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The Blacker The Berry: Respecting Kendrick Lamar's Respectability Politics

Rarely do we get a rapper in the mainstream that talks about relevant social issues and does it in a way as clever and entertaining as Kendrick Lamar.
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There's no denying it, the past few weeks have been great for hip-hop conversation. First, we had the GRAMMYs and the all-to-be-expected Kanye West fallout afterward. Then we had Kendrick Lamar attempting to break the internet with his powerful new single "The Blacker The Berry." After that, we had a few gusts of wind from Yeezy Season in the shape of a fashion show, a star-studded concert and a preview of the intro from Kanye's new album. Finally, we had Drake actually breaking the internet with the secret release of his mixtape-album-mixtape, If You're Already Reading This It's Too Late.

As you can tell from the title, I'm here to talk about Kendrick Lamar's "The Blacker The Berry" and the difference a song makes. Lucas has already said everything that I can possibly say in terms of how awesome this single is, so here's a Yoga Flame gif. Instead of me explaining how "The Blacker The Berry" is hotter than Rick Ross eating chili in a volcano, I want to talk about the racial politics behind the song and why they make perfect sense for Kendrick.

Earlier this year, Kendrick sparked some controversy with his comments about police brutality in a Billboard interview:

"I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it's already a situation, mentally, where it's f---ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within."

As soon as that interview was published, you could hear a collective sigh of disappointment within the hip-hop and black community. Effectively, it came down to a significant amount of people saying surely Kendrick knows better than this? Surely the guy who wrote the lyrics to GKMC knows better than this? For example, here's Charlie Wolvvves' take:

"Maybe Kendrick made a mistake. Perhaps he was misquoted or didn’t thoroughly understand the ramifications of what he was saying to a predominantly white music publication. His quote perfectly falls in line with the self-love teachings he’s been singing since the release of the divisive 'i'. However, Kendrick should’ve known better."

Kendrick's comments are a classic example of respectability politics. Respectability politics is the belief that if a black person/ethnic minority behaves a certain way then he/she should be able to avoid any instances of racial injustice. Essentially, it's the 'pull-up your pants' argument. However, the problem with this argument is that it ignores the glaring reality of institutionalized racism in American society. It's based in the naive belief that "proper" behavior will save you from police brutality and a flawed judicial system.

The sad thing is that I used to be a subscriber of respectability politics and it wasn't until the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner that I was shaken out of my deep sense of apathy. If 2014 showed me anything, it was that no matter what I wore or how well I spoke, there was always the possibility I would be a victim of racial profiling and police brutality due to the color of my skin. That's my bad, and now I know better. However, I also believe that Kendrick knows better, he's just choosing to ignore it because he's on a specific mission.



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From day one, Kendrick has been concerned about the city of Compton. In particular, he's been concerned about the cyclical nature of gang violence in his city and the senseless amount of casualties that it's led to. This is especially the case when you re-listen to his Mom's words of encouragement at the end of the "Real":

"If I don't hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that's the best way to give back. To your city…"

With the unprecedented success of good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick finally has the platform to make a real change in his city and it's a responsibility that he's seemed to embrace with open arms.

Which brings me back to "The Blacker The Berry." In the song, Kendrick is showing people that he does know better, that he's aware of the problem of institutionalized racism and how it’s responsible for several ills that black people currently face.

The first two verses of the track talk about how racist America tried to make Kendrick hate himself, how it tried to make Kendrick despise his blackness. But instead of succumbing to this negative influence, Kendrick spews that hatred back in its face with even more venom and anger: "You hate me don't you? / I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself / Jealous of my wisdom and cards I dealt."

After that, Kendrick does a complete 180 in the final verse and raps, pretty much word for word, the same thing that he said in the Billboard interview: "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!"

While my natural reaction was to first cringe and disagree with this line, I thought about the song as a whole and it led me to the realization that Kendrick is saying that he's hoping to break the cycle of gang violence in Compton. Like I said before, Kendrick is definitely aware of the problem of institutionalized racism and police brutality, but for the people of Compton, the people he grew up with and still sees regularly, those black people are killing other black people for a street or a color.

Therefore, Kendrick's primary focus is on resolving this issue once and for all and that's why songs like "The Blacker The Berry" and "i" are so important. Listened to in combination, these two songs are aimed at teaching the kids of Compton how to love themselves first and then love each other second. Together, these two songs will teach the kids of Compton that every life is important and that it's a sin to snatch away that life, no matter the reason. This is why I respect Kendrick's respectability politics.

Rarely do we get a rapper in the mainstream that talks about relevant social issues and does it in a way as clever and entertaining as Kendrick Lamar. To my mind, Kendrick is using his music for a good cause and if he can stop people dying from drive-bys and feelings of vengeance that run generations deep then more power to him. As "The Blacker the Berry" shows, he's not taking that stance instead of tackling larger issues around racism, he's taking that stance in addition to those larger issues. 

Like all of us, hopefully, Kendrick is attempting to build a better future for our society. We shouldn't overly concern ourselves about whether he's right or wrong so long as he's trying to make a positive change. If that also makes me the biggest hypocrite of 2015, then so be it.



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