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Kendrick Lamar and the Dialectics of Performing Hip Hop

Bryan Banker

 

In his recent performance at the 2015 Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards in June, Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar performed the song ‘Alright’ while standing defiantly upon a defaced police car, an impossibly large United States flag fluttering behind him. The obvious political nature of both the staging and song choice (with lyrics like ‘we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’ [Lamar, ‘Alright’, 2015]) mirrored that which has been happening in the United States over the past few years regarding police brutality and a continuation of structural violence against the African American community.

 

Lamar car

Kendrick Lamar performing ‘Alright’ at the 2015 BET Awards, Los Angeles, 28 June 2015

[Image by Highsnobiety.com used under fair dealings provisions]

 

Some have pointed to the image of Lamar at the BET Awards and his song as an inspiration for protest. Recently, in Cleveland, members of the local Black Lives Matter chapter gathered to stop the arrest of a 14-year-old boy by Cleveland police, chanting the chorus of the song ‘we goin’ be alright!’ (Shepherd, 2015). The speed at which art is produced and processed throughout the Internet and social media is no longer a wonder. Lamar and his performance provide a powerful example of how quickly social media such as Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube transmit images and performances which radiate throughout the contemporary.

Lamar’s performance underscores what I term a ‘performative consciousness’, an awareness and negotiation of social and political consciousness in performances and image-making. Performative consciousness does not mean simply performing a consciousness; it emphasizes the dialectical process that a consciousness goes through during an artist’s performative production. In any discussion of black American artists and consciousness, one must (naturally?) turn to W. E. B. Du Bois, who initially dealt with black consciousness and double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk

In his seminal work, Du Bois initiated a contemplative and even performative look into black American consciousness just after the turn of the 20th century. He attempted to make sense of the failures of Reconstruction and the persistence of a new kind of enslavement based on peonage and indentured servitude. This new form of enslavement was, in turn, reinforced by structural violence by the state and much of racist society. The onslaught of the Black Codes in much of the United States reminded Du Bois and many other black intellectuals of the savage history of being black in the United States. To understand the striving for black liberation in the face of the subjugation and oppression that Jim Crow promised, Du Bois investigated all the psychological effects of slavery including the ‘inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate’ (SBF, 369) (a sentiment which still rings true today, sadly). In searching for an appropriate philosophical framework, Du Bois turned to German philosopher Hegel. Not a hundred years previous, Hegel had also attempted to understand the nature of freedom from slavery.

 

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Fueled by the power of social media, the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum and strength, following an alarming rise in police brutality and several high profile murders of innocent black people

[Image by Light Brigading used under a CC BY NC license]

 

In Hegel’s masterwork, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois especially responds to Hegel’s theorization on consciousness, especially the dialectical process of consciousness becoming self-consciousness. Hegel outlines how a consciousness is in constant movement – that it can move through a dialectical process in order to transcend his station. Du Bois correspondingly looks to this notion of consciousness as self-consciousness and the movement against other consciousnesses, in conceiving his ‘double consciousness’ theory. Du Bois defines this ‘double consciousness’ as not just a description of the black self as it is shaped by its experiences but also by its struggles and resistances within those experiences (Shamoon Zamir, 1995: 134). What Hegel rendered concerning conscious action, then, for Du Bois, is key to transcending the bounds that a consciousness finds itself in. In his dialectics, Hegel describes that “multiple consciousness enter into a life and death struggle with each other, each individual self-consciousness must struggle to rid itself of its ‘self-externality’ or otherness; for it is only through such a struggle that their ‘certainty of being for themselves’ can be raised to truth. (114) Therefore, true self-consciousness (or a ‘wholeness’ or ‘oneness’ of consciousness), lies at the end of the dialectical progression of consciousnesses with one another. This notion informed Du Bois’s understanding of how black Americans may also overcome oppression in Jim Crow America. This concept, not only of the internal dialectical process, simultaneously is what is passed on to Du Bois’ philosophical adherents: black artists and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright – who rise up through the early 1920s onward, to search for themselves their recognition-of-self through a dialectical process of negotiating between consciousnesses.

Du Bois’ legacy of dialectical consciousnesses struggling with one another has been passed on through generations. And while there is a significant jump from Du Bois to contemporary hip-hop artists, we can see an obvious consequence at work. Black intellectual artists have continually negotiated their multiple consciousness, gaining insight from those who have navigated these roads previously, especially as the negating heritage of slavery and Jim Crow still reverberate in today’s America. Yet, not only internally are these artists working through the social, political and aesthetic consciousness which emanate in their lives and work; but also externally as many black artists continue to face the remaining effects of systemic and structural oppression in the United States today.

 

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In searching for an appropriate philosophical framework, Du Bois turned to German philosopher Hegel

[Image by Willie Sturges under a CC BY ND license]

 

Kendrick Lamar is one of many artists[1] who are continuing to perform this negotiation of consciousness in his work. Lamar’s unique blend of artistry – his lyrics, performances, and album art – provides a distinctive opportunity to see a performative consciousness at work. By analyzing two performances (a live staging and the video of the song ‘Alright’), as well as investigating the album art of his recent To Pimp a Butterfly album, the dialectics of performing hip-hop will be emphasized.

In 2014 and 2015, the rise or return of hip-hop as a political or social force is apparent with many artists combating those political or social norms. While the genre of hip-hop has so persuasively inundated American culture, it is at times difficult to separate the social conscious critically acclaimed art from the popularly received. LA hop-hop artist, Kendrick Lamar, in particular, has navigated popularity with his own brand of political and social commentary aesthetics unlike many others. This ability has garnered a tremendous amount of attention.

No other hip-hop artist is more discussed, academically digested, and analyzed than Kendrick Lamar. The Grammy-nominated artist has been on a meteoric rise continuing since his early work and especially over the past few years with his critically acclaimed platinum selling good kid, m.A.A.d city in 2012. This year’s To Pimp a Butterfly cemented Lamar’s position as one of the preeminent hip-hop artists and musical performers in contemporary music. Author Michael Chabon went to the lyric website Genius in order to critique and annotate Lamar’s incredible song ‘The Blacker the Berry’. Lamar not only tackles the seemingly generational conflicts that exist in many inner cities across the United States (not just Lamar’s home of Compton, California), he also discusses wide ranging subjects from ethnicity and colorism, to the structural violence that most black communities face every day, to his own personal life and dealing with his newfound célébrité.

 

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No other hip-hop artist is more discussed, academically digested, and analyzed than Kendrick Lamar

[Image by Lunchbox LP under a CC BY license]

 

The attention that Lamar has garnered is warranted, encoding all the complexities of sociology, history, and psychology into his records, lyrics and performances. Lamar underscores what he and his (and many others) community witness every day in the United States: poverty, racism, gang culture, and police violence. Yet, Lamar also attempts to show the beauty found in his community as well. The intricateness of Lamar’s music and his performances both live and in videos, allows for multidirectional interpretation. It is in this vein, that we can highlight how Lamar’s social consciousness dialectically struggles with other consciousnesses – responding to both Hegel and a Du Boisian disclosure on the duality of consciousness ‘in itself’, but also in order to attempt some wholeness of consciousness or self-certainty. In these few examples then, we can signify where Kendrick Lamar is negotiating his own multiple consciousness.

In analyzing Lamar’s performances, we return to his 2015 BET Awards, mentioned and described previously and look to the video of the same song, ‘Alright’. Both performances were similar in theme and tone, yet the live performance was by far more political. Performance scholar Diana Taylor provides analytical tools in which to investigate Lamar’s two performances. She writes that viewing performative acts through ‘a performance lens allows one to look at acts, things, and ideas as performance’ (1417); and therefore live staging of events and even album art becomes more performative through their rendering. Following Taylor, the live staging of Lamar’s performance is key in several ways; first, the staging helps the performer(s) (Lamar and the other performers and dancers on stage) endorse the motion and theme that the song signifies; secondly, the performance enacts the now, the contemporariness of the subject matter of the song in the present time; and thirdly, the performance contains embodied customs and practices (Taylor, 1417).

In the BET performance, Lamar raps on top of a police car, covered with graffiti. The defiant way he flows, combined with the American flag flapping behind him speaks to an announcement – this is a modern inner-city reality – a America filled with distrust of authority, a combative response to brutality. Lamar channels his social and political consciousness through his performance. This is similar to Alright, where again people are dancing upon police cars, akin to his live performance. Through much of the video Lamar is either floating above the Los Angeles city streets or standing and rapping amongst people. We see in both performances struggles with police brutality, poverty, and gang violence. These images Lamar provides and performs contain his social consciousness at war with other, more political and perhaps aesthetic consciousnesses.

The staging of performing amongst and not in front of in both live and video performance is also key in denoting Lamar’s awareness of his own multiple consciousness. Lamar is often surrounded by people, especially those from his community. These people represent himself – Lamar in many forms. His music, his words are also seemingly in constant dialogue; with himself, his community, and with the broader American society. This conversation shows the range of consciousnesses Lamar grapples with in his work. The discussion Lamar performs details the social and political dialectical mediation at home in his art.

One way Lamar’s performances are validated is through image-making and in particular, the To Pimp a Butterfly album cover.

 

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Lamar's 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

 

In an online interview with Mass Appeal, Lamar described the cover art as he and ‘his homeboys’. Again, he is surround by his people, those he writes and raps about in all of his music. The dialectic is detailed in this cover art as one of the more striking images is a white man, in a judges’ robe, lying down on the ground beneath many of the men, with his eyes ‘x’ed’ out. Lamar, explains that only God can judge these people; not some ethnically, geographically, consciously distant man – such that are found in the U.S. judicial system, alluding to the extreme high numbers of African Americans found in US prisons. The dead judge also symbolizes Lamar’s attempt at negotiating his social consciousness with the political. That the people on the cover art are viewed by the greater American society as a menace but in reality are good people, only a ‘product of their environment’. Lamar’s Christian faith mediates the societal judgment, and in turn provides a look at how he negotiates his social consciousness struggling with his other consciousnesses in order to obtain a unity – the ultimate goal. This unity of consciousness is held in the aggressively defiant looks the people in the album art give towards the viewer, with Lamar in the middle holding a baby (the future, perhaps?). The baby Lamar holds speaks to a radical hope that we hear in the final two songs of To Pimp a Butterfly: ‘I’ and ‘Mortal Man’. The synthesis of the performative dialectic is sought – here, Lamar seeks that unity of self-consciousness as a means to find synthesis between black and white America.

To Pimp a Butterfly’s album art and Lamar’s performances details what Richard Wright termed a complex simplicity, regarding familiar black American experiences that many black Americans share. And like Wright, Langston Hughes and older black intellectual artists, Lamar’s performative acts blend masterfully the aesthetics with the social and political commentary. Lamar’s hip-hop performativity offers a glimpse of not only an awareness of multiple consciousnesses that are dialectically struggling with one another but also an exploration at Lamar’s negotiation of those social and political consciousnesses in his art.

 

CITATION: Bryan Banker, "Kendrick Lamar and the Dialectics of Performing Hip Hop," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 4 (2015): n. pag. Web. 7 September 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.4.04.

 

Notes:

[1] There are many black intellectual artists who, like Lamar, fit into this article’s analysis, yet due to constraints, Lamar is the only focus. Notable artists however would be Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render, Talib Kweli, Black Thought and Questlove  (from the Roots), J. Cole, and Janelle Monáe.

 

Bryan Banker is a PhD candidate at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. His research focuses on how 20th century black intellectual artists used literature and performance as the analytical process in which to negotiate their political, social, and aesthetic consciousnesses.

 

Works Cited:

Shepherd, Jack. ‘Kendrick Lamar fans sing 'Alright' in protest against police at Black Lives Matter conference at Cleveland State University’. The Independent. 29 July 2015. Web. 29 July 2015.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk (Norton Critical Editions). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Duckworth [Lamar], Kendrick, Mark Spears, Pharrell Williams. ‘Alright’. To Pimp a Butterfly. T. D. E., Aftermath, Interscope Records, 2015.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952

Kenner, Rob. ‘Kendrick Lamar Covers Mass Appeal Issue #56’. Mass Appeal. 28 April 2015. Web. 31st July 2015.

Taylor, Diana. ‘Remapping Genre Through Performance: From “American” to “Hemispheric” Studies’. PMLA, Vol. 122, No. 5, October 2007, p 1416-1430

Zamir, Shamoon. Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888-1903. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

 

 

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One comment

  1. Kilian Söllner /

    A very insightful paper on a topic that I'm covering in my master's thesis as well – is there any chance of reaching out to Bryan Banker? Much appreciated

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