The Project of Re-hearing N.W.A.’s “F—- the Police” as Lament

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”)

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has awakened elements of resistance in some youth and adults in the black community. The constant fight for injustice upon the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland and many more has stressed the importance of resistance, of naming the issues and calling for socio-political accountability and reform. These widely scrutinized deaths, and subsequent testimonies of black parents about the imperative they feel to inform their children about what they need to know to survive in America.[1] This rising national awareness is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement, when young black students took to the street in forms of protest. Then, as now, their aim was to draw attention to the maltreatment of the black body in the hands of a racist American judicial system. During the Civil Rights Movement, Professor Michelle Alexander suggests that over twenty thousand people were arrested for protesting.[2] Now, in current days, “BLM is the new model for civil rights,” states Khalil Gibran Muhammad. [3] He quotes historian Andy Seal that BLM is a “…rearest of rear-guard positions one can imagine, petitioning for the right not to die prematurely, a mark of retreat from the larger hopes and assertive agendas.”[4] This BLM protest is an outcry for help in the midst of a society that institutionalizes its marginalization of black citizens. Thus, Black Lives Matter becomes a tautology that emphasizes the value of the devalued black body as do the words of N.W.A.’s Fuck the Police.

N.W.A.’s Fuck The Police may be easily dismissed for it is the work of a group inner-city teenagers. Their song, this Hip Hop lament, can be ignored as misguided epitaphs and excuses to commit crime, but upon further review, a look at the treatment these young men endured, at the hands of mis-trained policemen, their words become screams for help.  The words of N.W.A.’s Ice Cube in Fuck the Police levy the fiercest critiques aimed upon cops. Ice Cube raps,

Fuck the police coming straight from the underground/

A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown/

And not the other color so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority

Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one/

For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun

To be beating on, and thrown in jail/

We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

Fucking with me cause I’m a teenager/

With a little bit of gold and a pager

Searching my car, looking for the product/

Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics

You’d rather see, me in the pen/

Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o [5]

Superficially, these words appear to affirm the killing of police officers as a justifiable act. But, read closely it is a lament for help. Professor Cornel West explains that the world of Hip Hop has emerged from a place of rage against the injustices of black bodies. He further articulates that Hip Hop originated with a “fierce disgust with the hypocrisies of adult culture-disgust with the selfishness, capitalistic callousness, and xenophobia of the culture of adults, both within the hood and the society at large.”[6] This rebel music became the backdrop for Black Rage against police brutality. N.W.A. sparked an outcry, rallying black youth in the hoods of America. N.W.A. spoke about the injustice that was being displayed on the faces and backs of black people in the policing of the cities of America. In Open Mike, Michael Eric Dyson argues that this “agitprop anthem” denotes a recognizable reality because it raises the “language of rebellion against political tyranny and police force.”[7] Dyson also declared,

There’s also solidarity in fighting the distortion of human identity under oppression, as the poor the world over fight against their bodies being trapped, contained, and demoralized by social structures and governmental practices.[8]

Thus, the creative instinct, fueled and directed by Black Rage made N.W.A’s work foci of resistance contemporary. What West and Dyson articulate as academic critics of the culture of Hip Hop, KRS-One, an icon in Hip Hop, vocalizes as a one who is embedded in the culture: “The real lives of those that are affected by injustice, lawlessness, and corruption created…Hiphop as a way out of oppression.”[9] Fuck The Police became the song of protest and a timely lament for black youth.

The movie Straight Outta Compton, shows the members of N.W.A. taking a break from a recording session.[10] While standing outside of the studio, they are accosted by the police for no apparent reason. After the group members are harassed and humiliated, the manager of the group Jerry Heller, an older white man, comes out and demands that the police allow the men to get off of the ground. Demeaned and treated inhumanely, the young men are allowed to get off the ground and stand up but only after a few more degrading comments from a Black “cop.” Upon re-entering back into the studio, you find the young men frustrated with their treatment. Reflecting upon the harassment they just received, they come up with the song, Fuck the Police. In response to their Black Rage, they creatively lament in a song. Ice Cube’s verse set off a montage of lyrical critiques which exposed and lamented a system that defrauded black men of their dignity.

Dyson quotes John Singleton, who reflected, “Most white people don’t know what it is like to be stopped for a traffic ticket violation and worry more about getting beat up or shot than paying the ticket.”[11] Singleton is indicating that while whites are sheltered from this on-going black reality, the song exposes the experience. This daily vulnerably of blacks was the reality that Ice Cube was referencing in his lyrics. It would be easy to dismiss it as vulgar music that makes excuses for crime but that would be an unfair assumption. Theologian Daniel Hodge is clear that “Hip Hop requires a basic theological worldview of the profane.”[12]  He goes further by denoting, “Theologians and church heroes assert that God meets us first in death and despair –the hell of life. Only those who enter the “s—-”(to borrow from Martin Luther) can encounter the God of Jesus.”[13] Hodge’s analysis indicates that N.W.A.’s Fuck The Police was not the outcry for the murdering of a police officer: it was a Black Rage lament, searching for assistance in a community of resistance. Professor Robert C. Dykstra proposes that to “lament is to protest some circumstance perceived as especially shaming…,” and that lament breaches favorable decorum, and fluctuates between “one’s tenderness and rage.”[14] I suggest that Ice Cube has experienced such a shaming trauma that his lament brands itself in the terms shared by Dykstra. Ice Cube understands that his skin color is the very reason that he is in this predicament: he was just standing outside on the sidewalk with his partners. His brown skin drew police attention to his friends and himself. This “attention” which automatically gave police the “authority to kill a minority.”[15] This lament of Black Rage by N.W.A informs society of the life of the black body as a body constantly traumatized in encounters with those sworn to protect American citizens. Perhaps the vulgarity distracts, but the message is pertinent to the violent acts that are being thrust upon black bodies. Dyson agrees with the message of Fuck the Police, but challenges them “to develop an ethical perspective on the drug gangs that duplicate police violence in black-on-black violence.” [16] What Dyson indicates is a restructured form of genocide that finds ease in the senseless murders of black bodies. His challenge is that a means be found to alter this acceptable practice that has been made an institutionalized practice for people of color.

 

[1] This is a product of numerous conversation that I have had with black parents about their fear of their black children being killed by police.

[2] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press,2010.,37.

[3] Khalil Gibran Muhammed. “The revolution will be live-tweeted: why #BlackLivesMatter is the new model for civil rights”, The Guardian, December 1, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/01/black-lives-matter-civil-rights-movement-ferguson (accessed March 25, 2016)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fuck The Police, N.W.A.

[6] Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialisms, New York: Penguin Group, 2004.,179

[7] Michael Eric Dyson. Open Mike, New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003., 268. Agitprop anthem is a term that Dyson uses to display that the song was a propaganda tool that was deployed by N.W.A to get people to view the police in other ways other than serving the community.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cornel West quotes this from KRS- One Ruminations. Ibid.,174. KRS- One (Kris Parker) is known as the Teacha of Hip Hop. He was one of the original members of the legendary group BDP (Boogie Down Productions). He has lectured at Princeton, Harvard and many other universities throughout the United States.

[10] Straight Outta Compton was the biopic film detailing the lives of NWA’s rise to success.

[11] Quoted in Michael Eric Dyson, The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, New York: Basic Civitas, 2004.,342.

[12] Daniel Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology, Illinois: Intervarsity Press Books, 2010, 23. Hodge argues that God can and does show up in the most unusual and interesting places. He writes, Hip Hop Theology is…a study of the Godhead in the urban context, with a goal of better understanding God’s rich and complex love for everyone (not just those who look and talk “nice”) and the revelation of God through the liberation of the oppressed from the oppressor.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Part of Ice Cube’s lyrics.

[16] Ibid., Dyson, Reader, 407.

 

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Brothers In Conversation About Race (Part 7)

In his last installment Brian writes, “we must be extremely clear of the danger of entering into spaces where your skin color has (been) weaponized and framed you with a malicious intent” in response of my reference to Luke 17:11-19. I refer to the ten people with leprosy being forced out of mainstream society and out to the borderlands as a parallel to the treatment of people of African descent in this country. I may have erroneously indicated that people of African descent have an option to stay in the borderland in relative safety. However, that was not my intent. The point I intended to make was/is that people of African descent are keenly aware that there are no safe spaces in this country for us. History has shown time and again that not even the church is a safe space for us. As a people, we have learned that even staying in the spaces where we have been pushed and limited to occupying does not ensure safety. We have also learned that staying in the borderland is not an option.

A Tribe Called Quest has just released their last studio recording and one of the tracks is titled “The Space Program.” This track speaks to the notion of making space for people of African descent in this country. Using the recurring hook, “ain’t no space program for niggas.” As much as I detest the word “nigga,” I felt its use here is appropriate and would pray that my inclusion of this word does not sidetrack the conversation. For in many ways debates about the use of the word “nigga” or other side debates take the focus off of the real problem that the Tribe is addressing. This track calls us to understand that space is not limited to physical, geographic space but rather refers to social, cultural, and historic space. People of African descent are often denied space in this country. The teaching of African American history has faced opposition and hostility even in school districts that are more than 80% African American. The use of the name “African American” itself ignites debate and hostile opposition. People of African descent are often invited out of the borderland to sing, dance, and/or play a sport with the understanding that no space will be made for you. African American culture is often co-opted, from rock and roll to hip hop, from soul food to spirituals. There is no space for people of African descent.

Yet, we survive. We continue to exist and that existence cannot be denied. It is the denial of our existence; the lack of space being made that continues to fuel the conflict. We are here and we are not going anywhere. The simple but complex answer to our racial problem in America is the creation of a space program for people of African descent.

Peep the Lyrics-Critical Analyzes of Hip Hop

Mr. Nigga from Black on Both Sides

You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna

Woody Allen, molested and married his step-daughter

Same press kickin dirt on Michael’s name

Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game,

holding hands Sit back and just bug, think about that

Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?

O.J. found innocent by a jury of his peers

And they been fuckin with that nigga for last five years

Is it fair, is it equal, is it just, is it right?

Do you do the same shit when the defendant face is white?

If white boys doin it, well, it’s success

When I start doin, well, it’s suspect

-Mos Def (Yasin Bey), Mr. Nigga

Something I learned from DJ Premier: A Quick Hip Hop Lesson

Around 1983-84, I remember hearing a sound that would forever be embedded in my brain. It was the sound of Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force. For days this vinyl record would spend on the turntable until I learn the words from beginning to end. Then you would go to school and spit the lyrics as if you wrote them yourself, with your own personal swag.

It was years later that I would learn the art of sampling that would dominate the 90’s Hip Hop. It was DJ Premier (Premo) of Gangstarr that I would grow to love as the epitome of the sample. Not only did he sample for beats to produce, he also used lyrics from different artist to scratch into the song as a hook.

90’s Hip Hop was known for Dj’s providing a hook through showing homage to a fellow rapper by scratching one of their lyrics on a song. You could hear Gangstarr’s Mass Appeal with a hook from the Da Youngstaz’s Pass the Mic as they said, “Moneys growing like grass with the mass appeal.” 
The Youngstaz’s were never a really large mainstream group but got some play in Philly (their hometown) and from those of us that were true Hip Hop heads. They never sold a million albums but will forever be etched in Hip Hop because of that potent, powerful lyric.  Premo also does the same thing on a Notorious B.I.G.’s song, Unbelievable
where he uses a hook from R. Kelly’s Your Body’s Calling Me.  

With precise skill and timing, Premo manages to scratch some of the most obscure sentences into a song from other creditable sources-other hip hop artist or singers.  He displays his knowledge for the music as well as his intentional ear for the definitive. It is not usual to hear Premo mix a classic lyric into a song of new Emcee too create a masterpiece. (just too many to name) His hook brought a level of creditability to the song much the same as a footnote from a scholar in a certain field.  The hook acts as the proverbial agreement to the lyrics of the song. It is up to the artist to then add context, clarity and creativeness to the hook provide through the scratch.

Through 22 years of listening to authentic Hip Hop and analyzing the skill set that Djs such as Premo possessed, I learn to do the same thing with books. As with great Hip Hop songs, the finding of great passages from obscure books or subject matter expert, brought about a certain viability that otherwise might be lacking in the discussion, article or dialog.  It was through trying to figure out where Premo got that hook that would lead me to other great albums. Much like endnotes, footnotes or bibliographies the records were noted in the liner notes. So, I would read the liner notes then go buy that album as well. Now I do the same things with books. I buy the book that was quoted in the footnotes because that is what I took from Premo as he displayed his signature scratches.

The Journal For Hip Hop Studies: Call for Papers

The Journal for Hip Hop Studies (JHHS) is committed to publishing critically engaged, culturally relevant, and astute analyses of Hip Hop. Submissions should emphasize Hip Hop’s relationship to race, ethnicity, nationalism, class, gender, sexuality, justice and equality, politics, communication, religion, and popular culture. JHHS also explores the intersections of the sacred and profane for a better understanding of spirituality and religious discourses within the Hip Hop community.

JHHS has five broad aims, each of which adds a new and distinctive dimension to the academic analysis and study of Hip Hop:

  1. The religious discourse and rhetoric of Hip Hop and rap
  2. Culture, structure, and space within Hip Hop and rap
  3. Race, ethnicity, identity, class, and gender in a Hip Hop and rap context
  4. The sociology of religion in Hip Hop and rap
  5. Hip Hop’s influence and reach in other culture industries (fashion, sports, television, film); within the political sphere, and within educational spaces

Papers that engage with the above listed points are encouraged. Other questions we are considering, but are not limited to include:

  • How do we understand mediated presentations of Hip Hop?
  • What is the relationship among rap music, film, and the Internet?
  • What theoretical frames are best adapted for the study of proliferation of Hip Hop?
  • How do members of the Hip Hop generation understand God, religion, and spirituality?
  • How is Gnosticism interpreted within the Hip Hop community?

JHHS seeks work from a variety of academic fields which examines the manifestations and implications of Hip Hop culture both in the U.S. and globally.

Papers should be between 4000-6000 words. Papers should follow the Chicago style of writing (16th B) and include tables, charts, and graphs as either Word or Excel documents (no chart, graph, or table images).

Papers should be sent to Daniel White Hodge (Editor in Chief) dwhodge@northpark.edu or you can go to  Journal of Hip Hop Studies.