With the recent release and success of the movie Straight Outta Compton, there has been a resurgence of interest in the late 80’s, early 90’s rap group N.W.A. When I heard there would be a movie done on N.W.A., I wondered just how the group and it’s legacy would be portrayed. Would the group, and its impact on the culture, be portrayed in a positive or negative light? Would their songs be portrayed as poetic works of protest against a racially oppressive system, or rather, as mere moral decadence and rebellion? Would the group be portrayed as an embodiment of the anger and hopelessness felt by people trapped in the ghetto, or as just a group of young thugs whose music helped to glamorize and glorify the criminal underworld of the streets?
I must admit, I struggled within myself for a while over whether to go see the movie or not. There was a time in my life when I absolutely loved N.W.A. and idolized the members of the group. I grew up in an environment just like the one they were describing in their songs, so I could relate well to them. Each member of the group reminded me of people I knew personally in my neighborhood. I listened to their music everyday with a kind of religious devotion, trying to imitate and copy everything about them. Their music defined, and provided the soundtrack for my teenage years. To be honest, it’s not easy for me to criticize them. In some way, I feel like they are old close friends of mine. For me, they were more than just a rap group, more than entertainers, they were my heroes.
However, there was also a part of me which felt that I should not support the movie. Looking back now, from the perspective of a grown, Christian family man, I have to acknowledge that N.W.A.’s music was very harmful. Overall, the group had a toxic effect upon the black community. They promoted rebellion against authority, disrespect for women, as well as violence and murder as a way of life. Though the group members claimed they were only street reporters, showing the world how it was in their community, they did so in an irresponsible way. They glorified the life of the street thug in a way which captivated the minds of inner city youth all over the country. They also paved the way for the rise and popularity of gangster rap music, which has been one of the biggest contributing factors to the increasing moral degeneracy that is destroying the inner cities.
As I continued struggling over whether to go see the movie, I began to consider the whole phenomenon of N.W.A. from a more broader perspective. Are there any social or cultural lessons to be learned from the history of this group? I think that there are. As N.W.A. emerged on the scene in the late 1980s, they symbolized a cultural shift which was taking place in the urban black community. They gave expression to a cultural situation which had been developing in the black ghetto for two decades, which by their time, had become full grown. Here’s what I’m saying; America suffered a terrible cultural revolution during the 1960s. When we think about the 60s, we think of the assassinations of the Kennedys and of Dr. King. The Vietnam war along with the anti-war protests. We think of the Hippies movement, the sexual revolution, the Heroin epidemic and all of the turbulence associated with that decade. We must realize that the 60s was a revolutionary time for the black community as well. A more militant mindset began to pervade the urban black community as more radical groups began to dominate the civil rights movement; groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. Well meaning politicians greatly expanded welfare benefits, and specifically sought to make black people the main beneficiaries of it. As Heroin use skyrocketed to epidemic proportions during the 60s, the heroin trade was causing incredible havoc in the black ghetto.
All of these forces working together proved to be devastating for the black community, especially for the black family. During the decades prior to the 1960s, the number of black children being raised in single parent homes was under 20 percent. During the 60s, that number begin climbing. Today, around 72 percent of black children in America are growing up in single parent homes. The easy and abundant access to welfare benefits led to a decrease in marriages. Easy welfare did away with the old custom of the shotgun marriage. As long as the government is providing housing and living assistance and food stamps, some men will be more likely to hand over the responsibility for their children to the government. And that’s exactly what happened. Throughout the inner-cities all over this country, the government picked up the tab for tens of thousands of dead beat dads, who left the mothers on their own and the children without a father. However, these kids were not totally left without male role models. Unfortunately, in too many cases, some of those male role models were the drug pushers and gangsters who made their living off the drug trade which was destroying the neighborhoods. These fatherless children were growing up in some of the most deplorable situations. Surrounded by poverty and family dysfunction, exposed to an extremely dark and violent drug culture. Basically, the 1960’s was the beginning of the disintegration of the black family. And as the black family disintegrated, the black community disintegrated. It’s inevitable, that within such a disintegrated community, the children born and raised there will grow up with all types of social pathologies.
I believe that N.W.A. and their music is the embodiment and musical expression of such social pathology. N.W.A. represents a large portion of the generation that was born in the black ghettos during the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. N.W.A. gives expression to a generation who grew up without their fathers involvement, a generation whose daily bread was provided by government welfare. A generation defined by a drug epidemic beginning with Heroin in the late 60’s, and culminating with the crack epidemic of the mid 80’s. It’s no wonder that this group called itself “Niggas With Attitudes.” In the ghetto, a person with an attitude is basically someone whose angry. I’m not surprised that the main characteristic of people born and raised under such conditions is anger. Fixing a problem requires tracing the symptoms back to the root cause. N.W.A. is a symptom, family disintegration is the cause.