There’s a poignant moment at the end of Boyz in the Hood, where Trey (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Doughboy (O’Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube) share a moment of reflection in response to the violence that took the life of Trey’s best friend and Doughboy’s brother. The scene lingers, if only because audiences were sure—even before the film’s closing credits confirm it—that this would be the last time the two characters would have such a moment; Trey is headed to Morehouse for college and Doughboy will inevitably be killed by the gun violence that was destroying their neighborhood.
The power of director John Singleton’s debut came from its realism—a realism that many in America viewed as wholly linked to the “noise” that echoed from urban America via the sounds of hip-hop or what some called “Gangsta Rap.” For far too many and for far too long, there was no distinction to be made between Ice Cube, the politically conscious lyrical genius and budding entrepreneur, and Doughboy, “the n*gger you love to hate”; In those early days, O’Shea Jackson, in fact, encouraged that little distinction be made between the two as a measure of the lack of representational diversity for Black men.
By all accounts Ice Cube should be dead, both literally and figuratively. Yet as the rapper, turned Hollywood maverick, and mainstream pitchman turned 43, his longevity and adaptability stands as testament to both his vision as an artist and business person and the ability of hip-hop culture, as Gaye Theresa Johnson recently argued, to celebrate Black humanity.
As the primary lyricist for NWA, with tracks like “Express Yourself” and “F**k the Police” and his own solo recordings Amerikka’s Most Wanted (1990), Death Certificate (1991), The Predator (1992) and Lethal Injection (1993), Ice Cube established himself as one of America’s most truthful wordsmiths. Yet, Cube always seemed conscious that there were other possibilities for his career. His decision, at age 19, not to sign a contract with Jerry Heller, instigating the initial break with NWA, was emblematic of a figure who always saw the big picture, even if some of his music (“No Vaseline”) remained wedded to the kinds of misogyny, sexism and homophobia that too often gets excused as young male exuberance.
Cube was not alone; Ice-T (Tracy Marrow), LL Cool J (James Todd Smith), Queen Latifah (Dana Owens) and most famously the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) were all artists, arguably at the peak of their recording careers in the early 1990s, who seamlessly transitioned into television and film careers that continue to thrive two decades later, to the extent that there are a generation on consumer who are largely oblivious to their “former” careers at rappers.
There is no small irony that Cube and Smith represented a classic “Good Black/Bad Black” dichotomy—Smith was the mischievous ghetto kid now attending the all-White prep school and Cube was the angry, gangbanger behind the “LA Riots”—yet Smith has made largely made his career as a violent action hero, often working at the behest of The State (the Bad Boy and Men in Black franchises, as well as films like Enemy of the State and Independence Day), while Ice Cube’s most visible successes have been in PG-13 urban comedies like the Barbershop franchises and family friendly fare like The Longshots (2008) and the Are We There Yet? franchise, which produced two films and a television series. Cube’s long forgotten beef with Common (over the legacy of West Coast rap, later squashed by Minister Louis Farrakhan) is an example of an Ice Cube that should be in our cultural rearview.
Yet in the popular imagination, Ice Cube remains wedded to the period of racial unrest and anxieties about urban violence that framed the end of the end of the 20th century. Such was the case when NPR’s Terry Gross (whose job is to ask celebrities the kinds of questions that folk in rural Kansas might ask) interviewed Ice Cube for her show Fresh Air, and spent a significant time discussing Cube famous scowl. To his credit—again emblematic of his vision—Cube has monetized that scowl into series of commercials for Coors Light (a far cry from his St. Ides malt liquor commercials from the mid-1990s).
In another example of Cube’s previous personas limiting his mainstream visibility, when Oprah Winfrey booked actors from film Barbershop, which he starred in and executive produced, she famously didn’t invite Cube, who understandably took offense chirping, “"She's had damn rapists, child molesters and lying authors on her show. And if I'm not a rags-to-riches story for her, who is?" Hip-hop’s role as a cultural force even forced Oprah to rethink his relationship to the culture as she’s found time to break-bread, figuratively speaking, with figures like Jay-Z and most recently 50 Cent. That shift is in no small part due to Ice Cube’s own role in helping Hip-Hop grow up in the public eye, as he has also grown up before our eyes.
A relatively obscure moment stands-out, in terms of the complexity of Ice Cube’s identity and his professional choices. While many remember his star turn in Boyz in the Hood, relatively few remember or even saw his role in Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1995) which depicted Cube in the role of Teddy Woods, a victim of corruption in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Ice Cube’s choice to work with Burnett, a member of the LA Rebellion, the cohort of Black filmmakers like Halie Gerima and Julie Dash who emerged in the 1970s, and whose films Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) are generally regarding as some of the greatest achievement in Black filmmaking, was perhaps the best evidence of Cube’s desire to take his acting and filmmaking craft seriously.
Ice Cube was part of generation of young Black men, who were conscious that they might not see the age of 25; this, of course, has not changed, though today’s young Black males have little expectation that they will reach that age—Trayvon Martin was reminder that even the so-called “good” kids are under assault. For that reason alone we should celebrate Ice Cube’s 43rd birthday—and his ability to sustain a career that has consistently challenged our perception of who Black men can be.