Straight Outta Compton made the rounds a couple of years ago, when the hit film received critical acclaim. It depicts the career of rap group N.W.A, and borrows its title from the group’s debut studio album. Perhaps the most famous song of the 1988 gangsta rap album is “Fuck tha Police”. The extremely controversial track is meant to protest police brutality and racial profiling, and contains lyrics such as “beat a police out of shape” and “when I’m finished it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops dying in L.A”, in addition to repeating the title statement.
The song has since become incredibly influential – it was featured prominently during the 1996 Yugoslavia protests, and inspired artists such as Kanye West and Ice-T to write about similar sentiments. It also, however, provoked the FBI to write a little to N.W.A’s record label expression their dissatisfaction and share their belief that the lyrics misrepresented police. In the letter, Milt Ahlerich, the then-Assistant Director of the FBI, argues that “advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action…recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers”.
As music plays an important role in many lives, it is easy to see why the song is concerning. The lyrics condone violence towards officers. With lines such as “I’m a sniper with a hell of a scope, taking out a cop or two” and “A sucka in a uniform waitin’ to get shot”, there is no other interpretation than the obvious implication of shooting a police officer.
It also raises the interesting question of how much responsibility an artist should take when creating music. I’m sure that none of the members of N.W.A truly meant for anyone to buy a gun and start shooting at cops. But it can certainly inspire someone to do so, regardless of the original intent of the message. And, of course, since the release of the song, “fuck tha police” has been cemented into pop culture.
This is not to argue against free speech or to advocate for censorship. But it is a reminder that artists should be acutely aware of their potential impact. If someone were to act out because of N.W.A’s song, of course the group should not be directly blamed. It, however, would be false to claim that they play no role at all. There are better ways to advocate for change than to suggest killing cops or to incite violence. And, hopefully artists can find a less destructive way to advocate for causes they care about.