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As part of Gerrick D. Kennedy’s work covering pop music for the Los Angeles Times, he’s interviewed Mariah Carey, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Drake, and more, and his award-winning reporting has led to guest spots on The Today Show, Dateline, 20/20, and Entertainment Tonight. He was named the 2012 Emerging Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, and in 2014, was featured in The Advocate’s annual 40 Under 40 list. His debut book, Parental Discretion Is Advised: The Rise of N.W.A and the Dawn of Gangsta Rap, was published in 2017 by Atria Books, and will be released in paperback this month.
Kennedy recently spoke with Lambda Literary about navigating journalism and writing about hip-hop as a black queer man, how his book came together, and what needs to happen to make hip-hop become more inclusive.
You’ve accomplished enormous feats since your 2009 internship at the LA Times. As a queer black man, what has been the biggest challenge of your professional career? How do you circumvent challenges related to race or identity?
Navigating journalism as a black queer man has had its challenges but I’ve always been a firm believer in letting the work speak for itself. I’ve been frustrated when I feel like my work has gone unnoticed or appropriated without credit, but I operate on passion and I let that fuel me when I feel particularly challenged professionally.
How long have you loved all things N.W.A? When did you decide to chronicle the N.W.A timeline?
My brother is seven years older than me. He’s the reason I fell in love with hip-hop. He’d play rappers like UGK, Jay-Z, Dre, Snoop, Tupac, Biggie Nas, and Ice Cube. I got into Cube and N.W.A through him, but I loved Cube, Dre and Eazy individually way before I came to appreciate the group.
The idea for Parental Discretion Is Advised was largely inspired by the group’s biopic Straight Outta Compton. For a moment I considered digging into Ice Cube’s story completely–I’m such a fan of his–but there was an opportunity to tackle a project on the group, and a ton of renewed interest in them because of the film.
What is the primary focus of Parental Discretion Is Advised? Are there marked differences between your N.W.A book and other published biographies on the same subject? Did any specific N.W.A member receive the spotlight or ample attention in the book?
My original pitch for this was a bio on the group that dives between their story and the history of hip-hop at the time. When I started, there wasn’t a book that was focused solely on the group. I wanted to focus on N.W.A and go beyond their story to what was happening in L.A. and South Central that influenced the music, as well as offer a look at the nation at large and what allowed N.W.A to captivate and provoke the masses. I wanted to get into the birth of gangsta rap, while taking a step back and looking at America’s relationship with hip-hop during its infancy, and I wanted to connect the dots. That’s what drove me to do this book, and I hope what separates it from others that are out there.
How many people were interviewed? Were there any challenges with the interviews? How was your interaction with Dr. Dre? You’ve mentioned that your time with Ice Cube really pushed you past the finish line and that it was surreal seeing him with the finished project. Can you talk about that?
Gosh, dozens of interviews were done for this book. The biggest challenge was getting some people to talk in light of Straight Outta Compton. Some people felt slighted by their portrayal, or omission, from the film, and that hurt my reporting more than helped it, to be frank. Cube and D.O.C. were the most generous with their time when it came to the project, and those interviews really helped shape what my reporting and research couldn’t fill in. Cube especially, as he’s had such a complicated history with this group. Talking to him now, many years removed from it, I saw a man still completely in awe of what his younger self accomplished, and seeing his excitement when he saw the finished book made it all worth it. I hope he’s right about the book ending up on curricula. I really wanted this to be an essential read for hip-hop fans.
The late Jerry Heller sued N.W.A. Did he provide an interview or any input for the book?
Jerry and I corresponded during the research and interviewing phase of the writing. Jerry was extremely frustrated about the film and his portrayal, which he thought was unfair. He did invite me to his home to see his collection of N.W.A paraphernalia; however, he passed away two weeks before we were supposed to meet.
There’s a discrepancy as to who actually founded the group. One story is that Eazy-E was brainstorming at Arabian Prince’s house in Inglewood, and suggested Niggaz With Attitude (NWA). Did you interview Arabian Prince? Does the book confirm who the founder or founders are?
Shout-out to Arabian Prince. He was one of the folks that our timing never quite worked out. I’ve heard discrepancies over how the name came to be, but nothing but uncertainties over who exactly founded the group. The book covers the period before the group came to be, and really connects the dots between the men.
On the day Eazy-E passed away, I was in my grandma’s kitchen listening to 92.3 KKBT The Beat. Where were you? Does the book tackle HIV/AIDS issues?
When Eazy passed, I was a kid growing up in Cincinnati who had never even seen a palm tree in his life and got away with listening to a lot of rap. The book does get into HIV/AIDS, and the many theories surrounding Eazy’s death.
Please describe your writing process. How long did the research take for the book? Did you require a specific setting to write? How long did it take?
A lot of stress, tears, revisions, and caffeine. Just kidding (I’m not). I spent 13 months straight on research and interviews for Parental Discretion Is Advised. Keeping my research organized was nearly as tough as the writing. My home office was a war zone of books, magazines, notebooks, albums and a giant storyboard with post it notes that I probably altered a few hundred times. Although the bulk of the writing took place in my home, I traveled a ton during its creation, so I also wrote on planes and in libraries and coffee shops. From conception to publication was about three years.
Since finishing Parental Discretion Is Advised, are you in awe at the amount of support you received? Or did you expect it, given the subject matter?
I’m grateful, and blown away, by the support. Writing a book really felt like giving birth to a child. I was so close to these words and this story for such a long time, and there was this emotional toll that the process took on me that I’m still working through. It was terrifying to see people read it and have their own opinions, but I’ve truly appreciated the experience.
In 2017, Dr. Dre pledged $10 million for the construction of a performing arts high school in Compton, scheduled to break ground in 2020. Some say this is long overdue on his part. What are your thoughts about it?
I think it’s great that he’s giving back to his community. I’m always in full support of anyone who uses their celebrity to bring positive change to their community. It’s a beautiful thing. I wish more artists did this as arts in school have been in trouble for so long.
Some critics argue that hip-hop music, and specifically “gangsta rap,” is as harmful and hateful as speeches from the Ku Klux Klan, in that it promotes violence in urban communities. Do you agree?
As we know, the argument over lyrics in music goes back decades. Do I think it promotes violence? No, as I don’t believe what anyone sees or hears in music or in films or video games absolves them from personal accountability. I’ve watched a shit-ton of violent action movies, played the same videos, and listened to the same music, and yet I’ve somehow managed to never commit a violent crime or feel compelled to get a gun or sell drugs. The argument to me is bullshit and continues to be a lazy way to place blame on others.
How did you negotiate being a queer man of color writing about a group (albeit an important group) that was often hostile to your identity (and to women and femmes)?
The truth is, it was quite easy to navigate being a queer man and writing about this group. I’ve covered hip-hop at the LA Times for a decade now and before that, I was a fan of the genre and grew up with it. The hostility of certain lyrics made me uncomfortable and insecure when I was much younger, but writing about it has allowed me to take artists to task and confront what is in their music.
I’ve talked at length to Cube about the old lyrics and why they were horribly problematic–but he didn’t need any of that explained to him. He’s recognized it and matured past it. Are he and Dre as apologetic about their past hostile lyrics as I would have liked them to be? Absolutely not. But what I respect is the fact that they are able to engage our community in more positive ways because they have learned from the past. I wish more of our older rappers were like that. As for the young ones who still insist on peppering their lyrics with homophobic, transphobic, and misogynist lyrics, I don’t see it for them and I never will.
Will we ever see the day when hip-hop evolves beyond its homophobic and transphobic roots and becomes more inclusive?
That’s really up to mainstream audiences. There’s fantastic queer rappers out there making incredible music and showing that hip-hop comes in a myriad of voices. The question is, will mainstream audiences prop those acts up? Will major labels sign them for deals? Will corporate America get behind them?
With regard to the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, how do you feel about companies censoring artists’ offensive lyrics and/or removing them from playlists? Do you think a disruption in their earnings will force a change in this area?
In reference to Spotify’s policy that removed artists from promotional playlists, its poor rollout and vague language torpedoed it. The reason those movements have been slower to take hold in music is that it would require labels, brands, radio, streaming services, and promoters to be the ones to pull support. All of them. Music’s ecosystem is far more complex than film/TV.
The N-word is being scrutinized more than ever. A few months ago, rapper Kendrick Lamar scolded a fan during his concert for use of the word. Should this still be an ongoing debate? Who decides who has the right to use the N-word and in what context?
Parental Discretion Is Advised has an entire chapter dedicated to the N-word. While I frankly don’t care to hear or entertain the opinion of anyone who isn’t black on the subject, it’s really fascinating talking to different generations of black folks about their relationship with the word “nigga.” It’s a charged conversation and it’s going to be unending.
Do you plan to write any other books on hip-hop or R&B artists?
I’ve got an idea that I’m super excited about and am working on that proposal now–so that’s a major yes!