Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Straight Outta Compton and Black Lives Matter

When I was supposed to be learning Torah trope in my bedroom at 12 years old in preparation for my bar mitzvah, I would often sneakily substitute the audio cassette of my cantor singing the musical notes with a cassette of Run DMC, Ice-T, the Beastie Boys or Sugar Hill Gang. A few years later I would discover one of my favorite rap groups, N.W.A. Of course, my parents weren’t thrilled that the music CDs I was playing in my car contained the infamous “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” stickers, but most of my driving at that age was back and forth to the synagogue for Jewish youth group events so they let it slide.

Rabbi Jason Miller with O'Shea Jackson, Jr. who plays his father Ice Cube in the movie

I continued to enjoy the Gangsta Rap genre into college, adding Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Geto Boys and Warren G to my typical mix of Ice Cube, Eazy E and Dr. Dre. However, when I headed off to New York City for rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary I left my rap CDs at home. It just didn’t feel right to be listening to the explicit lyrics that many consider misogynistic and pro-violence while studying Torah and Talmud in a seminary. My love for Gangsta Rap seemed to dissipate in the ensuing years as I became a rabbi and started a family.

Last month I realized that my love for Gangsta Rap had just been put on hold. I was invited to a private advance screening of the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” at a local theater outside of Detroit. I invited a few different friends to attend the screening with me, but they were either busy or not interested. So, I called my father and he accepted the invitation. I cautioned him that the movie would contain the same explicit music I listened to in high school that he had frowned against. He understood, but was willing to give the film a chance.

The theater was packed with local media, music critics, hip hop executives and members of Detroit’s black community. The folding chairs at the front of the theater would be occupied following the film by Ice Cube, a founding member of N.W.A. and a producer of the film; his son Oshea Jackson, Jr., who plays him in the biopic; the director F. Gary Gray; a couple of the other actors and rapper Big Sean, who would be the moderator of the post screening discussion. I hadn’t been this excited to watch a new film in a very long time.

The film began with the music of my youth. N.W.A.'s music might have been made for the black community, but millions of Caucasian young people like myself enjoyed the music. I was immediately taken back to the 1990s when race relations were at one of their lowest points following the police beating of Rodney King and gang violence on the streets of Los Angeles. "Straight Outta Compton" couldn't have come out at a more important time as race relations have once again spiraled out of control.

As I sat glued to the screen I couldn't help but think about how the American Jewish community and the black community should be doing more to work together. As two minorities we're often at odds (Jews aren't portrayed very well in the film), but there's much potential for partnership. The rap industry should recognize that there's a large fan base of middle and upper-class Caucasians in their 30s and 40s who came of age listening to the hard hitting songs of N.W.A. We appreciate the right to freedom of speech that these men fought for, and we gained perspective about the tension between inner-city black youth and the police by listening to their music. The explicit lyrics, sexual themes and violent threats made parents in the '90s squirm and led Tipper Gore to launch a campaign to ban their music, but looking deeper into this culture could prove rewarding for easing much of the race tension that exists today in the 21st century.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Straight Outta Compton" and have once again embraced N.W.A.'s music. I listen to it while working out at the gym and while sitting at my desk doing work. As seen in the film, the creative men who made up the group N.W.A. weren't gangsters with baseless animus for the authorities. Rather, these were entrepreneurs who had a strong message to deliver about the fragile state of the inner cities in our country, about police brutality and about being compensated fairly for their talents. Their message still resonates today. I encourage the Jewish community to come out and see "Straight Outta Compton," which opens in theaters this weekend. It's more than the story of how a Gangsta Rap group found success; it's about relationships. And not just the relationships of the group members with each other. It's about how we all need to understand black America. If we are truly to rally behind the mantra that "Black Lives Matter," we need to gain an inside perspective of what is really going on in our inner cities. "Straight Outta Compton" flawlessly provides that story.

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