‘Really, Really, Real’: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. City’ as “Secular Spiritual” – Part Three: The ‘good kid’ and the African American Freedom Struggle

Posted: March 10, 2015 in Uncategorized
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kendrick-lamar-crown1

The narrative which emerges from Lamar’s GKMC is implicated in the African-American freedom struggle insofar as it reflects a key principle of Afro-American revolutionary thought: “the self-realization of individuality within community.”[1] A hip-hop “secular spiritual” in its own right, GKMC muses on so-called secular themes—gang violence and sexuality—to present an image of life as it is in the experience of one black soul’s longing for the truth of his own personhood. In an interview with MTV, Lamar admits:

I wouldn’t say I’m the most religious person, neither were both of my parents. I always do quote-unquote religious songs or whatever you want to call them from the standpoint where I’m trying to find answers. That’s the space I speak from and a lot of people can relate because they feel the same way. [I’m] not a person that’s putting it in your head — “believe this, believe this, believe this.” I’m going through something, I’m a sinner and I’m trying to figure myself out. It never sounds preachy. It sounds like a person who’s really confused by what the world has put upon him.[2]

GKMC thus gives witness to the work Lamar does to sort out this confusion, which is part and parcel of a deeply spiritual struggle to achieve self-realization as an African-American man. Indeed, as African-American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson says of Michael Jackson, the rapper’s “own moral perspective is informed by an understanding of human nature that acknowledges that all human beings embody the potential for wrongdoing.”[3]

As such, GKMC represents an expression of soul, and a definitive move toward the will to love over and against the alluring will to power. Using his stance as artist to enter into and deconstruct his demons from within, Lamar finds the resources to make meaning in a context that challenges him to confront “existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social deportation.”[4]

Describing the album himself, Lamar says in one interview:

It’s really just a self-portrait. I feel I need to make this album in order to move on with my life, and I had negative vibes and demons haunting me. It’s that real. I had to come from somewhere, I had to come from a place — it could have been negative, it could have been positive but for the majority of it, it was negative place. I needed to vent and put this message out in order for me to grow as a person. I’m glad I did, because it was a venting process, you know, to tell these stories I never told.[5]

In coming to grips with the demons of his past and offering the lessons learned to the community from which he hails, Lamar accomplishes two crucial tasks central to Afro-American revolutionary theory and practice. He “confronts candidly the tragic character of human history (and the hope for ultimate historical triumph) [and takes] more seriously the existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation of actual human beings” (as in members of the Compton community) and “elevates the notion of struggle (against the odds!)—personal and collective struggle regulated by the norms of individuality and democracy—to the highest priority.”[6]

For Lamar this is a mission that calls on faith in the human family. Standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lamar recognizes (in songs such as “Sing About Me”) that “shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived and often psychopathic [read ‘m.A.A.d.’]” and sees that “nothing is so much needed as a secure family life for a people seeking to rise out of poverty and backwardness.”[7] This is especially true in light of poverty’s connection to juvenile delinquency in a postindustrial age such as Lamar’s.

Playing the role of the Gramscian organic intellectual, Lamar uses the album, as a form of hip-hop discourse, to relate popular culture and religion to structural social change.[8] In the context of GKMC religion serves as signifier for personal transformation (the redemption of sin) which in turn leads to societal transformation through the cultural work of  “storying” (i.e. rapping).  It is through his role as rap artist that Lamar can “look at the weak and cry,” “pray one day you’ll be strong,” and fight “for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It is his way of affirming individuality in the creation of a new human community.

Speaking to the role of cultural worker in his concept of the New Politics of Difference, West notes that the cultural critic calls for “‘new forms of intellectual consciousness’ that will advance the struggle for individuality and democracy”:

To put it bluntly, the new cultural politics of difference consists of creative responses to the precise circumstances of our present moment—especially those of the marginalized. First World agents who shun degraded self-representations, articulating instead their sense of the flow of history in light of the contemporary terrors, anxieties, and fears of highly commercialized North Atlantic capitalist cultures (with their escalating xenophobias against people of color, Jews, women, gays, lesbians and the elderly).[9]

Lamar is one such agent who signifies on the dominant (read white) society’s fears of the postindustrial ghettos, such as Compton, it has helped create. Consider this verse of “Compton”:

Now we can all celebrate, we can all harvest the rap artist of NWA
America target a rap market, it’s controversy and hate
Harsh realities we in, made our music translate
To the coke dealers, the hood rich and the broke niggas that play
With them gorillas that know killers that know where you stay
Roll that kush, crack that case, 10 bottles of Rose
This was brought to you by Dre
Now every muthafucka in here say
Look who responsible for taking Compton international

Lamar here celebrates his city as the birthplace that harvested the likes of legendary rap group N.W.A. At the same time he recognizes how it has been commodified by a rap market and, through the media, made the subject of controversy and hate. Regardless, the “harsh realities we in” speak directly to the real life experiences of urban dwellers which dominant society at once ignores and fetishizes.

Lamar’s work as hip-hop cultural worker meanwhile extends beyond his efforts on the album as evidenced by his leadership of the “HiiiPoWeR Movement.” The purpose of the HiiiPoWeR movement is to encourage social awareness among young people living in a self-destructive society through the cultivation of the mind. The three “i’s” in the movement’s name stand for heart, honor and respect—the basic tenets of the movement’s quasi-religious credo, inspired by the example of freedom fighters such as Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and rapper Tupac Shakur. It is Lamar’s way of professing King’s unenforceable law of love “written on the heart.”[10]

With Lamar’s album as its twelve-track anthem, the HiiiPoWeR Movement is a cultural thrust toward “realness” understood as freedom in love. For King, as for Lamar, such freedom expresses itself in “the capacity to deliberate or to weigh alternatives” (reflected in the lyrics of “m.A.A.d. City”); a decision to cut off other alternatives (reflected in “I’m Tired of Running”); and responsibility (reflected in the recording of the father’s reproach at the end of “Real”: “Real is responsibility!”). Ultimately a constructive engagement with existential freedom, the creation of GKMC and the HiiiPoWeR Movement reflects an important step in the African-American freedom struggle: “to work passionately for group identity.”[11]

This kind of cultural work is tied up in the challenge of self-determination against what W.E.B. Du Bois would call the temptations to self-doubt, despair and hatred in a society that has systematically rendered the African-American invisible. Lamar is no stranger to these temptations, as evidenced by the track, “I’m Dying of Thirst.” Furthermore, he is no stranger to Du Boisian “double consciousness” as indicated by the meaning of the acronym, “m.A.A.d.”: “my angry adolescence divided.” The album details his reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable “two-ness” within himself—a  psychic parlay between innocence and guilt; self-love and self-loathing; good and bad; self-empowered, black subject and exploited, black object—that he transcends through positive self-assertion as a “good kid” in the context of a “beloved community” (read Compton).

In this, we find Lamar composing a sonic self-portrait that reveals the psychic turmoil of one whose “religious sensibilities are expressed in his wrestling with religiously informed, morally shaped, and culturally conditioned themes” which include:

an [examination] of the nature of good and evil; an [exploration] of the potentialities for transformation of the self, human nature, and society; a probing of the true nature of manhood in American culture; a [confrontation with] the material lures and sexual seductions of everyday life in post-modern American culture; a [proclamation] of the place of peace and love in transforming the world; and a surveying of the politics of American racial identity and awareness.[12]

Just as W.E.B. Du Bois did in The Souls of Black Folk, Lamar asserts himself as one seeking to live life above the “Veil,” to live into the authenticity of his own personhood, as in the opening bars of “Real”:

I do what I wanna do
I say what I wanna say
When I feel, and I…
Look in the mirror and know I’m there
With my hands in the air
I’m proud to say yea
I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

Du Bois_SoulsA figurative Alexander Crummell[13] of whom Du Bois speaks in Souls, Lamar is one who has passed through the “Lonesome Valley of Death”[14] (read Compton / m.A.A.d. city) and lived to tell a moral tale about successfully negotiating the tension between despair and hope through self-love. An exemplar of a Du Boisian soul who has successfully “walked within” and  transcended “the Veil,” Lamar, like Crummell, has “bent to all the gibes and prejudices, to all hatred and discrimination, with that rare courtesy which is the armor of pure souls.”[15] Moreover, he is the archetypal Du Boisian “Teacher,” embodying the ideals of the “Black World” in its “strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing.”[16]

And, lastly, like the classic bluesman, that tragi-comic spokesman of the “secular spiritual,” Lamar embodies paradox. He is at once sinner and saint. The space he creates for himself within the album’s narrative contours lets him affirm his own self-worth in the midst of navigating the pressures of day-to-day existence in a postindustrial world.

“Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich,” Lamar raps in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” suggesting that he has come to a place of self-knowledge through a process not unlike that of the alchemist turning base metal into gold. Yet he doesn’t keep that alchemical gold for himself. Rather, he shares it as wisdom with the world so that others may become rich in soul and self-worth. Lamar admits that his own identity-formation has been a painful process, riddled with mistakes that he wears like scars. Yet these scars, like the “secular spiritual” songs he sings, are constant reminders of what he has learned in order to become who he proclaims himself to be: a self-realized “good kid” in a (self-)critically examined “m.A.A.d. city.”

[1] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, Press, 1982) 16.

[2] See rapgenius.com, http://rapgenius.com/Kendrick-lamar-compton-lyrics (accessed December 2012)

[3] Michael Eric Dyson, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 53.

[4] Riffing on Terrance Wiley’s conception of black blight in America, Class Lecture, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, Fall 2013.

[5] See rapgenius.com, http://rapgenius.com/albums/Kendrick-lamar/Good-kid-m-a-a-d-city (accessed December 2012)

[6] West, Prophesy!…, op. cit., 19.

[7] See Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 114.

[8] See Cornel West, “Black Theology and Marxist Thought,” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979, edited by Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone: 552-567.

[9] Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.

[10] See King, op. cit., 106.

[11] Ibid., 131.

[12] Dyson, op. cit.

[13] The Episcopal priest and leading figure of the Pan-African Movement.

[14] See W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Alexander Crummell, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover, 1994), 139.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Of the Wings of Atalanta, ibid., 50.

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