I’ve never bought rap music, or listened to it closely until the other night. That was when I watched Straight Outta Compton. I’m dense, I guess, but I never gave much thought to why the rise of the group NWA attracted so much attention. This was in the era of the Rodney King beating by L.A. cops, and the significance of that newsworthy event was that the beating wasn’t particularly newsworthy to black residents of Compton, California. Just ask the surviving members of NWA, who chronicled their similar lives in their music. This harkens back to the 60’s and Vietnam, when folk and rock music became a way of communicating both newsworthy events largely ignored by the mainstream press and the feelings and frustration of young folks about the direction the U.S. seemed be heading in that era. So it was, too, with Compton, as NWA poured their frustrations and rage into their music, and by so doing connected with the same in so many young blacks around the U.S.
Then last night Jane and I went to see Star Wars. Such movies don’t become popular by throwing reality in your face, as Straight Outta Compton does. Instead that reality is cloaked in metaphor. A collection of misfit creatures on the arid planted, Jakku (not unlike Compton in some ways), is suddenly attacked by the First Order and their soldiers, who are dressed in white armored suits (Getting the parallel here?). The First Order goons are merciless and brutal with the Jakku residents, who in their turn are both intimidated and enraged. Not unlike the residents of Compton, I should imagine, at the random unprovoked attacks by the L.A. police. Of course, in Star Wars, right prevails, at least for the moment, while we still have Ferguson and other such blights on race relations in the U.S.
It’s interesting that the misfit underclass in Star Wars is cheered, while the members of Straight Outta Compton are called gangsters. This is the gift of art and metaphor – you can get an audience to cheer right and hate evil when they don’t have to personally identify with one side or the other.
And btw, Jason Mitchell, who plays Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton, did a heck of a job with that role, and deserved to have been nominated for an Oscar.