A Tribe Called X says goodbye to a hip-hop legend who influenced the name of this very website- Phife Dawg, co-founding member of A Tribe Called Quest.
November 20, 1970 – March 22, 2016
by Griff Fuller Jr.
*Note: In this article, the South Bay is used interchangeably with South Los Angeles
For years, South Los Angeles has carried negative connotations based on its demographic and urban decay. Tourists are often encouraged to avoid the area, and residents north of the Interstate 10 freeway usually don’t venture south of it. Desperate to clean up the image of the infamous region, the City of Los Angeles changed its name from South Central to South LA in 2003. Longtime residents and natives of the area still refer to it as South Central. Another reason why people are/were hesitant to explore the area is because of the ethnic representation of its demographic. South LA is emblematic of the city’s Black population.
American Exodus: The Great Migration and Second Great Migration
During the early 20th century, most industrial cities in the United States lacked a significant African-American population. World War I opened up a plethora of job opportunities to Blacks in Northern cities. Between 1910 to 1930, approximately 1.5 million Blacks relocated from the rural South to Northern cities (including Northeastern and Midwestern territories). The migration was also motivated by a growing cultural self-consciousness. The increase in lynchings and limited opportunities for upward mobility prompted Southern Blacks to relocate. As noted in the U.S. historical archive, a “depressed cotton market and a series of natural disasters reduced even the rare independent black landowner to sharecropping or tenant farming, trapping him in a cycle of indebtedness.” The Great Migration redefined Black self-worth in the early 20th century. Also noted in the historical archive, “this massive demographic shift dramatically altered African-American history culturally, politically, and socially.” Black urbanization and self-awareness paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most pivotal cultural movements in African-American history.
The Great Depression, at the start of the 1930s, hampered the migration of Blacks from the South to the North. Similar to the first Great Migration, war opened up more job opportunities. The Second Great Migration, prompted by World War II, occurred from 1940 to 1970 with the movement of approximately 5 million Black people from the South to cities in the North, Midwest, and West. Among those cities are New York, Chicago, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
As with most African-Americans living in the city, my family roots are in the South. My great-grandfather relocated to Los Angeles, California after World War II in the late 1940s. My grandmother followed soon afterward, relocating to LA around 1954. She briefly moved back to Texas, my family’s home-state, but settled in South LA by the late ’50s. My grandmother was heavily involved in local community committees in the ’60s. At that time, my family resided at Avalon Gardens, only three miles away from Watts.
In 1965, at the peak of the civil rights movement, an uprising broke out in the Watts neighborhood. It was in response to years of police brutality carried out against Black Angelinos. A traffic stop involving 21-year-old Marquette Fyre and Officer Lee W. Minikus lead to a confrontation between the community and law enforcement. Several arrests lead to a snowball of rebellion, sparking six days of rioting that resulted in “34 people dead and 1,032 injured. The vast majority of those who were killed or hurt were civilians. Of those who died in the riots, 23 were killed by LAPD officers or National Guardsmen” (Queally, “Watts Riots”).
The Birth of Black and Latino Street Gangs in LA
Ironically, the first violent gangs in Los Angeles were white. In the 1940s, racist white youth formed gangs to respond to the influx of Blacks into LA during the Second Great Migration. Blacks and Latinos were terrorized in “Huntington Park, Bell, South Gate, Inglewood, Compton, Gardena, and West LA” by “organized white gangs” such as the “Spook Hunters” (“Gang History”). In response, Blacks and Latinos started forming their own gangs to defend themselves. (Though, it should be noted that several Black street gangs briefly existed in South LA in the late ’20s and early ’30s.) Twenty years prior to the Watts Riots, were the Zoot Suit Riots between young Latinos and white marines. The Zoot Suit Riots also stemmed from police misconduct, racial tensions, and urban decay, motivated by a botched trial for the Sleepy Lagoon Murder of 1942.
The Watts Riots changed the demographic of South LA. Whites were already moving out of neighborhoods that Blacks were settling into throughout the ’40s and ’50s. The Watts Riots escalated “white flight,” pushing White Angelinos up North while leaving South Los Angeles mostly Black and Latino. Just a year after LA’s first major uprising, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seal founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Bunchy Carter, a member of a Slauson street gang, started the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. As with the Oakland branch, LA Panthers advocated self-determination and started a local Free Breakfast for School Children Program.
Across the country, local and federal law enforcement orchestrated a full-blown crackdown on the Black Panther Party. The FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) used infiltration, psychological warfare, legal harassment, and illegal force to dismantle the Black Panther Party and other progressive organizations during the late-1960s and ’70s. The tactic of psychological warfare lead to the deaths of Bunchy Carter and LA Panther John Huggins in 1969. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover saw success with pitting Black organizations against each other with the hopes that they’d take each other out (as he did with the Black Panther Party and Organization US).
The same year Carter was killed, Raymond Washington and Stanley Williams linked up to form the Crips street gang. As the Crips grew in size and influence, other gangs began to feel threatened. The Piru Street gang from Compton became a Crip set by 1971 at the request of Washington. After clashing with fellow Crips, the Pirus disassociated themselves and linked up with other independent gangs in the area forming a federation that came to be known as the Bloods. Gang culture continued to brew throughout the ’70s in South LA with archenemies the Bloods and the Crips as its main players.
The Crack Epidemic
The influx of crack-cocaine into inner city neighborhoods changed the dynamics of gang culture in LA. South Central History notes that by 1981 “the CIA helped ship cocaine from Nicaragua to El Salvador and then on to to Texas and Arkansas, and lastly to LA. Drug dealers on the CIA payroll also set up connections between major drug dealers in LA and Compton, and Nicaragua.” Journalist Gary Webb exposed the CIA’s involvement in the crack epidemic in his newspaper series “Dark Alliance” for the San Jose Mercury News. His findings were challenged and discredited by major news outlets such as the LA Times. The corporate press blacklisted Webb for whistle-blowing on the biggest scandal in the CIA’s history. In 2004, he was found dead in his home from two gunshot wounds. His death was reported as a suicide, but some Webb supporters insist he was possibly murdered.
The Bloods membership increased in the ’80s as crack-cocaine became more in demand. The new drug had a devastating impact on inner-city neighborhoods. Violence spiked as the drug war grew more aggressive. Burglaries and homicides rapidly increased prompting law enforcement and legislators to respond with vigor. President Richard Nixon publicly declared a war on drugs in 1971. Later, President Ronald Reagan (former Governor of California), escalated the War on Drugs by incorporating para-military tactics into police departments and enacting harsher penalties for dealers and users. Poverty bloomed in South LA as the effects of Reaganomics impacted the streets. As job opportunities dried up for the working class in the ghetto, some turned to dealing crack as a way to support themselves or their families. The War on Drugs also contributed to an influx of young Blacks into the penitentiary system. According to the Pew Research Center, Black men, specifically, are more than six times as likely to be incarcerated than white men.
In a recent study, the authors stated:
In the 1980s, Congress passed two major pieces of federal legislation [attempting] to address the rising violence related to drug markets. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a set of mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Two years later, the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 created much harsher penalties for the possession of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. In addition, this law applied stringent penalties to all conspirators in a criminal organization, greatly increasing the probability of lengthy federal incarceration for low-level participants in the drug trade.
The crack epidemic was documented in hip-hop music as early as 1982 with the release of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The next year, Melle Mel dropped “White Lines” dealing with the same subject matter. Hip-Hop was primarily party music in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “The Message” and “White Lines” were among the first hip-hop records to provide social commentary on drugs and crime in the inner-city.
In 1985, Compton-based rapper Toddy Tee released a track called “Batteram” detailing the effects of police militarization on his community. Specifically, the song was critical of the B-100 battering ram armored vehicle used to break down the front door and wall of suspected dope-houses (Romero, “The Militarization of Police Started in Los Angeles”). The following year, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and Arabian Prince formed a rap group called Niggaz wit Attitudes (abbreviated as N.W.A). Straight Outta Compton was released in 1988, establishing the South LA artists as pioneers of gangsta rap.
Straight Outta Compton
I went to the theater to watch the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton three days after its release (August 17). As someone who was raised in South Central through the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was interested in seeing how it would be depicted. I was still a toddler when the Straight Outta Compton LP dropped. My earliest memories with music formulated around the time that N.W.A broke up. Even in second and third grade, I was obsessed with going through my mother’s tape collection and discovering what music she owned. After school, I would sneak and listen to Dr. Dre singles and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle on cassette. Among my favorite songs was a Geto Boys single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the first Southern hip-hop I was introduced to.
I also remember my mother’s vinyl Michel’le album that she kept next to the record player in her stereo unit. The Dr. Dre protegee with a signature squeaky voice was one of my mother’s favorite R&B singers in the late ’80s. I remember Michel’le sitting right next to the “Man in the Mirror” 12-inch single by Michael Jackson.
South Central native Michel’le Toussaint was a collaborator with World Class Wrecking Cru before N.W.A formed. She later followed Dr. Dre and DJ Yella to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. In 1989, she released her debut album produced by her former Wrecking Cru associates. At the time, she was romantically involved with Dr. Dre. She followed him again to Death Row Records after N.W.A was released from Ruthless.
Straight Outta Compton the biopic turned out to be a box-office hit, earning over $100 million by its second weekend of screening. With the film garnering so much attention and praise, the unsung artists of Ruthless and Death Row’s glory days are wondering why they are missing from the story. Michel’le was engaged to Dr. Dre and had a child with him during the time period depicted in the film, but her presence was virtually erased. Her career came to a halt after the collapse of Death Row. Two years ago, she joined the cast of R&B Divas: Los Angeles, a reality TV show produced by TV One. The show follows her attempt to revive her music career as well as her battle with mental illness. Michel’le has been vocal about being suicidal and depressed, hindering her from successfully pursuing a career or love life. R&B Divas castmates, Lil’ Mo, Chante Moore, and Claudette Ortiz were shown trying to help her overcome her demons. After Lil’ Mo adamantly brought it up in the press, Michel’le opened up more about domestic violence abuse she experienced with Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. She insisted that Suge only abused her once, but Dre was a repeat offender.
On R&B Divas, Michel’le’s post-traumatic stress from past abuse was on full display. Lil’ Mo distastefully joked that Dre’s company is called Beats by Dre because of the way he use to beat his ex. During the R&B Divas reunion in September 2013, Michel’le stated “I stayed because my father had never told me he loved me until the last three years, so I think I had to go back and figure that out. Getting beat was love to me. I did five videos and we had to cover three black eyes. It seemed like the day before a video I got a black eye and we had to cover it.” She later clarified that she is on better terms with Dre these days. While filming for R&B Divas, she went to therapy to work on her issues. In an interview with a Huffington Post contributor earlier this year, she stated:
Right now I am in a good place. I am educating myself and trying to educate others. Once you have suicidal thoughts and try to commit the act and stay here everything comes with it like depression, anxiety, and stress. I don’t have thoughts of suicide anymore and that means I am doing good but I still live with the depression and anxiety. I have things to work on to heal myself. I am still in therapy…
The success of Straight Outta Compton put unwanted attention on Dre’s past abuse victims. Some fans have called the women opportunists, money-hungry, and desperate for attention, forcing them to publicly defend themselves. The N.W.A biopic came out in the middle of a 21st century feminist revolution. The world has changed significantly since 1988. Male feminists are more visible now than ever before. Social media has become a pulpit for activists to hold people accountable for their past and present actions. Bloggers were quick to remind the public how degrading the initial casting call was for Straight Outta Compton , feeding into colorism and sexism.
Several years ago, I was at a meeting with other organizers to plan for an upcoming demonstration. We fell into a conversation about old-school hip-hop. Someone at the table mentioned how misogynistic “Ain’t No Fun” by Snoop Dogg is. Then, local activist Julia Wallace asked if we remembered the Dee Barnes incident; I shook my head unable to recall it. I was too young to remember. The praise for Dre’s music in South LA seemed to overshadow his abuse scandal. I was shocked and disappointed that someone I admired would carry himself in that way. It’s always been difficult for me to compromise with favorite artists who’ve made horrible choices in their personal lives, such as Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, and even John Lennon.
So, I wasn’t surprised when I started seeing Dee Barnes’ name pop up more online as Straight Outta Compton was being promoted. While fans praised N.W.A’s legacy, activists held them accountable for it. Some have accused the group of being responsible for establishing rape culture in hip-hop. When Rolling Stone recently asked Ice Cube about the sexism in N.W.A’s lyrics, he replied:
If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us. If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn’t be jumping to the defense of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that’s men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.
Some of Cube’s peers were disappointed that he still held onto such simplistic views of women at 46 years old. Jezebel further pointed out:
In John Singleton’s seminal 1991 film Boyz N the Hood, neighborhood girl Shalika (Regina King) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) share the following exchange:
‘Why is it every time you talk about a female you gotta say bitch, ho, or hoochie?’ she asks him, fed up.
‘‘Cause that’s what you are.’
It is remarkable how closely Cube’s recent remarks in a Rolling Stone cover story parrot the same misogynistic crap he spouted in a work of fiction nearly 25 years ago.
In the same Rolling Stone article that Ice Cube defended “upstanding ladies,” Dr. Dre finally acknowledged his past abuse allegations. He stated:
I made some fucking horrible mistakes in my life. I was young, fucking stupid. I would say all the allegations aren’t true – some of them are. Those are some of the things that I would like to take back. It was really fucked up. But I paid for those mistakes, and there’s no way in hell that I will ever make another mistake like that again.
After receiving so much attention in the press again, Dee Barnes agreed to review Straight Outta Compton for Gawker and speak about the incident with Dr. Dre. In 1991, Barnes was the host of a hip-hop TV show called Pump It Up. Dr. Dre approached her at a record release party upset about an interview she did with Ice Cube after he left N.W.A. According to Barnes, Dre slammed her head against a wall, kicked her, stomped on her fingers, and tried to throw her down a flight of stairs. In the Gawker article, she revealed that she was friends with the N.W.A members in their early career. She also mentioned that they didn’t disrespect women in front of her the way that they did on record. After Barnes’ attack, Eazy-E told Rolling Stone that the “bitch had it coming.” She notes that she made peace with the Compton rapper about a month before he lost his battle to AIDS.
In 2000, Eminem playfully mentioned the Dee Barnes incident on his single “Guilty Conscience” featuring Dr. Dre.
Following the publication of Barnes’ article, Dr. Dre issued an official apology to the New York Times stating:
Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I’ve been married for 19 years and every day I’m working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way. I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again. I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.
In a follow-up article to Dre’s apology, Barnes stated “Bravo, Andre. Humility is true self-knowledge.” She continues:
Dr. Dre has matured, and the women he’s hurt, including myself, have endured. I’m proud to be able to say goodbye to the man who at one point was straight outta fucks to give, as he consistently dismissed and disrespected any mention of his assault history… Dre stepped up and performed his social responsibility by finally taking accountability for his actions. Who cares why he apologized? The point is that he did.
Even after reconciling with the situation, Barnes doesn’t completely let Dre and her critics off of the hook, further stating:
As a result of speaking on my personal experience with violence, I have been vilified. Women survivors of violence are expected neither to be seen nor heard, and the pressure increases when it involves celebrities. No one wants to see their heroes criticized. And if they are African American, the community at large becomes suspicious of an underlying motive to tear down a successful black man. Excusing pop culture icons from scrutiny over their history of violence against women because they are elevated to ‘hero’ status is wrong on so many levels. Creating notable, brilliant art does not absolve you of your faults.
Straight Outta Compton does a great job capturing the energy and hype surrounding N.W.A’s career, but it doesn’t present any strong female characters. Barnes pointed out in her first Gawker article:
With the exception of short scenes with mother figures and wives, the rest of the women in the film were naked in a hotel room or dancing in the background at the wild pool parties. Yo Yo, a female rapper who worked with Ice Cube after he left N.W.A., was nowhere to be found. Nor are women who worked with Dre later in his career, like Jewell and the Lady of Rage. They both contributed tremendously to the ultimate sound of the classic album The Chronic. What about… Michel’le [and] Eazy E’s protege Tairrie B, the first white female hardcore rapper?
While many women have been critical about N.W.A’s history of misogyny, some have defended the biopic and what it represents for fans. Selma director and Compton-native Ava DuVernay saw the film at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on August 15. In a Twitter review, she said “I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened… To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.” Though DuVernay was honest about the film’s depiction of women, she still praised its accomplishments. In her review, she added:
Under @FGaryGray’s brilliant direction + @MattyLibatique’s gorgeous cinematography, I was transported back. I saw the militarized Batterrams again. Rolling up our streets like invaders in a war. My friend asked, ‘Is that real?’ Yep. That happened… I was in the street during the Rodney King Uprising. After that unjust verdict. Feeling anger. And community. And fire. And love. Happened. I remember the [gang] truce. So when that shot of red and blue bandanas tied together flashed on screen? Wild applause in my theater. It happened. All the stifling of our voices as young black people in that place at that time while a war was going on against us. @FGaryGray captured it. He captured the plight of the black artist in general, once consumed by systems and structures not made for them. The struggle is real.
DuVernay mentioned two things in her review that stood out from my own childhood memories, Sundays on the Shaw and the Rodney King uprising. Every Sunday morning my family attended church, followed by taking my grandmother on her shopping errands. The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was our ground zero; I spent countless hours there as a kid waiting for relatives to finish shopping. Sometimes we would eat out at Sizzler or go back to my grandmother’s place for a home-cooked meal. Either way, me, my mom, and my siblings often found ourselves traveling on the South LA streets on Sunday evenings. I recall my mother regularly mentioning the need to avoid Crenshaw because of the low-rider hangouts every weekend. She wanted to dodge traffic and get home with her children as soon as possible.
Because I was still so young at the time, I have vague memories of the ’92 uprising. I remember the grainy video footage of Rodney King being beaten played over and over on the news. I remember the chatter from adults about the trial and their frustration with police brutality. I remember seeing a local Korean market on Crenshaw Boulevard burned to the ground. I asked my mother what happened; she told me people had set it on fire during the riots. Even with that answer, I was still confused as to why there were random burned out buildings throughout the neighborhood. I also remember the truce between the Crips and Bloods after the riots. By the ’90s, gang culture in South Central was at an apex. There were numerous efforts during my childhood to squelch gang violence. Even local hip-hop stations 92.3 The Beat and Power 106 adopted mottoes inspired by local activists: “No Color Lines, Unity Through Music,” and “Increase the Peace, Stop the Violence” (borrowed from an Inglewood-based non-profit with the same name). The Beat aimed to unite its multiethnic listening audience in light of the racial tensions left behind after the riots.
It was the death of a 15-year-old Black teenager named Latasha Harlins that led to Korean merchants being targeted during the uprising. Harlins was murdered in a convenience store by Soon Ja Du when she tried to shoplift a bottle of juice. Du claimed that she acted in self-defense although a security video shows her shooting Harlins in the back of the head. To make matters worst, Du was let off the hook with probation, community service, and a fine, serving no jail time. The Du trial was another catalyst for the LA riots. In 1991, Ice Cube wrote “Black Korea,” a controversial song about the incident featured on his second album, Death Certificate. He followed-up with The Predator in ’92, recording songs before and after the riots broke out (Freeman, “There’s A Riot Goin’ On”). The next year, rapper Tupac Shakur released a single titled “Keep Ya Head Up,” dedicated to Latasha Harlins.
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While Dr. Dre and DJ Yella were still in World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Ice-T was making a name for himself as South Central’s freshest hardcore rapper. In 1986, he dropped a single titled “6 in the Mornin‘,” a gangsta rap classic. Two years later, he recorded the theme song for Colors, a movie about gang violence in South Central. With the exception of ’70s blaxploitation (see Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), Hollywood finally started to depict the urban warfare taking place in LA. Three years later, Black filmmaker and LA native John Singleton brought South Central to the big screen again in Boyz n the Hood (inspired by an Eazy-E song with the same name). In the film, Ice Cube made his acting debut as Doughboy, starring alongside Laurence Fishburne, Morris Chestnut, and Cuba Gooding Jr. Singleton captured South Central in real time, reflecting what the environment looked like in my early childhood. As DuVernay noted, F. Gary Gray successfully resurrected that environment in Straight Outta Compton.
“South Central Hollywood” emerged around the same time that the G-Funk era kicked off. Four years after Ice-T recorded the theme for Colors, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg (a 19-year-old Crip from Long Beach) recorded a theme song for the film Deep Cover. In ’93, Allen and Albert Hughes released Menace II Society, another film about Black youth fighting to survive in the turbulent streets of South Central. Tupac Shakur was originally cast as Sharif, a Muslim character. After disagreements and confrontations on set, Tupac (along with N.W.A member MC Ren) was fired from the film. Months later, Tupac assaulted Allen Hughes, resulting in the filmmaker pressing charges against him. Two months after Menace hit theaters, Singleton released his second film Poetic Justice starring Tupac and Janet Jackson. (Singleton also directed Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time” music video in ’92). Ironically, Ice Cube was offered the role of Lucky (portrayed by Shakur), but turned it down because of creative differences. (Compton-based rapper Kendrick Lamar paid homage to Poetic Justice on his 2013 single of the same name.)
I remember seeing Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and Poetic Justice at the Baldwin Theater on La Brea. It closed in 1994, making room for the Magic Johnson Theater at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. F. Gary Gray made his directorial debut with Friday in 1995, starring Ice Cube as Craig and Chris Tucker as Smokey. It became a weekend ritual for my family to watch Friday on VHS and recite every single word from the film. My mother called from Texas recently and told me that she went to see Straight Outta Compton with my siblings; she said that my presence was missed. The same filmmaker who had brought my immediate family together for laughs 20 years ago did it again with a N.W.A biopic. The following year, Gray directed Set It Off, a film set in South LA with an all-female leading cast, starring Queen Latifah, Vivica A Fox, Kimberly Elise, and Jada Pinkett Smith. My mother took me and my siblings to see it at the Magic Johnson Theater when it was released.
South LA produced a number of talented artists in film and music. Ice-T helped lay down the blueprint for West Coast gangsta rap; N.W.A brought it to the global stage. Eazy-E attempted to sign Compton-based rapper DJ Quik to Ruthless in 1990. Quik signed a deal with Profile Records instead, releasing his debut album Quik Is The Name in ’91. Around the same time, MC Eiht, Boom Bam, Tha Chill, DJ Mike T, and DJ Slip were making a name for themselves as Compton’s Most Wanted. Over at Death Row, Dr. Dre groomed up-and-coming artists Snoop, Nate Dogg, Daz Dillinger, and Kurupt. Prior to Death Row, Snoop was in a group called 213 with Nate Dogg and Dre’s stepbrother, Warren G. Daz and Kurupt formed Tha Dogg Pound in ’92, contributing to numerous Death Row tracks before releasing Dogg Food in ’95.
Other South LA artists making a name for themselves were: Latino rap group Cypress Hill from South Gate, Freestyle Fellowship from Crenshaw, Jurassic 5 from Crenshaw, The Pharcyde from South Central, WC from South Central, Mack 10 from Inglewood, Coolio from Compton, and Skee-Lo from Crenshaw. In ’91, WC and Coolio were in a group together called WC and the Maad Circle. (Ice Cube’s producer and Dr. Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx was also a member of the group). WC eventually dissolved the group, forming Westside Connection with Mack 10 and Ice Cube in ’95. Snoop’s first cousins Brandy Norwood and Ray J had successful acting and music careers by their early teens. The siblings starred in Moesha, a sitcom about a middle-class Black family living in the Leimert Park area.
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Straight Outta Compton ends with Dr. Dre leaving Death Row to start his own record label, Aftermath Entertainment. It’s a great piece of cinematic art, but it doesn’t tell N.W.A’s whole story. Ice Cube’s infamous diss track “No Vaseline” is featured, but Eazy-E’s “Real Muthaphukkin G’s” is omitted. In fact, the entire beef between Dr. Dre and Eazy-E is missing from the film. I remember watching the “Dre Day” music video on MTV as a kid and asking my mom about the funny-looking guy dancing with a sign. She explained that they were poking fun at Eazy-E, who use to be in a group with Dr. Dre. Jerry Heller’s caricature was ingrained in my head as the opportunistic label person who tricks urban artists into signing over their souls.
With the Dee Barnes incident being at the center of N.W.A’s story, it didn’t make sense for it to be missing from the biopic. Michel’le was an even bigger part of the N.W.A story than Barnes and she too was erased from the film. Also missing were South Central-based rapper Yo-Yo and hip-hop trailblazers J.J. Fad. At a New York screening hosted by MC Lyte, Gary stated “The original editor’s cut was three hours and 30-minutes long, so we couldn’t get everything in the movie. We had to make sure we served the narrative; the narrative was about N.W.A. It wasn’t about side stories… Cube always said it: You can make five different N.W.A movies. We made the one we wanted to make.” The Barnes assault was actually mentioned in an early version of the script written by Johnathan Herman. It did not make the final cut. Time restraints are a headache for filmmakers, but they aren’t a good enough excuse to eliminate all of the important women from a film, reducing them to “side stories.” The only women who carried any power in the movie were Dr. Dre’s mother (who slaps him at the beginning), and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. And as mentioned earlier, they only appear briefly.
Still, Straight Outta Compton resonates with South LA natives for its nostalgic elements alone. Last year, I wrote a song called “’80s Baby” which sums up my experience growing up in the Greater Los Angeles area:
Tiny Tunes Adventures had my afternoon attention/And the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers had no competition/But later at night I sing ‘Forever Sheneneh’ /And homies don’t play/South Central get cray-cray/Pigs beat Rodney King and it sparked a rebellion/The Boyz from the Hood Hollywood went to film them/I’m an ’80s baby/Raised in California/The era of crack gave way to marijuana/Guns and Olde English on every corner/Jesters greet death/End up at the coroners/ACT UP the culture focused on protection/The real world was grimmer than theatrical projections/Malcolm X/Black Power/Full resurrections/Big screens/Small screens/We noticed our reflections.
Growing up in South Central in the ’90s gave me a front-row seat to the sub-culture N.W.A initiated. I watched the so-called East Coast/West Coast beef which instilled a bias in many Angelinos. I watched Death Row collapse after Tupac Shakur’s death. I watched Snoop Dogg escape to Master P’s No Limit Records when Suge Knight was threatening his life. And I watched Dr. Dre take over the city again when he dropped 2001 in 1999.
Black Angelinos and Reverse Migration
My family also participated in the migration reversal of Blacks moving out of Los Angeles. In 1997, my mother took advantage of a job promotion and relocated our family to Rialto in the San Bernardino County. Over the next five years, my grandmother, uncle, and cousins followed, settling in Rialto and Fontana. As the Black population declined, the Latino population increased, as seen in areas like Compton. Since 1980, the Black population in the Inland Empire has increased dramatically. According to the US Census, it increased by 119% throughout the ’80s. Many Blacks in LA left the inner city for eastern suburbs in San Bernardino and Riverside County. My mother told me that our move was an opportunity to take her sons out of the hood. She was a single-mother who didn’t want us to join any gangs or get caught up in the street life. When we regularly returned to South Central to visit family, she would tell them how quiet the neighborhood was compared to living on 60th Street in LA. “We don’t hear any helicopters. No sirens. No gunshots. It’s peaceful,” she remarked. I never really left South Central during my grade school years; I still had other cousins, an Aunt, and grandmother who I visited regularly.
With Black-flight from LA came White-flight from Inland Empire areas. As folks relocated to the I.E., some brought the hood with them. LA gangs gradually started to reappear and develop in the eastern suburbs. The crime rate in Rialto noticeably increased from the time I started middle school to the time I graduated from high school. Racial tensions between the growing Black population and Mexicans led to “mini- race riots” between gangs and between high school students. Racial brawls were common with Blacks and Latinos at my sister’s high school in the early 2000s.
Another segment of the contemporary reverse migration opted to move to the South from LA and other large cities. My grandmother returned to South Central in 2000, taking over my great-grandfather’s house after he passed away. Her return to the area meant that me and my siblings got to spend more time there on weekends and vacations. But like many other older Black Angelinos, my grandmother wanted to return to the South to settle there for good. In 2006, she moved to Texas with my mother and brothers into a brand new house that she designed herself. My sister participated in the migration when she relocated from Southern California to the Dallas, Texas area. I have numerous Black friends from high school who left SoCal for the South as well. Similar to the Great Migrations mentioned at the beginning of this article, job opportunities were a motivating factor.
A Legacy of Oppression
A year and a half after I moved to the Inland Empire, Riverside police murdered 19-year-old Tyisha Miller. She was sleeping in her locked car, unresponsive to family members trying to wake her up. They called law enforcement to help her, but instead they unloaded their guns shooting her 12 times. Miller had a gun on her for protection. The officers claim that she woke up and grabbed the weapon when they decided to open fire. The Black community in the Inland Empire was outraged by the teenager’s senseless death. It was then that I learned that Riverside and San Bernardino police are just as inhumane as the Los Angeles Police Department. Before Miller’s death, my then 5-year-old brother asked our Auntie “Why do police kill Black people?” There was no easy answer to that question.
I later found out that many LAPD officers actually live in the Inland Empire and commute to LA for work. Some of the officers who couldn’t get hired at the Los Angeles Department accepted work in the IE. At 21, I had a nasty encounter with the Riverside Police Department on my way to a doctor’s appointment. My friend was pulled over for an expired tag; he had a warrant out for his arrest for missing court. The officers handcuffed him and placed him in one of their vehicles. I was very upset about the entire situation. Before I could even open my mouth, the officers approached me like a terrorist, screaming “Put your fucking hands in front of you! Don’t you move them!” I told them that they were overreacting and that I too was a city employee (wearing my City of Riverside shirt at the time). They mocked my mentioning of being employed by the city, removed me from the vehicle, secured my hands behind my back, and sat me on the front bumper of one of their cars. Then, six white officers stood in a half-circle around me taking turns berating and degrading me. I was running my mouth earlier, but eventually shut-up. I remembered Tyisha Miller.
I told the officers while in the car “I know you don’t talk to your children like that. You don’t have the right to speak to me in that manner. I don’t care if you have a badge.” After they were done publicly humiliating me, I asked for them to retrieve my cell phone from the vehicle I was riding in. They acted like there was no phone in the car. I insisted that I had the phone in my hand and placed it down after they pulled me over. One officer reluctantly went into the car, grabbed my phone, held it over my head and said “Now, what do you say?” I mumbled “Thank you” and he dropped the phone into my hands. Still ill, I walked nearly 10 blocks to my doctor’s appointment after the officers made me leave the scene.
The frequent police brutality scenes in Straight Outta Compton reminded me of the numerous encounters I’ve had with law enforcement in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles. The blatant disregard for Black people and Black lives… the continuum of white supremacy carried over from the Antebellum South and Jim Crow America. Straight Outta Compton resonated with people so much due in part to the current police brutality epidemic. It’s been weighing heavy on the conscience of America for the last three years.
Black inmate Troy Davis was wrongfully executed in Georgia at the beginning of the Occupy Wall St. movement. The following year, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by racist vigilante George Zimmerman in Florida. A staggering number of unarmed Blacks and Latinos were killed leading up to the August 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Three days after Brown’s murder, Ezell Ford was killed in South Central by the LAPD; that same day, Dante Parker was killed by San Bernardino County Sheriffs. Mexican South Central resident Omar Abrego was also killed that month, four blocks away from where Ford was killed at 65th and Broadway.
Brown’s death led to rioting in Ferguson and sparked a national anti-police brutality movement. Activists and the media compared community frustrations in Ferguson to the community frustrations in LA in ’92. Just like in South Central, the Missouri gangs called a truce, uniting to fight for their lives. In an interview with the New York Times 23 years ago, Officer Kevin Robinson said “the gangs had been talking of uniting for years and recently some of the gang members have become more politicized, wearing Malcolm X hats in their traditional gang colors of red and blue.”
I have vivid memories of seeing adults sporting “X” hats in my childhood, apparel Spike Lee used to promote his epic Malcolm X biopic; even my grandmother owned one. Public Enemy and Ice Cube planted a seed of social consciousness in me as a child. It comes as no surprise that Compton-native Kendrick Lamar and North Carolina-native J. Cole are doing the same years later with younger fans. From my generation emerged Black Lives Matter, an organization founded by three Black women fed-up with police brutality. I’ve worked sporadically with the LA wing of the organization, facilitated by Patrisse Cullors, Dr. Melina Abdullah, and others.
I started writing this article as a review for Straight Outta Compton. I wanted to draw on my experiences and personal history with South LA to present a native’s perspective. I also wanted to explore the root causes behind some of the negative stereotypes attached to African-Americans. There is always an abundance of criticism about Black males, yet those same critics never take the time to truly understand us or the problems that plague us. In the inner city, Black males are targeted by Black gangs, Latino gangs, and law enforcement. It shapes the psychology of the average brotha walking down the street. Dr. Dre breaks it down on “A Nigga Witta Gun” rapping “See I never take a step on a Compton block/Or L.A. without the AK ready to pop/Cause them punk motherfuckers in black and white/Ain’t the only motherfuckers I gots to fight.” Black females face even more obstacles, not only dealing with institutional racism, but sexism and misogyny as well.
The more I wrote, the more this developed into a broader story about the history of South LA’s Black populace. From The Great Migration to the contemporary Reverse Migration, from N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”… It was important to me to tell the story of where we all came from, and how we developed a community and culture that is uniquely straight outta South Los Angeles.
Last year, I dedicated the BrutalityWatch section of this site to keeping track of the overwhelming news reports on police brutality. Since then, we’ve lost Mike Brown in Ferguson and more recently, Freddie Gray in Baltimore. A wave of activism swept through the Black youth with George Zimmerman’s acquittal as its catalyst. Ferguson mobilized us; Baltimore revolutionized us. This video opens with a Black Angeles (formerly We Are Ferguson LA) rally in Hollywood and transitions to an action held by Black Lives Matter LA in Beverly Hills. The visuals are paired with “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. The lyrics and video are below:
In a world where we all circle the fiery sun
With a need for love
What have we become?
Tragedy flows unbound and there’s no place to run
Till it’s done
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon:
Where do we belong? Where do we come from?
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon
Till it’s done
Till it’s done
Carbon pollution is heating up the air
Do we really know? Do we even care?
Acid rain dripping on our trees and in our hair
Are you there?
Clock ticking backwards on things we’ve already built
Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed
Question ain’t “do we have resources to rebuild?”
It’s “do we have the will?”
Perilous dissidence evening up the score
Do we even know what we’re fighting for?
Destinies crippled and thrown about on the floor
When we’re waging war
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon:
Where do we belong? Where do we come from?
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon
Till it’s done
Till it’s done
Lyrics by D’Angelo and Kendra Foster
As a poet, especially as a Black American poet, I had a deep admiration for Maya Angelou. I’ve been acquainted with her writings since I was a child in grade school. Up into college, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings appeared on almost every syllabus for my literature courses. In recent years, I found comfort in seeing the living legend share inspiring status updates on Facebook almost every day. She lived through Jim Crow, the rise of Black nationalism, and assassinations that shook the nation to its core. In the 21st century, she joined millennials and people from other generations on Twitter and Facebook.
Marguerite Ann Johnson was born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed her Maya after having trouble pronouncing her birth name due to stuttering. Detailed in her first memoir (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings), Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s lover at the age of 7. Allegedly, her uncle or uncles beat him to death in revenge subsequently resulting in Angelou becoming mute for five years. She stated “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
During her period of silence, Angelou developed an interest in literary arts. A teacher, Bertha Flowers, introduced her to quality Western literature and encouraged her to start speaking again. She relocated to San Francisco, California from her grandmother’s residence in Stamps, Arkansas. While a student in the Bay Area, she studied drama and dance. Before graduating from high school, she worked as San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor (she would later go on to also become the first Black female film director in Hollywood). She graduated pregnant, giving birth to her first and only child several weeks later.
At a time when interracial relationships were still very controversial, she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios “Tosh” Angelopulos in 1952. She started her professional performing career as a nightclub singer, later adapting the name Maya Angelou. She joined the cast of the successful Broadway play Porgy and Bess, touring Europe in 1954 and the following year. Around this time, she studied with dance legend Martha Graham. In 1957, she released Calypso Lady, her debut album as a recording artist.
By 1960, she relocated to New York to further pursue writing and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. She starred in Jean Genet’s off-Broadway production The Blacks alongside James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Cicely Tyson, and others. Angelou was inspired to write Cabaret For Freedom after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. She collaborated with Cambridge to perform Cabaret for a benefit supporting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She became the SCLC’s Northern Coordinator at the request of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. During this time, Maya was also aligned with a more militant left that embraced Fidel Castro and aspects of communism (residual sentiments leftover from the second wave of Red Scare in the US). Angelou became romantically involved with South African activist Vusumzi Make and relocated to Cairo, Egypt with him and her son; while there, she worked as an editor for The Arab Observer.
After separating from Make, she relocated to Accra, Ghana with her son. She became faculty at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She also worked for the The African Review, The Ghanaian Times, and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company as a writer and editor.
After the death of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, American Black nationalists held a protest at the UN headquarters in New York. After the demonstration, Angelou (who by then was involved with Pan-African activism) met Malcolm X with other radical female activists Rosa Guy and Abbey Lincoln at the Shabazz Restaurant in Harlem. Maya and Malcolm’s mutual respect for one another lead to a blossoming political relationship. She welcomed him to Accra in 1964 with a committee of writers and activists including Julian Mayfield, Les Lacy, and Vicki Garvin. The committee coordinated Malcolm’s itinerary in Ghana, including a meeting with President Kwame Nkrumah. Angelou returned to the United States to help Malcolm X establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965 leading to the inevitable collapse of his new organization. Angelou was grief-stricken by her friend’s death; she continued pursuing her talents and lived briefly in Hawaii and Los Angeles, California.
In 1968, Angelou reconnected with friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help him organize a march; sadly, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday. The same year, she wrote and produced a ten-part doc-series called Blacks, Blues, Black! for National Education Television. Her close friend, writer and activists James Baldwin, encouraged her to continue writing. The following year, she released her first book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, leading to widespread success and critical acclaim.
In 1972, with the help of a Swedish film company, she released Georgia, Georgia, becoming the first prominent Black female filmmaker. The film was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She continued writing throughout the 1970s, even working as a song-writer for Roberta Flack. In 1973, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Jerome Kitty’s Broadway production Look Away. Her supporting role in a television mini-series, adapted from Alex Haley’s novel Roots, earned her an Emmy nomination.
In 1981, Angelou was offered the Reynolds Professorship at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She subsequently was given at least fifty honorary degrees from other college institutions. Past presidents, Ford and Carter appointed her to commissions during their presidencies. In 1993, she read “On the Pulse of the Morning” in front of the nation at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. The same year, she contributed poetry to John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson as a poet in South Los Angeles. Angelou also made a cameo in the film as Aunt June. Years later, she shared a story about how she diffused a fight Tupac Shakur was in while on set:
“I heard him cursing and using such vulgarity. Then the following day, he was in a big row with another young man about his age. I went up to him and told him, ‘I want to speak to you, please.’ He calmed down enough for me to ask him, ‘Do you know how important you are? When was the last time anybody told you or reminded you that our people stood on auction blocks so that you could live today? Somebody in your background decided they would stay alive despite this. They laid in the filthy hatches of slave ships to stay alive so that they would have some descendants. And here you are. You’re more valuable than you can imagine.’ Later, he wept and I wiped his face with my hands because I didn’t have a napkin or handkerchief. Then, I went to my trailer and Janet Jackson came and said, ‘Dr. Angelou, I can’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur.’ I said, ‘Who is that?’ I [later] told his mother, “I didn’t know six pack or eight pack or ten pack. I didn’t know [who he was].”
In 1998, she directed Down In The Delta starring Wesley Snipes, Loretta Divine, and Esther Rolle. She would continue to be awarded for her achievements going into the 21st century, receiving the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the Ford Theater Lincoln Medal. After years of fighting for racial equality in the United States and abroad, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. Last year, she published her final book Mom & Me & Mom, a seventh autobiography.
Maya Angelou was a bonafide Renaissance woman. Like many of her peers, she possessed a plethora of talent across various mediums. She became fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti from traveling and working around the world. She befriended gay icons James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin in the ’50s and ’60s. Throughout her career she remained a strong supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage. In an interview with Dann Dulin, she said in regards to AIDS “So many friends are dead. So many loved friends are dead because of AIDS. my mind just runs over the list which seems to be unending. It’s just a devastating dragon breathing flame that burns out whole neighborhoods, whole families… I’ll never let a chance pass [to] talk about AIDS. Never.”
Recently, she spoke out against the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls on Twitter stating “Our future is threatened by the robbing of these young women’s future. We must have our darlings back so that we can help them to heal.” Her very last tweet on May 23 read “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
Maya Angelou passed away yesterday morning (May 28), at the age of 86. She was scheduled to attend the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon as an honoree, but canceled last week for health reasons. In a statement, she said “It is with deep regret that I am unable to attend the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon. I am aware that the Civil Rights Game is Major League Baseball’s opportunity to encourage and lead its fans and friends in honoring and remembering a critical time in our nation’s history, and I respect the league greatly for recognizing the need for this event. I am very proud to be one of the MLB Beacon Award honorees, amongst an impressive list of figures that were, and still are, part of the civil rights movement.”
In her interview with Dann Dulin, she was asked about her thoughts on what happens after death. She stated “I have seen that if you take a drop of water from the ocean and put it under a microscope you find everything that’s in the ocean is in that drop of water. Every element that’s a whale, or a crab, is in that drop of water. So I have a feeling that we come from the creator. The poet says ‘trailing wisps of glory’—and I think we go back to the creator. That’s my feeling. And we go back as a drop of water is returned to the ocean. And it mingles with something else and it comes out again.”
Dr. Angelou will be dearly missed.
Rest In Peace
April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014