Soapboxing: Dee Barnes & The Erasure Of Women In 'Straight Outta Compton'


Remember the time when Dr. Dre brutally beat up a female music journalist?

Maybe you can recall, but if you weren't aware you wouldn't have become privy to this information via Straight Outta Compton as the controversial biopic about the meteoric rise to fame of "Gangsta rap" pioneers N.W.A. conveniently scrubbed that violent act out of its script. Don't worry though, former journalist, female MC, and TV hostess, Denise "Dee" Barnes fills in the gaping silent blanks with her excellent Gawker piece, that is part-film review, part-memory essay about her association with the notorious crew and the incident that cost her career and almost her life, and it is probably the deepest, darkest, and most disturbing piece I've read this year.
Three years later—in 1991—I would experience something similar, only this time I was on my back and the knee was in my chest. That knee did not belong to a police officer, but Andre Young, the producer/rapper who goes by Dr. Dre. When I saw the footage of California Highway Patrol officer Daniel Andrew straddling and viciously punching Marlene Pinnock in broad daylight on the side of a busy freeway last year, I cringed. That must have been how it looked as Dr. Dre straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom at the Po Na Na Souk nightclub in 1991.

That event isn’t depicted in Straight Outta Compton, but I don’t think it should have been, either. The truth is too ugly for a general audience. I didn’t want to see a depiction of me getting beat up, just like I didn’t want to see a depiction of Dre beating up Michel’le, his one-time girlfriend who recently summed up their relationship this way: “I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat on and told to sit down and shut up.”

But what should have been addressed is that it occurred. When I was sitting there in the theater, and the movie’s timeline skipped by my attack without a glance, I was like, “Uhhh, what happened?” Like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A., I found myself a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history.
Barnes makes an assertion that film director F. Gary Gray purposely left out the assault in Straight Outta Compton as he was somewhat involved in its cultivation. Gray was a cameraman on Pump It Up!, the rap show that Barnes hosted in the early 1990s, and in a shocking twist, he was the one who filmed the infamous interview between Barnes and former N.W.A. member, Ice Cube, whom had recently become estranged from the group:
That’s right. F. Gary Gray, the man whose film made $60 million last weekend as it erased my attack from history, was also behind the camera to film the moment that launched that very attack. He was my cameraman for Pump It Up! You may have noticed that Gary has been reluctant to address N.W.A.’s misogyny and Dre’s attack on me in interviews. I think a huge reason that Gary doesn’t want to address it is because then he’d have to explain his part in history. He’s obviously uncomfortable for a reason.

Gary was the one holding the camera during that fateful interview with Ice Cube, which was filmed on the set of Boyz N the Hood. I was there to interview the rapper Yo Yo. Cube was in a great mood, even though he was about to shoot and he was getting into character.

Cube went into a trailer to talk to Gary and Pump It Up! producer Jeff Shore. I saw as he exited that Cube’s mood had changed. Either they told him something or showed him the N.W.A. footage we had shot a few weeks earlier. What ended up airing was squeaky clean compared to the raw footage. N.W.A. were chewing Cube up and spitting him out. I was trying to do a serious interview and they were just clowning—talking shit, cursing. It was crazy.

Right after we shot a now-angry Cube and they shouted, “Cut!” one of the producers said, “We’re going to put that in.” I said, “Hell no.” I wasn’t even thinking about being attacked at the time, I was just afraid that they were going to shoot each other. I didn’t want to be part of that. “This is no laughing matter,” I tried telling them. “This is no joke. These guys take this stuff seriously.” I was told by executives that I was being emotional. That’s because I’m a woman. They would have never told a man that. They would have taken him seriously and listened.
Barnes also further explains how her health suffered and how she was literally blacklisted from the entertainment industry after the incident, even though she was the victim: 
It was that interview that was the supposed cause of Dre’s attack on me, as many of his groupmates attested. My life changed that night. I suffer from horrific migraines that started only after the attack. I love Dre’s song “Keep Their Heads Ringin”—it has a particularly deep meaning to me. When I get migraines, my head does ring and it hurts, exactly in the same spot every time where he smashed my head against the wall. People have accused me of holding onto the past; I’m not holding onto the past. I have a souvenir that I never wanted. The past holds onto me.  
People ask me, “How come you’re not on TV anymore?” and “How come you’re not back on television?” It’s not like I haven’t tried. I was blacklisted. Nobody wants to work with me. They don’t want to affect their relationship with Dre. I’ve been told directly and indirectly, “I can’t work with you.” I auditioned for the part that eventually went to Kimberly Elise in Set It Off. Gary was the director. This was long after Pump it Up!, and I nailed the audition. Gary came out and said, “I can’t give you the part.” I asked him why, and he said, “‘Cause I’m casting Dre as Black Sam.” My heart didn’t sink, I didn’t get emotional; I was just numb.
And people thought the film's abhorrent and offensive casting call was the worst...

As Straight Outta Compton is curating buzz and Oscar shop talk, Barnes' account is a lone scream of anguish in a sea of cheers and appraisal for the film, which is now (not surprisingly) #1 at the box office. Reviews have been glowing, even from some unlikely sources, luring people like myself who love a good (facts distorted) biopic and character study, or have a soft-spot for pop culture nostalgia to relive it in Gray's gritty spectacle. Even the film's large focus on police brutality against Black Americans, is timely and nothing short of truth, but with Barnes' mic drop account, Straight Outta Compton just feels like a stylish and fairy tale-tinged vanity project, that waves its magic wand and sprinkles glittery half-truths and muzzles others. But silly me to think that they would attempt to expose the rampant misogyny in hip-hop culture or the violence brought on by men with big egos and lined pockets in a big budgeted film like this. Silly silly me...

Some will say that N.W.A. and the gangster rap culture it embodied was just for show, entertainment, that they didn't really mean what they said on wax, it's just the way hip-hop is supposed to be, it's supposed to be the gritty and raw outcry of the oppressed, it's purpose is to let off a little steam against AmeriKKKa, it's to take back such vicious descriptors as the "n-word", that if you can't handle that then you're a part of the problem, a chump, a sell-out, a babbling bitch, a bruised ego-ed hoe.

Coming of age in the 1990s, I was well aware of this type of rhetoric with the rise of the hip-hop culture that unfolded in front of my young brown eyes. "Gangsta rap" was the 'alluring' sub-culture that became idolized by my bored and listless (and largely White and Latino) suburbanite peers. Never did I get the appeal of N.W.A. or their contemporaries as they bottled every gross stereotype and lifestyle that was stickily associated with Black America from hyper-male sexuality, our "desire" for violence, illicit drug use, and the rampant brutality and misogynoir against women. Even at a young age, hearing the hardcore rap tapes of friends and cousins, hearing "bitch" and "ho" used as punctuation marks made me feel uncomfortable, and as I got older, violated and marginalized. Like a lot of young women at that time, I 'played along', pretending that I was 'down', that I was really engaging in the lyrics, the flows, the beats, that I was relishing in the "art", the 'pro-Blackness' of its gruff "honesty".

Far from the truth...

While I can appreciate hip-hop music and its aesthetic in various more progressive forms, appreciate that groups like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest sought to be the socially and culturally aware alternative, and yes, there is some legitimacy in Gangsta rap's legacy, but Gangsta rap is a culture that I seriously abhor and can't condone, and this was long before I even learned of Dee Barnes and her story.

It gave permission to impressionable boys and small-minded men to treat women, especially Black women, as feral animals, unfeeling robots, as conspirators. It kept harming the gender and racial gaps, pushing them further apart. It kept purporting the lopsided logic of excusing bad behavior because we didn't want to "bring down successful Black men". It's a culture that I felt that politician and activist, the late C. Delores Tucker predicted all along, that it would become a detriment to the Black people of my generation and beyond, and well, far off the mark she wasn't. We often say sticks and stones hurt more than words, but so much vile vitriol came out of N.W.A.'s catalog that I just can't sit and nod my head to say: "Yeah, this was the best thing that happened to hip-hop culture." I just can't. In my eyes and to my ears, they were the catalyst to how hip-hop took a huge u-turn that managed to alienate me as a fan and as a lover of music.

Reading through some of the interviews that Dre and Cube, who are producers of the film, have made during the film's press junket have ironically confirmed Barnes' story. From Dre 'admitting' he was an abusive asshole (but failing to divulge who these women were and how he paid them off...) to Cube (who been jumping through hoops trying to justify the ignorant phrases he uses for years) explaining why only a certain type of woman would enjoy Straight Outta Compton, both of them are still on some 1991 bullshit in their Rolling Stone interview --- just that they are choosing their words more carefully because ya know, they are "older and wiser". These fools just stay not keeping anything real for me and it's really embarrassing how mentally they haven't evolved.

Barnes piece is, sadly, just the tip, and we can only predict what other accounts will be divulged when her memoir, Music, Myth, and Misogyny: Memoirs of a Female MC  is out of publisher search mode and properly released. Time will only tell what will come to the surface in the passing months, but I was pleased that the other day Dee Barnes and her story was trending on social media as the new generation needs to be aware of such erasures from the hip-hop history as well as the false idolatry that goes along when money is pushed under the table, and fame pushed up top. Miss Dee Barnes deserves a big thank you and a standing ovation for being brave coming forward with her story, one story that feels almost broken record, but bears lending an ear to its repetition because the message unfortunately continues to be lost on us all.
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