Rap’s problem with black women is both historical and exhaustive, but this conflict is resurfacing in the run up to F. Gary Grey’s highly anticipated N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton.” Many critics have praised the film for its energy and the cast’s depictions of gangsta rap pioneers DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren, among others. But the film, slated for release nationwide on August 14, is also starting to get attention for what’s not in it: namely, the Southern California group’s blatant misogyny.
Indeed, there seems to be more than a little revisionism going on. Despite all this praise, few (if any) of N.W.A’s female collaborators are featured in the film, and women collectively appear to be confined to the outer parameters of the story. (Interesting, considering how the production team called for only light skinned black women to be film extras.) Perhaps more importantly, however, N.W.A’s complicated and at times brutal relationship with women has been almost completely removed.
These omissions, intentional or not, combine to create a sanitized version of one of rap’s most critically and commercially acclaimed groups. This is unfortunate, not least because the film is being released at an especially fraught period for American race relations. From Sandra Bland’s death to Bill Cosby’s now-dozens of accusers, cries of “black women’s lives matter” have crescendoed across the media and social media landscape. But you won’t hear those cries reflected in “Straight Outta Compton.”
Every hero has a story. Every legend comes into focus by overshadowing another and in this case, it’s black women. The term “misogynoir” was coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey in order to describe how, in American pop culture, both race and gender have targeted black women for an especially virulent strain of hatred.
How can we talk about N.W.A without discussing their rhetoric? In the NSFW 1991 hit “One Less Bitch,” the group describes tying up, gang raping and eventually killing a woman, all in graphic detail. In “A Bitch Iz A Bitch,” Ice Cube writes, “I once knew a bitch who got slapped / cause she played me like she was all that.”
One could obtusely make the argument that lyrics are just lyrics but I’m sure that Dee Barnes, the black female journalist whom Dr. Dre plead no contest to assaulting in 1991, would disagree. So, for that matter, might Dre’s ex-girlfriends Michel’le and Tairrie B, both of whom have gone on the record detailing ugly alleged physical abuse at his hands.
In a harrowing interview with the Los Angeles Times nearly two decades ago, Barnes described how Dre picked up the well-known talk show host by her hair in front of a room full of witnesses and body slammed her into a wall. (After the incident, unapologetic N.W.A members said Barnes deserved it.)
“Next thing I know, I’m down on the ground and he’s kicking me in the ribs and stamping on my fingers,” Barnes told the Times. “I ran into the women’s bathroom to hide, but he burst through the door and started bashing me in the back of the head.”
We are living in a climate in which the black women’s lives—our lives—are finally being discussed. In the midst of this national debate, the decision of the “Straight Outta Compton” production team to obfuscate history in order to romanticize rap legends constitutes both a tragedy and a missed opportunity.
As hip-hop journalist dream hampton wrote in 1991: “Hip-hop music must take responsibility for eliminating the perpetuation of the destruction of the Black community, i.e. the abuse of the Black women. It has no place in revolutionary music.”
Clearly, misogynoir is not a genre-specific problem. As a black woman, I feel doubly slighted to see this erasure happening in my own community. Dr. Dre is not the only (now famous) man hoping we’ll forgive his violent past—don’t.