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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Black Rage as a Lament

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

Lament is a genre, a type of prayer which cast before others the sorrows and grief that accompanies life’s tragic narrative. The anger I have assessed to be Black Rage mutates into constant fires of resistance, a simmered concentrated rage revealed themselves in words of “irrepressible definitions of humanness.”[1] Lament shapes the words of people who are vehemently seeking answers to questions of injustice. Such lament gives voice to the words of people redefining their stolen humanness and dignity. Black Rage enacts as a lament; it gives voice to rebellion, signifying that there is something redeemable in oneself, worth preserving.[2]Initially, lament serves as a reaction to society’s dysfunction. Lament cries out against that dysfunction reaching an unacceptable level. Lament calls attention to injustice becoming intolerable and forcing the need for change to be imminent.[3] Black Rage as explored herein; is the voice of the oppressed who are lamenting with shattered hope that justice is near.[4] The lament in Black Rage expresses the “painful process of this translation” of anger that assists the community with its identification of those who are allies and those who are enemies. [5]  Lament shapes the language of suffering, projecting itself into new forms of expression. Patrick Miller quotes Eliane Scarry’s The Body in Pain,

To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language; but conversely, to be present when a person moves up out of the pre-language and projects the facts of sentience into speech is almost to have been permitted to be present at the birth of language itself.[6]

Black Rage has given rise to forming of such new language to name the Black experiences to God, to neighbor, and to society. Black Rage forges language to give voice to the voiceless and manifests itself in various forms of writing, art, and acts of resistance and revolution in America.

As a lament, Black Rage renders unto God a multivalent cry that Black bodies are valuable; that God is “able” and wills to redeem and care for Black people is the center of the lament having impact. God, as a divine father/mother becomes a real factor of hope, when the black body stands socially and politically in constant danger and is constantly dehumanized. In his essay, To Feel Like a Motherless Child, Peter Paris expresses this as a social reality for the African.[7] He maintains that as descendants of Africans and the installation of the African Village motif, we cultivate the heritage of being a family oriented people. Thus, to be considered “a motherless child” is a foreign assumption and a “radical alienation that destroys both persons and community.” [8] The resistance of Black Rage lament to being considered a motherless child assists black people /communities in affirming that through lamenting before God they will call on the God who attends to the needs of the oppress. Such Black Rage lament signifies that God deems the black body as significant. Cone writes, “Because religion defined the [somebodiness] of their being, the black slaves could retain a sense of the dignity of their person even though they were treated as things.”[9] Black Rage as a lament articulates the recognition that because God values black lives, there are unresolved, issues of justice: Black Rage. Lament is essential to voicing and naming those issues of justice. Old Testament Scholar, Walter Bruggeman argues, “A community that negates lament soon concludes that hard issues of justice are improper to pose at the throne…”[10]  This becomes the radical alienation that Paris espouses to the African community. When the throne is just a place where celebration is projected then the needs of those suffering are reduced to irrelevant complaints. When Black Rage is received as a complaint, once again, the value of the black body is lost and God is “placed at risk.”[11] The risk does not endanger the God who is. But that risk is that the world, the church, will continue to conceptualize God as a God of prejudice. This risk places God at the top of a social hierarchy socio-political power structures that causes the black body to be marginalized and objectified.

 

[1] Patrick D. Miller, “Heaven Prisoner’s: “The Lament as Christian Prayer.” Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, edited by Sally A. Brown and Patrick Miller, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.,15.

[2] Camus addresses this by asking the question, “ Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving? Albert Camus, The Rebel, New York: Vintage Books, 1985.,16.

[3] Walter Brueggemann. “The Costly Loss of Lament.” In The Psalms: The Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.,105.

[4] This hope is dismissive; it is more figurative than existential. It is a hope that one speaks about but never really believes will manifest –similar to true equality in America.

[5] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.,127.

[6] Ibid., Miller , The Lament, 17.

[7] Ibid, Paris, Lament, 112.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, New York: Orbis, 1972.,16.

[10] Ibid., Bruggeman,107.

[11] Ibid.,107.