Recently I met a man, age 50, who is a self-avowed “playa.” That is to say that his goal in life, the one identity that he sought to articulate and cultivate was that of a playa (slang from the word “player”). As we talked, he shared that from his youthful days growing up in Kansas City, he endeavored to have as many women as possible, primarily for sexual purposes, and not necessarily as a married man or with any commitment to those women. So, of all the occupations or identities he could have had in the world, he desired, unabashedly, to be a playa.
Not surprisingly, he was and is into what one might call “gangsta” rap or hip-hop, which includes the music designed and produced by the hip-hop group, N.W.A. (also known as Niggaz ‘wit Attitude). He also proudly displays a playa attitude and profile: hard face (few smiles/inability to effectively emote or expressing his feelings without showing signs of significant discomfort or angst); gangsta swag and posture that often commands (indirectly) “look at me”; expensive and fancy-rimmed cars; money; and powerful street credibility with peers and acquaintances who do not question his expressions or actions. That said, to me he resembled the members of N.W.A.; though not exact, he was like them in rhythm and style, and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps for him N.W.A. and other gangsta rap artists were a kind of playa model or life metaphor.
This man’s affinity to gangsta hip-hop by way of groups like N.W.A. was in stark contrast to the music (and thus the environment) that I grew up listening to and appreciating. I am old enough to have embraced N.W.A. for myself when they came on the scene, but I was primarily raised on R & B/Funk, and thus listening to black music artists like Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF), MAZE, featuring Frankie Beverly, and LTD. The lyrics and music produced by this cadre of artists came out of a very different orientation to life, and most of their songs emphasized relationships, feelings (thus intimacy), and often they sung about the struggle of being in and out of love. If I must say so myself, the struggle to be in love or to be in relationship occupied a big part of my thinking as a youngster. Indeed, the music that I listened to encouraged me to seek out love and intimacy as a kind of model or metaphor for my life. From a very young age, unlike the man that I just described, I was influenced by the music that filled my ears to desire and cultivate a life of love and relationship.
The first time that I encountered N.W.A., critically, was with a man who was actually from South Central Los Angeles. I was quite impressed by his knowledge of the group and it was, in fact, one of the very first conversations that we had prior to becoming lovers for a brief time. He was a very able and brilliant thinker and I valued his take on N.W.A. Of course, he gave them the nod, but he did not glorify or legitimate their lifestyle; at least not that I remember. His knowledge and understanding of N.W.A. and gangsta rap in general was also as an academic; as a social scientist he too was on his way to being a college professor, though he was raised in “the hood” and often menaced by the LA police. However, he did not aspire to be gangsta or to be a playa.
Later, I learned more on my own about N.W.A. and gangsta rap. Ice Cube, one of the members of N.W.A. was highly visible at the time that I took it upon myself to explore the group’s messages and rhythms. And, in light of conversations and questions that feminist bell hooks was raising, I gained a much more nuanced understanding of gangsta rap overall. I especially liked the chapter interview that she published in Outlaw Culture. First published in 1994, then reprinted in 2008, this interview with Ice Cube was significant in that she explores a serious conversation with Ice Cube who, along with N.W.A., has openly produced music and lyrics that are considered by many to be hateful towards women or misogynistic. It was a very important and necessary dialogue, one that was called “outlaw feminism” by my former Claflin University colleague, Dr. Ronald B. Neal in a 2011 Feminist Wire article. Neal explained:
In her engagement with Ice Cube bell hooks enacted a practice that I call Outlaw Feminism. In the spirit of her wonderful book, Outlaw Culture, Outlaw Feminism challenges and breaks the codes of inherited masculinity and heirloom femininity. It goes against the rules of purity with respect to political and cultural engagement. It’s about getting your hands dirty, ruining your nails, breaking your heels and messing up your suit, tie and hair, all for the sake of truth, understanding, and most importantly, transformation. Outlaw Feminism is tantamount to Erykah Badu walking down the streets of downtown Dallas, Texas with no clothes on. Outlaw Feminism is the feminism of complexity.
Engaging gangsta rap artists – and playas, I might add – about the complexity of issues associated with gangsta rap and gender is still very necessary these days. After last week’s release of Straight Outta Compton, many public intellectuals and pop culture critics chimed in on the importance and impact of the film. I was particularly interested in what Bakari Kitwana had to say about the movie. My first encounter with Kitwana, who is an author and hip-hop activist, was at a lecture that he was giving at Mount Holyoke College in 2003 or 2004 (I think). I mention it here because I openly questioned him about the misogyny of hip-hop in general and how that could complicate or compromise hip-hop as an alleged social justice movement. Just the other day, I was eager to hear Kitwana discuss Straight Outta Compton in an NPR interview, and I was pleased that he gave voice to the complexity of problems that are emblematic of gangsta rap or hip-hop culture, wherein he included an acknowledgement of “all the things that are beautiful and all the things that are ugly with N.W.A.”
As a womanist, I too am concerned about the complexities or “the beauty and the ugliness” of gangsta rap. I say that because I can absolutely get down with the resistance that gangsta rap and groups like N.W.A. have promulgated against the police and especially in terms of that coming out of the West Coast in the U.S. My first socio-political reference, as far as the development of a black, anti-police rhetoric is concerned, was the Black Panther Party (BPP), and it was most notably upon my meeting and eventually sit-down dinner with Elaine Brown of the BPP (when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana) that I grew even more fond of its mission and message. Of course one can read about the Black Panther Party, but when one has the opportunity to meet a member of the original Black Panther Party – in person – and enter into a dialogue about the actual internal workings of the BPP, one’s understanding is expanded beyond imagination. What I learned about the Black Panther Party from Elaine Brown, and subsequently from further reading, was much more than any book could have done for me; and, being in her presence, I heard, first-hand, of the role that women had in shaping a campaign in defense of black people in the United States with righteous indignation and defiance against police brutality that was being articulated in Oakland, California and beyond. Not to take anything away from N.W.A. and the role that their music had in standing up for black urban people against the racism and belligerence of the Los Angeles police, but, before there was N.W.A. there was the BPP, and parallel to the BPP there was Robert F. Williams (Negroes with Guns) in North Carolina, and in Louisiana there were the Deacons for Defense, etc. We, and black people in particular, have been using every medium possible to stand up to white supremacy and the hatred of black people in this country (and beyond). Just last night, a professional colleague living outside of the United States messaged me on Facebook to inquire about what he was seeing via his news sources about the U.S. and black encounters with the police. After a short exchange, and some awkward stops and starts, he finally said to me, “I couldn’t feel safe in your country.” In response to that I said, “It is not safe here.”
I think it is great that the former members of N.W.A. have offered American movie-goers something to think about in terms of their music and their legacy, but first and foremost they are not the only ones who have stared down the police and lived to tell about it. Secondly, if gangsta rap is going to continuously reinforce gangsta patriarchy or a professional playa-pimping mentality towards women, and black women in particular, and along with claims to black masculinity and sexuality that are framed obsessively and in hyper-sexual and unilateral terms, then Straight Outta Compton, as a framework for considering how black lives matter is straight complicating everything about hip-hop in a way that leaves me very disappointed and legitimately skeptical. I mean, how do I listen to gangsta rap, even now that N.W.A is no more, without feeling the playa hate? Where do I enter the dialogue with a gangsta rap artist or a professional playa who has made a living of primarily imaging and relating to black women and any other women he chooses to target predominantly as sexual objects or for transactional (economic) purposes? What makes that dynamic any different from that of the dynamic that is set up between a pimp, a prostitute and a trick? How do I consume gangsta rap or hip-hop without reinforcing the playa lifestyle and mentality which is rooted in the patriarchal contempt and hatred of women, and black women in particular. Put another way, and in the words of bell hooks, *where is the love between black women and gangsta hip-hop artists?
I must admit, that if gangsta rap is going to maintain its allegiance to gangsta and perhaps even a plantation kind of patriarchy, i.e., a woman-hating and thus emotionally violent way of life, then gangsta rap is probably a little too complicated for me. Being outlaw is one thing; being complex is another, but straight complicating something (like gangsta rap or even a relationship) to the point that women are treated like sh%t is not worth it, at least not for me. In other words, I need a music and thus movements that are rooted in love, intimacy, relationship, honesty, mutuality, partnership, etc. Thus, for me, any music that says that black lives matter must also attempt to say that black women matter and black families matter and black children matter. So, of all people, if a black musical artist or group is unabashedly and repeatedly filled and refilled with violent, hateful thinking and behavior, then I can’t really be down with it, and in some instances I might have to straight be done with it. Because when a fifty year old man tells me that his number one goal in life is to be a playa, and the primary idea behind that is to sleep with as many women as he can, and yet he says that he is allegedly committed to the progress and education of black people, then as far as I am concerned he must be straight outta his damn mind if he thinks that I would believe that kind of double-talk and take him seriously. And if that is what listening to N.W.A. and gangsta rap has meant and will ultimately mean for its previous and future consumers, then N.W.A. and its producers have effectively and straight complicated everything, which means that we, as a people, have even bigger problems on our hands when it comes to demonstrating and convincing others that black lives matter, and that more than we could ever, ever imagine.
© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.
Note that *where is the love is in reference to a chapter, “Where is the Love? Political Bonding Between Black and White Women,” in Killing Rage: Ending Racism, written by bell hooks and published in 1995 by Henry Holt Publishing.