Who Exactly Is Kendrick Lamar Raging Against in ‘The Blacker the Berry?’
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015…”
Kendrick Lamar’s fiery new single “The Blacker the Berry” hit the web yesterday and set off a flurry on social media. The Compton rapper is something of a critical darling these days, and he’s become one of the more celebrated emcees in hip-hop on the back of thoughtful and passionate tracks like “Berry.” In the song, Kendrick raps about his frustration with the current racial climate in America and around the world, referencing everything from racial profiling to stereotypes about watermelon and Kool-Aid. It continues what has been a top-shelf run for Lamar leading up to his forthcoming album. From his well-received single and video “I,” to his performance on The Colbert Report and now this single—Kendrick Lamar obviously has something to say. We should be excited for that.
But that’s still not enough.
With “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick spends most of the track rebelling against those who he feels are intent on marginalizing and oppressing black people. He’s at his most confrontational and unapologetic for the vast majority of the Boi-1da-produced song. “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture,” he raps. “You're fuckin' evil. I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey. You vandalize my perception but can't take style from me…”
But the final verse of the song calls into question who exactly Kendrick Lamar is raging against—is it a white supremacist culture and system or is it black people who he believes are out to destroy other black people?
The final verse continues with the fire and brimstone, but Kendrick points his angry gaze at himself and his community.
“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?”
Echoing comments he made to Billboard last month, Kendrick ends the song with that baiting couplet. Lamar has been a proponent of the “black people have to love ourselves” mantra for a little while now, but in closing a song about oppression and racism with a verse that implies that black people’s supposed self-hatred is “hypocritical” in the face of that oppression and racism, the rhymer turns what seemed like an introspective track about his own anger and conflict into a finger-wagging session aimed at his own people.
Such a great song. Derailed by a misguided intention.
As has been stated several times over the course of the past several months, the “what about black-on-black crime” argument is used to deflect and silence conversations about systematic oppression of black people. The outrage in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder wasn’t limited to anguish over the death of a young, black teenager—it was justifiable anger at the fact that a police department decided that the murderer wasn’t in violation of the law.
Had it not been for that outrage, George Zimmerman would’ve never even been charged at all. He wasn’t even arrested after police discovered what he’d done. One quick look at similar cases that have made national headlines over the past year—from Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, to Eric Garner in New York City—and it’s clear that the lack of prosecution is the reason for the outrage. The refrain has become standard: black person killed, white system says the murder was justified. No charges filed.
So where is the hypocrisy? The Crips and Pirus Lamar references in his song aren’t protected by a system that decides their murderous behavior is just business-as-usual. And the countless activists in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere who have been fighting to mentor youth and stave off gun violence—they’re treated like they’re non-existent by those too eager to let the system off the hook for what it does to black bodies. This is beyond white people killing black people vs black people killing black people; we have to be vigilant against state-sanctioned murder as funded by taxpayers.
If there is a hypocrisy, doesn’t it fall on those who would use gang violence to silence public outrage against oppression while ignoring the fact that the gang violence is also a product of that same racist oppression? Darius and Tyrone go to jail for killing, Officers Wilson and Panteleo do not. It’s not even necessary to mention the two disparate social ills in the same context unless it’s to recognize the multi-faceted attack on poor black youth by a system that despises them.
I’m a big fan of Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of the most compelling artists in contemporary hip-hop; a nimble and clever emcee who can go from raging to resigned in the space of one song. He’s charismatic and his vision is sharp, and I find him more engaging than J. Cole, whose perspective I relate to more but whose music sometimes lacks a pulse. And he’s more artistically focused than Drake, who’s constant navel-gazing and eagerness to please seem to stifle his growth.
But Kendrick’s perspective on black oppression could benefit from being more informed and more thoughtful. It’s insulting to pretend that no one cares about the violence in black communities; it’s dangerous to use that violence as a silencing tactic when the public is angry about the systematic subjugation of black people; and it’s irresponsible to act like it's “hypocrisy” for black people—or even Kendrick himself—to care about profiling and police who shoot first with impunity. K-Dot sounds ready for war on the verses. But I hate the way he turns his gun on himself and his people—black people have always loved ourselves, and it’s never made anyone else love us. Lamar fumbles the ball at the five yard line. And I hate that he doesn’t understand why it was a fumble. It’s awkward to admit that I still loved most of “The Blacker the Berry” though.
So maybe I’m a hypocrite, too.