In 1988, when crack wars raged in communities across the country, hip-hop was still a relatively new phenomenon entering the cultural mainstream. Police forces across the country were still in the process of arming themselves for a war on drugs that has largely now fallen out of favor. And then a song without much of a melody but a heckuva hook hit the stores.
It was called "F*** Tha Police." It was the work of a Southern California-based rap group known as N.W.A.
And Friday, as a Hollywood feature film about the group and its music hits theaters, it's almost certain N.W.A's artistically hyperbolic calls to oppose, injure and even kill police will be likened to the burgeoning political movement that is Black Lives Matter. Indeed, as the trailer above suggests, the film seems happy to feed the comparisons.
Make no mistake: They are very different phenomena.
First, let us dispense with the most obvious -- and yet perhaps still necessary to enumerate -- differences.
N.W.A -- an acronym for N***** With Attitude -- was a rap group. It was artists who went on tour, aimed to sell records and presumably make music about their own truth. In the years since N.W.A disbanded (amid royalty and other business disputes and the early death of one member, Eazy-E), the group has twice been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and listed on Rolling Stone's list of 100 greatest artists of all time.
Their music was, by most accounts, significant. It introduced millions of Americans to a genre of rap that had, until the group's rise, lived mostly on the West Coast. N.W.A made a habit in interviews of insisting that the stories that their songs includes -- about murder, unbridled misogyny, drug deals and car upgrades -- was not what the media often called "gangsta' rap" but instead "reality rap" -- a true depiction of their lives and communities. It's why they are remembered as a political act.
The fact that this "reality" came to represent a notional black American reality to millions of young, white Americans who lived nowhere near areas like Compton, Calif., but bought N.W.A's music? Well, that was America's problem. N.W.A were just artists, interested or at least comfortable with creating music that described an almost ceaselessly violent worldview in which they described themselves as fearsome young men not to be messed with. (In a song called "Gangsta! Gangsta!" N.W.A member Ice Cube described himself as "a crazy motherf*****" who never should have been let out of jail.)
Without question, N.W.A's music, including, "F*** Tha Police," supercharged a national conversation about censorship, explicit lyrics and artistic expression. And N.W.A was a collection of artists who became rich exporting and selling those ideas to all of America. It was their right. It was an option. And N.W.A certainly exercised it.
In case this all predates you or your memory fails you, here are some relevant lines from the song:
F*** the police comin' straight from the underground.A young n**** got it bad 'cause I'm brown, and not the other colorSo police think they have the authority to kill a minorityF****** with me cause I’m a teenager, with a lil' bit of gold and a pagerSearching my car looking for the product, thinking every n**** is selling narcotics
Of course, this much is also true: That song came long before questions about how the police do their work in communities of color populated the front pages of American newspapers. That song hit stores and Walkmen -- yes, Walkmen and boomboxes -- long before any Justice Department report had pointed the finger at the systematic and often unconstitutional way that some police forces have become accustomed (even sometimes financially dependent upon) on a diet of stopping, frisking, questioning, ticketing and many would say harassing black and Latino Americans.
And that song came long before the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland became emblematic of a set of racial-equality problems that 60 percent of Americans told Washington Post pollsters this month that the country needs to address. It was a song that in the form of a mock trial illuminated a series of phenomena around police and communities of color with which the country is only beginning to contend.
But make no mistake, that alone is not Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter is a political movement that began with an online hashtag in the hours after a nearly all-white jury acquitted neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman on all charges in connection with the shooting death of unarmed black teenager (Martin). The women behind the hashtag have told reporters they were profoundly disturbed by the fact that Zimmerman's lawyers could so deftly exploit long-running stereotypes about black criminality, who poses a danger and who must contend with it to liberate their client.
In the years that have followed, Black Lives Matter has become an organization with local and national chapters of social and, of late, political activists questioning public policy, calling for wholesale policy reforms, stricter monitoring of police activity and data collection as well as criminal prosecutions of police officers who break the law and abuse their authority.
Black Lives Matter has held its own national convention, disrupted others' gatherings and raised questions about not just police, but prosecutors and private corporations operating for-profit jails.
The movement, is, at its core, a call for immediate and substantive reform -- not police murder or mayhem (artistic or actual). It is sometimes messy. It's tactics have and will be be criticized. And, like all human endeavors, it is certainly imperfect. But it is a real and actual political movement -- a force that has, in at least some small ways, shaped the pre-primary season of the 2016 campaign.
To be fair, there are reasons that some corners of America may conflate N.W.A and its artistic (not actual) calls for violence against police with the ongoing development of the political movement known as Black Lives Matter. For starters, there's undoubtedly multi-million-dollar, Hollywoood-funded promotional machine behind "Straight Outta Compton," doing its darnedest to connect the story of N.W.A with today's headlines. Watch the trailer up above and then click here and watch a second, red band trailer. (A warning: The red band trailer does include cursing and brief nudity.)
In the second, Ice Cube says something that makes the hopes of the marketing team behind "Straight Outta Compton" fairly plain: “The same thing that we was going through in the '80s with the police, people going through right now.” Perhaps they would not mind if America drew that very conclusion and then, perhaps, felt compelled to see the movie.
It's a film. They aim to make money.That is their right. And art does matter.
But don't be confused. To conflate the two would be to misunderstand something very political and certainly real happening in America right now.