This week finds me in a contemplative mood, approaching 60 days of skiing (I’d have more, but had to go to my family reunion in Dallas) and having a very good time with Pip the Impaler (my guinea pig), who seems to be settling into a far less aggressive (if still highly energized) role in our relationship. I am eager to explore uphill travel, but this week finds me thinking of other things.
A while back I saw “Straight Outta Compton,” and it was a very interesting watch for me. It was a compelling story about some great artists and significant societal foment that occurred at a pivotal time in the US of A.
I was never a gangsta rap guy. I simply was never into it. But I resonated immediately with the Beastie Boys (they after all started their musical life as a five-piece punk band/pre-Jerky Boys hybrid) and Kid Rock (rap/metal/southern rock hybrid), but gangsta rap was too far out for me. It didn’t make sense to my Robert Johnson/Beatles/Sex Pistols/Henry Rollins/Billy Bragg/Guns N’Roses brain.
There were two things that surprised me about the movie, and subsequently the story of “Straight Outta Compton.” The first thing was that I realized that I loved all of the music, from early NWA straight through to later Chuck D, Snoop, Tupac, and Eminem. Over the 25 or so years that I have lived alongside their stories without paying much attention to them, their music (like it or not) has not only become part of the my cultural vernacular, but it has become a significant portion of THE cultural vernacular. These guys with their music and movies are every bit as, if not more, culturally significant than the rat pack. Every bit. Chuck D’s beats and Ice Cubes lyrics have become part of my brain. Part of my consciousness.
The second thing that I realized will take some contextualizing, and will require some explanation. For those of you who remember the late 80s, it was the peak of a crime and murder wave in the U.S. This crime wave was broken, according to the folks at Freakonomics, by the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and reducing the number of unwanted/untended children turning 18. Whether or not that is factually correct, we had been stuffing our oppressed into ghettos, prisons, and trailer parks for a century, and ignoring them to the best of our ability.
White America was truly offended and terrified by gangsta rap. They said it advocated and inspired violence, degradation/objectification, etc. They wanted these young men who spoke clearly and eloquently about their lives, their situations, their feelings, their desperation, their rage, to lie back down and quietly protest their oppression. Some even understood why they felt the way they felt, but why did they have to be so damned rude about it? they’d ask.
Since then, crime has trended directly downward, to the lowest murder and home invasion rates since about 1961, with the exception of an uptick in gun killings that occurred within a month of SCOTUS’ ruling that municipal handgun bans were illegal (imagine that…make handguns legal in NYC, and more people get shot…who would have guessed?). Still, the truth is we live in one of the safest times that has ever occurred in the history of our morbidly violent country.
The thing is, when you note the cultural significance of gangsta rap, and then look at the crime trends nationwide, you realize that it, along with violent movies, violent video games, and violent music has not in any way contributed to a more violent society — at least, when compared with our past, which is a dubious comparison, but one often cited.
In the first Gulf War, we carpet-bombed Iraq, killing more than 100,000 people before we even put wheels on the ground in that country. In WWII we leveled entire nations, killing civilians wantonly, because that was what was necessary to stop Japan and Germany.
In 1968 just about every major metropolitan black neighborhood (understandably) went up in flames with the assassinations of MLK and RFK. In 1992, L.A. (again, understandably) went up in flames at the conclusion of the absolute joke of the Rodney King trial. But why wasn’t the rioting more widespread? Why was the carnage not worse? Why was Rodney King asking us to all get along?
The answer, I believe, is simple and counter-intuitive. I believe that violence in fantasy (like in music, movies, video games) is the expression of a society becoming less violent. White America regarded gangsta rap the same way it regarded gays holding hands in public. Why can’t they just keep it to themselves? Why cant they just keep it in their neighborhoods?
Gangsta rap was the roar of an oppressed culture that was unwilling to be further ignored. White America was offended not by the language and the violence, but rather by the reflection of the isolation and oppression they had enforced on their fellow humans. White America, when hearing gangsta rap, was forced to listen to the horrors they themselves had created.
And gangsta rap, for its part, was (and still is), the lancing of a boil. Gangsta rap was the gauntlet thrown. Gangsta rap was the cry of “Hell no, we won’t go.” Gangsta rap was the rallying cry for a significant percentage of the American population who had been isolated, oppressed, and wallet-drained, because finally there was music that reflected their lives instead of ignoring them.
Gangsta Rap, Public Enemy, NWA, Ice T, Snoop, Tupac, Biggie, and all of the women and men that followed them (not to mention those that preceded them), whether they intended to or not, made the world a more peaceful place.
Understand that I am not necessarily making an argument that they were peaceful people. They all, through creating tension between the oppressed/oppressor cultures, increased understanding and tolerance. They helped America start on the long road to accepting black culture not foreign marginalized, isolated, and acting in a way that we think is civilized, but for whatever emotional/intellectual/political qualities that culture desires to express. Of course, we (both as individuals and as a society) still have a ways to go.
Along the way though, they made an amazing library of literary musical work that, it turns out, impresses the hell out of me. I’m late to the game, but I’m listening. Turn it up!