We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
— Toni Morrison
Land of the free
But the skin I’m in identifies me
— Public Enemy, “Nighttrain,” Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black
THERE ARE FOUR OCCUPATIONS in America whose bread and butter is word work: writers, poets, lawyers, and rappers. Straight Outta Compton celebrates one of the most dynamic creative periods of these: a movie about how a group of young black men crafted a bold new language to describe the death, danger, poverty, and brutality into which they were born, and from which few escape.
“I’m a journalist […] reporting what’s going on in the hood,” Ice Cube says at one point in the film. The notion of rap as a political lens through which to view the otherwise invisible world of the hood — invisible, at least, to white America — is at the heart of what this film is all about. Fellow artist Chuck D of Public Enemy, who appeared on Cube’s first solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, once described rap as “the black CNN.” Straight Outta Compton tells the story of how N.W.A’s talent penetrated pop culture with bold new rhymes and beats that described the social reality of young black men stuck in an over-policed neighborhood and trapped in over-policed bodies — all in the heyday, and at the geographical epicenter, of the crack plague.
But on a grander scale, Straight Outta Compton is about how great art can grow out of great social oppression — or, to put it in the words of another iconic “gangsta” rapper who appears in the movie, Tupac Shakur, this movie is about roses that grew from a crack in the concrete:
Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams
It learned to breathe fresh air
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
When no one else even cared!
When I first heard N.W.A, it was a nippy, bomber-jacket kind of day in the Bay Area in 1988; I was walking down Bancroft Way in Berkeley after my constitutional law class at Boalt Hall. Blasting from the flung-open window of a dorm room, a fresh, profane, defiant new sound stopped me in my tracks:
Fuck the police
Coming straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad cuz I’m brown
And not the other color, so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
The law student in me immediately connected with the raw eloquence of the word work, the fittingly profane outcry against police brutality. These were coarse, crude, brutal words that realistically described Compton, South Central, and many other poor black neighborhoods across the nation during the 1980s. Style and substance meshed perfectly. The political animal in me heard an urgent protest slogan and recognized an anthem for victims of state oppression in the form of police brutality.
Profanely eloquent and politically forceful, the words also proved tragically prophetic: as the film shows, the powder keg of rage N.W.A’s language expressed exploded into revolt in the form of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. The prominent role of this uprising in Straight Outta Compton makes clear how these young black urban griots — these Compton Cassandras — were endowed with the gift of prophesy, but fated not to be believed. I call the civil unrest of ’92 an uprising or a revolt rather than a riot. Had “rioters” been looking for any excuse to wreak havoc, they could have gone off when the images of the Rodney King beating first saturated the airwaves. But they didn’t. The black community waited for the justice system to honor its promise of neutrality and equality before the law. People took to the streets only when that promise seemed so brazenly flouted by a verdict that seemed to scream, in the language of today’s 21st-century uprising: “Black Lives Don’t Matter!”
Ice Cube’s 1990, post-N.W.A track “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” — featured in Straight Outta Compton — foreshadowed those riots and chronicled the deep reservoir of resentment behind them:
I heard payback’s a motherfucking nigga
That’s why I’m sick of gettin treated like a goddamn stepchild
[…] The damn scum that you all hate
Just think if niggas decide to retaliate
Because of its profane style, especially its unremitting repetition of “the N-word,” many people in the late-’80s and early ’90s (like many today) could not appreciate the political significance or artistic excellence of the “gangsta”/“reality” rap genre that N.W.A and Ice Cube pioneered. Many people, quite understandably, have a violent visceral reaction against the N-word and maintain that, due to its historical roots in black oppression and degradation, any use of the word by anyone for any purpose should be rejected like the tainted fruit of a poisonous tree. During its 2007 annual convention, the NAACP sought to purge popular culture and public discourse of the word by giving it a public burial in Detroit on Freedom Plaza. The ceremony included a march by delegates from across the country through downtown Detroit, led by two Percheron horses pulling a pine box adorned with fake black roses and bearing the remains of the racial slur. NAACP National Board chairman Julian Bond, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and the young delegates who organized the funeral were cheered by hundreds of onlookers. “We gather burying all the things that go with the N-word. We have to bury the ‘pimps’ and the ‘hos’ that go with it,” said Mayor Kirkpatrick. The Rev. Otis Moss III, assistant pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said in his eulogy of the word, “This was the greatest child that racism ever birthed.”
Still, countless times a day the N-word rises like Lazarus to walk among us in popular culture and casual banter. When it comes to N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) and the vanguard of “reality” or “gangsta” rap that the group represents, the N-word doesn’t just walk, it struts. As it should, for the hallmark of this genre is transgressive, unsayable language. In Straight Outta Compton, the group gets arrested for performing “Fuck tha Police” at a concert after police warned them not to, which actually happened (though the movie dramatized the details). Just the thought of state agents arresting or punishing citizens because they find their words offensive or defiant or critical should send a chill up the spine of anyone who works with words, especially edgy or controversial ones. For years prosecutors have used the “reality” rap lyrics of young black defendants against them in criminal trials to obtain convictions (New Jersey rapper Vonte Skinner’s case is just one recent example). In a criminal prosecution, for instance, the lyrics in AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted could have been used against Ice Cube to obtain a criminal conviction. Some see such prosecutions as a form of government censorship designed to throttle rebellious rappers, to stuff their own defiant words down their throats, and SCOTUS will look at the constitutionality of this deeply troubling but long-standing practice in the coming term.
One reason I find the N-word-laden profanities at the core of politically charged “gangsta” rap so apt is precisely because, for many listeners, such words are so uncomfortable. A core tactic of today’s Black Lives Matter movement has been to compel people, from elected officials to ordinary citizens, to have uncomfortable conversations about race in order to cut through our collective complacency about savage and persistent racial inequality. In Black Brunch, for example (a division of Black Lives Matter), demonstrators storm “white spaces” — restaurants serving a symbol of privileged indulgence, brunch, to predominantly white customers — chanting the names of African Americans killed by police. Profanity in general, and the blood-soaked N-word in particular, can be an extremely uncomfortable and therefore effective style of art and form of protest.
This is why, back in 1999, I introduced the N-word-laden lyrics of N.W.A and Ice Cube first to the legal academy and then to the larger university community. Drawing inspiration from these sages of South Central, and in the spirit of provoking uncomfortable conversations about racial oppression, I first “dropped the N-bomb” at a Criminal Justice and Race Workshop for the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) 1999 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Before a roomful of sedate and tweedy legal scholars, I performed the same song from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted that Ice Cube performs in Straight Outta Compton, spitting New Jim Crow–related lines like:
Kicking shit called street knowledge
Why more niggas in the pen than in college?
Now cause of that line I might be your cellmate
That’s from the nigga ya love to hate
I told my audience that I had been compelled to use this profane alternative to the smug complacency beneath the “proud but calcified language of the academy.” I was confronting the baffling silences around race that our professional vocabulary could not fill.
Professors and practitioners of criminal law primarily speak in the languages of morality and law, so I’ve thought a lot about the world of shared meanings these vocabularies create and the limits they impose on one who speaks them. I would characterize my relationship with the language of crime and punishment inside and outside my law school classrooms over the past 20 years as impossible, for I find the language of both the legal academy and conventional morality — “free will,” “personal responsibility,” “depraved heart,” “subjective wickedness” — not adequate to my needs and purposes. This kind of language is inadequate to my sense of myself and my world, requiring me, as it plainly does, to view as wicked and irresponsible many close friends, family, and the up to 90 percent of young black men in some inner city neighborhoods who will end up in jail, on probation, or on parole at some point in their lives. For me, such language is a disabled and disabling device for grappling with meaning in moral and criminal matters, one that ignores or discounts gross inequalities in race and class — and sweeps empirically clear antiblack bias under the rug of jury verdicts and “findings of fact” about guilt and innocence. Prevailing legal and moral language organizes our experience so that “wicked” black wrongdoers have no access to empathy, sympathy, care, or concern from “ordinary” law-abiding people. Yet in my scholarly associations and legal journals I saw and see an entrenched moral and legal vocabulary content to admire its own paralysis, to accept with serenity its estrangement of underprivileged and disadvantaged masses.
As James Boyd White points out, when words lose their meaning, as these words did for me, a speaker must make a new language, remake an old one, or radically repurpose old words to serve new ends. The point of my N-word-laden 1999 AALS performance of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was to radically reconstitute my cultural resources, my possibilities for making and maintaining meaning, to make them adequate to my needs. Specifically, following the example of N.W.A and Ice Cube, I repurposed the N-word as a term of art in an oppositional discourse I called “nigga-talk.” Nigga-talk uses this “troublesome” word — a word professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School rightly calls the “nuclear bomb of racial epithets” in his 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word — to critique the status quo in criminal matters and to bond with black criminals.
Profanity in general, and the N-word in particular, is not language that respectable blacks use, so its use can signal a defiant rejection of distinctions based on respectability politics. In Straight Outta Compton, the black cop who “showed out” for the white ones in the shakedown of the group outside the Torrance recording studio embodies the spirit of respectability politics in the black community. For proponents of the politics of respectability, the black community must distinguish sharply between what one prominent black scholar calls “good Negroes” (law-abiding and respectable blacks) and “bad Negroes” (black criminals), and it must maximize the distance between the two in the eyes of whites for the sake of the racial reputation of our community. Chris Rock expressed this same perspective in his infamous punch line, “I love black people, but I hate niggas!,” where he makes it clear that lovable “black people” means “law-abiding, respectable blacks” and “niggas” means morally deficient and contemptible black criminals. No utterance in the English language more forcefully drives a social and political wedge between a worthy “us” and an unworthy “them” than this vile epithet.
Straight Outta Compton opens with Eazy-E embroiled in a violent drug transaction, a prototypical “bad Negro.” But “reality” rap provides an alternative perspective on so-called “niggas” and “bad Negroes” — the perspective of black criminals themselves. By adopting the narrative perspective of “bad Negroes,” this rap genre invites listeners to stand in the shoes of black criminals, to better understand their story, and thereby to recognize them as one of “us.” As Morrison points out in her Nobel lecture, “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” A key insight of the law and literature movement is that the true center of value of a word, text, or performance of language, its most important meaning, is to be found not in any factual information that it conveys — not in what is says — but in what it does, specifically, in the community that it establishes with its audience. “It is here,” says James Boyd White, “that the author offers his reader a place to stand, a place from which he can observe and judge the characters and events of the world.” N.W.A, through their alternative narrative perspective and their repeated performances of the “N-word,” offers listeners a place to stand that is beyond condemnation. Their words showed how a person’s moral record is largely determined by luck and human frailty rather than simply “free will.” From this perspective, black criminals can be understood as tragic social facts for which we as a class- and race-riven nation are accountable, rather than wicked wrongdoers mired in self-destruction for which they alone are to blame.
N.W.A (and the politically relevant “reality” rappers who followed them) used this alternative narrative perspective and the N-word as brushstrokes in a new political landscape, one in which the very meaning of the N-word — its substantive content and range of application — is part of a fierce contest over the “us and them” of politics, over the formation and transformation of individual and collective black identities. Politically relevant black urban poets and N-word virtuosos like Tupac Shakur, N.W.A, and Ice Cube vividly illustrate how people use words, sometimes the very same word, to embrace or push away, recognize or deny, others. In the hands of these profane poets, “gangsta rap” is N-word-laden oppositional political discourse; for them, “nigga talk” is language smitheryed to challenge conventional characterizations of black criminals with ironies, inversions, and invitations aimed at bonding and standing in solidarity with them.
At the same time, the movie reminds us of the tragic costs of crime when Dr. Dre loses his little brother to it and when Suge Knight ruthlessly leaves pain and suffering in his wake. By regularly reminding us of the internecine costs of crime, the film avoids romanticizing criminals by ignoring or discounting the harm they cause. While it invites us to empathize and sympathize with Eazy-E, whose passing is mourned and deeply felt, it avoids completely demonizing black criminals. Glenn Loury captures the nature of this complex, nuanced response to black criminals among black folk in his observations that “the young black men wreaking havoc in the ghetto are still ‘our youngsters’ in the eyes of many of the decent poor and working class black people who are often their victims” and that “for many of these people the hard edge of judgment and retribution is tempered by sympathy for and empathy with the perpetrators.”
In 2007, immediately after Ice Cube had performed “Fuck tha Police” and other classics in my 2007 play, Race, Rap, and Redemption, the dean of our law school read him a resolution on stage in front of a packed auditorium of enthusiastic USC students. Cube — and through him the whole genre of politically relevant “reality” or “gangsta” rap — was recognized in the USC Law School resolution as a wordsmith and scholar. Even though I wrote the resolution, I knew the genre that N.W.A pioneered did not need the imprimatur of a major research university to vindicate its value. Still, it felt good to see it get such recognition just the same.
Be It Resolved:
A Resolution under the seal of the USC Gould School of Law
Whereas Ice Cube a rap pioneer and virtuoso lyricist has led a musical revolution with brutal, profound and politically-charged music
Whereas Ice Cube’s searing music rails against injustice and takes to task an oppressive social order that traps blacks and other minorities in ghettos, robs them of opportunities for escape, and then makes them scapegoats for the System’s own failures
Whereas Ice Cube’s latest masterpiece, Laugh Now, Cry Later, simmers with celebration, humor, irony, rage, reflection, and deep insight that are the hallmarks of timeless music and first-rate critical scholarship
Now therefore be it resolved that the USC Law School hereby joins with Dean Ed McCaffrey, Professor Jody Armour, Professor Ron Garet in honoring Ice Cube on the occasion of his participation in Race, Rap, and Redemption at USC and recognizing his musical genius and his tireless commitment to racial justice.
Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision making as well as torts and tort reform movements.