Please pick a section from Chapter 2: “Hood Politics” from Promise That You Will Sing About Me (in the attachment) and relate it to one of the themes from a previous week in the course. For example hip hop and feminism, Black Power, neighborhood geography, etc.
You should begin by crafting an arguable claim about how the chosen section relates to a previous course theme (hip hop and feminism, Black Power).
Try to be as specific as possible. For example, if you make a claim that there is a connection between Tupac and Kendrick’s work, make sure that you give specific ways their work is connected in your claim. Please use at least three direct quotations from Promise That You Will Sing About Me AND at least two quotes from optional text/films in order to support your answer.
Note: Your responses should be 2-3 paragraphs ( No less than 800 words)and provide evidence from the texts and film to support your answers.
Quotes: When you are “quoting from the book,” please include the author’s last name and page numbers (Lewis, 72). Make sure to always take a minute to “unpack” or explain what the passage is saying in your own words. This will help me understand why you’ve chosen the particular quote to help support your answer.
Texts (Promise That You Will Sing About Me) and Another optional text about hip hop and feminism are in the attachment below.
Film link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fLKcHu-LJo
“Maybe I’ll Be a Poet, Rapper”: Hip-Hop Feminism
and Literary Aesthetics in Push
Simultaneously,�hip-hop�literature,�known�alternately�as�“street�lit,”�“ghetto�lit,” and�“lit�hop,”�written�by�black�women�and�marketed�to�young�women�and�girls�from ages�thirteen�to�thirty,�exploded;�titles�like�Nikki�Turner’s�A Hustler’s Wife,�sell�yearly in�the�hundreds�of�thousands�(Marshall,�Staples,�and�Gibson�28).�It�is�not�coinci- dental�that�the�entrepreneurial�spirit�that�has�characterized�black�men’s�rise�to�fame in�hip�hop�has�been�adopted�by�female�street�novelists,�many�of�whom�self-publish their�gritty�urban�tales.�The�rapid�explosion�of�black�female�street-lit�authors�is�a cultural�and�literary�phenomenon�that�demands�the�attention�of�scholars�who�are interested�in�the�ways�that�black�women�use�literature�to�articulate�black�female subjectivity.�It�stands�to�reason,�then,�that�if�we�want�to�locate�narratives�of�women’s lives�in�the�hip-hop�generation,�we�must�turn�to�hip�hop’s�literature.
Sapphire’s�1996�novel�Push draws�on�the�“gritty�urban�street�chronicles”�of�hip- hop�aesthetics�to�tell�the�story�of�Claireece�“Precious”�Jones,�a�teenager�coming�of age�in�what�William�Jelani�Cobb�refers�to�as�the�golden�era�of�hip�hop,�1984�to�1992.2
This�text�predates�the�rise�of�hip-hop�or�street�literature�by�several�years.3 Sapphire’s effort�to�tie�Push,�through�implicit�and�explicit�textual�allusions,�to�the�work�of�Toni Morrison,�Alice�Walker,�Audre�Lorde,�and�Pat�Parker�connects�these�seemingly divergent�“high�vs.�low�art”�approaches�to�black�women’s�storytelling.�Critics�have tended�to�ascribe�literary�value�to�texts�based�on�their�proximity�to�the�aesthetic qualities�of�works�by�more�canonical�authors,�such�as�Zora�Neale�Hurston,�Toni Morrison,�Alice�Walker,�and�Gayl�Jones.�Because�these�novelists�have�all�drawn�heavily on�blues�and�jazz�aesthetics�in�constructing�their�novels,�literary�critics�identified the�blues�and�jazz�as�a�significant�unifying�characteristic�of�the�African�American women’s�literary�tradition.4 This�has�tended�to�mean�that�African�American�literary texts,�particularly�those�of�black�women,�must�be�beholden�to�the�literary�nexus�of jazz�and�the�blues�if�they�want�to�be�considered�“serious”�literature.
Push acts�as�a�bridge�text�between�earlier�generations�of�black�women’s�writing and�the�urban�street�dramas�that�predominate�today.�Sapphire’s�invocation�of�hip�hop is�an�early�portrait�of�a�hip-hop�aesthetic�in�prose�form�that�offers�relevance�while avoiding�the�pitfalls�of�presentism.�Further,�the�novel�offers�a�critical�model�for the�ways�in�which�hip-hop�texts�(might)�engage�with�their�literary�forebears.�Push demonstrates�the�need�for�literary�works�to�grapple�with�the�politics,�poetics,�and aesthetics�of�hip�hop,�while�remaining�connected�with�these�prior�works.�Moreover, Push calls�into�existence�a�new�generation�of�black�women’s�stories,�stories�that consider�age-old�of�questions�of�family,�motherhood,�friendship,�sex,�and�love,�but in�the�context�of�hip-hop�culture,�the�AIDS�epidemic,�the�conservative�backlash�of the�1980s,�and�the�deindustrialized�city�confronting�urban�blight.
Thus,�two�questions�inform�my�examination�of�the�use�of�hip-hop�aesthetics�in Sapphire’s�1996�novel�Push.�First,�given�the�centrality�of�blues�and�jazz�music�to�the African�American�literary�tradition,�how�does�contemporary�African�American�liter- ature—and�in�particular,�work�by�African�American�women—encounter�and�engage
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hip-hop�culture�and�its�aesthetic�contours?�Second,�how�are�hip-hop�aesthetics, which�are�generally�characterized�as�issuing�from�and�being�informed�by�black�male experiences,�informed�and�shaped�by�the�stories�of�African�American�women? Sapphire�offers�preliminary�thoughts�on�how�we�might�answer�these�questions�in�an interview�with�literary�critic�Wendy�Rountree,�who�attempts�to�read�Push as�a�blues novel.�Whereas�Rountree�argues�that�“Sapphire�creates�a�young�blues�woman, Precious,�who�conquers�physical�and�emotional�abuse,�reclaims�her�voice,�and�tells her�story�by�masterfully�weaving�her�painful�experiences�into�blues�expression”�(133), Sapphire�characterizes�the�text�as�a�“blues/hip�hop/jazz�novel.”�She�notes�that�in addition�to�the�themes�of�acceptance,�submission,�and�transcendence�that�issue from�the�blues,�“it�is�in�hip�hop,�the�music�of�Precious’�generation,�that�we�find�the open�defiance,�visibility�of�the�formally�invisible�(ghetto�youth),�and�the�movement from�the�periphery�of�the�culture�to�it’s�[sic]�center”�(Sapphire�qtd.�in�Rountree�133). Although�Rountree�acknowledges�the�hybrid�nature�of�the�novel,�hip�hop�retains import�only�parenthetically�in�her�reading.�However,�Push actively�resists�a�singular reading�through�the�blues�tradition,�because�the�social�concerns�of�the�hip-hop generation�primarily�inform�the�protagonist’s�negotiation�of�age-old�questions about�motherhood,�sexuality,�family,�and�racism.
Instead,�Push foregrounds�and�is�informed�by�a�hip-hop�aesthetic.�This�aesthetic issues�from�a�generational�confrontation�with�economic�lack,�privation,�and�the realities�of�civil�rights-era�and�Black�Power-era�dreams�deferred,�and�takes�three primary�forms.�First,�it�uses�a�kind�of�social�alchemy�that�transforms�lack�into substance.�Lacking�access�to�formal�musical�training�in�increasingly�underfunded public�schools,�urban�youth�made�their�own�minimalist�instruments.�In�the�beginning, hip-hop�musicians�had�three�basic�instruments:�two�turntables,�a�microphone,�and a�person�who�could�beatbox,�a�technique�in�which�a�person�blew�air�rhythmically through�his�or�her�mouth�to�create�percussion.�By�the�early�1990s,�rapper�Tupac Shakur�had�cemented�this�pervasive�social�alchemy�by�famously�lamenting�the�expe- rience�of�“trying�to�make�a�dollar�out�of�fifteen�cents.”�Second,�hip-hop�music�and cultural�expression�privilege�a�well-honed�facility�for�defiance;�in�fact,�hip-hop expression�could�be�said�to�issue�from�a�set�of�cultural�experiences�that�pivot�upon a�dialectic�of�deviance�and�defiance.�By�deviance,�I�refer�to�the�ways�that�larger�cul- tural�narratives�and�structures�of�power�sought�to�demonize�and�pathologize�black and�brown�communities�from�without.�The�cultural�response�to�these�conditions among�hip-hop�youth�was�not�uplift�or�respectability�politics,�nonviolent�direct�action, or�armed�political�resistance,�but�open�cultural�defiance.�The�goal�of�such�open defiance�was�to�demand�visibility,�recognition,�and�voice,�if�not�access�to�better�social conditions.�Finally,�hip-hop�aesthetics�privilege�street�consciousness�and�cultural� literacy.�Hip-hop�music�and�texts�celebrate�protagonists�who�know�how�to�survive in�the�mean�streets�of�the�city,�and�these�texts�issue�tests�of�one’s�cultural�and�street knowledge,�by�references�to�history,�current�affairs,�geographical�location,�popular culture,�old�music,�new�music,�and�current�slang.�Thus,�hip-hop�texts�provide�a smorgasbord�of�cultural�references,�and�the�reader’s�or�listener’s�degree�of�knowledge determines�the�extent�to�which�he�or�she�can�make�meaning�out�of�the�text�and/or navigate�the�neighborhood.
Those Are the Breaks: Hip-hop Aesthetics and Literary Technique
Precious�begins�her�story�with�a�shocking�confession:�“I�was�left�back�whenI�was�twelve�because�I�had�a�baby�for�my�fahver,”�(3).�Her�precarious�social situation�makes�her�unsure�if�her�story�is�“even�a�story,”�but�she�presses�on,�testifying that�she�is�“gonna�try�to�make�sense�and�tell�the�truth,�else�what’s�the�fucking�use?”
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Precious’s�confrontational�style�reflects�the�street�lit�that�emerged�after�Push,�in which�“authors�tell�their�stories�boldly,�without�nuance,�and�with�pride�over�and over�again.�It’s�as�if�street-lit�authors�are�saying,�as�rappers�did�in�the�beginning�of hip�hop,�‘We�are�here.�This�is�how�it�is.�Make�of�us�what�you�will’�”�(Smith�192).
It�is�September�24,�1987.�Precious�has�just�walked�into�“I.S.�146�on�134th Street between�Lenox�Avenue�and�Adam�Clayton�Powell,�Jr.�Blvd”�in�Harlem�(4).�This vivid�description�of�her�exact�location�is�part�of�a�hip-hop�ethos�where�physical location,�a�marker�of�social�location,�is�everything.�Two�anchor�points�situate�the narrative�of�hip-hop�progress:�“where�ya�from”�and�“where�ya�at.”�School�is�a space�of�contention�for�Precious.�She�is�continually�in�conflict�with�her�teachers. After�one�particularly�heated�exchange�with�her�teacher,�she�refuses�to�leave�class, telling�him,�“I�ain’�going�nowhere�motherfucker�till�the�bell�ring.�I�came�to�learn maff�and�you�gon’�teach�me.”�In�a�self-reflexive�moment,�Precious�intimates,�“’N�I really�do�want�to�learn.�Everyday�I�tell�myself�something�gonna�happen,�some�shit like�on�TV.�I’m�gonna�break�through�or�somebody�gonna�break�through�to�me— I’m�gonna�learn,�catch�up,�be�normal”�(5).�She�even�gets�mad�when�other�students become�disruptive,�noting�that�when�“the�other�natives�get�restless�I�break�on�’em” (5).�It�is�significant�that�Precious�thinks�of�her�classmates�as�natives,�which�auto- matically�denotes�the�school�as�a�colonized�space.�Pregnant�with�her�second�child, on�the�verge�of�being�seventeen,�and�in�eighth�grade,�she�gets�expelled�from�school for�being�pregnant�and�for�having�“an�attitude�of�total�uncooperation”�(8).�Precious definitely�needs�a�break,�though�she�cannot�seem�to�catch�one.
The�repetition�of�the�word�break is�useful�for�thinking�about�the�aesthetic�con- tours�of�breaking�within�a�hip-hop�context,�in�which�“the�breaks”�refer�to�bad�luck or�unfortunate�circumstances�as�they�do�in�the�classic�song�by�rapper�Kurtis�Blow.5
Precious�not�only�needs�a�break,�but�she�is�also�willing�to�“break�bad”�or�get�violent with�her�classmates.�However,�more�so�than�all�of�this,�she�proclaims�her�own�need for�a�break-through.�Instead,�the�school�expels�her.�Luckily,�her�school�principal�Mrs. Lichtenstein,�referred�to�as�“the�white�bitch,”�takes�enough�of�an�interest�in�Precious to�suggest�that�she�consider�enrolling�in�an�alternative�school.�Her�mother�is�livid. “Go�down�to�welfare,�school�can’t�help�you�none,�now”�(22).�Now�that�she�is�pregnant with�her�second�child�by�her�father,�that�is.�Precious’s�home�life�is�its�own�site�of brokenness.
Reflecting�on�her�mother’s�refusal�to�acknowledge�her�father’s�abuse,�Precious concludes�that�“that�stinky�hoe�give�me�to�him�[because]�Probably�thas�what�he require�to�fuck�her,�some�of�me.”�Precious�then�has�a�flashback�to�one�of�their�many encounters:�“He�climb�on�me.�.�.�.�I�fall�back�on�bed,�he�fall�right�on�top�of�me.” In�the�midst�of�such�horrendous�abuse,�Precious�“change[s]�stations,�change[s]�bodies” (24).�“I�be�dancing�in�videos!”�she�tells�us.�“In�movies!�I�be�breaking,�fly,�jus’�a�dancing. Umm�hmm�heating�up�the�stage�at�the�Apollo�for�Doug�E.�Fresh�or�Al�B.�Sure! They�love�me!�Say�I’m�one�of�the�best�dancers”�(24).
In�this�understandable�“break”�from,�or�suspension�of�reality,�Precious�not�only changes�her�metaphoric�radio�or�television�station�but�also�changes�bodies,�shifting corporeally�and�temporally.�The�change�in�station�signals�a�shift�from�a�set�of�cultural resources�that�no�longer�works.�She�changes�to�a�station�that�she�can�understand, in�which�she�can�be�a�version�of�herself�that�she�desires.�Tellingly,�she�changes�to�a hip-hop�station.�On�that�station,�the�music�she�hears�conjures�visions�of�being�a video�girl�and�a�breakdancer�for�the�likes�of�hip-hop�pioneer�Doug�E.�Fresh.�She�is not�“flying�away”�but�rather�“breaking�fly,”�or�dancing�with�skill,�flair,�and�alacrity. Though�Precious�is�the�victim�of�many�bad�breaks,�and�though�she�deals�with�those traumas�by�taking�intermittent�breaks�from�reality,�her�fantasies,�configured�in�the nexus�between�breaking�away�from�reality�and�breaking�fly�on�a�hip-hop�stage, invite�us�to�see�these�“breaks”�and�the�brokenness�of�her�life�as�spaces�that�allow for�joy�and�creativity�along�with�critique�and�lament.
“MAybE I’LL bE A PoEt, RAPPER”: HIP-HoP FEMINISM ANd LItERARy AEStHEtICS IN PUSH 57
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Kurtis�Blow�deploys�“the�breaks”�as�a�metaphoric�double�entendre�that�signifies the�precarious�social�circumstances�that�characterize�the�lives�of�urban�youth�in�the 1980s,�and�the�aesthetic�generativity�and expectations�of�the�musical�break.�For instance,�when�the�chorus�moves�from�explicating�what�exactly�“are�the�breaks”�to proclaiming�“break�it�up”�three�times�and�then�telling�the�audience�to�“break�down,” there�is�an�extension�and�repetition�of�this�part�of�the�beat,�which�acts�as�an�invita- tion�for�listeners�to�really�start�dancing.�Blow’s�multivalent�use�of�“the�break(s)” reveals�it�to�be�a�germinal�cultural�metaphor�for�discussing�hip-hop�literary�aesthetics. Alonzo�Westbrook�defines�the�break�as�“the�part�in�an�old�school�song�where�the singer�would�pause�for�an�instrumental�part.�During�the�break,�deejays�would�rap�and b-boys�would�break�dance”�(Westbrook�18).�The�“instrumental�part”�is�known�as the�breakbeat.�Breakbeats�could�also�be�parts�of�a�song�that�a�deejay�finds�especially compelling,�at�which�point�he�or�she�manipulates�the�turntable�to�cause�that�part�of the�record�to�repeat,�much�like�a�broken�record,�but�with�more�intentionality�and flair.�The�break�is�not�only�critical�in�the�immediate�moment�of�a�hip-hop�event, defining�as�it�does�a�deejay’s�skill�for�getting�the�party�started�and�keeping�it�going, but�is�also�literally�one�of�the�most�important�germinal�moments�for�developing�and showcasing�hip-hop�artistry.�The�engagement�of�hip-hop�artists�with�the�breakbeat centrally�influenced�the�development�of�breakdancing�and�rapping.�That�moment celebrates�the�creative�use�of�voices�and�bodies�in�a�joyful�engagement�with�the corporeal.
1. Kendrick Lamar is in chains, shackled and shuffling. A four-man chain gang shuffles directly behind him, dressed in drab blue prisoner uniforms. Only blue jeans set Kendrick’s uniform apart as he shambles his way to a microphone stand, center stage at the Staples Center arena in downtown Los Angeles. He lifts his chained wrists over the microphone mount, sweating, concentrated. Most of the audience at the fifty-eighth annual Grammy Awards waited all night for this moment. Kendrick leads the night’s nominations, one nomination shy of the most (twelve) any artist has ever received in one year: the late king of pop Michael Jackson, in 1984. All eyes on him. Then he opens his mouth and lets loose.
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” he says, invoking his most controversial line that year. Terrace Martin cries through a saxophone to Kendrick’s left, imprisoned onstage in cell block 29. He repeats the line, which slowly, dramatically unfolds into “The Blacker the Berry,” the second single from his celebrated major label sophomore album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Trump hasn’t yet been elected; still Kendrick seems to speak directly to the basest of his constituency among the nearly twenty-five million people glued to their televisions, tablets, and smartphones. He’s under no illusions about the fake niceties of micro-aggressive racists and he lets it be known. He runs down all the hated features of his hair, his nose, his penis. He’s aware of white supremacist plans for his community, their hatred for his culture. On the world’s biggest stage for celebrating music, Kendrick indicts everyone with ill intentions toward his people in prime time, unapologetically.
The song ultimately trades The song ultimately trades in the same theme of racialized self-hatred as Harlem Renais The song ultimately trades in the same theme of racialized self-hatred as Harlem Renaissance author Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel, The Blacker the Berry. Where Thurman’s book grapples with intracultural colorism, Kendrick charges whites revulsed by African Americans with hating the men in the mirror: “I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself.” But Kendrick doesn’t make it to that verse onstage. Those who know the song know the indictment.
Instead, he stumbles off (unchained now) to another Grammy set—a blazing bonfire flanked by tribal dancers and drummers—and another song. As Kendrick relocates himself from the penitentiary to a place evocative of the Motherland, the music shifts to a single that wins both Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song before the night is through. But Grammy-winning singles are far more common than anthems. Kendrick’s millions of viewers that night necessarily include activists who spent their 2015 protesting against the wrongful deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and other victims of police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement was new to the world, and “Alright” became as much a rallying cry for them at nationwide demonstrations as “We Shall Overcome” in the 1960s was for freedom fighters of the civil rights movement. Liberating himself to a free space in the mise en scène of the Staples Center stage, Kendrick appropriately launched into his widely adopted mantra of hope and perseverance.
The crowd of twenty-0ne thousand peers, celebs, and record industry insiders, all summarily impressed, rest in the palm of his hand. With the same affected limping gait, he shuffles away from his eight backing dancers to one last microphone stand. This song no one knows. Parts of this “untitled 05” version appear three weeks later on untitled unmastered, a new album of studio outtakes, with a subtitle suggesting he first created the track on September 21, 2014. “On February twenty-sixth, I lost my life too,” he mentions early, jumping off from the death date of Trayvon Martin to unpack a song devoted to institutional racism as modern-day slavery. Again, no one yet knows “untitled 05.” And so the audience, now
much more hushed, pays especially close attention. He suggests meeting violence with violence. He makes organized religion sound ineffectual and impotent, embodying a character who finds more solace in a firearm and the bottom of a bottle. He wraps up the song with three mentions of HiiiPower, his self-created fledgling movement meant to encourage honor and respect in black communities.
The beat drops out and a new backdrop illuminates the stage: a continental outline of Africa, with COMPTON written dead center in Gothic lettering. Everyone leaps to their feet in a standing ovation, cameras capturing seasoned MCs like Common and Run of Run-DMC applauding. Grammy host and veteran rapper LL Cool J, visibly impressed, cuts to a commercial.
In the space of six minutes, Kendrick Lamar invoked the prison industrial complex, black activism, Pan-Africanism, systemic racism, and the legacy of socially conscious hiphop. By contrast, rap trio Three 6 Mafia used their moment before an even larger audience at the 2006 Academy Awards to perform “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” yet signified nothing outside the literal confines of the song. The comparison is perhaps unfair. But Kendrick’s performance is a prime example of why he wears the mantle of Tupac Shakur, why he’s widely considered the most political rapper in the modern-day pop culture cosmos.
Just as Kendrick can be said to exist in a post-gangster rap era, he also came to power in a hiphop era of post-political consciousness. He was in diapers when Public Enemy considered themselves the Black Panthers of rap, and KRS-One shot an album cover inspired by the legendary photo of Malcolm X guarding his window with an assault rifle. In the late 1980s, Rakim had only just raised lyricism in rap to new levels of complexity before P.E. politicized hiphop with their classic, paradigm-shifting It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Full of references to black liberation icons like Louis Farrakhan, Assata Shakur, and Malcolm X over samples1 collaged with a Romare Bearden–level attention to detail, the album kick-started a Black Power renaissance in the culture. Kendrick missed that wave of cultural nationalist rap that included P.E., KRS-One,
X Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Brand Nubian. But its legacy impacted his idol.
Tupac Shakur, raised by members of the Black Panther Party, brought their ideology to bear on record and in life. Fusing black consciousness with the gangster trope popularized by the likes of Ice Cube, Tupac embodied the enlightened outlaw. He shot at wayward police. He invented a nebulous Thug Life ethos to rally his listeners against white supremacy, the direct inspiration behind Kendrick’s HiiiPower philosophy. He rhymed about police brutality, poverty, racism, female empowerment, drug addiction, and mass incarceration. And most importantly, to paraphrase Kendrick Lamar, he charismatically made it look sexy. Hiphop has been political as a culture since the heyday of one of its founders, Afrika Bambaataa. His Universal Zulu Nation organization helped squelch gang violence in the South Bronx back in the early ’70s. Tupac wasn’t going to be rap’s last militant; the culture’s activist roots run too deep.
Kendrick also grew up under the social justice of rap duo dead prez, the positivist rhymes of Common, the consciousness of Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. But save for Lauryn, none of those MCs ever turned their political savvy into the type of commercial success Kendrick
currently enjoys. His politics aren’t perfect. His political education has been public, awkward, and thrust upon him to a large degree. But making the effort matters to him. What’s most important to bear in mind is that he’s a child of lower-income Compton, California, whose main focus starting from puberty has been to climb hiphop’s highest heights, to fight his way out of poverty to stand beside his childhood rap heroes as a peer. Kendrick’s varied viewpoints in the years since he’s been elevated into a generational voice reflect the mercurial fluctuations of a heated debate in a black barbershop.
Dissecting Kendrick’s performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards properly means presuming that he chose “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright,” and “untitled 05” as songs that represented where he stood as an artist at that point in his career and delving deeper into why. Opening with “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick presented himself onstage shackled to a chain gang, restrained with handcuffs. His band stood behind bars. Later that same year, director Ava DuVernay released the Netflix documentary 13th, about the intersection of race, justice, and the prison system. Through his lyrics (“you made me a killer”) and his appearance as a prisoner, he uses the Grammy plat-form to cause viewers to consider the institutional roots behind American imprisonment patterns. He’d long since recorded “Uncle Bobby & Jason Keaton” on The Kendrick Lamar EP, telling the stories of an uncle and a close friend from Compton who were both serving time. Bringing attention to the prison industrial complex isn’t an agitprop pose for Kendrick; the issue hits way too close to home.
Seven months earlier in Cleveland, Ohio, a coalition of black community activist groups across the nation called the Movement for Black Lives convened their first official conference at Cleveland State University. The city became a flash point in November 2014 when police officers shot and killed a twelve-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, for playing in a playground with a toy pistol. The conference concluded without incident until its final day, when police stopped a fourteen-year-old for boarding a
bus back to his hometown with an open container of alcohol. Soon officers were pepper-spraying the crowd, which had right away advocated for the rights of the teenage boy. An activist phoned the boy’s mother, and she shortly rescued him from police custody. It was an exhilarating moment, like the dramatization in director Spike Lee’s Malcolm X when the Nation of Islam refuse to vacate the streets outside a police station until they assure the safety of an arrested black Muslim. The thwarted police harassment prompted over two hundred protestors to spontaneously erupt in song: “We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!” The whole scene recalls another Spike Lee production, the music video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” where a political youth rally in Brooklyn transmogrifies into a block party. Black Lives Matter had found its anthem, common knowledge by the time Kendrick Lamar chose to perform “Alright” at the Grammy Awards.
“I understand Kendrick to be an artist who both creates things that push us forward and also things that should give us pause, in terms of the way he understands. There’s a lot of textures, from the sexism inherent in a lot of his work to the misogynoir to almost a more poetic, Bill Cosbyesque pointing the finger back at black people. And that ain’t cool. At the same time, I think it’s precisely because of what his music has allowed, what he has provided as an artist, that many people haven’t disposed of him. I don’t think enough of us held him to account. By ‘us,’ I’m speaking here of the progressive, black, left, movement community that rallied around ‘Alright’— which might’ve also been our opportunity at that time and after to hold him to account for some of the shit that he spewed in his lyrics.” —DARNELL L. MOORE
Africa loomed as the final image of Kendrick’s set that night, a superimposed COMPTON in the heart of the continent. Superhero movie fanboys already knew that Marvel Studios slated Black Panther for 2018 but couldn’t have predicted its future as the highest grossing film of that year, much less that director Ryan Coogler would invite Kendrick to curate its Grammy-nominated soundtrack. Black Panther: The Album features Babes Wodumo, queen of the African electronic dance music subgenre known as gqom. Johannesburg rapper Yugen Blakrok and his Jo’burg brother Sjava rhymed alongside Kendrick on the album as well, the sound of Afrofuturist hiphop from Black Panther’s fictional African nation of Wakanda made real. All that came later. When Kendrick
connected his ancestral homeland with his childhood neighborhood, the motivation likely came straight from the same inspiration behind To Pimp a Butterfly: his 2014 trip to South Africa.
The good kid, m.A.A.d city world tour took Kendrick and his Top Dawg Entertain-ment labelmates Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul through sixty shows in fifteen different countries. On February 7, 8, and 9, the TDE team played Durban, Johann-esburg, and Cape Town night after night. They tapped local South African MCs like Khuli Chana and Reason to open the sold-out dates on Kendrick’s first trip to the continent. He stayed for a full week, visiting Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Is-land. Inspiration from the trip poured into later songs on To Pimp a Butterfly like “Momma” (symbolic of the Motherland) and “Mortal Man” (which name-checks Mandela on its hook: “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flow stay propellin’”). Rap fanatics in the politically conscious era of the late ’80s replaced gold rope chains for leather medallions inscribed with the African continent swinging around their necks. Kendrick missed out on that, but still found his own way to the idea of diasporic solidarity between Africans and blacks in America.
Connecting those dots may seem like a minor gesture, but what’s ultimately in question here is the attention of his younger hiphop fans, who might suddenly take Pan-Africanism into consideration for the first time because Kendrick said so. Black Panther didn’t coin the famous phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”; that was Spider- Man. But it’s a maxim Kendrick takes seriously to heart. To Pimp a Butterfly comments several times on the conflict of misusing influence, the resentment over abusing power. As an avid Christian who’s infused religious references into his music for years, Kendrick has never gone on record about how often he flips through the Bible. Still, the late Stan Lee (cocreator of Spider-Man, Black Panther and so many other Marvel characters) likely cribbed the idea behind that signature saying from the book of Luke: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Whether Kendrick has read the verse or not, he
arguably lives by it. Planting seeds in the minds of impressionable viewers at the 2016 Grammy Awards is only one example.
2. Kendrick opened his Grammy performance with “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” a line that kicks off every verse of “The Blacker the Berry.” The song, inspired from the start by the murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, reveals its payoff in the final line: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”
Controversy sparked immediately. In a society riddled with so many police-driven atrocities against
African Americans, the nightly news tends to distinguish these incidents with the most sound-bite-worthy details possible. Along these lines, the nation remembers Trayvon Martin by his Skittles and AriZona watermelon fruit juice, as opposed to the toy gun of Tamir Rice, or the Oakland train stop Fruitvale Station, where an officer killed Oscar Grant, or chokehold victim Eric Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe.” On February 26, 2012, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, visiting his father’s fiancée in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, returned from a local convenience store when George Zimmerman—an older resident with an extensive history of alarmist 911 calls—started chasing him. The self-styled neighborhood watchman had already phoned the police, calling Trayvon “a real suspicious guy … up to no good or he is on drugs or something.” The two fought, and Zimmerman shot the teenager dead. Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal months later served as the inciting incident behind the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and the internationally recognized social movement to follow. Even nine years later, hoodies like the sweatshirt Trayvon had on that night are worn nationwide every February 26 by those who stand in protest against his senseless murder.
What Kendrick appeared to say in no uncertain terms is that the narrator of “The Blacker the Berry” is hypocritical for mourning the
murder of Trayvon Martin when as an African American, he’s committed murder against his own brother in the past. Essentially, the black-on-black crime of gang violence Kendrick raises causes him to think twice about his grief over Zimmerman’s killing. Of all the issues he could have raised related to Trayvon Martin—the stand-your-ground law, inequalities in the criminal justice system—he instead suggests that black Americans consider their own culpability. His misstep was not well received.
Without meaning to, Kendrick played right into the hands of a right- wing mindset which believes that critiques against the larger (white) power structure can-not hold muster until blacks address intracultural ills within their own community. His thought process on “The Blacker the Berry” resembles the whole Don Imus con-troversy of 2007. Facing criticism of his racist on-air comment (“that’s some nappy-headed hoes there … jigaboos”) directed against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, radio talk show host Don Imus immediately deflected, claiming that worse language about black women flies around in hiphop lyrics all the time. MSNBC took him off the air for two weeks, but his non-apology set media think pieces in motion about the negativity African Americans critique from outside their community versus what they allow within it. Kendrick must have known his baiting coda was contentious when he wrote it. A conversation starter maybe, a jump-start for discussions about black self-annihilation. He didn’t seem to realize how conserv-ative and naïve his idea appeared. Defending his view months after releasing “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick told MTV:
So he was speaking for himself to himself then. His response to the internet storm around his politics seemed genuine, not TDE spin to manage a misguided idea. Kendrick Lamar, at twenty-seven, was not some liberal arts pundit with a doctorate in political science. No one disputes his irrefutable brilliance as an MC. But politically, he was coming into a very public learning curve like a Nascar driver flying down the Daytona speedway. A month before he sent heads spinning with “The Blacker the Berry,” he conducted an equally problematic interview qualifying the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I don’t agree with Kendrick’s sentiments around hypocrisy. I don’t think we can understand intra-communal violence without understanding the context that it sits in. At the same time, there aren’t good answers for why black people do bad things to black people. We shouldn’t deny the existence of black people causing other black people harm because it interrupts clean-cut narratives around racial segregation and structural racism. I don’t wanna do that either. But I think it is not hypocritical to be upset about the murder of Trayvon Martin by a wannabe vigilante who was self-appointed as a neighborhood watchperson to basically keep black people out of that community, even though he himself is not white.” —ALICIA GARZA
The sound-bite-worthy nightly news detail attached to Michael Brown’s murder, for those who may have forgotten him in the large inventory of cops murdering black men in America, is “hands up, don’t shoot.” On August 9, 2014, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and a friend walked the streets of Ferguson after pocketing some Swisher Sweets cigars at a local convenience store. Officer Darren Wilson, a cop in an SUV, stopped the two. Brown may or may not have reached inside for the officer’s gun; testimony is inconsistent. Whatever the altercation may have been, Brown ran, then turned back and started approaching the officer, very possibly with his hands raised. Officer Wilson shot defenseless Michael Brown dead, and the entire incident set off two weeks and two days of unrest—police militarization, riots, and protesting—that black activists remember as the Ferguson uprising. Come November, a grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson. Around the country, the fresh
Black Lives Matter movement used “hands up, don’t shoot” as a rallying cry, posing with arms raised like Michael Brown did the moment he was killed.
Talking to a Billboard writer in a California recording studio two months later, Kendrick offered this:
I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s fucked up. What happened
to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?
It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting. It starts from within.
The shadow of respectability politics eclipsed Kendrick’s reputation as a critic of white supremacy the day his Billboard interview appeared online, albeit briefly. Maybe we didn’t know him the way we thought, some said. Others wondered if the success of good kid, m.A.A.d city had changed his hood politics. The self-critique of his own black community sounded too much like the tired old idea that African Americans have to
bring their cultural values into harmony with America’s superior mores in order to earn equal respect from the likes of the Ferguson police department. As if blacks don’t already respect themselves. As if the mores of white America haven’t been suspect, from as far back as the genocide of indigenous Americans to the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. Rapper Azealia Banks spoke for black Twitter and many others in toto that afternoon, tweeting that Kendrick’s comments were the “dumbest shit I’ve ever heard a black man say,” raising the generational effects of racism, poverty, and discrimination against people of color in this country before telling him, “speak for your fucking self.”
“I think Kendrick is exactly the type of person that I think needs to be organized into a movement for social justice. Because currently, where his politics stand don’t actually lead us there. But he is such an important voice that I would say that he should be target number one for an organizing campaign.” —ALICIA GARZA
“It seems right to me that Kendrick is a person who will grow over time in terms of his political beliefs. Here is a person that at one point might say, ‘Fuck the White House, I’m screwing the system,’ and then find it to be an honor to attend and be in the White House to push for the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. That’s par for the course.” —DARNELL L. MOORE
Kendrick’s self-defense came short and sweet months later, after the February release of “The Blacker the Berry” (with its attendant controversy) and the March drop of To Pimp a Butterfly. He told New York City’s Hot 97 radio station in April: “I forgive them. Obviously, they don’t understand where I come from. They don’t understand what I’ve been through. They don’t understand what I’ve done to my community that tore it down. For them to take my words out of context—yeah, I forgive them.” Kendrick’s absolution was certainly the most Christian thing to do.
3. Before turning the finger back on himself (and, by extension, the black community) through his Billboard interview and “The Blacker the Berry,”
his first major gaffe in respect to his personal politics involved dismissing the voting process back in August 2012. Promoting good kid, m.A.A.d city in dialogue with the conspiracy news site Truth Is Scary, Kendrick remarked:
I don’t vote, I don’t do no voting. I will keep it straight up real with you. I don’t believe in none of the shit that’s going
on in the world. You talk with me, you talk with me for hours because everything has a contradiction, everything is higher ranking and way beyond us, way beyond people. So basically, do what you do, do good with your people and live your life, because what’s going on isn’t really in our hands. If it’s not
in the president’s hands, then it’s definitely not in our hands. When I say the president can’t even control the world, then
you definitely know there’s something else out there pushing the buttons. They could do whatever they want to do, we all
puppets. Just play your cards right.
Playing devil’s advocate, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine why a young black man from Compton might not believe in the electoral process enough to exercise his fifteenth amendment right to vote. The U.S. Census Bureau says African-American voter turnout declined in the 2016 presidential election, from 66.6 percent in 2008 (when then President Barack Obama ran for reelection) to 59.6 percent when Hillary Clinton campaigned against Donald Trump. The Electoral College conundrum that favored Trump over Clinton, in spite of her winning almost three million more popular votes, underscored the drawbacks of representative democracy for millions of disappointed voters who actually made it to the polls. Like all politicians, Obama’s to-do list of campaign promises went only partially fulfilled by the end of his eight years in office. The prison at Guantánamo Bay remains open. War in Afghanistan still continues. This may be frustrating for someone not fully versed in the checks and balances of government, or even for someone who is. But believing that everything is “not in the president’s hands” is hardly an uneducated, misinformed, or
conspiracy-theorist point of view. Deciding to rock the vote, to vote or die, even though the end result won’t move the needle of progress as far as you want (if at all) is ultimately a deeply personal decision. Nearly half the eligible voters in the United States (46.9 percent) stayed home on Election Day 2016. When Kendrick Lamar said that he is the community, as the meme goes: he said what he said. No small amount of folks from his community feel like “what’s going on isn’t really in our hands,” with justifiable reasons to feel that way. Disillusionment or nonbelief in our government hardly ranks as radical; Kendrick represents plenty of people in that regard.
Days after his Truth Is Scary interview, Kendrick backtracked on Twitter. (“And when you do VOTE. Just make sure it’s 4 the right reasons. This way you won’t point the finger at that black man like y’all did. Again.”) When November 2012 rolled around, he told MTV, “I think I’m going to go ahead [and vote for Barack Obama], just because I cannot see Mitt Romney [winning].” He laughed. “I’ll be on food stamps my whole life! I just don’t feel like he’s got a good heart at all.”2
Bob Dylan—nonpareil poet, Nobel Prize winner, universally recognized voice of the 1960s counterculture—emerged from the American folk music tradition. One could say Kendrick Lamar put a foundational brick into a new twenty-first-century subgenre of African- American music; I like to call it woke music. Social protest in rhythm and blues originates with Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On, an album so out of left field for its time that Motown founder Berry Gordy felt skittish releasing it into the world of 1971. Never had a concept album touched on topics like war, poverty, racial injustice, even ecology, in the same soulful tones used in the R&B tradition. Gaye’s masterpiece made possible all future full-length albums thematically looking through a political lens, from Bob Marley’s Exodus to dead prez’s Let’s Get Free.
Black Lives Matter originated from the unrest in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown and gave an activist voice to the racial profiling, cultural inequality, and police brutality of today. But just as the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s grew out of what poet Amiri Baraka, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and others called Black Power, Black Lives Matter
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