Music is a form of artwork different from other genres. A way to truly express what an author is feeling through words, sounds, and imagery. Rap, a newer musical genre that started in the 70s is a new form of expression that many in the African American community use to tell their stories and perspectives growing up Black in America. One of the newer artists of this genre and arguably a great artist in own right, Kendrick Lamar does exactly that in his own writing. Born in Compton, Kendrick Lamar throughout the works in his discography provides social commentary and effective storytelling to give people an insight into his life along with his viewpoints on problems that still affect the country today.
Kendrick Lamar’s most critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly, released in 2015 has themes of Black empowerment, self-love, positivity, and his own insecurities. On the track, “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick talks about the problems African Americans face in America along with a question he asks himself and in turn the audience that challenged his listeners to take a look in the mirror and reflect on the problem that their community faces internally as well. The instrumentals along with how Kendrick Lamar is delivering his words give off a feeling of frustration and anger as if he is getting something off his chest. The beat is gritty and the flow of the words is fast-paced. With help from Agent Saso (Assasin) whose featured on the track, the song gives an overly impassioned and rough atmosphere which helps drive its message.
Since the beginning, America has had racism at the forefront of its problems, even after slavery was abolished. Though times have changed since the era in which Black people weren’t treated as human beings this country still has a way to go until we are all truly equal. The problems are more than simply changing fundamental laws such as slavery but systemic issues that have put the African American community at a disadvantage along with racism that has been passed on from generation to generation. These issues still impact and endanger the lives of many to this day. Simply being Black puts you at a disadvantage from others and Kendrick references that with lines in his song. He says “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society, that’s what you’re tellin’ me, penitentiary would only hire me”. The line by Kendrick is a reference to how the system targets those of color and putting it in his terms the only place he could get a job would be a prison. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons just as of this October, African Americans make up 38.4 percent of those incarcerated while only accounting for around 12 percent of the nation’s population. Along with that, a Black man without a diploma is more likely to end up in jail than getting a job due to high incarceration rates according to the New York Times. Throughout his work, Kendrick uses lines like these to raise awareness of how people of his community have to work harder to be in positions of success.
In the third verse of the song, Kendrick addresses the Black community itself. He acknowledges how Black people have been institutionalized and that due to the impoverished communities created by the country many African Americans have fallen victim to the system that holds many from getting out and making a name for themselves. A factor of this institution has been gangs. Gangs like those in Compton only come about at times when an area is impoverished. For people in those areas, they see gangs as a way of survival, a means to get by when times are tough. Unfortunately with that feeling of protection comes loyalty, a loyalty that at many times leads to violence and crime. Kendrick compares gangs in Compton such as Crips and Pirus to the Zulu and Xhosa tribes of South Africa. These two tribes lived in harmony and only when Apartheid started was when what was merely a rivalry turned into a fueled tension which only brought further death and destruction. Zulu and Xhosa were robbed of their natural resources and put into a state of poverty by Europeans. Just like the South African tribes, communities in America suffer the same fates and generational hatred is born only furthering the unnecessary deaths of fellow blacks. Kendrick talks about this generational hatred in his interview with MTV Tv, that he himself still feels that anger and hatred towards his fellow man even though he no longer has a deal with the fears and dangers that come with the loyalty of rival gangs. Kendrick ends the song with this verse. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging made me kill a n***a blacker than me? Hypocrite!” Growing up in communities like Compton and being affiliated with gang activity, Kendrick knows the struggles of day-to-day life and how the culture of where he grew up is self-destructive. Lamar challenges his communities to not only fight against the problems the “system” has put on African Americans but against the generational hatred that has caused the deaths of so many members of their own community.
Though I haven’t been affiliated with gang activity like Kendrick Lamar, as a Black man in America throughout my entire life I’ve felt the effects of racism and how divided our nation still is. It was freshman year; I was on a mission trip to Mendenhall Mississippi. It was the beginning of summertime and the high heats and humidity made it all the more excruciating to work. After working on rebuilding a small elementary I made the idiotic decision to wander on my own in hopes to find somewhere where I could buy a beverage. I stumbled upon a railroad track and followed it until I had come upon the “white part of town”. This was your average old downtown with antique stores, wide roads, and specialty shops scattered throughout. As I continued my journey I began to notice the eyes locked on to me. The atmosphere had changed and it felt as though the whole world was focused on me. The negativity in the air felt icky and I knew that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Despite this, I was determined to get a drink. I stumbled upon a snow cone shop where even there I experienced the same looks as I was getting on my way through the town. I stood in front of the line, asking the employee for a drink for several minutes I stood there with no response. I looked at her and as her eyes locked onto mine I could feel the tension rise. Some brief moments later and I finally was able to get my snow cone. I headed back towards my group with speed. Being in that moment the words spoken by Lamar rang more true than they ever had to me. The hatred that has poisoned this country is still here and hasn’t gotten much better even with time. “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture … You vandalize my perception.” Kendrick Lamar spoke this in his first verse, and those words have been the root of all the problems. The perception of one another must change in order for real progress to begin. Until Americans start seeing other people for what they are, which is Americans, this country will be divided for the foreseeable future.