WASHINGTON -- It's been a traumatic year for black people in America. We've been bombarded with deaths -- and thanks to social media, every time another black person is killed for, essentially, being black, we can all take part in the horror, the anger and the grief of people and communities we don't even know. Eric Garner and John Crawford were killed only 23 and four days, respectively, before a police officer shot Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, Missouri. Then came Ezell Ford. Then Kajieme Powell. Then Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Christian Taylor -- one loss can barely be mourned before another name is trending.
It's hard to be black and even slightly aware of the world around you without feeling an exhausting emotional weight from all this. There's really no good way to escape this feeling, but in the past five months or so, I've found catharsis in "To Pimp a Butterfly," the most recent album by the Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. It isn't an album concerned with escape. It looks directly at the ugly realities of black life. And somehow, in that way, it makes them bearable -- at least for a little while.
"To Pimp a Butterfly" is a masterpiece. If it's not, then the word has no meaning. There's been plenty written about this, so I won't spend a lot of time making the case, but you can't listen to this album and not recognize that it's An Achievement. Lamar, 28, fits jazz, funk, R&B, gospel, hip-hop and spoken word into his mosaic, and finds room for Nat Turner, Ralph Ellison, Wallace Thurman, Alex Haley, Wesley Snipes and Trayvon Martin along the way. He wrestles with depression and self-hatred, gang violence and police violence, 19th-century racism and 21st-century racism and even the devil herself (on this album, Lucifer appears as a temptress named Lucy).
He also spits candidly about vices like sex, drugs and alcohol abuse, recognizing them as coping mechanisms in a way that humanizes black folks and shows the psychological costs of the issues that plague our communities. At the same time, he doesn't let himself off the hook for his own destructive behavior. Such courage and candidness when speaking on the woes of black America is helping Lamar’s music resonate with younger people. And just as "To Pimp a Butterfly" draws on the decades of black art that came before, so is the next generation of artists taking cues from K-dot -- and looking to his music to help them manage the stress and trauma of being black in America.
The kids are alright
Earlier this month, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a group of young men and women gathered for BLK AGST, a two-week Pan-African workshop where students aim to use music, film and other media to reposition art as a vanguard of political change in the black community. The first annual BLK AGST -- pronounced "Black August" -- was held last year. The group describes itself as a cypher, because while its members have many interests, they all have in common a love of hip-hop: writing it, performing it or both.
The program is partly focused on black liberation, juxtaposing art with politics and exploring the role that both play in emancipating the black mind. The kids watched videos of Kwame Toure and documentaries about Angela Davis, for example.
“That kind of historical political education lays the foundation for political consciousness and black political thought that sets a particular tone -- and then the students themselves quickly draw the connections to contemporary things,” Pierce Freelon, a coordinator of the program, told me.
This year's workshop kept the students busy for about four hours a day -- first ingesting politically conscious material, and then working on their own art. The students' projects included everything from lyrics and instrumental production to paintings, short films and crocheted hats emblazoned with political statements like “Say Her Name” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot."
“Art has a great role to play in the emancipation of black people and always, always has,” said Freelon, who is currently a visiting lecturer in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina. “The gears of that mental freedom are lubricated by the arts.”
When I first spoke with the students at BLK AGST, they'd been playing "To Pimp A Butterfly" almost every day, along with music from other conscious artists like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Nina Simone. The main song in rotation, they told me, was "Alright," an uplifting and honest track from "Butterfly" in which Lamar declares that, after all is said and done, black people will be just fine.
“We've been talking about Omega-level geniuses, and Kendrick Lamar is an Omega-level genius," said Freelon, referring to the exceptionally powerful characters in Marvel's "X-Men" universe who are extraordinary even among superheroes. “Kendrick is in that vein with these black artists throughout history. So it's just come up daily.”
Chuckling, I told him that I understood the reference and agreed that Lamar is, in fact, the Jean Grey of hip-hop. "To Pimp A Butterfly" dropped in March, and it's taken me months to wrap my mind around the racial and political ideas Lamar expresses on the album. Over this past summer, a season as bloody as it was humid, it's been vital to have a song like "Alright" that offers a sense of community and hope.
“The song means a lot to me, because it's more like an uplifting kind of thing for my people,” said Desiree Hopkins, a 21-year-old member of this year's cypher. During the workshop, Hopkins created an Afro-futuristic painting of an androgynous black person whose hair consists of magazine clippings. “When I listen to the song, it makes me feel like I'm gon’ be alright. It’s saying all the things that we’ve been through, but it’s [also] saying that we’re gonna come through them -- like we always have.”
Art, whether musical or visual, has always been the balm for black America’s wounds. Black voices and music, Freelon said, function like aloe vera cream for the mental trauma we endure being black in this country. Everything about "Alright" is inspirational: Early in the song, listeners are welcomed by a jubilant chord that sounds, as Freelon pointed out, like a choir singing. When the percussion comes in, it's the kind of bouncing, stuttering beat that you can't help but move to.
"Alls my life I hads to fight, nigga!" Lamar shouts on the track. "Hard times like, 'God!' Bad trips like, 'Yea!' Nazareth, I'm fucked up. Homie, you fucked up. But if God got us then we gon' be alright!"
I told Freelon I agreed with him. The song, I said, is uplifting from the jump.
“You know, from the jump!" he agreed. "When I think about what voices have meant in black healing and struggle -- like way back to field hollers and spirituals... Before we had any electronic music [or] any kind of beats, we had the voice. And the way that [Lamar] chopped it up, it was like a modern-day field holler, you know what I mean? We [would] use those to incite rebellion or to heal.”
Spirituals have always had a duality to them. For enslaved Africans in the U.S., they were emancipatory in both the literal and metaphorical sense, Freelon said: While the songs offered black folks a way to get through tough life situations, many of the lyrics also contained coded instructions for how to actually escape from bondage. Freelon said it's possible to draw a line from spirituals through Nina Simone's repertoire and Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit" and arrive at Lamar’s "Alright." “It’s part of a lineage of black thought that has its finger on the pulse of black liberation and struggle and resiliency,” he said.
The song did all of the above at a protest last month.
On July 26, a Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority police officer pepper-sprayed protesters outside the inaugural National Convening of the Movement for Black Lives. The protesters had formed a human chain to block a police cruiser with a suspect in the back seat from leaving the scene. Soon -- as you can hear in the video above -- the crowd was chanting the refrain from Lamar's song.
The suspect was a 14-year-old boy who'd been arrested for allegedly being intoxicated. Joshua Vincent, a program coordinator for BLK AGST, was in Cleveland that weekend and was among those pepper-sprayed.
“As soon as the closing ceremony ended, [we] walked out and the kid was in the midst of getting arrested, and Black Lives Matter basically went up there and unarrested the kid in the midst of being assaulted by the police,” Vincent, 32, told me. (News reports of the incident say that police released the boy to his mother after taking him to be examined by medical services, although it's possible police would have acted differently if not for the protesters.) “You know, being pepper-sprayed and walking away from that whole situation like 'We gon' be alright,' even in the midst of all that... Because you know that if you do something like unarrest a kid who’s 14 years old and send him home to his parents -- and that’s where he needs to be -- then you know you got the power within you to be alright. Know what I’m saying?”
Emmett Price, a professor at Northeastern University, is on the same page as Vincent. “There’s something about the power of our music that says when the music's playing and everybody’s heart and minds are on one accord -- that we can do this. There's a courage that comes up,” Price told me. “In the midst of this oppression, because all hearts and minds [are] in sync, there’s this power that we have.”
He added that the video for "Alright," directed by Colin Tilley, offers listeners a way to understand the track from Lamar’s perspective. The video is unflinching in its depictions of police brutality and inner-city deprivation -- cars burn, faces are bloodied, cops sneer and cuff and shoot. But despite it all, black people remain resilient. The video is peppered with images of people rising above: Kids dance on graffiti-tagged police cars and bike to the top of hills, while Lamar crowd-surfs and literally floats through the neighborhood. We see smiling black faces, people dancing and surging in groups, a hopeful community turning up and sticking together. The video, like the song, oozes black empowerment and endurance.
Toward the end of the video, Lamar is standing on a streetlight high above the ground. Down below, a cop makes a gun with his fingers, aims and shoots -- a moment that brings the video back around to the point of how dangerous it is to be black in America. The cop's gun may have been make-believe, but we see blood fly as Lamar recoils and falls to earth. The screen fades to black... and then we see a wounded Lamar lying on the ground, smiling.
It's a helpful reminder, especially at a time when we're constantly being exposed to violent black deaths, that the black spirit, though battered, is strong. I'm reminded of my great-grandmother, who spent the first 40 years of her life under Jim Crow’s reign and the next 44 trying to combat his more subtle successor, James. She, like other older black people -- especially those involved in the civil rights movement -- had a tendency to preach respectability politics to younger black folks, emphasizing decorum and restraint. It's something you hear older generations say a lot to the younger ones: The idea is that since they’ve been in the trenches before, the youth should listen to their advice and follow their example.
Lamar, on the other hand, is more likely to say fuck that -- good manners aren't getting us anywhere. “If we’re honest about it, that didn’t work then. So we’re still fighting the same fight,” Price said. “Let’s be real about it. Let’s deal with all the gray matter.” (One thing you often hear from critics of respectability politics is that on the evening Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered, he was wearing a suit and tie.)
“It reminds me of what my mom said about how, really, rap is modern-day preaching for the young people. Cause it's like the rappers are the pastors, and the young people listen to what they say and they take their words to heart,” said Mashallah Salaam, an 18-year-old member of the cypher who put together a short film during this year's workshop. “So having a song that brings people together is important. [A song] that people can just jam to and have fun and listen to, and I guess just shout out and just enjoy.”
For my part, I know that whenever I hear "Alright," I’m flooded with feelings of hope. I feel the beat flowing through my veins as a big grin unfolds across my face. The lyrics force me to face the harsh realities of black life while also managing, somehow, to alleviate the pain. It’s nice to have a song that not only reinforces the strength of the black spirit but nurtures it as well. And it helps that Lamar is able to express such nuanced concepts in an accessible way.
“Those are the same qualities that Tupac had back in the '90s. He’s from the streets and he understands the power of courage, the power of his ability to speak and also the power that he’s not afraid to say what needs to be said,” Price said. “It’s not this hyperinflated lingo that you have to be college-educated in order to understand. Kendrick Lamar is talking to the people in the street... It’s so down-to-earth that it forces everybody to remember that regular people matter."
“Kendrick is meeting us where we are as a community,” Freelon said. “The industry, the radio, and most rappers... are oblivious to or unwilling to address [these issues], because the white corporate owners who run the labels that they are distributing music through couldn’t give two fucks about Black Lives Matter or black people being killed in the street. Kendrick has tapped into the energy of the people, and the album was just divinely timed. Him as an artist emerging now is not a mistake.”
It is quite remarkable how one man can take such horrible things and channel them into something so hopeful. Freelon pointed out that Henry O. Tanner, another black artist, did something similar with his 1893 painting "The Banjo Lesson."
In the late 19th century, minstrel shows were one of the biggest forms of entertainment in the U.S. -- and if a black man had a banjo, “he’s gonna be in a watermelon patch with a bucket of chicken... shuckin' and jivin,'” Freelon said. But Tanner managed to take that stereotype and build a tender, intimate moment around it, turning it into a celebration of black love, family and intergenerational exchange.
“It really threw it in the face of everything minstrelsy wanted us to believe about black people,” Freelon said. “What that art is doing -- what that painting did -- is help emancipate our minds from mental slavery. It drew us away from what mainstream media of the time... wanted [people] to believe and think encapsulated all of what it was to be black.”
“Jumping forward through the decades, that was Nina. That was Marvin [Gaye]. That was James [Baldwin]. That’s Kendrick,” he said, adding that he tries to instill a sense of this in his students. “Be connected with your people and see what happens.”
Vincent said it's possible to put Lamar's album on the same timeline of black activism as the civil rights protests and Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement.
“Why we’re in the streets now is a part of that history,” he said. “And what Kendrick does with the album -- he ties all that history... into the production of the album.”
“That’s sankofa,” Freelon told me, referring to the West African symbol that signifies the importance of looking backward in order to move forward. “That’s what Black Lives Matter is doing, that’s what Kendrick is doing.”
It’s hard to explain the nuances of Lamar's music to someone who isn’t black. "To Pimp A Butterfly" is an album about many things, but as seen on "Alright," some of its most important concerns have to do with hope and learning to love one's black self and one's black peers -- and seeing ourselves as human in a society that constantly says otherwise.
Expressions of blackness have always helped us to cope. Whether you write, paint or spit fire over dope beats, just know you're part of a long line of black healing. Know that we always have been, and always will be, just fine.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the BLK AGST workshop took place in Durham, North Carolina. In fact, it was held in Chapel Hill. This article also misstated Vincent's role in the BLK AGST workshop. He is a program coordinator.