This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #482: Express Yourself by N.W.A.
I am a white male in a white man’s world. My privilege knows no bounds. I never worry about agents of the State showing up at my door to take my children away from me for re-education in another province. My drinking water is clean and clear. I walk safely after dark. I have never feel judged by the size of my body parts. Not once has a police officer pulled me over for “driving while white”. No one questions my right to live in the neighbourhood that I do. As nice of a person as I try to be, I admit that I am part of a culture that does not always view other races or genders as being equal to me. As such, the narratives that define the society in which I live almost always favour people like me…..white and male. These narratives are almost always constructed my people like me, too.
It can’t be easy to live in a white man’s world when you are neither white, nor a male. Over the course of time, you see push-backs from those not white nor male, such as the #MeToo Movement, the rise of Indigenous activism and, finally, the #BlacksLivesMatter Movement, too. One central aspect that all of these Movements share is the desire to have their stories heard. In doing so, members of these groups seek to overturn an identity that is imposed upon them by the powers that be and to establish an identity that is more in keeping with who they actually are and what their day-to-day experiences are actually like.
Hip Hop began, in part, to act as a safe haven for people of colour to celebrate their culture in ways that were meaningful to them. It was a merging of poetry and music that gave birth to a new form of musical expression. Initially, Hip Hop was community-oriented; outdoor gatherings that featured DJs mcing (rapping) over musical beats. The subject matter of each song or rap was tailored to the times and experiences of those in the neighbourhood. It became a way for people to express their displeasures or to celebrate their heroes and successes. The first major Hip Hop stars were people like DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. A generation later, new Hip Hop groups emerged like Public Enemy and today’s guest artists, N.W.A.
N.W.A. began before they actually began, so to speak. Before they were an actual group, the members of N.W.A. were more a loose collection of friends. One of those friends was named Eazy-E. He performed lead vocals on a track called “Boyz n the Hood”. This song proved very popular in their neighbourhood of Compton. The song went on to form the inspiration for the hit movie of the same name. The popularity of the track and of other local releases convinced the friends that there might be a future for them in Hip Hop. Soon Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren and the Arabian Prince officially formed N.W.A. and started work on their biggest hit album, “Straight Outta Compton”. This album was filled with songs about the life experiences of band members growing up Black in L.A., California. There was lots of anger in many of the tracks; including much anger aimed toward authority figures like the police. By challenging authority; especially, white authority, N.W.A. brought a level of scrutiny upon themselves from organizations like the LAPD and the FBI.
But, they arrived on the music scene at a very opportune time because this was the time of MTV and the beginning of the digitization of songs for easier distribution on a wider scale. N.W.A. were no longer selling mixtapes and cds at community clubs. They now had access to a much wider audience. The song, “Express Yourself” speaks to the dilemma that N.W.A. now faced. Unlike every other song on “Straight Outta Compton”, “Express Yourself” is playful, poppy and, one might dare to say, “radio-friendly”. However, the subject matter of the song is about censorship. Specifically, it is about the “rules” that black artists like them had to face to gain access to, what they claimed to be, “white airwaves”. How can one tell their true story if only compromised versions are deemed acceptable?
Hip Hop is a form of cultural expression and, as such, self-censorship was viewed as not an option. N.W.A. went on to become one of the most influential Hip Hop acts in history. Many of their members, such as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, have experienced much fame outside of the band, too. N.W.A. was elected to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, joining Grandmaster Flash, The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Run-DMC as the only Hip Hop groups in the Hall of Fame. N.W.A. was an important group with lots of important things to say. If “Express Yourself” is your first opportunity to hear them, I hope that their words have as much meaning for you and they did for them and their audience.
The link for the music video for Express Yourself by N.W.A. can be found here.
The link to the N.W.A. official website can be found here.
Thanks to KEXP for all they do to promote good music and to inspire people like me to write posts about good music. You can access their website by clicking on the link that can be found here.