Kendrick Lamar Is a Great American Writer, But There Is Room to Grow

Commentary
By Da'Shawn Mosley 4-14-2017
Image via Kendrick Lamar Facebook

In the past, the universally acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar has been passed over not once, but twice, for the prestigious Grammy Award for Album of the Year — and this could happen again next year if he submits his latest album for consideration. But now that the committee behind the Nobel Prize in Literature recognizes songs as part of poetry’s lineage, I hope they will turn their attention to this young writer from Compton, Calif., and consider awarding him, many years from now, their highest honor.

For what the singer/songwriter/music producer Pharrell said four years ago about Kendrick Lamar is absolutely true: Lamar is the Bob Dylan of his generation, an American storyteller on the same plane as Toni Morrison, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl S. Buck, and other U.S. Nobel Prize in Literature laureates. Why this statement may seem overblown is because of highbrow bias against hip-hop, which is to say bias against black language, black storytellers, and black people. But, to quote Chuck D, the leader of the rap group Public Enemy, hip-hop is “CNN for black people.” And Lamar is the best reporter in the business.

Lamar extends the canon of black storytelling by presenting the sagas of his hometown, his friends, and his fallen loved ones in great detail.

He also fearlessly, and bluntly, turns his scrutinizing attention onto himself.

Lamar’s latest album DAMN., released on April 14, is a fiery album about sin. Lamar is a Christian, and his preoccupation with God and how to live a godly life in an often ungodly world is threaded throughout much of his work. In DAMN., Lamar speaks about generational sin, not just on a familial level but also through a larger lens of America’s history, focusing on what Jim Wallis deemed this nation’s "original sin": racism.

The verse “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” is a constant refrain spoken by Lamar throughout DAMN., prompting the listener to ask why is no one looking out for Lamar in a divine sense. Is it because the nation is becoming more secular — an extension of Lamar’s past comments about judgment day nearing? Or is no one praying for Lamar, or people who look like Lamar, because many of the nation’s most public Christians are more concerned with supporting morally troubling leaders, such as Donald Trump?

Commenting on the power of conservatism in America, Lamar says in the song “XXX,” which features U2, “It’s nasty when you set us up, then roll the dice, then bet us up / You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox [News] to be scared of us / Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera / America’s reflections of me / That’s what a mirror does.”

In reflecting America’s shortcomings, though, Lamar’s DAMN. may very well, in some aspects, contribute to the problems. In a skit on the album, a black pastor establishes in a sermon that black people, Hispanics, and Native Americans are the true children of Israel, and says that God has inflicted so much suffering on these communities because they have turned their gaze from God in search of other idols. “Until we come back to these laws, statutes, and commandments, and do what the Lord says, these curses is gonna be upon us,” the pastor says. Victim-blaming — placing the fallout of racism on racism’s casualties — is incredibly problematic and erases the role of white people in the suffering of communities populated by people of color. The pastor’s words aren’t spoken by Lamar, though, so it may be that they’re meant to highlight the iniquities of the church. Lamar does say in the song “FEEL.” that he feels as though he’s “boxing church, religion…”

But if that’s the case, and Lamar is merely documenting America’s failures and portraying flawed men in his collection of stories from the hood, I hope that Lamar will somehow find a way to do so while placing more thoughtful attention on a demographic his work often denigrates: black women. In the song “HUMBLE.,” which debuted at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Lamar states that he’s “so tired of the Photoshop” and that he wants to see “something natural,” such as women with “stretch marks.” Lamar’s verses, although perhaps intended to honor women, do the opposite by looping them into the male gaze, hinting at the purpose of women being nothing more than to serve men sexually.

Furthermore, in the song “DNA.,” Lamar insults an unidentified male by calling him an alternative world for a female dog and negatively insinuating that he is actually a woman, placing women at a lower social standard than men and potentially insulting the state of being transgender. This sort of misogyny and discrimination isn’t something that's solely inherent to hip-hop — it pervades the entire music industry, as well as our day-to-day lives, and it’s something that should be uprooted from our culture. If male musicians want to be innovative, perhaps they should break from the pack and change their language.

In an interview with T magazine, Lamar muses about what it would be like for him to one day have a daughter, and I hope that the thought of this will push him to speak more considerately about women, the women in his songs often used as sexual objects. After a volatile, sexist U.S. presidential election, and recent comments concerning Rep. Maxine Waters (D-C.A.) and CNN political analyst April Ryan, deprecation of womanhood cannot stand.

I hope Lamar will recognize and elevate that truth, seeing as he is an American prophet, one of this nation's most public fortune tellers. For if this obvious truth is hidden even to him, how sharp is his perspective after all?

Da’Shawn Mosley is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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