When the biggest rapper of our day dedicates his success to the conversation of black self-empowerment, it should not be ignored.
Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” surfaced on the night of Mar. 15, a week prior to its scheduled release date. His powerfully poetic, elaborate discourse on black empowerment is uniquely special in a number of ways.
His tirade begins with the album title itself, which references Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which a black man is unjustly tried in court. Lamar seeks to highlight the innocence of the black community – the butterfly – and their exploitation, or how they are “pimped out,” by cultural problems, record companies, racism and an overarching lack of self-worth.
He points to a slave/master dynamic between record companies and artists. He explains the way consumerism and materialism captivate and harm the black community. He highlights problems in standards of black beauty and self-worth. In all these things, Lamar promotes a sense of unity and self-empowerment.
Unlike the race-baiters and political activists of our day, Lamar draws upon a bigger picture to discuss race. Too much of our country’s recent dialogue on race relies on media-hype and emotional frenzy. Our news-providers beat an old drum of racial tension, drawing up a false narrative of racism for political gain. Everyone is quick to blame, and real, effective solutions are lost in the chaos that ensues.
When rappers that regularly promote violence and crime turn around and protest the recent events of Ferguson, Missouri, the picture is one of hypocrisy. Fortunately, Lamar recognizes and explains the irony of his own argument, and affirms the black community’s potential and power. Solely pointing the finger at today’s racism does no good, but the change must come from within.
He encourages black leadership and the influx of new ideas, while challenging underlying problems in language, social attitudes and mores – things your average rapper would likely never talk about.
Truthfully, Kendrick Lamar is right: self-empowerment is the only solution for the problems affecting the black community. The state of the black family, black illiteracy rates, rates of black business—all these cultural problems and more have been painfully ignored, prolonging the problems. The solution to a nearly 75 percent rate of federally-reported black illegitimacy is not in pointing the finger at the white man—it requires a shift in cultural ideals. The solution to overwhelming rates of black-on-black crime is not solely in blaming the system—it requires a change in cultural patterns.
To assume that the black community is not capable, or powerful enough, to deal with these issues is demeaning. Sadly, many in our country today—especially within the black community—assume such a view, directly or indirectly. Their frustration is understandable and justified, but if it doesn’t lead anywhere, it is of no use.
And the simple fact that a rapper recognizes and encourages the strength of the black community – instead of propagating an ignorant lifestyle – is refreshing. Lamar deserves credit for wrestling with the topic of race from angles that are both personal and cultural.
He ends the pristine body of work with a fake conversation with the late rapper Tupac Shakur – a rapper known for highlighting much of the same subject matter. After reciting parts of a poem after each song on the album, Lamar reveals that he recites the entire poem to Tupac.
The final lines of it sum up his message well:
“Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another n*gga.”