Kendrick Lamar and Black Hip Hop Masculinity

One of the challenges of doing cultural criticism is when the critic begins to infer their own meaning onto something that was not intended by the author or the creator of the work.  With my theological background, we learned about textual criticism when it came to the exegetical work of the biblical literature.  One of the questions within textual criticism is literary theory that asks the question what is the author’s intent.  For some, they believe the text itself is where the authority should lie, but for me, I’ve always been intrigued by what meaning did the author intend with the writing.

Famous singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter dropped the eponymous album of her name at midnight in December 2013 without any publicity or marketing and she got rave reviews behind one of the tracks entitled “Flawless.”  It featured a segment from a TED talk by author and poet Chimamanda Adiche entitled “We Should all Be Feminists.”  Beyoncé had already garnered the attention of black feminists, but after a performance in which the words FEMINIST were lit up and her purposefully standing in front of them, that was all they needed.  There were whole panel discussions and news segments about how Beyonce was this kind of feminist, but she was really that kind another would argue.  Meanwhile, Beyoncé hadn’t said much about it but the following:

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, although I was always afraid of that word because people put so much on it.  When honestly, it’s very simple. It’s just a person that believes in equality for men and women. Men and women balance each other out, and we have to get to a point where we are comfortable with appreciating each other….  I have the same empathy for women and the pressures we go through. …I consider myself a humanist.

I remember listening to some of the conversations and reading some of the blogs and other essays on the topic and asking myself did Beyoncé ever really say any of this.  Moreover, do we as cultural critics suddenly ignore her entire body of work and only lift up this particular piece because we like it?  I’ll admit this was partly because I remember having a conversation with my Af-Am History professor my senior year of college and she went ballistic over the lyrics to Destiny Child’s “Cater to You.”  I consciously thought about how I felt “Soldier” the previous year painted an troublesome image of what black women were looking for in a man–and how that man certainly wasn’t me since I was enrolled in college.  As they said “If ya status aint ‘hood we aint checkin’ for ya” complete with grills.  One song glorified a very dominant submissive black woman, and another exalted the image of the bad boy thug, a veritable gangsta boo.

People grow and change, and I certainly acknowledge and welcome that, but I think it’s worth looking at the full narrative arc to understand why people make the decisions they do and how we fit into that.  Part of the job of cultural critics is to be able to make meaning, but, that meaning has to be, well, meaningful.  Perhaps Roxane Gay does help me with the feminist piece as to what it looks like to be a “bad feminist” and perhaps Beyoncé could agree with that.  Patricia Hill Collins also gives a Beyoncé the space to operate in what she calls a “distinctive angle of vision.”  I remember a former student helped me out with that because I was having problems with the chronicling that somehow landed Beyoncé as some borderline radical feminist and I felt as though the whole story of Beyoncé wasn’t being told, namely because we didn’t know why she wrote that song and what was her thinking in choosing that song.  Or all the way to other end of the spectrum that indeed someone of her stature has a team of creative people who envisioned that all of that was just nothing but a good combination to sell albums–and sell she did!

I opened with Beyonce partly because she’s fresh on the mind following her performance at the Grammys, but also because she illuminates what I don’t want to with ascribing things to artists that artists didn’t intend.  Although, perhaps, echoing the opening lines of Kendrick Lamar’s single “The Blacker the Berry” I am setting myself up to be the biggest hypocrite of 2015 as well.

kendrick-lamar_1_640xKendrick Lamar, also known as Kdot, showed up on the scene with hot mixtapes that got his name on the scene preparing him a full national released album that dropped fall of 2012 and he’s been riding that wave for the last two years.  Being the featured artist on a number of tracks, and showing he can play with the big boys when it came to controversy (we all still remember his “Control” lyrics) made sure that we all knew who he was and he made sure that he was here to stay.  What made Kendrick stand out from the rest of the pack is that had a story to tell.  Storytelling, as an art form, in hip hop seems to have veered from the main road and landed us in a musical labyrinth in which the latest wrong turn and dead end has resulted in truffle butter being entered into daily language.  Seriously, don’t Google that phrase unless you want to lose your lunch, just take my word for it.

Kendrick in good kid, m.A.A.d city told a great story, growing up and living in Compton.  It was a “day in the life of” feel to it with the hip hop flare.  I’m sure many people my age who didn’t grow up in southern California, let alone in South Central or in Compton pulled images from movies like Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, Friday and Baby Boy to populate the story the Kendrick was telling.  Granted dozens of rappers are out there making mix tapes across the country that are just as lyrically talented at Kdot, but none of them have a national audience–Kendrick does.  Not to mention, Kendrick actually was from the West Coast.  We haven’t been blessed with a major rapper from the West Coast that had the same stylistics of rap that many of us remember from that iconic era of gangsta rap in the 1990s.

In 2013, Kendrick had embroiled himself with “controversies” the worst of which was that he was actually dropping diss tracks and coming for the same artists that had now popularized this hip hop-lite era of music with famous faces like Chris Brown and Drake that get the major play time.  For me, I would rather listen to the real life musical reflections of Kendrick than the contrived lifestyle of music by Drake or a Lil’ Wayne who acts as if he’s completely forgotten his hometown.  Just last year, people were clamoring for more from Kendrick, begging for the next album to drop and just last fall we were all treated to a single simply entitled “i.”  The hook simply repeats the self-affirming mantra “I love myself.”  And from that, it seemed as thought Kendrick entered a rarefied space, one where black men of his status don’t enter often, if at all.  The song “i” is from his next album that’s expected its a contrapuntal discourse between life’s vicissitudes and being able to declare self-love for one’s self.

I was moved to write this after scrolling down my Twitter timeline on a sick day, feeling slightly better and seeing a friend comment something about Kendrick Lamar and realize a new single entitled “The Blacker the Berry” has dropped.  I listened to the intro and heard him come in saying “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015″ and I knew we were in for it.

The difference between Kendrick and Beyonce is that the former takes the opportunity to make declarative statements with an effective use of personal pronouns that make it clear where he’s coming from.  We know that Kendrick is being overtly political and we don’t need to hear a corollary from the artist to make it plain for us.  By the end of the song, you see that he’s standing in the tradition of the “conscious” rappers of the past such as KRS-1 and Nas who have never had a problem with assailing this country with each word carrying the power of an assassins bullet landing in the hollow institutions of this society merely pocking the facade, never carrying enough weight to even crack the foundation.

Kendrick throws out what the hypocrisy is in the last couplet when he says

So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?

and we’re left with the same troublesome question of how can the “I” in the song, which now suddenly functions as a “we” once the hypocrisy is revealed, be mad about the death of Trayvon Martin when “black-on-black” crime exists.  Granted, I’m not buying that argument from Kendrick or anyone else for that matter.  To label crime within the African American community as “black-on-black” and not assign that racial language to a crime when the victim and perpetrator is white or Latino allows many to pathologize a whole racial group and that, as we know, is dangerous.

In full disclosure I felt the need to offer that the whole gist of the song can be viewed as problematic, but because of the Kendrick being an unreliable narrator, I think it leaves the door open to say that clearly him being a hypocrite is problematic, but that there’s more complexities and nuances at play than what it seems.  But for me, that’s not what really stands out.  Him standing in that hip hop tradition of being an acerbic wordsmith that delivers the invective against society is one thing, but his ability to determine his own self-love is something that is virtually unheard of in contemporary hip hop.

We live very much in a post- era.  It’s post-modern, post-church, post-Black, post-Trayvon Martin/Mike Brown/Eric Garner, post-OJ Simpson, post-Reagan, post-9/11, post-civil rights… I could go on.  I would even argue that we live in this post-hip hop era at times given what gets played on the radio these days.  Lyrically these songs are worthy of a smart second or third grader, and the music production sounds all the same.  And the image of black men is still overwhelmingly monolithic.  The way that early hip hop cultural critics decried the “video vixens” and the ways black men portrayed black women and the open misogyny within the lyrics and the imagery of those music videos is still very much the same; the ethos of is hasn’t changed.  Just listen to Drake or Chris Brown’s lyrics.  Meanwhile Usher and Trey Songz almost consistently and universally rap about sex.  I would assert that the image of black maleness and black masculinity that is heard on the radio is determined by how many women (bitches and hos) that these men can actually get in the bed.

Then Kendrick comes around and speaks of self affirmation and self love determined by his existential connection to his community and also to himself.

I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015
Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean
Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
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?

Yeah, he really said that.  He took the phenotypical stereotypes that have been assigned to being black and the evil history of this country, turned it on its head and owned it.  And I love it.

I don’t think that Kendrick is expecting to change the conversation around black masculinity in this country, let alone around in hip hop, but I think it is worth noting.  I’ve been lately of the opinion that there needs to be a more deliberate reshaping and reforming of black masculinities that doesn’t fall into the trap of heterosexist patriarchal norms and that’s hard to navigate in a world that rewards operating in those norms.  But, I’m also of the opinion that more black men need to be committed to doing that work.  Part of what I believe is that some of disavowal of heterosexist patriarchal norms need to come from black men learning to love themselves–all of themselves.  Not just what they can do,  but actually loving who they be. In the way that we teach our daughters to love their breasts and love their curves and love their hair, I think we need to do a better job of that with our black sons.  And Kendrick does that.  He owns his body image.  He’s a short, nappy haired kid from Compton.  It’s almost that Miss Celie declaration: “I may be black, I may even be ugly, but I’m still here!”

What we do with our black boys is celebrate them.  We throw parties for them, we celebrate when they make the team, older brothers and uncles and fathers celebrate when they lose their virginity, and the celebration aspect has a way of being able to reinforce possibly bad behaviors as well as bad sensibilities toward black women and toward black LGBTQ members.  We love on them, but rarely do we teach them how to love themselves.  We show them how to love on other people, but when we don’t teach our sons how to love themselves, they can’t do it when they enter other relationships.

I just want to be able to say from one black man to another black man that I hear Kendrick, I affirm Kendrick and I love that he was able to express his own self-love.

Black male self-love is a powerful thing.  And yup, I felt a helluva lot blacker after hearing that single, and I’m okay with that.

[Originally posted here]