JIM and JOHNSON are sat eating an enormous meal in a whitewashed room.
JIM: The statistics speak for themselves Andrew. JOHNSON: Exactly. The police have to be vigilant. JIM: [Waving his knife in JOHNSON’S face] Perhaps if there wasn’t such a threat of violence in everything they did, perhaps if they didn’t seeth with rage as they walk the streets they would attract less attention. JOHNSON: I usually steer clear of politics Jim, but if I ever found myself at one of those rallies I would be chanting along with the All Lives Matter crowd. You don’t hear that sort of thing nearly enough these da—
Kendrick Lamar’s performance of The Blacker the Berry/Alright at the 2016 Grammys interrupts the innocently evil conversation that America is having with itself. The everday language of race is cracked open like a skull on a stone, justifications and excuses are blown away like an apologetic stutter in a hurricane, as Kendrick casts himself as the horrible apparition of what America never stops telling him that he is,
“I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village Pardon my residence.”
Kendrick shuffles, jump suited and chained, holding a mirror up to Harpur’s Weekly cartoons, performing the grotesqueries of drawings in the New Yorker;
“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?”
JIM: Everything is black, Andrew. JOHNSON: Black as a crow, Jim. JIM: They’re mad, the lot of them, Andrew.
“They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or something But homie, you made me…”
Pop music usually comes from a place of comfort. It reflects how we see oursevles: sitting on the end of a long arc of history which led us to a safe and equal present. The Nazis were defeated, the Berlin Wall fell, women got the vote, and apartheid ended. Good triumphed over evil and everything is fine now. But this is only history because we shout it loud enough to silence everyone else.
“How you no see the whip, left scars ‘pon me back?”
JIM: The police have to be vigilant, Andrew.
“But now we have a big whip parked ‘pon the block.”
The “I” in chart pop is unmistakably specific. “I need one dance” is Drake, and Drake alone, asking for a dance. Chart pop is about the individual: the broken hearted lover, the brilliant dancer, the jumper into cold, cold water. Kendrick’s “I”, however, throws a loving, furious embrace around anyone who will listen, and around everyone who is trying not to. When he sings “I’m the biggest hypocrite in 2015” “I” is everyone who wept “when Trayvon Martin was in the street” yet did nothing to stop him ending up there.
Not a word, not a note, not a millilitre of kerosene for the pyrotechnic display, was wasted. It needed to be memorable, it needed to be a spectacle, because so far all the evidence suggests that the audience hasn’t been listening.
“There was no racism before Obama got elected. Now… people with guns, shooting up neighbourhoods, not being resposible citizens. If you’re black and haven’t been successful in the last fifty years, it’s your own fault. When do they take resposibility for how they live?” - Kathy Miller, chair of Donald Trump’s campaign in Mahoning County, Ohio. 22/09/16
For saying this, Kathy Miller will not lose her job, she will not even be spoken to by the police. She will continue to forge a successful career in politics. Because on some level the opinions of people like Kathy Miller are “normal”. Kendrick Lamar’s task is nothing short of destroying “normal”.
“How can I tell you I’m making a killing? You made me a killer.”
This imagined conversation between a man “black and successful” and the singer holds the key to understanding Lamar’s most powerful weapon against hatred. Here “kill” can mean both financial success and murder, but perhaps this is a distinction without a difference. Perhaps “making a killing” and deepening the economic divisions within society, contributing to ever greater inequality, is as good as “killing”. Ultimately Lamar is saying that we live in one society where we are all deeply and inextricably connected, to hate is to hate ourselves:
“I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself.”
This must be unignorable now. The mirror is too highly polished for us to fail to see ourselves. This must be a performance we will look back on and say that it shaped our world.