The history of Hip-Hop has always been a history of reclaiming power. If we take a moment to look back at the origins of this genre, it becomes clear that Hip-Hop was a kind of political resistance, an opportunity to push back against the state and say NO.
But, the story of Hip-Hop truly begins in Jamaica. Despite this country’s independence from England in 1962, and its departure from that of a colonial status, much unrest and injustice remained, and marginalized Jamaicans were the first to respond to this. One of their responses arrived in the form of reggae, a music genre that arose from the slums of Kingston, and was known for “its revolutionary, boldly anti-establishment lyrics as epitomized by the likes of Bob Marley,” according to the poet Octavia McBride and many others.
Hip-Hop as a music and culture formed in the 1970s in New York City among African-American youth, many of whom who were the children of Caribbean immigrants who had immigrated to the Bronx. In other words, Hip-Hop was most certainly an extension of the political groundwork that Jamaican reggae established, and in many ways the new genre was about documenting a new generation of injustice, police brutality, and racism in a Black and urban context. The history of N.W.A., an American Hip-Hop group from Compton, California, was no exception.
Composed of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren, this group came out of the political unrest and chaos that was L.A. in the 1980s. Gang violence and drug dealing brutalized neighborhoods like Compton. Police brutality was rampant, and one thing was made perfectly clear: Black bodies were disposable.
In many ways, N.W.A.’s music shed light on all that was wrong with the city they called home, and the broken systems that were hanging in place. Much of their music was banned from mainstream radio networks, as it preached a very anti-police agenda, and it was heavy with explicit language and what some saw as the glorification of drugs and crime.
There is no doubt that Hip-Hop and rap culture have their roots in a kind of Black Liberation. But what continues to frustrate me is our collective erasure and disregard for Black women within the genre, as well as our hesitancy when it comes to critiquing those who continue to participate in this misogyny. On August 14th, the new N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, was released in theaters, and the reception was both overwhelmingly and incredibly positive. Many viewers of the film have been touched by the film’s ability to capture L.A. and much of the political strife that defined city life for Black and brown folk. But there has been little discussion about the ways in which the bodies of Black women have been, and continue to be, exploited, sexualized, and abused by N.W.A. specifically, and the Gangsta Rap industry as a whole. Why must women, Black women in particular, take the back seat in this story of a supposed liberation? Are we not included in this notion of “Black Liberation”?
I’ll tell you: We are never a priority, and never have been.
When the casting sheet for the film was made public, and these very men called for scenes featuring "fine girls" who "should be light-skinned" with "really nice bodies," and "medium to dark skin-toned African-American girls" who are "[poor], and not in good shape,” I was horrified. I was scared not only by the ways in which these men felt comfortable enough in degrading an entire population of women to skin color and body-type, but also, I was absolutely shocked by the plethora of Black women who came running to protect them. One of the most common lines of defense is the argument that the actresses who responded to the casting call, as well as the “video-vixens”, made a choice to participate.
But for me, gender has always been a question about power: who is calling the shots, and who is receiving the orders? Who is telling the story, and who is participating in the projected narrative of choice? I think it is frightening, and quite honestly disgusting, to think about grown men, like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, grown men with great amounts of power, to sit around a table and decide the kind of "women" they would like to see in their film. But yes, at the end of the day, these actresses did make the choice to take part in this project. But, that in no means leaves these men off the hook, and it also does not allow us, as conscious global citizens, as neighbors, and as women, in supporting the perpetuation of these derogatory and incomplete images of Black women. I love myself and the Black women in my life way too much to contribute to that kind of dangerous agenda.
Also, in response to a few of the feminist critiques of the film, many viewers argued that they could not think of one culture that did not have a history of marginalizing its female citizens. Many felt as though Hip-Hop and rap were not unique to that. Though I agree with those statements, they are not complete in their reasoning. Why this film is and remains a failure is that in many ways it is a celebration of N.W.A.'s legacy, and in celebrating them we are condoning their sexist practices. We are saying when Dr. Dre beats journalist, Dee Barnes, that is okay. We are saying when Straight Outta Compton film director, F. Gary Gray, decides not to include Barnes’ assault at the hands of Dr. Dre in the film, that is perfectly okay (though Gray served as Barnes's videographer at the time of the actual assault.) We are saying when Ice Cube throws a topless woman outside of his hotel room, that is okay.
I am the daughter of a feminist, a granddaughter of a feminist, and I was named for and after a feminist, so I stand for too much to let these men continue to paint a picture of me, of us, that is so far from the truth. As a result, when viewers claim that the film is a depiction of a sad and raw truth, a reflection of a real time in L.A., I become skeptical because the film does not take on any critical work, and in not doing so, its misguided agenda quickly falls into muddy waters full of misogyny, hatred, and messages of collective silence and renderings of invisibility.
Finally, many viewers, particularly female ones, argue that not every woman deserves the respect I have outlined above, and with that I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Many are quick to point out that the film does highlight "good women" like Dre's mom and Ice Cube's girlfriend, Nicole. But, I think as women we should be very weary when making these types of dichotomous distinctions, because honestly, those distinctions hold little truth, and many of them have been established by the very men who wish to oppress us.
Everyone deserves respect, and "choice" is a complicated word. I do not believe that anyone wakes up one day and says my dream is to become a "stripper," a "sex worker," a "video vixen," etc. But regardless of that, there are women who do occupy these work spaces, and they deserve the same kind of respect you would give your mother, or Michelle Obama, for that matter. Everyone is faced with different circumstances, and they respond accordingly. Not everyone has the same options, so dividing women up, like the film does, and drawing distinctions between "headstrong women" and "hos" is not actually productive and can become really dangerous.
My final issue with this distinction is that it gives men the power to treat certain women in certain ways, and that is simply unacceptable. When I walk down the street as a Black woman, I hope to be treated with respect, and I wish that for my mother, my friends, my family members, and anyone else. Everyone is included in this respect, but Straight Outta Compton certainly does not promote this.
I take the title of my article after an essay that the prolific and prophetic poet, Adrienne Rich, once wrote: “When We Dead Awaken”. In many ways, it is an essay that attempts to illustrate the process of a certain female consciousness. In other words, it is an essay that traces a woman's ability to rise from a deep sleep, to confront the stories that men have created for us, and in doing so, it is Rich’s call to arms. She is asking all of us, women, to take that power back, to tell our own stories. Rich writes, “ Re-vision -- the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-- is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of a male -dominated world.”
So I am reaching my arms out to all of you, Black women, and I am asking you to kill your idols. “To be a woman who loves Hip-Hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.” Ava DuVernay said that. But I do not think anything can really belong to us and also be the rope around our neck, the gun at our head. It is time for a new story, and it is time that we tell it.