Written by Stephanie Renee on August 9, 2015
In 1988, the year that NWA’s debut album “Straight Outta Compton” was released, my life looked nothing like the gritty tales the group spun over Dre’s beats. South Central Los Angeles, compared to my dorm room at Penn. Echoes of the War on Drugs and their studio recording sessions versus my economics class and gospel choir rehearsals. And yet, there was something familiar about the anger in their lyrics, their disgust with the government, and their refusal to be defined by other people’s projections. However different our physical environments were, it was the spirit of their resistance that appealed to me.
Had Twitter been around back then, this blog would likely be filed under the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems, but that cannot invalidate the feelings. While Nancy Reagan was preaching “Just Say No to Drugs” and Tipper Gore was harassing the Feds to put explicit content stickers on albums, I was having debates with random white students about my academic credentials and fielding daily phone calls from my father and stepmother, who seemed determined to kill one another before I could make it home for my next break. NWA might have glamorized the idea of selling drugs to buy clothes and cars and attract women, but I had friends at Penn who were selling cocaine and other assorted drugs to earn money to pay their tuition. Different realities, sure. But we were all trying to make our way through the madness the best way we knew how. And with the internal and external pressures to succeed in the face of economic stress and racism, it’s no wonder that either reality could make you a n*gga with an attitude.
Twenty-seven years have passed, and a lot has changed, sort of. I’m old enough to have watched this rebel rap group grow into mature mainstream superstars, while I have cobbled together quite a dynamic life for myself, on and off-stage. We traded Old Hollywood President Ronnie for bi-racial Barack, who has been working to undo the unfair drug sentencing policies and ever-present police harassment that NWA rhymed about back then. And still we are followed, chased down, mistrusted and often killed, just for being ourselves. With or without gang affiliations. Seldom with a hit record. South Central to West Philly, and all spaces in between, hood to Ivy League campus, we are still n*ggas in the eyes of many.
I wrote a poem that begins, “Can’t remove n*gga from my name/It’s a cell we continue to lock me in/Guess bitch will be my only claim/Til I unearth the queen again.” I imagine that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre find their daily walk in the present light years away from the anxiety and uncertainty of their youthful selves. And I can assure you that the Stephanie Renée who greets WURD audiences five days a week is breathing completely different air from the teen co-ed who bought Straight Outta Compton on cassette and rhymed along with the record in solidarity.
I am ever thankful that I am still here, with the ability to continue the process of my personal evolution. And, when the need arises, I can speak up and raise a Black fist in the air, and write an “R” in front of that word as well. With an attitude, of course, but the n*gga days are over.