Straight Outta Boston: These kids are alright
By Evan Lips | August 27, 2015, 21:48 EDT
BOSTON – A screening of “Straight Outta Compton,” the searing biopic about rap group N.W.A., had ended and the thoughts and emotions of roughly 20 teenagers from Roxbury began surging into the open.
The teens watched the film Tuesday afternoon along with seven academics and entertainment professionals. After the show, they gathered inside the Paramount Center to discuss the film’s best moments, and the moments in the group’s brief history that were left out. Roxbury Presbyterian Church, an organization with a history of working with neighborhood youths, organized the talk.
The event was billed as an opportunity to hear a panel of experts reflect on a film that has taken America by storm during a year when the topic of race relations is appearing regularly in the news.
But it was the teens who had the most significant things to say.
“Back in the day we had rhymes for a reason,” said Jaidah Lindsey, one of the teens who spoke out during the discussion session. “Today it’s more about women, cars, money and drugs.”
Wyatt Jackson, an Emmy Award-winning musician and choreographer, said Lindsey’s comment and other responses from the teens during the discussion with the teens made him feel like crying.
“I have so much to say, but I can’t find the words,” Jackson told the teens. “But I’m celebrating this because it’s really the first time a conversation like this has (happened) in Boston.”
The film takes place in Compton, south of downtown Los Angeles, in the late 1980s. What was once a thriving black community, by then simmered with hopelessness. The beginning of the movie stresses one fact of life in Compton – either you make good money dealing drugs or you don’t make any money at all.
The opening scene shows Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, one of N.W.A.’s founding members, narrowly escape police during a botched drug deal. This scene occurs years before music enters his life. At that time, Wright was friends with future group members Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, both of whom are gifted musically and lyrically. Jackson and Young look up to Wright as his drug-dealing prowess has made him enough money to live comfortably, yet deep down the trio knows that Wright’s lifestyle will catch up to him sooner or later.
Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, meanwhile, struggle to find a music club that will support their hard-hitting style. The owner of one club demands that they stop rapping and rhyming about life on the streets, despite the positive response from club goers.
Dr. Dre and Ice Cube convince Eazy to ditch the drug dealing and give rapping a shot. The group refuses to change their hard-hitting sound and their music catches the ear of a record producer.
The rest is history for the three and an additional three other original members of N.W.A., which stood for Niggaz wit’ Attitude, as the group skyrocketed to fame during the late 1980s by rapping about the social injustices they experienced while growing up in Compton. The theme touched a nerve with many black youths and drew the attention of whites as well.
By the early 1990s, the group had split up, although their imprint upon history is permanent.
But at Tuesday night’s screening, the discussion turned less on the movie and more on where the hip-hop music genre stands today.
Today’s artists are doing the community a disservice by not talking about social issues, said Lindsey, who grew up listening to N.W.A. even though the group’s heyday came well before her time.
“Now it’s just more noise than anything,” she said of current performers. “I listen to today’s hip-hop, but I don’t have as much of an emotional connection to it.”
Academic Bill Banfield, who directs Berklee College of Music’s Center for Africana Studies, and composer Daniel Cantor lamented the omissions in the film, such as domestic abuse incidents, noting how those issues influenced N.W.A.’s work.
“Their history was about being brutally honest,” said Cantor, a drummer who is also an assistant songwriting professor Berklee, referring to N.W.A. “If they’re being disingenuous people can smell it.”
Cantor’s “disingenuous” comment is a reference to what was left out of the film, namely Dr. Dre’s brutal treatment of women. Dre, who produced the movie along with Ice Cube, recently issued a statement apologizing for his past transgressions. He did not however address why that dark period in his life was left out of the movie.
The timing of the movie’s release is perfect, given the controversy over police-involved killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, said Lindsey, who like the rest of the teens at the screening, is a member of the local chapter of the NAACP. The young NAACP members were specifically invited to participate in the discussion.
“They (N.W.A.) forced their voice out there,” Lindsey said. “Now we need that voice again.”
Rev. Liz Walkerof the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, who moderated the discussion, reflected on the film’s historical setting.
“I’m always drawn to those points in history that leave an indelible mark,” said Walker, who left a 21-year career as Boston’s first black television news anchor to answer a call to ministry. She also presides over her church’s Social Impact Center, a venue that caters to inner-city youths.
“Straight Outta Compton” is introducing many young people to the work of N.W.A., and that’s its greatest accomplishment, said panelist Shamara Rhodes, who works with young people in low-income neighborhoods and serves as the DJ for Roxbury’s Haley House Café poetry slams.
Today’s hip-hop performers focus too much on selling an image, said another teen, De’Ante Lynch.
“Back then, they were trying to talk about what they were actually going through,” Lynch said of N.W.A. “But rap music today is trying to sell that image of money and guns and everything. That’s what sells these days.”
That focus won’t change until hip-hop listeners and fans force it to, Lynch said. “We need to make them know what we want to hear.”