“King Kunta”, the third single from To Pimp a Butterfly, holds particular relevance to Africa and the fight for the promotion of black identity in the US. In an exclusive interview last year with MTV’s Rob Markman, Lamar discussed the symbolism and significance of “blackness”, saying, “I’ve been called many things growing up … in the state of being a black man … it’s about taking that negativity and being proud of it and making it into your own, saying ‘I am a king no matter what you call me’.” These elements of Black Consciousness resonate with two of Lamar’s inspirations: civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
Expressing his feelings towards the treatment of black people, Lamar describes how, through his music, he is not speaking to or of the community. “I am the community,” urges Lamar. Lines such as “gang banging make me kill a n***r blacker than me,” from his track “The blacker the berry”, hold particular significance to the message of his album. He says, “When I say these lines … it’s therapeutic for [me] because I still feel that urge and that anger and that hatred.”
Lamar’s politically-charged Grammy performance in February this year conveyed elements of black pride and self-actualisation. The performance of “The blacker the berry” and “Alright” called to mind the chains of slavery and condemned injustice toward African American people by having African American dancers dressed as slaves with chains around their wrists and ankles. Grammy host LL Cool J said Lamar’s performance was about “provoking people to have conversation about society”, irrespective of if one agreed or disagreed with the performance’s message.
Lamar draws on African elements in his songs that not only resonate with Americans, but also bring the album home to Africa. A reference to “negus” in his track, “I”, transforms the n-word, placing it on a pedestal by invoking “negus” as a royal title from Ethiopian semetic languages. Lamar reinforces the importance of black self-actualisation and identity in society. “I started on this album already knowing what I wanted to talk about. As I am doing it, all these things are happening, Ferguson … we have a message to thrive off of.” Speaking about the Ferguson shooting of teenager Michael Brown, Lamar described how he does not want to feel like a victim in society. “I can talk about it all day or I can do something about it. Me putting out this album is the start of doing something about it,” he says.
“Mortal man” references former president Nelson Mandela’s captivity on Robben Island. Inspired by his visit to South Africa in 2014, Lamar brings important issues to the forefront with the lyrics, “Don’t let me resent you / that’s not Nelson-like, want you to love me like Nelson / I went to Robben’s Island analysing, that’s where his cell is / so I could find clarity”. Here Lamar describes how society is “so confined with hatred … [it wants] to point out people’s flaws, it’s been done with leaders way before my time”. Lamar sees himself becoming the voice of a generation, following in the footsteps of leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. “For the generation at the time being, I hold myself responsible … because I have got to see these kids everyday who come to me with slit wrists, saying my music saved their lives. I can’t run from that.”
Lamar remains one of the most influential current artists. The coming together of music, truths, and political discussions remains at the forefront of hip-hop as a form of activism.
Illustration: Asiphe Dlulane