The Power of Kendrick Lamar's "Mortal Man" Poem

How the "TPAB" poem made me recognize the caterpillars and butterflies in my life.

It's been six months since Kendrick Lamar released his groundbreaking third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly

Stuffed with social commentary, raw emotion and powerful storytelling, TPAB is a record that I've come to understand as a cinematic opus of the black experience. As K. Dot weaves his way through the jazz-funk inspired production, he manages to speak on every topic from poverty to gang violence. Themes like economic despair, self-hatred, colorism, racism, and police brutality all find their niche in the 80 minute long epic. It's been six months, and I still have yet to fully digest this body of work.

Records like "How Much A Dollar Cost" still pull at the fabric of my soul, while other cuts like "The Blacker The Berry" continue to transcend the flesh and set fire to my blood. But for all of the complexities and intricacies addressed throughout the bulk of the album, "Mortal Man," the album's closing track, stands to provide clarity. Complete with a James Fauntleroy appearance, mentions of every black hero from Nelson Mandela to Michael Jackson, and an otherworldly interview with the spirit of Tupac Shakur, the 12-minute-long anthem is an appropriate closer. But perhaps, one of the less explored elements of the record is the brief poem that Kendrick recites to Pac before their interview ends so abruptly. In the poem, which Kendrick claimed “a good friend had wrote,” every ounce of substance that was stuffed into the previous 79 minutes of the album is finally culminated into three distinct motifs; the caterpillar, the environment, and the butterfly.

The caterpillar is the young boy in the hood. Depending on who and where you are in the world, you may or may not know him and his story. His neighborhood is both a war-zone and a cage. The walls of this cage form a pentagon, he's surrounded by institutional racism, poverty, addiction, police brutality and gang violence. Often times, these walls act as a barrier between the boy and the outside world. From his perspective, nothing can get out, and nothing can get in. The powers that be will make sure of that. He doesn't like it, but it's all he's ever known so he accepts it. With no hope or aspirations for life outside of the pentagon, his dreams dissolve and simplify into the sole desire to survive, by any means necessary. Surrounded by war, he chooses his weapon and begins to fight. At times, the objective of this fight may become blurry or completely nonexistent. The motivation for warfare can range from something as complex as the murder of a loved one to a color. To the outside world it's pointless, but the boy doesn't care. In his world, the ideals of love, mercy and reasoning are mere luxuries that he cannot afford. So the war perpetuates eternally. The mass media may identify him as “thug.” Politicians may mention him as a statistic or a number. Your favorite rapper probably refers to him as “lil nigga.” But aside from these labels, the vast majority of the world ignores him, treating his existence like the very scourge of the Earth, until he transcends his environment and evolves into a butterfly. But sadly, 90% of caterpillars die before reaching that stage.

“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it / Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city / While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive"



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We've seen glimpses of the caterpillar's environment in music videos for Vince Staple's "Senorita," "Flying Lotus' "Until The Quiet Comes" and of course Kendrick's "Alright." In the environment, death is not an idea or concept that one faces a few times in their life. It is an ever-present entity that haunts every street corner. In Kendrick's case, the environment represents the streets of his Compton home. But in reality, the environment can be used to characterize any ghetto or inner-city neighborhood in the United States. The environment creates more challenges for the young boy to overcome because it is polluted; poisoned by institutional racism, poverty, addiction, police brutality and gang violence. It is home to many predators; phantoms who haunt its streets in the form of drug dealers and pimps. They pump a variety of venom into the veins of the weak, as they prey on them for profit. These poisons take various forms like crack, heroin, and crystal meth. And although these poisons were first introduced into the environment by the government, their continued circulation is the result of poverty, hopelessness, greed, and the eternal struggle for survival, by any means necessary. The presence of these poisons makes the young boy's environment a constant battleground for the incessant “War On Drugs.” While trying to navigate his way through the environment the boy often finds himself entangled and caught up in the complexities of this war. And many times his life may end as a mere casualty. He lives in a wasteland of a neighborhood that the young boy calls home. More often than not, he is introduced to death or imprisonment before navigating his way into the outside world. But every blue moon he is able to evolve and break free from his poisonous environment.

Kendrick Lamar is the butterfly. Having successfully navigated the darkness of his environment, the butterfly is what happens when the caterpillar is able to break free from his environment and evolve into something new. Kendrick Lamar is what happens when a young boy from a Compton neighborhood is able overcome adversity and create a new life with his art and music. But Kendrick Lamar is not the only butterfly, he is merely one example. Other popular examples of butterflies include LeBron James, JAY Z, and Oprah Winfrey; all people who made it out of less than desirable situations and accomplished amazing feats. But not every butterfly is rich and famous. A butterfly is simply a person who was able to escape their detrimental circumstances and create a better life for themselves and their family. Kendrick Lamar has spoken on the concept of making it out many times before, although it was not always in the terms of the caterpillar and the butterfly, the values and themes mentioned were similar. On an older record, "Black Boy Fly," Kendrick rapped about how watching people like Aaron Afflalo and The Game make it out of Compton gave him more motivation to do the same. It's safe to assume that these men, viewed as butterflies, were observed by Kendrick during his stage as a caterpillar. Ultimately, the butterfly represents what the young boy is capable of, if given the opportunity to reach his full potential.

“Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant / Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle"

The world has no love for the caterpillar. He's an insect, vermin worth no more than the gum on the bottom of my sneaks. He moves through his environment feeding on dead leaves that can never satisfy his hunger, because his stomach is infested with societal tapeworms. I've seen the caterpillar in my family and friends. I can see him in the eyes of the young boys in my grandmama's neighborhood. I went to school on the South Side of Raleigh, NC, where I would see the caterpillar in my classmates. Sometimes I even see him in myself. 

But for all of the pain and despair that engulfs the caterpillar's world, the butterfly is a beacon of hope. I've seen the butterfly in my pops, who used his intellect and athleticism to traverse his way out of his inner-city neighborhood on the west side of Philly. I see him in my mother, who worked full-time to will her way through college. I see him in hometown heroes like John Wall and King Mez and every Raleigh boy who went to school on a hoop scholarship this year. And I see the butterfly in every rapper that I idolize; from Kendrick, to Cole, to Hov, to fallen legends like Pac and Biggie. And sometimes, I also see him in myself. But for now I'm building, incubating, and plotting; preparing myself for the next phase.

You could say I'm in my cocoon. And I pray we all become butterflies.

[By Vinnie Johnson. Vinnie just started at DJBooth, you can follow him on Twitter. Art via Instagram.]



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