvzrn_uJA&t=3009s
  • Martinez, Theresa A. “Popular culture as oppositional culture: rap as resistance.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 40, no. 2, 1997
  • N.W.A. “Fuck Tha Police.” Straight Outta Compton. Priority Records, Ruthless Records, 1988.
  • “What’s The Real Story Behind N.W.A’s ‘F*** Tha Police’?” Classic Hip Hop Magazine, 15 Mar. 2018, classichiphopmagazine.com/answers/2018/3/15/whats-the-story-behind-nwas-f-tha-police
  • Williams, Stereo. “Hip-Hop’s History with Police Brutality: Why We Should Live in the Now.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 11 July 2016, www.thedailybeast.com/hip-hops-history-with-police-brutality-why-we-should-live-in-the-now?ref=scroll.

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