(c) Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, A Unitarian Universalist Community, All Rights Reserved
The recent deaths of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sam Dubose, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott, at the hands of white police officers, have made it starkly clear that racism in our nation is alive and well. Almost all were killed in disregard for their civil and human rights.
As a spiritual matter, this issue of racial violence perpetrated against innocents has been discussed from this pulpit many times. Since I’ve been minister, we’ve grieved and searched our souls over this issue. From mourning the murders at a Charleston AME church, to Sunday celebrations of African culture or John Brown by Ray Nandyal, to lamenting attacks against immigrants, to discussing the subject of white privilege, to celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend WHG Carter, to Howard Tolley’s guest message last month on ways to address racism, we’ve not ignored the subject.
And we will continue to speak about this evil in our culture. Just two weeks ago, the 2016 Academy Award nominations were announced. There were zero major nominations for any film dealing with black culture or featuring African-American actors. Not one actor of color, Director of color, black screenwriter or songwriter was nominated for an Oscar even though there were many excellent ones to choose from. The award is essentially irrelevant when it ignores the work of so many for reasons that appear to be racist.
This follows last year’s similar nominations of almost all white films and actors. As an industry that is hailed as highly progressive, Hollywood reveals itself to be no better on matters of race than the rest of America. And so, as a part of my Hollywood Spirituality series this month to look at Oscar nominated films and how they might inspire, I chose the film “Straight Outta Compton” for discussion today precisely because it was NOT nominated for an Academy Award even though it was both commercially and critically successful. Indeed, I think it a much better film – and socially more important – than “The Revenant” which I discussed last Sunday.
I have to confess, however, that “Straight Outta Compton” is not a film I saw when it was first released last August. I doubt many in this room saw it at that time either. Rap music and its artists don’t interest me, I told myself. It’s not that I’m racist, I reassured myself. It’s just a matter of my personal taste. And yet, that’s not entirely true. I remember seeing promotions for the movie with its depictions of gangster rap, violence, sexism and profanity and I immediately concluded the movie was not for me. It does not depict a slice of life that is relevant to me. And in those statements that I told myself are, in truth, my own latent racism.
Let’s take a look now at the promotional trailer to “Straight Outta Compton” and as you watch it, think about your reactions to what is depicted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsbWEF1Sju0
The film is a biopic about members of one of the original rap groups, NWA, which stands for “Negroes with Attitude”. Rising out of a 1980’s Los Angeles inner city environment of drugs, gangs and crime, three young men, stage named Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube, find they have a musical voice that speaks to young, inner city blacks. Their first songs are filled with anger at the lack of opportunity, police harassment, incarceration and blighted schools in their community. NWA songs have a thumping beat that pounds with the rage felt about injustice. Their songs are purposefully political. They gave a voice to millions of marginalized black youth across the US, including here in Cincinnati, where NWA performed a sold out concert in 1988 at the Coliseum.
Ironically, NWA’s gangsta rap style began to thrill white suburban youth who had no understanding of black oppression but who loved the raucous sounds and lyrics railing against police power and other authority figures. Here’s a sample from NWA’s most famous – and notorious song – “F” tha’ Police:” (And I’ve replaced some words here which is not meant to judge them):
A young brotha got it bad ’cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think.
They have the authority to kill a minority.
“F” that stuff, ’cause I ain’t the one for
a punk mother-f with a badge and a gun
to be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail.
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell,
‘f-in’ with me cause I’m a teenager,
with a little bit of gold and a pager.
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the products.
Thinkin’ every brotha is sellin’ narcotics.
Performing similar songs, the group became hugely successful and hugely controversial. Tipper Gore, wife of Vice-President Al Gore, spoke before Congress against NWA and its profanity laced songs. Before a concert in Detroit, the police warned band members to not perform songs demeaning police or using profanity. NWA sang their signature song anyway and they were promptly arrested. White protest groups across the country also reacted against NWA with boycotts and record smashing.
Arguments over money and fame eventually split the group apart. Members finally stood up against white managers and recording executives who had exploited them. Violence, sex and drugs affected them. Tragedy hit a few of them. Ultimately, however, they earned hard won victories of self-empowerment, ownership of their music, great financial reward, and a legacy of activism against police and racism that is still relevant.
The challenge I have in my message is how to suggest a spiritual ethic we might gain from the film. Indeed, “Straight Outta Compton” speaks for itself on many levels and it is not for me, especially with regard to racism, to suggest how to correct it. I am a strong believer that whites should listen more than opine about how to fix racism. As perpetrators of discrimination, intentional or not, our obligation is to fix ourselves. Beyond that, we must listen to the victims of oppression and follow their lead in how to address the issue.
But if whites are to fix themselves, they can begin by understanding and appreciating African-American culture – including rap music. We should look beyond the vulgarity, celebration of sex, and palpable rage in many rap songs to find, instead, the core message of anger and frustration. Rap has been criticized by many whites as homophobic, exploitive of women, and overly violent. And the movie does not hide those dimensions of NWA and rap in general.
But Dr. Dre and Eazy-E replied to their critics that while they were like journalists who reveal truth, their songs highlight white privilege and discrimination that motivates the angry and profane aspects of the genre. I’m not a psychologist, but the emasculation of black young men by white police officers, through constant harassment and incarceration, likely gives rise to hyper masculinity in rap and its fans. The film clearly depicts this fact. The NWA band was, at one point, confronted and demeaned by white LA police officers outside their studio. They were slapped, forced to lie on the ground, taunted and referred to as “boys.” In response, Eazy-E immediately returned to their recording studio and wrote their most famous song “F tha Police”. The historic debasement of black men by whites has clearly helped nurture their anger AND their sometimes aggression and misogyny. It’s whites, not them, who are thus responsible.
But rap artists channel their rage not with physical violence but with musical poetry to inspire and give voice to deep rooted feelings. Misogyny and homophobia are not attitudes to be excused but, in black culture, they are caused by white marginalization of black men. More important, the angry songs of NWA and those by contemporary black rap artists like Kendrick Lamar, whose song ‘Alright’ is now considered the anthem of Black Lives Matter, their songs both inform and incite. Last Monday night Lamar performed “Alright” at the Grammy awards set to a background of pounding tribal drums and a screen image of Africa burning with the word ‘Compton’ superimposed on it. His point was clear: contemporary racism is a form of modern slavery. Here’s a sample of the song’s lyrics – again with a few words changed:
When you know, we been hurt, been down before, brotha,
When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, brotha?”
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, brotha.
I’m at the preacher’s door, my knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow…….but we gon’ be alright.
Brotha, we gon’ be alright
Brotha, we gon’ be alright
We gon’ be alright
Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.
Kendrick Lamar, one of today’s most popular rap artists, follows directly in the footsteps of NWA and the story of “Straight Outta Compton.” His art is political, social protest speech.
In that regard, many of us can look to rap as instructive for how we can appropriately channel anger in our lives. Rap is an expression of resistance, power and protest. It’s an angry but productive response to the war on black young men that is fought with police killings and high rates of black incarceration, highlighted in the book The New Jim Crow. As a white man, I know these forms of discrimination to be true and yet, if I am honest with myself, rap music and its anger are subliminally threatening.
In truth, rap is threatening to me and others because it threatens white privilege. But, rap and hip hop are part of the evolution of African-American musical responses to racism. Like jazz and early rock and roll, rap is a uniquely American – and black – musical genre. But unlike those two musical forms, rap is specifically intended to inspire and to demand. But rap is not a bloody revolution in the streets. Rap songs like those highlighted in ‘Straight Outta Compton” channel black anger in a productive way – much like all art is designed to provoke. Indeed, I don’t want to sound patronizing, but rap is a form of Scripture designed to poetically motivate its listeners.
Like jazz and rock and roll, rap has also been eagerly adopted by white youth and, some say, often sanitized of overly angry lyrics. Statistics show that 80% of those who now purchase rap music are white suburban teenagers. Hip hop and rap are cool. They’re innovative, subversive, sensual and anti-authoritarian – all things that resonate with young people – black or white.
It’s in that light that I believe we can understand both African-American anger and their culture – through rap music. It is up to me and other whites to examine our own hearts, in response to the racism that we know is real, to learn about, empathize with and ultimately appreciate black culture – and rap is one piece of that. In doing so, I can better understand the visceral pain African-Americans feel.
I also challenge us as Unitarians to examine our Sunday services in the light of African-American Sunday worship and music. UU services can be more open, more emotion filled, more loose, more multi-cultural. In doing so, we might help bridge the Sunday racial divide. It’s imperative we find multiple ways to honestly empathize with black feelings, to figuratively put ourselves in their shoes and feel the sting of racial harassment, the shame of inferior schools, the dread a parent feels for a son’s safety at the hands of police, or the soul draining pain of hate directed one’s way simply for the amount of melanin in one’s skin. Rap and other forms of African-American culture, like their styles of worship, if really listened to and borrowed from, can show whites the existential pain – and pride- of being black and why, indeed, black lives matter.
My message series this month using films to look at spiritual themes might seem trivial to some. One member sincerely told me the series comes across as similar to the image of playing a fiddle while Rome burns. I welcome such comments. But my hope is that we see movies – and rap music – much like we do other forms of artistic expression – as powerful in their ability to inspire, instruct and motivate.
It might seem like a stretch, but I believe the three films I chose to discuss this month are thematically linked. The film ‘Inside Out’ asks us to look at our emotions and see them as useful if we maintain them within appropriate boundaries. The movie ‘Revenant’ suggests we can find redemption in how we treat others – with open and unconditional love that transcends hate and insult. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ brings those two themes together. The justifiable anger depicted in the film of young black rap artists is powerful, appropriate and real. And our response to such heartfelt emotions must be to listen, understand and unconditionally love.
If rap is honestly listened to, we will find universal spiritual expression against injustice consistent with the words of Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Rap music won’t cure the ills of racism alone but listening to and understanding it is one way for me and other whites to address subconscious racism and see, instead, one’s inner reality. No white person can fully understand the hurt of racism and ways they are responsible for it, but viewing the film ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and listening to the rap music it showcases are worthy ways to begin an empathy effort.
I wish you peace and joy………………as I also now welcome your thoughts about my message and topic today.