Hearing Voices

Last month, part of the street I live on was renamed “Do the Right Thing Way,” after the Spike Lee Joint. It’s a taunting slap to this little strip of gentrifying Brooklyn. Do the Right Thing, which was shot a few blocks from my building, is a film about racial hatred and police slaughter, but it’s also a point of pride, a grittily cheerful claim to fame. The street itself seems oblivious to the honor. A line of stately brownstones still squints down at the bodegas and beat cops. There’s no new street sign, no twinkling plaque, nothing but the vague glimmer of the aesthetic, a sense that the black life carrying on here, sitting on stoops and padding around apartments, now partakes of a distant world of myth. At night, when the sodium streetlamps paint the sidewalk a bright, municipal orange and NYPD vehicles make their growling rounds of the neighborhood, it looks for all the world like the setting for a film.

F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton, 2015, promotional still.
F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton, 2015, promotional still.

Straight Outta Compton, the movie now playing about the Los Angeles hip-hop group N. W. A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes), is dipped in exactly that orange—the sickly glow of art as it alights on all that is cracked and horrible in this country. The palette of F. Gary Gray’s film—its golden bloat—reminds us that this is an origin story, the Book of Genesis for gangsta rap. The tales of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella braid prettily together, twisting and separating, full of gun-toting, revenge-getting, woman-hating, and the prickle and burst of the masculine ego. The story is wedged between two epidemics—crack and AIDS—and throbs with allegory. Every song becomes a masterpiece, every tiff is a duel, every utterance has the thudding force of a manifesto. Straight Outta Compton is a single, drawn-out climax, the plot lurching from one betrayal or triumph or clicked trigger to the next.

But it’s possible that things actually felt that way, that the film’s atmosphere of crisis isn’t just a narrative trick, but a frank appraisal of those blood-soaked years. Straight Outta Compton, as well as a hagiography, is a slick montage of a political moment—the war on drugs, Reagan, the 1980s culture wars, the Rodney King beating—that sprouted a new musical form. In the film, N. W. A’s art emerges as a kind of charcoal rubbing of their lives. They spoke about violence because they withstood it and doled it out (Straight Outta Compton, in its nostalgia, elides the beatings sustained by Dee Barnes and other women at the hands of Dr. Dre). They howled at the police because they were always being cuffed and shoved, having their skulls slammed to the cement by agents of the state. Their music pounded out the rhythms of revolutionary urgency. There’s nothing subtle about “Fuck Tha Police”—but there’s also nothing false.

Today, “Fuck Tha Police” is enjoying a grisly resurgence. The title has become an anarchist slogan. And the song itself, with lines like “They have the authority to kill a minority” and “my identity by itself causes violence,” seems a portent of the fates of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd and a whole wretched pantheon. So Straight Outta Compton arrives with cynically good timing, a blockbuster that floats atop the swelling resentments of our sick republic. But the film also dramatizes something else: our great, blurting culture, with its fixation on the First Amendment, its insistence on speaking up and speaking out—our infatuation, that is, with the voice.

Straight Outta Compton is a picture of sounds; it revels not so much in incendiary images as in the vagaries of tone. Eazy-E, the feline businessman and tactical mastermind of the group, has a lot of trouble getting down the atonal yelp of “Cruisin’ down the street in my ’64” during his first session in the recording booth. But the final result, when he achieves the sensuous texture that Dr. Dre wants, is greeted like the birth of a child. The refrain of “Fuck tha Police” is preceded by Ice Cube’s declaration, “Yo Dre, I got something to say.” And there’s a moment in the film when, after the group agrees to perform the song against the orders of the Detroit cops—and flaming trash is hurled at the police, the show’s shut down, the rappers handcuffed—MC Ren announces: “We gave the people a voice.” Straight Outta Compton actually begins with a scrambled radio broadcast, disembodied voices chirping in authoritative tones about “gangs” and “the war on drugs”—and much of the film takes place in that soupy world of discourse, of public pronouncements blooming into a chorus of outrage and despair. Chuck D’s assertion that rap was the black CNN has by now been repeated ad nauseam, but for me the stronger link is to radio—specifically the Voice of Fighting Algeria.

Frantz Fanon, writing during the Algerian War of Independence, claimed that with the adoption of the radio, “Algerian society made an autonomous decision to embrace the new technique and thus tune itself in on the new signaling systems brought into being by the Revolution.” Fanon saw the radio as a weapon, a force to be deployed in the struggle against the French; and the Voice of Fighting Algeria was the radio broadcast of the vanguard, the National Liberation Front. It gave reports of battles and bombings, and as news traveled, Fanon writes, the Algerian people came to “picture vividly the collapse of the occupying power.” There are many stubborn distinctions to be made, of course, between that time and place and our own—between the Algerian Revolution and the moldering purgatory into which black populations in the US have been corralled since the civil rights movement. Ours is not a revolutionary situation. There is no liberation army to speak of, no unilateral struggle, barely any Nationalist dreams of secession or autonomy. And yet it doesn’t take too crazed an imagination to sense a kinship between a racist police force and an occupying colonial army. Our government trots out some of the same modes of discipline and surveillance: the harassment, the gerrymandering, the forced displacement of the dark and disenfranchised. And the war on drugs, that punitive abstraction, smacks of the civilizing mission of empires past. In Straight Outta Compton’s opening scene, the LAPD rolls up to the house where Eazy-E is making a drug deal in a hulking, blaring tank. That war, like the Algerian one, had a broadcast.

But the Voice of Fighting Algeria did more than simply blast reports from the front. Delivered in French rather than Arabic, it helped Algerians come to trust the language of the occupier, whereas before, as Fanon observed, “French speech heard was an order, a threat, or an insult.” The power of the broadcast, making its fuzzy, halting way to the militant’s ear, was also a power to change the meanings of things: the occupier could be forced to “realize the relative character of his signs,” the fragility of his hierarchies, the stiltedness of his strut. Of course, N. W. A were not speaking the language of the oppressor in that way, and yet you might say that they did something similar in appropriating his signs, extending the fantasies of privilege to the marginalized—“Me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o.” They were masters of contradiction, boasting about wealth even as they crooned to the have-nots, rapping about “reality” as a way to hoist themselves above it, but if their politics were somewhat formless, they were nonetheless subversive.

Straight Outta Compton is a sleek, well-funded studio product that may dazzle the masses rather than exhort them to rise up. These days, Dr. Dre strikes a rather grandfatherly pose in the world of rap, while Ice Cube has become an actor, most recently appearing beside Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street as—yes—a policeman. Meanwhile Kendrick Lamar, the new bard of Compton—“So come and visit the tire screeching, ambulance, policeman”—often strikes a softer, more poignant note than N. W. A once did. Yet N.W.A, too, offered more than just braggadocio; if you close your eyes during Straight Outta Compton, you’ll be reminded that there was always something more complex in those voices. At the end of the film, Eazy-E is comatose, dying of AIDS-related complications. When the crew visits him in the hospital, Ice Cube, his machismo toppled for a moment by the onset of grief, looks pleadingly at Dr. Dre and says: “I need to hear his voice.”

Tobi Haslett is a writer living in New York.