“‘Fuck tha Police’ is just a warning, that’s it. You can’t treat people like that and expect them not to rise up. I’m a journalist just like you, reporting what’s going on in the hood. The only thing that’s different is I’m brutally honest.”—Ice Cube, Straight Outta Compton
F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise and tribulations of rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) in the late 1980s to early 1990s. The movie pinpoints vital topics like member Eric “Eazy-E” Wright’s battle with AIDS, and exposes many of the music business’s shady dealings. But it’s the depiction of police brutality and misconduct that ring most true today following the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray–among too many others. The angst and disgust towards the systematic brutality of black youths at the hands of cops roared through N.W.A’s raw and controversial track, “Fuck tha Police.”
Released in 1988 on N.W.A’s debut album Straight Outta Compton, “Fuck tha Police” was a commercial success, helping to boost the album’s sales to more than 3 million copies–a handicapped figure given radio censorship and protests against the group’s incendiary lyrics that even warranted a strongly worded threat from the FBI. The brutal truth Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E spit on wax became a battle cry for the marginalized and disenfranchised–most notably during the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the subsequent Los Angeles riots. The film interjects the real footage of L.A. police officers clubbing King and of the burning streets of South Central, which makes for a startling, if depressing, foreshadowing of the more recent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore.
Rapper Chuck D was famously quoted as saying hip-hop is “CNN for black people.” But there’s been a smattering of criticism against some of the biggest names in rap today for not using their status and rhymes to speak out against the seemingly routine deaths at the hands of cops. Others, meanwhile, have directly addressed the crises facing black people in America. J. Cole’s searing track “Be Free” and The Game’s star-studded roster on “Don’t Shoot” were both inspired by the shooting death of Michael Brown, and Killer Mike has practically become the Jesse Jackson of hip-hop. And then there was this incredible, beautiful video for Kendrick Lamar’s track “Alright.”
The history of socially conscious rap runs deep in the mire of the black struggle that doesn’t always have to include what’s already in the headlines–rappers have been documenting their frustrations of racial prejudice and economic disparity for decades. Here are some of the most compelling tracks in recent years that poignantly sum up what it’s like to be black in America:
Straight Outta Compton hits theaters August 14.