Rev. Bror Erickson
“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 8:11 ESV
This movie chronicles the rise and fall of the N.W.A., an American hip hop group, with a focus on the early careers of gangster rap icons Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, with an emphasis on the life and untimely death of Easy-E. The characters Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, and MC Ren have more or less supporting roles in the movie’s story line, which tells the story as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would like to have it remembered. They themselves admit in interviews that they have left some of the uglier parts of the history out of the movie. And can you blame them? In many ways they were just ugly times, and N.W.A. always maintained that they just rapped about what they saw, which is to say ugly. They held up a brutal reality in the face of society that people didn’t want to see. This has led to some to compare these rappers with Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah berating those who cry peace when there is no peace. Perhaps it wasn’t all about that, but then sometimes a person finds himself an unwitting prophet. The movie doesn’t tell the whole story, but then as time separates from you from your past, sometimes it’s what you don’t include in the story itself that says, “Yeah, I’m not proud of that. Perhaps, I could have made a better choice then. I don’t want to be remembered for that.” Not everything they did was as glamorous as being arrested in Detroit for rapping “F-the police,” the prophetic anthem that needed to be heard rather than shut down. Most people with a few years behind them can sympathize, and those who can’t really ought to get out more.
I went to see Straight Outta Compton to visit demons of the past, to see how the other side of life lived in the early 90s on the outskirts of Los Angeles County where the urban sprawl of the ghetto met the alfalfa fields of the Mojave. They were tumultuous times in a high school where racially motivated fights would break out on routine to kick off the weekend festivities. Amidst gangbangers and wannabes a person learned quick where to be and where not to be. As smoke from Compton’s Rodney King riots wafted over the San Gabriel Mountains my friends and I ditched school, showing up only long enough to see a sign in the main quad saying “No Justice, No Peace.” Anger fueled anger in a cauldron boiling over with teenage angst and vice. We all wanted out, we all wanted peace.
I didn’t like rap of any sort back then. I’ve grown to appreciate it a bit more as time has given time for reflection on the realities. Rap was something I didn’t even want to understand when it was becoming popular. I can’t say I particularly objected to the content. What angered others about the content was what I and others, even it seemed the critics themselves, enjoyed about other forms of pop music that bore far less scrutiny. Though the attempts to inhibit free speech in the 80’s were legion. It celebrated drinking and drugs, violence and promiscuity. I will say, I never really understood the visceral hatred of cops in the music. As a white boy without a car my run ins with them were, to say the least, limited. I’ve come to love “Cop Killer Ice-T” for the irony of his life though. It makes watching “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” much more enjoyable. Today with the resurgence of rioting around the country, and videos of cops using excessive force, I pause to think that perhaps those we charge with keeping the peace could do well to watch this movie, before threatening to taze another motorist for smoking. Twenty some years later, and we are still looking for peace.
No doubt, the actual history wasn’t quite as pretty as the movie, and the answers perhaps won’t be as easy. The raw side still comes out, but so does the eventual maturity. The movie will have plenty a parent might find objectionable, nudity, language and violence are as prevalent in this film as one might expect. In the end, finally the misogyny and womanizing gives way to respect and love as strong women come into the lives of the Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy E. It’s only then that their lives begin to come back together. It’s the women that give them the support and direction they need to find forgiveness for their failures, to find enough peace with themselves that they might find peace with others in their life. It is not good for man to be alone.
No, we can’t blame them for editing their story. Perhaps comparing them to prophets is much hubris too. They were boys channeling the anger of teenage angst to chase the American dream, lashing out at times indiscriminately even at those trying to help the situation. The other side of the movie is the complete lack of Christ in any of it. This is a reality for today’s America. I laughed when shortly after the riots I started seeing bumper stickers saying “No Jesus, No Peace, Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Still the truth of the cliche is profound. The Prophets of the Old Testament held up the ugly reality of this world where frankly there won’t ever be any real peace. They also pointed to the promises of God, to Jesus Christ who did not come to condemn the world, but to reconcile the enemies of God, you, me and Easy-E to his Father through the cross. It was the Jesus who brought what it was the prophets promised, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
Pastor Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Farmington NM. He can be reached at Bror0122@hotmail.com