Black Kings: How the Cosby Show and NWA Collided During the LA Riots

The Cosby Show and NWA converged on April 29th of 1992, as the themes of race, class, and influence proved to be the most pertinent after the acquittal of all four officers charged with the excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, a young Black male. NWA became to voice of the Los Angeles Riots that followed thereafter, and The Cosby Show’s finale was supposed to help pacify the uprising. The demonization of NWA in the late 1980s due to their explicit language and content was echoed in 1992, as NWA, along with countless gangsta rappers, was being blamed with inciting the riots. The very last episode of The Cosby Show aired on the second day of the riots with the hope that it would influence people to stay home that night as opposed to keeping the riots going.[1] This, evidently, was not a successful plan, because the riots went on for four more days. The LA Riots poses a paradox, as the general public rejected NWA, even though they spoke to those who participated in the uprising, but the general public accepted The Cosby Show, even though it did not. This leads me to question: What does it mean to have an accepted portrayal of Blackness that did not represent the majority of the Black community? Why were both the portrayals not accepted?

NWA rose to fame in 1988 with the release of their first album Straight Outta Compton, through which we are introduced to this five-man group from the inner-city of Compton with “Straight Outta Compton”: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. Also, police brutality and racial profiling were protested with their single “Fuck Tha Police”. The group immediately received backlash because of their use of explicit language and lack of care about what they said. Because of this, NWA was banned from airways and MTV.[2] NWA became the negative portrayal of Blackness, because they spoke of things that America felt was better left unsaid. That being, NWA’s portrayal of Blackness was not just rejected, but was trying to be suppressed by the state, as the FBI even sent them a letter to voice there discontent with their material.[3] Also, Straight Outta Compton had to have the Parental Advisory label on it, one of the first albums to do so.[4] NWA spoke their truth, disregarding any criticism because they saw value in what they said, and so did the general public, as their album went double platinum.[5]

The Cosby Show lasted eight seasons, starting in 1984 and culminating on April 30th of 1992. This show explored what it meant be Black and upper-middle class in the context of a family. Clair and Cliff Huxtable were a lawyer and a doctor, a successful couple with five exuberant children. They had to learn how to raise their children in the context of their class, as they did not want their children to be spoiled, but to know the value of a dollar.[6] There no real discourse really about the social implications of Blackness, because their race did not affect their daily lives. Clair and Cliff went to a (fictional) historically black college (HBC) and were able to succeed off of their merit, with no implications of any incidents of racism or sexism contributing to their experience. The Huxtables combatted the stereotype of one-parent household in the Black community and pushed the notion of traditional family values, of which President Ronald Reagan was a proponent, even further because Clair was a successful lawyer in her own right, as opposed to just staying home with the children. This seeming happy life could not be related to after the conclusion of the Rodney King Case.

The Rodney King Beating on March 3rd, 1991 was one of the most significant cases of police brutality in American history, as the brutal assault of a young Black man in Los Angeles was caught on tap and broadcasted for the world to see. The question of excessive force came up, as a speeding incident escalated to a 25-year-old man having eleven fractures.[7] This case struck a nerve in the Black community, especially in that of South Central, Los Angeles, not because police brutality was shocking or something new, but because the officers involved were acquitted of all charges brought against them by the Los Angeles District Attorney even with the video as proof. This proved to be a blatant disregard of evidence and another instance in which police officers get away with brutality in LA. As John Singleton, director of Boyz In The Hood, said this acquittal “lit the fuse to a bomb.”[8] That night, April 29th, 1992, South Central erupted into a riot, as the outrage of the acquittal was expressed in this action. Throughout the looting, arson, and assault, NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” of 1988 became the mantra of the six-day riot. The song seemed to be brought back to life four years latter because Rodney became its personification. Ice Cube starts the song as he states:

Fuck tha police
Comin straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority

Fuck that shit, ’cause I ain’t tha one
For a punk muthafucka with a badge and a gun
To be beatin on, and throwin in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell[9]

A young “brown minority” was beat up by the police and the rioters of LA were not going to stand for that anymore. Some tried to make it seem as though gangsta rap, like this some, incited the riot. NWA became the center of controversy yet again, as people like Dewey Stokes “believe that the rap music promotes, by its very language and by its very actions, promotes violence against authority and, consequently, violence against law enforcement.”[10] NWA was deemed unacceptable, because they voiced their truths, truths that did not fall in line with the facade that America put on as a just society. NWA went “toe to toe” with the oppression that they faced as lower-class Black citizens by unapologetically addressing it. Because of the language chosen to do so, NWA came under fire. Eazy-E said referring to the riots, “We don’t make nobody go out and do this. If we didn’t do the record, it would have still happened.”[11]   The tensions were already high, so one song was not going to push the animosity over the brink. One can argue that there was no way for NWA to incite the LA Riots, solely because the inflammatory song that became its anthem was released four years prior, but the stigma associated with NWA that started in 1988 just resurfaced. Niggaz Wit Attitudes were a rejected portrayal of Blackness in the late 80s and this rejection persisted as the rejection of police brutality came about with the King Case. To call what happened to Rodney King police brutality, one would have to call NWA’s Straight Outta Compton truth, and that was not going to occur.

The magnitude of acceptance and importance of The Cosby Show was highlighted by the mere fact that the show’s very last episode aired the second day of the LA Riots, interrupting the non-stop coverage of them. Because The Cosby Show was associated with “good” Black people and happy endings, it was believed that airing the finale would help pacify the anger that was being expressed. KNBC urged people to “stay at home” and take “this time to remember what Thursday nights were like before all this madness began in Los Angeles,”[12] completely disregarding the fact that some neighborhoods’ Thursday nights consisted of incidents of police brutality. It comes off very patronizing, as they seemed to be telling the people angered by the abuse of the state with no form of justice to stop being angry and listen to rational and happy Huxtables. This trivializes the issue. The mere fact that KNBC and Bill Cosby himself saw it to be imperative to show the finale in the midst of the unrest is astounding. The paradox that was created by this was profound, as it can be perceived that the cry for justice fell on deaf ears. All the rioters needed were to watch The Cosby Show finale to see the happy ending, so that they, too, believed they got the same thing. The acceptable portrayal of Blackness that was the Huxtables would show them that Black people do not need to have “tantrums” to address racial issues. The Huxatbles addressed race without throwing it in the face of their audience, like having the storyline of Clair and Cliff meeting at Hillman College, a fictional historical black college (HBC), and Cliff wearing sweatshirts of HBCUs.[13] Clair and Cliff became symbols of Black success, as they were able to achieve class mobility and great careers that started by going to Hillman. It was evident, though, that the Huxtables, living in a brownstone in Brooklyn, had to be used as a mechanism to address class in the Black community; they had to show that Black people can be upper-middle class and what that may look like, so the majority of the show, in my opinion addressed what it means to be of that class than of that race. It is possible that the stress of being raced goes away with class mobility. I say this because, within the context of NWA, a lot of the issues that were highlighted were things that happened to them due to their race. Police brutality is more prevalent in lower-income neighborhoods, which is probably why it was not addressed in the show.

In all, The Cosby Show was an acceptable portrayal of Blackness because it did not explore Blackness. The focus was solely on the class structure, which erased race from the show for the most part. NWA explored the intersection of class and race by looking at police brutality and racial profiling in their neighborhood. There was no nice, neat ending of the Rodney King Case, so there could not be a nice, neat response. NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” became one of the responses and resonated with the rioters. The rioters may have loved The Cosby Show, but police brutality is no sitcom.




[1] [GetKempt]. (2011, September 15) KNBC Interrupts LA Riot Coverage for Cosby Show Finale. [Video File]. Retrieved from

[2] Cooper, Mark. "NWA: 'Our Raps Are Documentary. We Don't Take Sides'" The Guardian. N.p., 7 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. <>.

[3] Kurp, Josh. "How The FBI Helped Turn N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Into A Hit." N.p., 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <>.

[4] Cardiner, Brock. "The First "Parental Advisory" Hip-Hop Album | Highsnobiety." Highsnobiety HSTBT The First HipHop Album to Carry a Parental Advisory Sticker Comments. N.p., 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <>.

[5] Serpick, Evan. "N.W.A. Biography." Rolling Stone. N.p., 2001. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <>.

[6] Alston, Joshua. "How The Cosby Show Spoke to Race and Class in '80s America." · TV Club 10 · The A.V. Club. N.p., 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <>.

[7] [taritrott]. (2011, March 6). Rodney King beating and riots -- CNN doccumentary (Full length). [Video File]. Retrieved from
[8] [taritrott]. (2011, March 6). Rodney King beating and riots -- CNN doccumentary (Full length). [Video File]. Retrieved from

[9] NWA. "Fuck Tha Police." Straight Outta Compton. CD. Ruthless Records/Priority. 1988.
[10] [Hezakya Starr]. (2014, August 31). CBS NEWS SPECIAL: "Gangsta Rap" Lyrics UNDER ATTACK In The Early 90's(Rare Footage). [Video File]. Retrieved from

[11] [Hezakya Starr]. (2014, August 31). CBS NEWS SPECIAL: "Gangsta Rap" Lyrics UNDER ATTACK In The Early 90's(Rare Footage). [Video File]. Retrieved from

[12] [GetKempt]. (2011, September 15) KNBC Interrupts LA Riot Coverage for Cosby Show Finale. [Video File]. Retrieved from
[13] Alston, Joshua. "How The Cosby Show Spoke to Race and Class in '80s America." · TV Club 10 · The A.V. Club. N.p., 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <>.


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