“To be, or not to be, that is the question” —WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
“I want you—the right way” —MARVIN GAYE
My mother used to say to me, when I was a youth, that she did not know if I would make it, if I would have a long life. Because I was Black. Because I was male. Because I questioned and talked and did too much. Because my emotions were unpredictably wild: sometimes unbelievable joy, sometimes unbearable depression, both rooted, to be blunt, in childhood traumas and generations of abuse and neglect.
Plus, my ma knew, stored deep in the guts of her own history, that I—we—lived in a land that did not seem to want us or want us the right way, except to entertain, except for sport, play, jokes, except for our culture. Because I could get killed, crucified, crushed, for real, by the ugly and oppressive racism of White people, and by the ugly and internalized racism of Black people. Many of us feel this way, whether we say it loud, as Kendrick Lamar has done brilliantly and unapologetically on albums like the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., or largely keep it to ourselves for years, as Kendrick has similarly done since he was a shy and socially awkward ghetto boy just like me. Because to be Black in America—especially the urban poor Kendrick focuses much of his art on—is to be a trapped and pimped-out butterfly with battered and bloodied wings as you struggle to soar inside a concrete box.
This is why Kendrick Lamar matters. His very spirit gives voice to what it is to be who we are, particularly the Black male experience, the way fellow Black male writers named Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, August Wilson, and Kanye West did before him. But, likewise, his art squeezes and pulls nearer to thee all people, all identities, because who has not felt the brutal loneliness of simply existing that Kendrick rhymes about? Or the belly-churning hunger for freedom that his verbal gifts evoke? Or those close cousins, mentioned above, we call joy and depression that he relentlessly excavates in his art, sometimes in the very same line or song?
But I would be lying if I did not say that legions of Black men and Black boys, specifically, desperately seek, consciously, subconsciously, something, someone, who can speak for us, who is unafraid to be us when we are wholly afraid to be ourselves. Hip-hop has lacked a dope and self-aware and self-critical superhero since, well, Kendrick’s last solo album five years ago. To cut and paste some old-school sayings, hip-hop has saved a nation of millions, my life included, but we must also honor the truth that hip-hop has been as dumbed down and socially ignorant as reality television and the worst aspects of social media for, say, at least the first two decades of this century. That said, Kendrick ain’t perfect, never claimed to be, which is what makes him so refreshing, his unbandaged scars there for everyone to download: He got into this game mad young, a Charles Dickens-like character with a Forrest Gump lucky streak and has had to grow up fast in a blinding spotlight of celebrity and great expectations; Kendrick has been accused of sexism because of joints like “Be Humble”; and for sure he has used language that has made me cringe mightily, including his overwhelming fondness for the n-word and the b-word.
But then I recall the toxic things I have said, written, done when I was so much younger than today, not really considering every part of humanity either. My hope, as he continues to grow as both a man and an artist, including with and beyond this new album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, is that Kendrick Lamar understands, or will, that saving half the race (if we are speaking of the binary), Black or human, means we are not saving the entire race, Black or human, and that we need far more than the limited Black boys club thinking; we need a steady and heavy dose of the equal legacies of Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, jessica Care moore, Lynn Nottage, and the mother of his two small children, Whitney Alford. Or, recall, there would not be one of Kendrick’s major idols, Tupac Shakur, without the giant of a woman and human and thinker and doer that was his mother, Afeni Shakur, she of the Civil Rights Movement, she of the Black Panther Party, she the mama in Tupac’s “Dear Mama.” Her life matters, too.