Black History Month Part IV: Compton as bellwether for urban America

Kendrick Lamar performs a medley of songs at the 58th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles
Kendrick Lamar performs a medley of songs at the 58th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni – RTX273N1

Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright”, with its #BlackLivesMatter theme and political overtones, struck a chord with many viewers. In a night of standout performances including the Lady Gaga tribute to the late great David Bowie and the John Legend/Demi Lovato led multi-artist homage to the artistry of Lionel Richie, Lamar sent a clear message to viewers in an election year in which the African American electorate – both in the democratic primaries and general election – will exert a pronounced influence on the ultimate result.

More so in regard to his second album, good kid,, but to some extent his first, Section 80 as well, Lamar’s own work has been inspired by the seminal and now Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrined rap group and Compton natives, N.W.A. Good kid, mA.A.d. city refracted N.W.A.’s work for a 21st century audience and included an extended cameo by Dre.

N.W.A. depicted Compton as a vessel channeling black America’s triumphs, tragedies, and continuing struggles. However at the same time, the band ignored the city’s transformative demographics as its population consisted increasingly of Latino Americans. Pop culture persists in this depiction of the famous suburb as a sort of “bellwhether” for African American life. At the end of his Grammy set, Lamar’s silhouette stood in front of an image of continental Africa with Compton inscribed across it. For much of the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, Compton has operated semiotically as a symbol of urban Black America.

Yet as we wrote here years ago and numerous outlets have also noted, Compton’s demographics no longer reflect this dynamic. Rather Latino Americans long ago supplanted the city’s black population as its most populous group.   This change demonstrates larger shifts nationally as Latino and African American urban residents increasingly inhabit spaces and communities. In fact the city’s past, aligns with the long arc of twentieth century history beginning as a largely segregated whites only working class urban/suburban enclave, a center of black politics in the 1960s, and now a community defined by its black-Latino population. In Part IV of ToM’s celebration of Black History Month, we bring you an examination of the city’s changing demographics through the lens of N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, and historians like Josh Sides. Below is an excerpt from the longer piece, if you dig it, click on the link at the bottom for the complete article.

Eazy-E with trademark “Compton” cap as street art in Australia. Photo by kagemusha110 used under a Creative Commons license.


Compton as Bellwhether for Urban America 

When Ice Cube took his star turn as Compton roughneck Doughboy in John Singleton’s “Boyz N’ the Hood,” few people realized the sea change in popular culture that had already begun to unfold. The oddly white cowboy/oil baron/aristocratic obsessed 1980s (See: Dallas, Dynasty, The Dukes of Hazard, Garth Brooks, and the list goes on) gave way to one of the most deeply effective cultural influences of the past thirty years. One might also point to 1988 when Ice Cube, along with fellow members of West coast rap group N.W.A., released Straight Outta Compton, an album that redefined rap and brought the troubled inner city of the late 1980s and early 1990s to popular attention. Within this constellation, Compton, CA, served as ground zero — the modern exemplar of urban Black life.

Even today, despite a very different demographic and political reality, this image of Compton persists. Though tonally distinct from N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar’s new album “good kid, m.A.A.d city”, frequently references the famous suburb as both source of pride: “Ain’t no city quite like mine/In the city of Compton/ain’t no city quite like mine” (“Compton”);and trauma: “Dope on the corner/look at the coroner/daughter is dead/mother mourning her” (“Dying of Thirst”).

Yet, this vision of Compton only gets so much right. While Compton assumed the position of Black pop culture epicenter, its actual demographics demonstrated a political and racial shift that would become central to national and municipal politics. From the late 1980s to the present, Compton’s Latino population skyrocketed, while its Black population declined; between 1980 and 1990, Latinos experienced a 131% increase while the city’s black population declined by 21%. By 2012, Compton’s now majority Latino population demanded greater political representation on the city’s all-Black city council. Though Compton’s shift parallels similar changes in much larger cities like Chicago over the past two decades, few locales have encapsulated the increasing importance of Brown and Black faces in American pop culture and municipal politics.

Click here for the rest of the article.


Also for earlier posts in our series see below:

Part III: Race, Taxes, and Schools in Compton

Part II: Reclaiming Sporting Culture

Part I: Fighting for Leisure in Los Angeles