Decades after NWA fought off censorship, Australia has declared its own war on hip-hop

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Opinion

Decades after NWA fought off censorship, Australia has declared its own war on hip-hop

In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, there’s a framed letter from the FBI’s assistant director for public affairs hanging on the wall.

The letter, dated August 1, 1989, was sent to the director of Priority Records, the label responsible for distributing the music of west coast hip-hop group NWA. The rappers had recently released their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, featuring the provocatively titled single F*ck Tha Police, inspired by their experiences with law enforcement as young black men in the US.

Police targets: members of the western Sydney crew OneFour.

Police targets: members of the western Sydney crew OneFour.

In the letter, the FBI claimed NWA’s music encouraged violence against police officers. The bureau didn’t threaten either the group or the record label, but said “music plays a significant role in society” and therefore the concerns of law enforcement were worthy of attention. That same summer, NWA members were arrested after a riot broke out during one a show in Detroit, as the group was performing F*ck The Police on stage. No charges were laid, but the police had made their view on the song, and NWA more broadly, very clear.

It was dramatised in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, and it foreshadowed a long-term battle between the hip-hop community and those who claim a link between rap lyrics in violence.

In 1997, rapper Tupac Shakur’s label was sued after a Texas state trooper was shot by a man listening to Shakur’s music. The family of the slain trooper claimed the lyrics had advocated violence, but a landmark court decision found that even if that was the case, the song was protected by the first amendment. The battle between hip-hop and the police hasn’t let up in the US, and has even intensified in recent years, but America’s commitment to freedom of speech has helped to protect the rights of artists to tell their stories, regardless of how provocative.

More than 30 years after NWA burst out of Compton, Australia is currently living through its own war between police and sections of the hip-hop community. The parallels between what’s happening here and the skirmishes in the US in the 90s are pretty clear – but the lack of freedom of speech protections in this country mean our equivalents of NWA and Tupac are on the back foot.

NWA’s record Straight Outta Compton.

NWA’s record Straight Outta Compton.

This week the NSW Police Force confirmed it would attempt to remove certain songs from streaming platforms such as Spotify and YouTube if they believed the lyrics incited violence. Police don’t actually have the power to force those companies to remove songs, but the fact they believe it’s within their remit to deplatform music they believe poses a danger to the community is quite extraordinary.

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The announcement is the latest escalation in an ongoing battle between NSW police and rappers largely based in western Sydney. In 2019, Mount Druitt-based artists OneFour became the focus of police ire. They release drill music – a sub-genre of hip-hop that emerged from Chicago a decade ago, before spreading to London, and eventually landing in Australia.

Drill is known for its faster, heavier sound and raw lyrics that focus on the grittiness of street life – violence, drug-dealing and run-ins with the police. Musically it’s different to what NWA and Tupac sounded like, but thematically it’s similar: artists born and raised in low-income suburbs, stigmatised by politicians and the media, who have a lived experience of the justice system and living in overly policed communities, turning to music and art to tell their stories.

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NSW police have gone to extraordinary lengths to stop OneFour from performing. They’ve claimed the group are linked to outlaw bikie gangs, and that their lyrics – which reference the so-called “postcode wars” between gangs associated with different suburbs – are inciting violence.

Police have admitted to doing “everything in [their] power” to make the group’s life “miserable” until they stop rapping about these topics. So far, that has included shutting down their shows before they can perform, raiding the homes of the artists, issuing their management with legal orders preventing them from associating with the members of the group, and trying to get their music pulled from streaming platforms.

It’s an intervention without precedent in Australian music history. What’s even more remarkable is that it’s happening decades after similar debates in the US – as though police in Australia have paid zero attention to the real causes of social harm and gang violence (inequality, a lack of opportunity, intergenerational poverty). According to the University of Sydney’s Professor Murray Lee, who researches the connection between criminology and drill music, the genre is “a symptom of cultural violence, not a cause”.

It’s a realisation that seems to be well understood in the US, where hip-hop has become the most popular form of music, and as a result of that popularity has helped mainstream discussion around police violence and racism. The fact that Australia appears to be three decades behind that conversation is an indictment on the power we’ve bestowed on police to control what kind of art can be created and expressed, and an indictment on the politicians who’ve let them get away with it.

The fact an FBI letter trying to intimidate NWA hangs in a museum is symbolic of where that kind of attempt to crush artistic and social expression leads. Maybe one day there will be a similar museum piece for Australian hip-hop artists. On the current trajectory though, I wouldn’t count on it.

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