In 2015 the film Straight Outta Compton was released, proving that NWA as well as other rappers of this decade had a lasting impression on American culture. Rap music continues to deliver stark political messages as well as reflect the struggles of the community it represents. At the start of the 1990’s the “War on Crime” hit the black community disproportionately harder than any other community. At the same time, gangsta rappers began to speak out on what it meant to be a criminal.
In using their words correctly within the classroom, two things can be accomplished. First, the war on crime era can be taught and contextualized in a way that acts as built in engagement for students. Analyzing the music gives kids a sense of cultural lexicon that is still current and relevant. Furthermore, it provides students with a baseline for public opinion on the era. Being so contemporary there is difficulty finding scholarly sources that culminate the black American experience in the 90’s. Popular culture is public opinion and rap music deals with these trickier issues head on.
The secondary benefit of using rap music to teach the War on Crime is that it is an easy way for teachers to relate to a more diverse classroom, by assisting students in evaluating their role models. Public reactions to NWA and other rappers proved to be polarized. Understanding both sides allows students to contextualize their idols today, specifically rappers and musicians under the same lens.
The War on Crime refers to an era in American history, spanning from the 1970’s to the end of the 1990’s wherein the American government hyper focused on the prevention and punishment of crimes. In 1965, President Johnson addressed what he referred to as an increase in “street crime” and created the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (Flamm, 2019). The primary goal of the Office was to partner local police departments with federal crime bureaus. As a consequence, crimes that would typically be resolved on a local level and would have smaller sentences, were now reviewed on a federal level and resulted in stricter prison sentences. Just as well, crimes that would have otherwise been resolved through community service or public scrutiny were for the first time subject to prison sentences (Thompson, 2010, p. 713). This, of course, led to more individuals being incarcerated and for longer periods of time.
The “War on Crime” was punitive in nature, focusing heavily on punishing lower priority drug crimes. In the 1970’s, New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had long been in favor of a rehabilitation first approach to drug crime, passed a series of stricter drug laws that lowered tolerance and increased jail time in convictions (Thompson, 2010, p. 707). This ultimately led to a higher incarceration rate, which translates to more families being affected. These harsher drug laws quickly spread across the nation. Thompson (2010) writes that “While in 1970 there had been only 322,300 drug-related arrests in the United States, in 2000 that figure was 1,375,600,” also noting that by the end of the twentieth century there were more Detroit residents incarcerated than there were Detroit residents holding unionized jobs in the auto department (p. 709). The “War on Crime” fed into the prison industrial complex in America.
The prison industrial complex is unique to American culture. What makes it more unique though, is how it has found its home in implicit racism. By the end of the twentieth century, one in fifteen black men had been incarcerated at some point in their lives, compared to one in one hundred and six white men within the same age rage (McCann, 2017, p. 126). The War on Crime disproportionately affected communities of color, but none more than the black community.
The rise in mass incarceration changed the family dynamic of the black community, making criminal behaviour a cornerstone of their identity. Thompson argues, “The criminalization of urban space and the imposition of lengthy prison terms not only rendered an increasing percentage of urbanites unable to contribute to the cities where they grew up but it also made it difficult for them to provide for the dependents they left behind” (Thompson, 2010, p. 716). Increased incarceration rates meant that many parents would find themselves with a criminal record. This affected their families on two fronts. First, that during their sentence they would be missing from their households. The rise in the single parent home increased dramatically as the twentieth century closed (Thompson, 2010, p. 711). Families struggled to support themselves on a one parent income. The secondary effect mass incarceration had on families was the newfound inability of parents to re-enter the workforce due to their criminal records, as Thompson alludes to above. Families who were already struggling in poverty stricken neighborhoods were now forced to find creative ways to earn an income, which often led to committing more crimes. This, in turn, led to more people being incarcerated and the creation of a police state in poor urban communities.
The effects of the war on crime are still evident in urban classrooms. Students today have parents who felt the direct impacts of the time period. When dealing with a topic so close to home for so many people, it is important to navigate with care. The easiest way to do so is to connect it with something the kids are familiar with and enjoy on an overall level.
The police state created a cultural stigma around black people. The idea became that they were inherently violent, and inherently criminal. The advent of the gangsta rap genre created a caricature of what a Young Black Male from a poor, urban community should look like. Analyzing this persona gives a glimpse of what type of image the black community portrays and how that legacy has carried on to children today.
When N.W.A released their debut album Straight Outta Compton in 1988, they addressed these issues. On the first track, the titular song, Ice Cube sings,
“Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf****r named Ice Cube
From the gang called N****z Wit Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off” (Jackson, Carabby, Wright, & Jerald, 1988)
The very first impression displayed here is glorification of intense violence. Ice Cube hailed from a community where this type of violence was not only familiar, but expected. The lyrics continue to tell a story where the men engage in more violence, as well as mentioning and advocating for illicit drug usage.
This impression is what Bryan McCann refers to as the popularization of criminality. McCann described the phenomenon that NWA popularized in saying, “The mark of criminality circulated in white civil society in ways that mobilized affect as fear of racialized bodies and communities, but NWA attracted affective investments from audiences with playful, even joyful performances of black criminality” (McCann, 2017, p. 36). NWA’s third track on the album, titled “Gangsta, Gangsta”, provided the framework for what they believed to be the experience of the black gangster growing up in urban Los Angeles,
“Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out
Now I’m the mothaf***a that you read about
Takin’ a life or two, that’s what the hell I do (Jackson, Carabby, Wright, & Jerald, 1988)”
The music is melodic, catchy and strikes the youth as fun. The men do not lament over their hardships. Instead, they create a larger than life personification of that hardship and market it as the authentic experience. All of the things that the establishment, be that the government or on a smaller scale the police, expected them to be was culminating in this persona.
Other rappers followed the same trend, personifying what they felt to be formative traits and experiences of growing up in an urban, black community. 2Pac was well known for his often depressingly honest depictions of day to day life.
Very quickly, the message gangsta rappers sought to deliver became problematic. Their representation of self and poignant resistance to violence challenged the authority of the establishment. This became evident as government agencies, namely the FBI, spoke out against the rappers’ music.
The analysis of rap music allows students to engage with materials that may be familiar to them. They are interesting, and honest depictions of the ways in which the war on crime affected black America.
The War on Crime stigmatized black communities and provided shallow justifications for racist generalizations of the community. Black families have since become known for single parent households, criminal activity and ex-convicts. While, statistically, many of these were realities for black families, public opinion fails to rationalize these connotations in light of the context of unfair and discriminatory legal malpractice. A community so disenfranchised struggled to break these stigmas under a system that did not allow them room to breathe.
Gangsta rappers were not attempting to turn culture on its head, nor were they trying to redefine or correct the stigmas surrounding them. Instead, they provided social commentary on the persona they were expected to have and created the larger than life caricature of the black gangsta. This persona contributed to an overall fear of the black community. Tricia Rose writes in “Fear of a Black Planet” Rap Music and Black Cultural Politics in the 1990’s, “Rap music is fundamentally linked to a larger social constructions of Black culture as an internal threat to dominant American culture and social order” (Rose, 1991, p. 276). To understand a diverse classroom it is imperative to uncover the layers of struggle that minorities face in America. Engaging and connecting with kids comes with this understanding.
Flamm, M.W. (2019). From Harlem to Ferguson: LBJ’s war on crime and America’s prison crisis. Stanton Foundation: Columbus, OH.
Jackson, O., Carabby, A., Wright, E.L., and Jerald, L. (1988). Straight Outta Compton. Ruthless Records: Los Angeles.
McCann, B.J. (2017). The mark of criminality: Rhetoric, race, and gangsta rap in the war-on-crime era. University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa, AL.
Rose, T. (1991). “Fear of a Black Planet”: Rap music and black cultural politics in the 1990s. The Journal of Negro Education, 60 (3), 276-290.
Vol. 60, No. 3, Socialization Forces Affecting the Education
Thompson, H.A. (2010. Why mass incarceration matters: Rethinking crisis, decline, and transformation in postwar American history. Journal of American History, 97 (3), 703-734.