Pacific Postcards

N.W.A and the Pacific


The Pacific Ocean has long been alluring, first attracting indigenous people with its plentiful resources, with these resources then commodified as non-native settlers arrived to the Pacific. In its long history the Pacific has been used for trade, hunting, war, transport, and most recently, leisure. In the twentieth century the American Pacific coast in Southern California emerged as a place of relaxation and fun where Californians basked in the sun enjoying their environment. In Alison Rose Jefferon’s writings, she describes how African Americans in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century created their own spaces of leisure along the beach despite discrimnation and segregation. This creation of coastal space for black Americans is seen in N.W.A., Malibu, CA 1989, where the members of the rap group N.W.A pose at the beach for a magazine photoshoot. Furthermore, their presence on the beach is a testament to their simultaneous success and controversy described by Gerrick Kennedy in his historical analysis of N.W.A. Thus, despite facing discrimination as black Americans, N.W.A connected with and used  their Pacific coastal environment and its associations with leisure in order to become a wildly successful, albeit controversial group. 

N.W.A was photographed on the beach in 1989 as they were becoming mega stars, and the photograph reveals their newfound success and controversy in the public’s eye. The photograph was taken for Esquire Magazine by Timothy White, a photographer renowned for his celebrity portraiture. N.W.A’s feature in a major magazine is proof of their fame, and the details of the photograph display their ascending socioeconomic status. In the photograph, Dr. Dre holds a cell phone, and all the members boast crisp white sneakers and trendy clothing, proving that the group has become wealthy and successful. Beyond displaying commercial success, the photograph also hints at N.W.A’s controversial standing. N.W.A labeled themselves the world’s most dangerous group, and Kennedy writes on how their explicit and honest lyrics garnered both attention and hate from the public. The members of N.W.A seem aware of their controversy as Eazy-E and Ice Cube boast smug grins. Their facial expressions not only presents them as cool young rappers, but also shows their acknowledgement of their controversial standing. Similarly, N.W.A’s controversy is evident in their use of the beach. The rap group is at the beach to promote themselves for a magazine and not to swim, which goes against traditional beach norms. As evident in the photograph. N.W.A used the opportunity of being in a major magazine to share their success and controversy with the world through Pacific imagery.

It is important to note that both N.W.A’s success and controversy was largely due to their identity as black Americans from a poor Los Angeles neighborhood. N.W.A understood the commercial appeal of music about the harsh realities of life in Compton that could only be told by black Americans; however, by discussing the violence they experienced in their neighborhood, they became extremely controversial as they exclaimed the sometimes violent feelings of many black Americans in marginalized communities. The simultaneous appreciation and disdain for N.W.A shows the tokenization of black musicians by the predominately white American public. Black rappers like N.W.A were interesting because of their unique urban tales that only they could present honestly, yet they were also controversial and hated because of their rejection of social and racial norms that they expressed in their explicit lyrics.

Due to N.W.A’s identity as black men from an urban environment, the coastal background serves to display their success. The beach itself is used by N.W.A to display their newfound success because of the Pacific coast’s association with leisure and white Americans. Access to the beach has historically been a luxury. As described by Jefferson, African Americans facing discrimination in the early 20th century controlled space along Southern California beaches in order to use them for leisure and relaxation. De facto segregation at Los Angeles beaches led black Angelenos to primarily lounge at the Ocean Park beach just south of Santa Monica, with this area being derogatorily labeled the “Inkwell.” Thus N.W.A, like past black Angelenos who visited the Inkwell, carved out coastal space as their own despite continued discrimination. Furthermore, N.W.A famously faced discrimnation at the hands of law enforcement; Eazy-E was beaten by police, and N.W.A’s shows were routinely shut down by authorities for being aggressive and loud. Just as the dance halls of black Angelenos in Santa Monica were shut down for being too loud, the same racist argument was used to cancel N.W.A’s concerts over half a decade later. Therefore, as black Angelenos historically did not have the easiest access to the valuable commodity of the beach, the confident posing of N.W.A on the beach shows their challenging of racial norms and ascension in status. 

In the photograph the members of N.W.A do not make any direct boasts of wealth through gold jewelry as they did in many other photoshoots; rather, the ocean and their access to it displays their status. While the beach is public land and by the 1980s there was no legislation or strong cultural norms in California barring African Americans from going to certain beaches, the beach was still seen as a luxury because it is a place of leisure. Thus, N.W.A being photographed at the beach is symbolic of them making it out of the dangerous environment they grew up in in south central Los Angeles. N.W.A’s debut album Straight Outta Compton not only denotes that their music is coming from Compton, but also how their success allowed them to move “outta” Compton to luxurious places such as the beach. Therefore N.W.A promotes themselves and an image of success by being photographed on the Pacific coast because of the beach’s association with leisure and wealth. 

As seen in their usage of the beach to promote a luxurious image, N.W.A continuously used their surrounding environment to their benefit. N.W.A associated themselves with Los Angeles in order to mobilize the fame and allure of the Pacific coast. Through both N.W.A’s music about their hometown and promotional material like this magazine photoshoot, they consistently presented a California image. As mentioned by Jefferson, the beach was a valuable resource sought out by many; thus, N.W.A capitalized on their proximity to such a treasured commodity. The rap group used their neighborhood of Compton and their coastal connections displayed in this photograph as a marketing tool which contributed to their rampant success. This photograph displays how N.W.A used the beach’s commodification to associate themselves with a cool, coastal image.

N.W.A’s connection to their environment and mobilization of their coastal environment’s attraction is further shown through the rap group’s attire. Three members boast Los Angeles Raiders hats, which pay direct homage to their home football team, and Eazy-E wears a UCLA sweatshirt. Rather than wearing this sweatshirt to promote a school he attended, Eazy-E is displaying his connection to Los Angeles. As this was a photoshoot for a magazine rather than an unplanned photograph, the rapper’s outfits were consciously coordinated, so the members chose to show the world that they were connected to Los Angeles. The proud boasting of Los Angeles themed gear shows N.W.A’s understanding of the attraction of their environment. Due to the historic connection of Los Angeles with coastal living, leisure, and wealth, N.W.A is once again capitalizing off the allure of their hometown in order to promote an enticing Southern California  image. Thus, this photograph shows how the allure of Los Angeles and the Pacific was mobilized by and contributed to the success of N.W.A.

However, N.W.A’s extensive use of their coastal environment did not come without critique. The disconcerted surfer in the background of the photograph symbolizes America’s reaction to N.W.A and reveals the racial dynamics along the Pacific coast. The white American holding a surfboard in the back of the photograph is staring at N.W.A, seemingly confused as to why a group of four fully clothed black men are at the beach in Malibu. The surfers' response to N.W.A on the beach is a microcosm for white America’s response to N.W.A. Kennedy speaks on how N.W.A shocked America with their honest and violent lyrics, and while the surfers reaction is more of confusion than shock, it is symbolic of the massive attention N.W.A garnered from the world. Beyond the symbolism of the surfer, the coexistence of black and white beachgoers in this photograph connects to Jefferson’s writings on the Inkwell. Jefferson mentions Nick Gabaldan, the first recorded black surfer, and while many African Americans have surfed, in popular culture surfing is primarily associated with white Americans. Thus, the surfer staring at N.W.A shows how black Americans' use of the beach was seen as an intrusion into surf and beach culture that was commonly perceived as a white space. The stark contrast and tension between the surfer and the rap group can also be extrapolated to musical genres. The surfer is emblematic of surf rock, a musical genre that greatly differs from West Coast hip-hop, though both originated from Southern California. The juxtaposition of the surfer and N.W.A in the photograph shows the continual unique racial dynamics and tensions on the California coast.

The photograph exemplifies how N.W.A, like previous black Angelenos at the Inkwell, used the Pacific Coast to their benefit. While at the Inkwell Angelenos relaxed and used the beach for leisure, in this photograph the beach serves as a symbol of wealth and success that promotes the image of the monumental rap group. N.W.A mobilized societal associations of the beach with wealth and leisure in order to promote an image that reflected their success. Furthermore, N.W.A connected their identity as black Americans with their environment of Los Angeles in order to become successful, and once successful they remained connected to the Pacific because of their region’s association with wealth and leisure. All aspects of this photograph’s composition, whether that be the rapper's clothing, the surfer in the background, or the Malibu coastline, display how N.W.A was situated at the intersection of environment, identity, and pop culture. By mobilizing the environmental allure of Los Angeles and their identity as black Americans, N.W.A created a frenzy of fans and critics that propelled them into stardom.


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