When an N.W.A. show ended in a riot
(Credit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

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When an N.W.A. show ended in a riot

With lockdown still in effect around the globe, there’s a massive part of us wishing to feel the buzz of the amplifiers, the heat of the lights, the electricity in the air and the spark on the stage sooner rather than later. However, sometimes things can go a little awry and crowds of adoring fans can quickly turn to mobs. Sometimes, of course, that’s precisely what you want. For those attending the 1989 tour of N.W.A., there was a sense that danger was always afoot.

The rap group, comprised of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr Dre and MC Ren, were the most dangerous group in America when they began their tour at the end of the eighties. Having riled up America’s centrist consortium, they soon started rattling cages whenever they saw their chance. With their album and singles, the group were making profound statements about the world around them — namely, the police brutality they saw every day of their lives.

When N.W.A., one of the most incendiary groups to have ever existed, were due to perform at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the tensions between the band and the local police was already at a fever pitch. The group, which included Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren, had just released their protest song ‘F*** tha Police’, and the furore around the song was growing each day.

Local police prohibited the song being performed in Detroit, suggesting doing so would incite a riot. As one might imagine, N.W.A. were never going to give in to those demands and performed the song anyway. The crowd bounced and swelled with heavy intensity, and as a ‘gun’ went off (it was actually a firecracker), the police shut the venue down and arrested the group as soon as they arrived back at the hotel.

Straight Outta Compton, the band’s biopic, depicts the moment it all transpired with a dose of Hollywood glean, but the majority of facts are correct. The film’s director, F. Gary Gray, told Buzzfeed: “It’s a pivotal moment because it’s one of the many moments where they stood up, and they had the courage to say, ‘Freedom of speech applies to everyone in America, and we are not going to take this abuse. We’re just not going to do it.'”

It was a powerful moment that, naturally, galvanised not only N.W.A.’s fans but swathes of the young generation who now didn’t have to witness the brutality to empathise with it. Can a riot end peacefully? Perhaps not. But can a riot spread love and connection? Apparently so.