Verse 1: Interlude
Certain music genres come and go. Every genre has its roots in other forms of music and most genres develop over time. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact “birth” date or location for a music genre. But there is a case to be made when it comes to hip-hop music. It’s said that it was born on August 11, 1973, at a back-to-school party. The location of birth was an apartment building in West Bronx, New York City at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. The birthday host of hip-hop’s birth was eighteen-year-old Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc at his “Back To School Jam”. Campbell "would find the “break” in a song, isolate the break using two records of the same song, switching from break to break as each break would end, which would extend the break from a thirty second to or minute part of a song to a five minute instrumental dancers could dance to." (Ward, 2017) He repeatedly played the same beat and extended the instrumental portion of a song. This new developing sound spread like wildfire through the Bronx and quickly gave birth to DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. The music eventually made its way out of the Bronx and was getting recorded and distributed all over America, leading to a growing audience and resulting in the genre bleeding into the mainstream. Rap was not born in a safe environment. In the early 1970s, the Bronx looked like “a battleground filled with gangs of all shapes and sizes in a vaguely moderated state of anarchy, turf wars fuelled by the economic failure of shoddy urban planning in a city verging on bankruptcy.” (Surico, 2015).
The Bronx looked like “a battleground filled with gangs of all shapes and sizes in a vaguely moderated state of anarchy"
The unsafe environment, in which hip-hop was born, quickly became a main point of discussion within Hip-Hop music. In 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released their single “The Message”. “It was one of the first commercially successful rap songs providing heavy social commentary. At the time of its release, it stood out among other party tracks that were the hip-hop market at the time" (Geddies, 2020) and it introduced to the idea of hip-hop music being used as a political and social device to discuss and make cultural differences known. The song describes inner-city poverty in the Bronx. The message quickly became a massive hit all over the world. Its release would inspire other individuals to write about the struggles they were facing in their lives. "Hip-Hop and rap (...) set an outlet for the black communities to express themselves and the challenges they face daily considering their culture and skin color" (Giordano, 2022). Individuals such as Ice Cube for N.W.A and Chuck D for Public Enemy described the issues of growing up in an economically depressed area, describing gun/drug violence and police brutality, slowly formulating a new way for African-Americans to express themselves.
Verse 2: New Voice In Black Struggle
The idea of hip-hop music being a way of expression for African-Americans and describing their struggles quickly became one of hip-hop’s biggest characteristics all over the world. It became a way for African-Americans to finally get their voices heard. Some could identify with the lyrics while others gained an insight into how other people lived. Music always had an incredible quality, namely that it travels easily. Because of globalization, hip-hop was traveling around America, and later around the world. "Hip hop went through a process of adaptation as young people fashioned the culture to their own national and cultural identities and began to rap about issues important in their lives." (Thorman, n.d) Different parts of the world experience similar but also different problems and hip-hop has allowed everyone to experience and identify the problems. Artists such as Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and Notorious B.I.G all released successful songs packed with political themes and messages. Dutch rappers who did this are Lijpe, Boef, and Sticks.
A modern example of an artist who creates songs filled with political criticism and messages, with both critical and financial success all over the world, is Kendrick Lamar. He is a prime example of how a modern artist is able to influence social and political activism. In this article, I will engage with Kendrick Lamar’s career and how he interplants other (older) voices in the black struggle to formulate a new (modern) one by analyzing a handful of songs on Kendrick Lamar’s studio albums. I will also address his position in the fight for black liberation in America with for example #BlackLivesMatter. All of this will be done using two of his critically acclaimed studio albums, namely Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly.
Verse 3: Who Is Kendrick Lamar?!?
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth is an American rapper and songwriter, born on June 17, 1987. He was born in the city of Compton, a high-crime area situated south of downtown Los Angeles. His parents had moved to Compton from Chicago to escape the city’s gang culture. Ironically, Compton had a way more active and aggressive gang culture. Lamar grew up around precarious streets and drug activity. His family was directly touched by the extreme violence the streets of Compton had to offer. Yet, Kendrick remained thoughtful and soft-spoken: “a guy was out there serving his narcotics, and somebody rolled up with a shotgun and blew his chest out. It did something to me right then and there. It let me know that this is not only something that I’m looking at, but it’s something that maybe I have to get used to” (Lamar, 2015).
Kendrick raps in an effort “to raise social awareness within his community and to help those on the outside better understand the forces that created the environment that he grew up in” (Dover & Pozdol, 2016)
Kendrick has been named the “greatest rapper of all time” on numerous occasions. He is praised for his versatile cadence, internal rhyme schemas, and introspective songwriting. His lyricism is often inspired by his personal life on the streets of Compton and often contains political and social commentary centered around African American life and culture. The main themes Kendrick tackles in his music are racism, sexism, drug abuse, social injustice, and black culture. He raps in an effort “to raise social awareness within his community and to help those on the outside better understand the forces that created the environment that he grew up in” (Dover & Pozdol, 2016). Kendrick realized that in order to raise social awareness, he needed to make personal changes. He wants to help young people, which was only possible if he became a role model. Looking over Kendrick’s discography, it is clear that he emphasizes the importance of black culture and its history in his music, to create music that values black Americans and their culture. In his lyrics, he borrows or directly mentions ideas from Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, something I will analyze later.
Verse 4: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Kendrick’s second studio album called Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — also known as GKMC — is a coming-of-age story of a character called K. Dot, which narrates the transition from K. Dot to Kendrick Lamar. This is a reference to Kendrick himself. The events told on the album are influenced by Kendrick’s own violent life on the streets of Compton. It’s a story of personal growth from an immature teenager battling gang violence in Compton to a seasoned adult who understands the world around him. Kendrick discusses racist stereotypes and the structural racism and injustice that black people experience in America. The album has already been analyzed countless times and in and "it has even warranted a collegiate course that draws parallels between it and literary works from James Joyce, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks" (Banks, 2022). Kendrick’s realistic depictions of living in the economically depressed city of Compton gave insights into those areas to the extent that this record is used in education. According to a 2016 study by the University of Georgia, teachers utilized this album in the classroom so that students could connect to the lyrics and understand the message that Kendrick is trying to get across in his music in order to improve their knowledge of these areas and situations. This makes this album special and “his work has acted as a sort spring-board for many thoughts and theories regarding education for at-risk students, especially those who also live in districts with high levels of poverty and violence” (Rocha, 2016). Because Kendrick provides a realistic insight into the “hood” (lower-class housing for the poor) and his transition towards rising above it, teachers utilize his work to prevent lower-class students from choosing a criminal path.
Verse 5: “I want to better myself, the same way Malcolm was”
The autobiography of Malcolm X inspired Kendrick to write Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. In a 2017 Interview with Vice Kendrick spoke about the late civil rights icon in a praising way “His ideas rooted my approach to music,” Lamar said. “That was the first idea that inspired how I was going to approach my music. From the simple idea of wanting to better myself by being in this mindstate, [the] same way Malcolm was”.
Just like Malcolm’s autobiography, GKMC tells the life of a young black man, who is overtaken by fear because of his skin color. In both cases feelings of powerlessness and feelings of being trapped lead to ambitious and aggressive decisions. Both fought to gain control over their lives and both were overflowed with black rage, fear, and a sad understanding of death and rebirth. One of the themes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the ability of a person to change in relation to an essential experience. For Malcolm, that experience was his visits to Mecca and Africa, which changed his mind about religion, race relations, and violence. He began to hope for a true brotherhood between all races.
For Kendrick, the death of his friend Dave was an essential experience that changed his life. On the album, this occurs at the end of Swimming Pools (Drank). David gets killed here. The following track, Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst tells the story of Kendrick dealing with the guilt of Dave’s death. Filled with rage, Kendrick and his friends load up their guns and seek revenge, but they are stopped by a neighbor voiced by Maya Angelou. She persuades them and says that they should let God into their lives and it leads to them reciting the Sinner’s Prayer. The conversation between Maya Angelou and K. Dot is similar to one she had with Tupac Shakur on the set of the movie Poetic Justice. Kendrick has cited Tupac as his biggest inspiration. This conversation shows Tupac’s influence on Kendrick. Tupac made Kendrick step out of the criminal path. The death of Dave is Kendrick’s reality check.
After Kendrick saw Dave get killed, he starts to question himself on the song Real. Real sees Kendrick disregarding the street life and turning his back on gang-banging, drugs, alcohol, and violence. He questions the different meanings of being “real”. Are you real because you represent where you come from and actively participate in violence? Or are you real because you try to escape your violent neighborhood and make something of your life? K. Dot realizes that he cannot move forward in his life until he’s a child of God with a purpose and meaning. He is meant for more. This is the change from K. Dot to Kendrick Lamar. The album finishes with Kendrick rapping: “Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar/ This is King Kendrick Lamar”. (Lamar, 2012) This completes the album, but also Malcolm’s influence circle.
“Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar/ This is King Kendrick Lamar”
Verse 6: To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick’s third studio album is called To Pimp A Butterfly — also known as TPAB — and it is similar to GKMC. The album tells the story of a rapper finding fame as he learns how to “pimp” his talent for material gain. The rapper needs to deal with the temptation that automatically follows with fame and wealth. He feels the burden of his new position on influence. Kendrick also raps about Black history and his roots in order to find guidance among wealth and fame. To Pimp A Butterfly is a complex concept album and a total shift in musical style. In To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick critiques multiple ideas and concepts in America that are still looked at as something “normal”, such as materialism and oppression against African-Americans. He discusses self-love in America and shows how difficult it is to love yourself as a black person in America. Kendrick talks about these issues in a clever way that also shows his critique. The idea of TPAB came from Kendrick’s visit to South Africa. Touring the country and visiting historic sites heavily influenced the direction of the record. Especially the visit to Robben Island, the island where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 27 years, significantly impacted the new record. Regarding his visit, Kendrick said, “I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught” (Lamar, 2016). The trip made Kendrick overthink the direction of his third studio record, he wanted to educate African-Americans.
Verse 7: “Every N**** is a star”
The album starts with the song Wesley’s Theory which uses a sample called Every N*** Is A Star by Boris Gardiner. This sampling choice is meant as a statement that claims that even without money or traditional success, every black person is a star that has inherent values worth celebrating in their life. The song is an attack on capitalistic America. He thinks that “though the large majority of the black population in the United States do not have the wealth to buy many of the specific things listed in this music, the implication is clear that black people are implicitly and explicitly encouraged to spend their money in a way that is materialistic and unsustainable” (Rocha, 2017). Even worse, Kendrick thinks that this behavior has become ingrained in the minds of many African-Americans at the hands of capitalistic America. He does this by saying: "What you want you? A house or a car?/Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?/Anythin', see, my name is Uncle Sam, I'm your dog/Motherfucker, you can live at the mall" (Lamar, 2015). Uncle Sam, which is a symbol of the American Government, is deceiving Kendrick and the black community to spend their money on expensive brands and products without carefully considering their cost. For many years, the black community has been known for its high buying power. Here, Kendrick introduces the point that African Americans who grew up poor (such as Kendrick) do not have the same access to resources as white children from a younger age and thus are unfamiliar with handling wealth, whether this is large or small. According to him, America has done this on purpose to keep the African-American community poor and uneducated. In Institutionalized he continues this point by saying that growing up in low-income communities ingrains people with habits that negatively impact their ability to sustain the success they achieve, even after achieving it.
Even without money or traditional success, every black person is a star that has inherent values worth celebrating in their life
For Free? - (Interlude) is another song that strongly criticizes American society. It is a song that showcases the jazz influence on this record. Kendrick raps over a complex be-bop jazz combo, with the lyrical substance focusing on the cultivation of products produced by black labor in the United States. This criticism of America using the “fruits” produced by black labor for their own (economic) purposes, whether it is in the form of physical (older) products such as cotton or (newer) cultural products such as jazz and rock and roll. He says: “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich/Now my dick ain't free” (Lamar, 2015). According to him, America only utilizes African-Americans for their own profit and gain and they do not give credit to the African-American community.
Verse 8: Nelson Mandela & Tupac Shakur
The last song of To Pimp A Butterfly is a 12-minute long song called Mortal Man that is structured into two sections. The first section is about Nelson Mandela and the second section is about Tupac Shakur. The lyrics in the first section are filled with Kendrick showing respect to Mandela and Kendrick hoping that he can continue spreading Mandela’s legacy through his rapping, wanting to spread Mandela’s messages about social injustice through his growing voice in the music industry. When Mandela passed away in 2013, Kendrick tweeted “Advising all my young ones that follow me to research a small piece of Nelson Mandela Life. That's how you pay your respect” (Lamar, 2013). Kendrick encourages his fans to research Mandela’s life. He wants his fans to also continue spreading his message. After Mandela became president, many people expected him to seek vengeance against his oppressors, and against the people who imprisoned him. However, he did not. He forgave them. In this song, Kendrick asks us if we are generous enough to do the same. Could we forgive him if he killed someone? In this song, he also compares his work about freeing the minds of Black America through his songs to Mandela’s work against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Lastly, Kendrick refers to the fact that Mandela gave 27 years of his life and freedom for his beliefs and Kendrick compares the fact that he dedicated an entire album to his beliefs. The message Kendrick delivers with TPAB attempts to inspire others to learn about the wrongdoing in America and not only learn about the plight of Black America but also rebel against it.
In the other six minutes of the song, Kendrick has a conversation with Tupac Shakur, Kendrick’s biggest interpretation. The dialogue of Tupac is sampled from a 1994 interview on P3 Soul. Kendrick and Tupac discuss issues regarding racism, black culture, and the music industry. The thing that makes this interview so impactful is the fact that nothing has changed within the thirty years of the recording of the interview and the release of TPAB. There is still social injustice and racism in America. The poem that is told throughout the album comes to an end and it’s revealed that Kendrick was reading this poem to Tupac. Tupac tried to remain connected to the streets and the people who raised him, which made the greed and violence catch up with him, which untimely led to his murder. He was murdered before he could transform and come out of his cocoon; before he could become a butterfly. The butterfly of Tupac still lives. He lives within Kendrick, who is trying to ascend his surroundings to a place of beauty.
Verse 9: The Civil Rights Movement
As explained before, hip-hop music was born out of poverty in the Bronx and has contained socially and politically conscious elements ever since. One could argue that it is a descendant of the civil rights movement. After the death of Martin Luther King, the struggle for black liberation became disorganized and leaderless. Violent riots only emphasized and reproduced stereotypes, and integration between African-Americans and white Americans seemed less likely than ever. But after the late 1970s, African-American frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction with the American political and social system led to the birth of rap. In essence, hip-hop music “carried on the legacy of activism set by the Civil Rights Movement by channeling that “frustration” into an expressive and productive form” (Sugerman, 2020). Kendrick is channeling his frustration into an expressive and productive form. For example, the frustration he felt after the killing of Trayvon Martin inspired him to write the protest song now known as Alright, which I will analyze later. Kendrick has expanded the platform that narrates the harsh reality that millions of African-Americans experience on a daily basis.
Hip-hop music “carried on the legacy of activism set by the Civil Rights Movement by channelling that “frustration” into an expressive and productive form”
Verse 10: “And we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho”
Art has always been a tool for poor and working-class people. Kendrick’s work functions as one of those tools. His art forms a way for black people to vent their rage and seek justice. It seems as if America is currently seeing a new civil rights movement: Black Lives Matter — 'BLM'. Ever since its birth in 2013, The Black Lives Matter movement has been growing, not just in America but all over the world. Kendrick’s song Alright is often regarded as a protest song against police brutality and is often played at BLM protests The lyrics of the song are also inspired by Kendrick's trip to South Africa, where Kendrick experienced extreme poverty, but also the strength of the community. The lyrics speak angrily about police brutality, while Kendrick mentions his own struggles with fame and greed. The chorus is uplifting and offers a beacon of hope when things seem to be at their worst.
In 2015, Geraldo Rivera appeared on Fox News and criticized Kendrick for the line "And we hate po-po/ Wanna kill us dead in the street, fo sho," (Lamar, 2015) in Alright. Rivera continued, saying that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years” (Rivera, 2015). Kendrick responded saying “I think his attempt is deleting the real problem, which is the senseless acts of [cops] killing these young boys out here. I think for the most part it's avoiding the truth, it's reality, this is my world, this is what I talk about in my music and you can't dilute that. Hip-hop is not the problem, our reality is the problem. This is our music, this is us expressing ourselves. Rather [than] going out here and doing murder myself, I want to express myself in a positive light, the same way other artists are" (Lamar, 2015). Kendrick returns to the core of what hip-hop is; an expression platform for African-Americans. A positive way to convert frustration into an expressive and productive form. Hip-hop music is an artistic response to the harsh truth individuals such as Rivera seem to deny.
Verse 11: “The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life”
Kendrick Lamar is a founding member of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many activists consider To Pimp A Butterfly an album dedicated to the movement. Kendrick's references to Black history are expressions of pride, and this use of Black history has become commonplace within BLM activism. The song The Blacker The Berry found on TPAB also functions as a protest song: “It is a song about white America trying to shape black identity. Several lyrics in the song establish this divide between black identity as defined by white America and black identity as defined by Black America” (Carnes, 2015). The song is performed as a dialogue between African-Americans, and thus Kendrick Lamar, (“Me”) and the white American population (“You"). Kendrick switches back and forth between these perspectives and raps about stereotypes, black identity, black rights, inequality, and especially police brutality. For example, "Came from the bottom of mankind/ My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide/ You hate me don't you/ You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/ You're fucking evil I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey/ You vandalize my perception, but can't take style from me" (Lamar, 2015).
The phrase “The blacker the berry/the sweeter the juice” is repeated multiple times throughout the song. This phrase, and song title, are a reference to Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel called The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life. This novel deals with protagonist Emma Lou overcoming society’s rejection of her very dark skin and how she learns about the importance of self-love. It’s a novel that deals with colorism. The Black Lives Matter movement has created a new wave of resistance against modern colorists. “More than ever before, dark-skinned Black people, particularly women, speak out against the constant abuse they suffer, skin bleaching, hair straightening, and many other cruel forms of rejection” (Sugerman, 2020). As explained before, Lamar is well-known for participating in the Black Lives Matter movement since its beginning. By using Wallace Thurman’s book, Kendrick introduces a new generation of resistance against colorism.
Chorus: Conclusion & Take Home Message
Kendrick Lamar is an extremely important voice in the current black struggle. His ability to sell millions of albums with content that is filled with criticism of a struggling American society, while also celebrating black culture and its history, shows that there is still a need for a leading voice in the fight for black liberation. Kendrick Lamar is not above other voices in the black struggle and I am sure he himself does not want to be above other voices. He did not directly “end” segregation by sitting in the front of the bus, or by directly breaking political barriers as Rosa Parks did. Kendrick Lamar is trying to break invisible barriers in society as there are still barriers that keep African-Americans from being treated and receiving the same chances as white people. Barriers such as, according to him, the way the American Government is deceiving the black community to spend their money without considering their cost as mentioned in Wesley’s Theory, invisible barriers. This certainly makes Kendrick special, as nobody is trying to do this the way he is. Kendrick utilizes the ideas of other voices within the black struggle, voices that paved the way for him, and introduce them to new generations and audiences. From sampling influential black artists such as Boris Gardiner, Marvin Gaye, and Wallace Thurman to basing his albums on Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, it’s clear that Kendrick Lamar gives these voices a new audience and makes sure that their voices will never die out. By using different influential people within the black culture in his music, Kendrick creates a new modern platform for these people and black culture as a whole. Aside from that, Kendrick Lamar's music has been incredibly influential in raising awareness and inspiring change on issues such as racial inequality, police brutality, and poverty, going as far as teachers utilizing his albums in class to keep the children off the streets. His lyrics and activism have made him a powerful voice in the fight for social justice. These abilities make Kendrick Lamar an essential figure in the fight for black liberation.