Kendrick Lamar: the poet, the revolutionary.
At this point in his career, it would seem to undermine the genius of Compton's son to simply call him a "rapper." Leading all artists at the 58th annual Grammy Awards with 11 total nominations, Lamar left the ceremony with five awards, including best rap song for his track, "Alright," and best rap album for his most recent project, To Pimp a Butterfly.
As a lifelong fan of hip-hop, I, like many, reveled in the fact that the genre was being so widely recognized and celebrated on one of entertainment's biggest stages - something that hasn't always been the case for rap artists. But as the evening continued, it became clear that the statements being made that night exceeded the awards being won. In front of a packed house of his contemporaries, Lamar, known for his empowering lyrics of black expression and identity, delivered a powerful, politically-charged performance of his hit songs, "Alright" and "The Blacker the Berry," absolutely stunning audience members and viewers alike.
Undoubtedly, Kendrick Lamar delivered one of the best performances, ever.
And if you happened to catch the show, you're probably aware that you witnessed something akin to performance art more so than a simple recitation of words over an instrumental. Either way, we'd be remiss if we didn't revisit and explore the various messages being conveyed through lyrics and imagery that deserve to be laid bare.
"Trap Our Bodies, But Can't Lock Our Minds"
Coming out shackled, feet shuffling as he approached the microphone, Lamar kicked off his performance with the song "The Blacker the Berry" - the aggressive, high-energy track that acts as a medium through which he vents his internal struggle of reconciling his black, male identity with his destructive past.
And although I've listened to the song countless times before, there was something clearly different about its Grammys rendition. It was even grittier than I remember. There was something about the imagery of Kendrick and his fellow performers chained that gave the song an alternate message; one that seemed to speak on a larger issue affecting black Americans: mass incarceration.
It's a narrative that I'm sure many of us have already heard at this point. Statistics gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that, as of 2014, black males account for approximately 37% of the nation's prison population, while remaining among the minority within the general population. But the disparity is hardly new. In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, scholar Michelle Alexander sheds light on the problem of mass incarceration, with her main finding being that more African Americans are in the criminal justice system today - whether in prison, in jail, or on parole - than were enslaved in 1850.
So, as Lamar stated repeatedly near the end of his "The Blacker the Berry" Grammys performance "Trap our bodies, but not our minds," he seemed to be speaking, in a literal sense, to the hundreds of thousands of black Americans locked behind bars across the country. The song's lyrics created the perfect backdrop on which to display the struggle often created by being a black male in America - subjected to heightened scrutiny, and physical as well as emotional restraint, while still attempting to express an identity largely defined by your experience within society.
So when Lamar's performance transitioned into "Alright," there was a real comfort in the song's assuring chorus. The song, which has somewhat served as the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, seemed to speak directly to an audience facing a time of increased tension. Namely, the struggle to convince America that black lives matter, too. Unchained and performing in front of a set designed to look like an African village, Lamar contrasted the target audience's struggle taking place on the outside with a simpler, yet fiery scene.
It seemed to be just the message that a group, realizing that they are still 21 times more likely to be gunned down by law enforcement than their white counterparts, needed. A message that appeared to be fitting, as pockets of society attempt to protest against a black woman for daring to promote black female empowerment and denounce police brutality. And as he stood in front of a picture of the African continent with 'Compton' emblazoned on its heart, the message was clearly for every black and brown boy and girl that everything, in fact, was going to be alright.
Lamar's Grammy performance was, in short, powerful. In front of millions of viewers, and at a time of increased criticism, he fearlessly and artfully delivered a message responding to America's deeply-rooted racial problems in a way that so many artists before him have attempted to do. He's managed to wield his influence in such a way as to grab the country's attention, and now we can't look away.
Kendrick Lamar's performance helped advance a conversation on race and inequality that is far from reaching its end.