“I’d go in certain parts of the world, and they were singing it in the streets,” he said of “Alright,” which became an unofficial anthem for the movement. “When it’s outside of the concerts, then you know it’s a little bit more deep-rooted than just a song. It’s more than just a piece of a record. It’s something that people live by — your words.”
– Kendrick Lamar in the New York Times
At the 58th annual Grammy awards, Kendrick Lamar loomed larger than life. He was nominated for more Grammys than any other artist, winning five including, including Rap Album of Year for his groundbreaking To Pimp a Butterfly.
Lamar’s stunning performance at the Grammys was a powerful political statement against the racist criminal justice system, and a celebration of Black Lives and the new black freedom struggle. Lamar and his back-up performers entered the stage dressed as prisoners in chains, and ended his performance with a silhouette of Africa, with Lamar’s hometown of “Compton” inscribed on the image. In the aftermath of the rebellions in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and beyond, Lamar’s performance was an inspiration and immediately provoked widespread media debate.
This official recognition from the Grammy’s is cementing Lamar’s cultural, artistic, social, and political influence on mainstream music. His rise is revitalizing conscious rap and hip-hop in the midst of greater protest and struggle against neoliberal capitalism. Let’s examine the significance of To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly
The imaginative expression of art has always been a tool of the working class. The horrors of capitalism and its oppressive nature always have forced the working class, poor, and youth to seek ways to vent their rage and seek liberation. This expressive nature has been steady throughout history to the current day. During social movements of the past like the Civil Rights movement or Anti-Vietnam War movement, Black Lives Matter is now on the spotlight demanding to be heard utilizing the arts and songs within the movement to provide a message. Alternative mainstream hip-hop artists like, Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, and Killer Mike are among those making a case through some of their protest songs. Such examples highlight the fusion of art and protest. Allowing no emotion to be untouched, the importance of such connections reaches to the core of the working classes especially youth people of color, many of whom vibe for vibes sake or actually dig the message.
Among one of the most visible on the scene is Kendrick Lamar. Released over a year ago, To Pimp a Butterfly hearkens back to the legendary work of Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield – the greats of 70s protest soul – flowing through Kendrick Lamar’s restless dissection of modern America. This dissection incorporates the anger of black youth placed within the context of the BLM Movement. Asked about PTSD rates in inner city youth being 30 percent higher than in soldiers, Kendrick responded “that’s real.” Understanding the reality of a large segment of black America, the realness of his album begins with the visuals of his album cover. Like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, To Pimp a Butterfly is seamless tapestry of songs and skits that makes it a classic concept album for this generation telling a story life and struggle.
The cover art is of black men and children who have stormed the white house lawn holding bundles of cash. They stand over a white judge with a gavel in his right hand (ironically) with X marks on his eyes. The album cover is a visual of anger, much of it stemming from the oppressive nature of capitalism of black workers and youth. Blacks finally get a platform on the white house lawn. The also “crossed out” injustice which is signified by “X-ing” the judge out and economic access is achieved [bundles of cash they are holding]. In releasing this album cover under a black president, Kendrick makes a clear statement: no matter what, the skin color of the president is, working class liberation is not possible without the involvement of the most oppressed layers of the working class, which tend to be people of color. Only then, would the storming of the white house and the displacement of ruling-class power be possible.
The whole album follows the stages of a caterpillar – from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly. The first tunes of the album speak to the success, imprisonment, and environment of black America, in comparison to the first stages of a caterpillar. “Wesley’s Theory” speaks to the success of Wesley Snipes in the film industry, who is then imprisoned for tax evasion. In short, regardless of his successes, “this caterpillar” is a prisoner of his environment. In the skit “For Free?” Kendrick goes into the essence of the capitalistic character of America, hitting at the heart on the illusion of the American dream.
The Raw Lesson of Black History
“Oh America, you bad b****/ I picked cotton that made you rich/ now my d*** ain’t free”
Kendrick has a raw character to his lyrics. Despite being loaded in sexism and misogyny, the above statement, metaphorically speaking, compares America to the “b****” he’s made rich through decades of chattel slavery picking cotton. However, he still “ain’t free.” America’s richness comes out of the exploitation of all working-class people, but especially slavery was the structure that specifically oppressed black people and allowed slave masters to profit and build the very foundations of American capitalism.
Continuing on the theme of enslavement, we arrive at “King Kunta.” This track gets its inspiration from the book and TV series by Alex Haley titled Roots: The saga of an American Family. Kunta Kinte had his foot cut off to prevent him from escaping the plantation. For Kendrick, King Kunta is quite the oxymoron, referencing his oppression as a slave, but with dominance as a king or a wealthy black man in America. This is an important point: regardless of your economic value under capitalism, and the divisions are plentiful, but points to the need of unification. In other words, the case for black liberation is in class struggle, a unifying formation connecting oppressed people of the world.
From the caterpillar to the cocoon is the self-reflection stage of the album. Kendrick goes back to where he was “Institutionalized,” as in the name of the track. The element of institutions is very significant. The poor are disenfranchised by an economic system of greed and warehoused in prisons for more money-making schemes. The rich are institutionalized in the maintenance of the status quo. These are institutions that make one group richer and the poor more miserable. This song speaks to that phenomenon; maybe it’s the institutions that are wrong all along, no?
Aside from the political fiery, in To Pimp a Butterfly many tracks are about self-empowerment. Growing up in Compton, as a young black man, Kendrick Lamar was often exposed to what he calls “lucy” or “lucifer” by which he means temptation to do wrong. Without a class analysis, many brothers and sisters lack a clear way forward. Hence, the reliance on religion for positivity is strong, also in some tracks we see elements of respectability politics on tracks such as “The Blacker the Berry,” which only clouds the real evil at hand, capitalism.
Done with the reflection tracks, Kendrick takes the cocoon home, back to where it began with him. In “Hood Politics,” Kendrick links up with a homie and starts talking about his political perspectives as a youngin’. The song is summed up well in the following verse:
“From Compton to Congress/ set trippin’ all around ain’t nothing new/ but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans Red state versus a blue state/ which one you governin?”
This hits spot on to our political situation, one dominated by the two-party corporate establishment, which is not representative of working-class people. Kendrick brings light to this and speaks to the mindset of much of the youth, who are fed up with the lies and contradictions of careerist politicians supporting the system of greed. Socialist Alternative has grasped this reality and is endlessly involved in the creation of a working-class political party. One of our most successful examples is the recent re-election of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Washington. Another example is the rise of Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, who is putting forward a message of “political revolution” albeit within the confines of the Democratic Party, and has assisted in politicizing many on issues such as income inequality and Wall Street greed.
Self-Reflection and Redemption
In “How Much a Dollar Cost,” Kendrick’s selfishness gets the best of him. He is a byproduct of his success and interactions in the industry. Greed rotted his soul. This is his attempt at repentance in an attempt to humble himself. Applying much of what he learned through his self-reflection in the “cocoon,” Kendrick will now apply his knowledge for the purpose of uplifting others. Touching on elements of people power in the track “Complexion,” Kendrick drops the following:
“So I’mma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival
Of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival
Beauty is what you make it; I used to be so mistaken
By different shades of faces”
Kendrick’s album focuses not just on black empowerment, but understanding how crucial our situation in understanding how social constructs such as race and color have hindered our unity, especially in class struggle. In short, this is an attempt to counter 18th century Willie lynch theory of exploiting differences among slaves to keep them under control.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” is a track that speaks to keeping it real. Kendrick Lamar attempts to let those in the industry know that you “ain’t gotta lie”. In providing an alternative to many of those that believe hip hop is solely dependent on “money “ and “power,” Kendrick speaks to them, telling them these aren’t always the prerequisites to success, revitalizing the usage of hip hop as a tool of people empowerment.
“The Blacker the Berry” and “i” play on the dichotomy of black self-hatred and elements of positivity, black love and redemption. These go hand in hand playing a role of double consciousness. This consciousness is created under a system that wishes to further divide people to prevent their empowerment. Any tools at the disposal of capitalism will be used. The double consciousness in blacks could be seen in the “house nigga” analogy. Those with a lighter complexion were able to work in the house as opposed to the fields. Thus, creating division among black people dependent on your skin shade.
The closing to this journey of self-reflection and discovery is “Mortal Man”, it consists of a powerful conversation between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur who died 20 years ago this September. Tupac remains an iconic figure in music, film and black America particularly for young people, he is the poster child of the post black power generation who faced the brutal onslaught of the war on drugs, endemic poverty and rise of the prison state. It is only fitting for Tupac the most influential Rap/Hip-Hop artists of his time to engage in a dialogue with Kendrick who developing into a powerful voice of his generation.
In this final track Kendrick reflects on life as a black man growing up in the hood. Inspired by his trip to South Africa, a country rich in struggle and resistance, Kendrick sees himself as the Nelson Mandela of Hip-hop conveying a message of justice in an overwhelming unjust world. Questioning their loyalty to him and his message Kendrick spits the following:
“As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression and with that being said my nigga, let me ask this question:
When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?
When shit hit the fan (one two, one two)
When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan? (2x)”
The relevance of this question is important. Understanding the need for discipline when fighting injustice, Kendrick wants to make the point that this is a fight of longevity. Kendrick’s album is making waves in empowerment and those vested in class struggle should understand the importance of Kendrick’s message while using it for class liberation and empowerment of the most oppressed layers of the working class.
Conscious rap is making its comeback. Kendrick is one among a small group of artists that are making the shift to conscious rap/ hip-hop. There have been too many years of capitalizing on this art form, an art that at its inception was a tool of empowerment originating in the South Bronx. Also, the music industry is actively playing attention, looking to commodify anything that sells. An interview between R&B singer D’Angelo and former Black Panther and co-founder Bobby Seale speaks to the importance of music with a message for class empowerment and against police brutality. D’Angelo hits home in his album, Charades, when he is “speaking to the Oscar Grants, Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns.” D’Angelo stated, “the music was a tool that fed the movement.”
Why Hip-Hop Matters to My Generation
Hip-Hop, for many is life. Its importance is and was essential in the construction of my identity as I am sure it is to many youths these days. It’s an expression, a culture and as KRS-one said, it is a “state of mind, everything you do is hip-hop.” That is precisely the importance of it – hip-hop becomes the “everything,” it’s how we relate, how we dress, how we speak, who we represent. Its values are as immense to this generation as it has been to all the generations who have grown up in the different eras of hip-hop. Hip-hop will be the music of the revolution and we need to see the importance of it and use it to relate to all those working-class youths, whose ears it grabs. Kendrick is one of many that the corporate music industry will use to cash out, but the message digs deep in the soul of our generation. We need to build independent artists alongside our own independent political movements, because the two go hand in hand. Till next time, but for now, let’s get free.