Gangsta Rap and the Media, Part 3: “Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, so Help Your Black Ass?”

By Doctor Comrade

[This is the third part a four-part series on gangsta rap, Black Nationalism, and representations of political discourse. Read the introduction herePart 2: “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge” | Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”]

Dr. Dre, playing as a judge in NWA’s “Fuck tha Police,” questioned Ice Cube if he will tell the whole truth, and Ice Cube’s forceful delivery of the first verse demonstrates the willingness of gangsta rappers to expose the full plethora of their feelings. Journalists, on the other hand, tended to craft narratives that disregarded the political critiques groups like NWA were leveling against the structures of white supremacy. These kinds of exclusions and misinterpretations demonstrate the narrative problems posed by journalists because they could not or would not “tell the whole truth.” In effect, they reified questions of legitimate discourse by constructing barriers to entry for marginal groups. The narrative structures produced by journalists effectively stated that gangsta rap did not embody legitimate political discourse because legitimacy is precluded by violence.

Critics of rap music feared that rap would erode the moral character of young people who listened to it. One journalist reported on several incidents involving rap music, including how officials from Magic Mountain would never schedule another rap concert because a stampede was caused by “the type of audience attracted to rap concerts”; five teenagers claimed rap music drove them insane and caused them to commit murder; and law enforcement officers hated NWA and Ice-T for supporting violence against cops.[1] Naturally, the headline condemned the rappers and failed to mention any positivity associated with rap until several paragraphs down in the article. Another excellent quotation from that article was proffered by Bob DeMoss of the conservative group Focus on the Family. He was quoted as saying rappers “have exploited a bad situation, life in the ghetto, gang warfare.… They’ve stepped into the arena of glamorization…. If anything, they ought to be using their powerful platform to show urban America a way out.”

DeMoss’ sentiments perfectly echoed the bourgeois conservatism of the anti-rap crusaders. Essentially, DeMoss and his supporters were asking black men to alter their political rhetoric so that it would conform the expectations of the white power structure. Two metanarrative themes are revealed by this assertion. Firstly, the violence of gangsta rap was directed at the institutions of white supremacy, like the police and the jail and the lack of economic opportunities in ghettoes. Their goal was major social change and there would have had to be some kind of revolution that would overthrow systems of black oppression. Even though NWA and their peers never seemed to advocate a full-scale, organized, quasi-Marxist proletarian revolution, they were agitating for the human rights of black Americans and the value of black experience. This revolutionary rhetoric of oppositional resistance threatened the institutions of white power, which resisted black liberation through existing cultural structures. The media, both as a hub of elite white discourse and as gatekeeper for information, engaged in a Lyotardian language game that reinscribed acceptable politics by miscontextualizing violent rap lyrics. It may have never occurred to DeMoss and people of his ilk that rappers actually were “showing urban America a way out” through a revolutionary expression of black resistance in the form of violent defense against white supremacy.

The second trend that anti-rap forces exposed was the unimportance of the African-American lived experience, which also speaks to questions of narrativity and authority. When writing about life in the ghetto, rappers were unafraid to express pride in their economic victories, which included selling drugs and committing violence. NWA’s “Dopeman” praises a young man who is a “Nigga living in cash, ain’t nothing but a smoker / That’s the way it goes, that’s the name of the game / Young brother getting over by slangin’ caine [selling crack cocaine]… His Uzi up your ass if he don’t get paid / Nigga begging for credit, he’s knockin’ out teeth.”[2] In places where economic opportunities were notoriously poor, prosperity could be achieved by selling drugs. Critics of NWA’s raps characterized these interactions as if they invalidated the underlying criticism of American ghettoization. No other group of people were as powerfully positioned to speak to the realities of ghetto life than gangsta rappers who had experienced it (NWA started when Dr. Dre was bailed out of jail by crack dealer Eric “Easy-E” Wright and they formed the group).[3] Their narratives were inherently tied to the impoverished black experience in America, and by denying them the right to speak through the media’s authority over informational distribution, the press also denied the value of those narratives.

Gang affiliation also threatened white hegemony, and NWA was linked to gangs from its inception. The specter of gang and drug violence haunted the United States throughout the 1980s when the War on Drugs ravaged inner-city neighborhoods.[4] These social cues about deviance and gang affiliation also spurred criticisms of gangsta rap in the press. For example, one journalist reported that

 “the rap group NWA, whose profanity-laced lyrics speak of police slaughters and gang warfare, has raised fears that concertgoers might feel the beat of gang violence…. Denver police plan to take extra precautions to make sure Tuesday night’s show doesn’t inflame gang tensions. And some anti-gang activists are angry that the city would even book a group with such a destructive message.”[5]

The problem, however, was misinterpreted by the author, who, despite extensively quoting violent lyrics, misconstrued the political rhetoric of NWA. The group threatened the Denver people on principle, not in practice, because they violently attacked white power through discourse but not warfare. In essence, “reporters for the mainstream press began to analogize rap tours and barbarian invasions.”[6] This unsubtle racism proliferated in stories about rap tours as the media reported on rappers’ penchants for violence yet ignored arrests of white men at AC/DC and Judas Priest concerts.[7]

This is not to say that rappers did not self-consciously embrace a criminal ethos. The term “gang” is in the name of the genre, and the spelling of “gangster” as “gangsta” is intended to evoke the black urban vernacular. But criminality itself is a metanarrative of anti-social behavior, which even in the broadest sense could characterize gangsta rap lyrics. And yet the power structures that reify that metanarrative are mocked relentlessly by performers who self-assuredly adopted the role of “notorious criminal.” Criminality as espoused by NWA and others embodies a criticism of what is considered criminal. In their lived experiences, young black men were harassed by white police officers simply for having a skin color associated with criminality (which harkens back to Ice Cube’s salient like that police officers think “every nigga is sellin’ narcotics”). And yet criminality in this sense was a form of resistance to white power, and young black men could derive some forms of agency from criminal activities. Therefore, NWA’s glorification of criminal activity can be interpreted as a counter-narrative of resistance.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge”
Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”

Footnotes

[1] Charisse Jones, “Critics Fear Hip-Hop Is Eroding Kids’ Morals and Touching off Violent Episodes like the Recent Rampage at Magic Mountain. Are These Entertainers Truly Poisoning Young Fans’ Minds? Or Is That Just a Bum Rap? Rap’s Bad Rep,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1993.

[2] N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton.

[3] Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “N.W.A Biography,” AllMusic, accessed December 11, 2014, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/nwa-mn0000314793/biography.

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York; Jackson, Tenn.: The New Press, 2012), passim; cf. James Garbarino, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (New York: Free Press, 1999); see also T. J. English, The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge (New York: William Morrow, 2011).

[5] Briggs, “Police Prepare to Avert Rap Concert Violence.” Denver Post, July 29, 1989.

[6] William Maxwell, “Sampling Authenticity: Rap Music, Postmodernism, and the Ideology of Black Crime,” Studies in Popular Culture 14, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 1.

[7] Ibid., 3.