Grammy’s

Kendrick, Bey, the Dragging Fest, & the Think-piece Machine (also Titled “Have We Looked at The Art Yet”?)

It’s been uncharacteristically quiet here at JadeTPerry.com, so let me explain why. On February 6th, 2016, Queen Bey released her latest (and in my opinion, most epic and socially conscious) video, ‘Formation’.

Suffice it to say… I was hype…

Beyonce was making a very clear statement. Her video was simultaneously a celebration of Black life & joy, a cry out against police brutality, a nod to Black culture specifically as expressed in New Orleans, a photographic hearkening  to the ways government failed Black people in Hurricane Katrina. This video incorporated Black queer culture, encouragements for Black femmes to #slay, and THEN ended with the drowning of a cop car.

Yo.

It didn’t take long for both the think pieces and social media critiques to begin:
Beyonce was problematic because [insert diatribe about her support of capitalism given the line “the best revenge is your paper”, insert diatribe about the ways the lyrics “did not match” the imagery, insert diatribe about…] There were some very solid critiques / analyses offered in regards to the art (favorites including Shantrelle Lewis’piece for Slate.com, Dr. Yaba Blay’s work on Colorlines.com, Dr. Zandria Robinson’s post on NewSouthNegress.com)

However, meaning-making patterns around the art and the artist have seemed to morph into what I now identify as a “dragging-fest” (forms of continual one-upmanship through written word, gifs, memes, etc.) Yet in the busy-ness of cranking out critical analyses and peppering pages with “reads” (pun intended), it seemed we (myself, included) had not given more than a few days (hours, even) to actually sit with Beyonce’s musical choices and / or artistic work. Moreover, I had not seen much of this work being done by artists, musicians, and creatives.

I took a couple of days to let the social media blocks simmer down and to discern whether or not it was worth adding my .02 to an already saturated topic…

But then…

Flash forward to the 2016 Grammy’s where Kendrick “Chakra Balancing” Lamar performed. for. his. life. (And if you haven’t seen it… pause, and view it)

Again, suffice it to say, I was hype. Let’s be honest: most of my readers already know how I feel about Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. There is an in-the-works series happening on this platform to discuss To Pimp a Buttefly. I knew Kendrick was going to come with art that, as Nina Simone described, “reflected the times”. But I couldn’t have guessed what that interpretation would look like and when I saw it, I was absolutely moved.

When I woke up the next morning, there were additional critiques on the work he’d done, why it was problematic (to the tune of: a) Kendrick primarily situates Black men in his work, and b) Kendrick signifies a lot of respectability politics in his music / performance art). There were also (let me be proactively clear here) valid questions about how misogyny gave Kendrick a “pass” from the dragging-fest and shade that Beyonce received for Formation. Peers, colleagues, and friends raised (again) these points and questions; conversations that need to be furthered as time goes on. But again, I realized that it didn’t take more than a couple of days to begin analyzing. Very little commentary took a multi-faceted look at both pieces of performance art sans the other. In comparison pieces, very little commentary looks at the respective arcs of both of their careers and how that may have impacted the reception of both performance art pieces. I have yet to see a piece on how the mediums (film versus live performance) affects our reception of the messages. We could look into why hip hop / trap music genres work for these kinds of messages (cue L.H. Stallings, 2013). There was little on what musicians were saying about the music industry itself in their art. The musical and theatrical purpose of the band’s placement seemed overlooked after K.L’s live performance, though they were also an integral part of the imagery that Kendrick was asking us to sit with. Those notes become clearer if we choose to engage the art and dialogue with artists.

We consume media and artistry and the focus becomes thinking about it before feeling it.

We consume media and artistry faster than we can actually sit with it and let it speak to us.

We consume media and artistry faster than we have respectful dialogue to understand what the artist’s messaging is and seeing how our reception of the message depends on (but is not limited to) the artist, the medium (live, film, etc), the genres, and the arc of that artist’s respective career over time (not to mention our own mood and ethos at the time).

We analyze media faster than we can learn the lyrics to the media we’re analyzing.

The voices of the artists, the creatives, and those that write primarily about arts & entertainment often get lost. It feels rushed and hurried at the low end of the spectrum and disrespectful at the high end.

India.Arie writes about a time she was “dragged” in a series of essays surrounding what she calls SkinGate2013: the accusations she faced regarding skin lightening / bleaching on her SoulBird album cover. While the circumstances are vastly different as Kendrick or Bey, what these artists have in common is that they create art that speaks to their own sociocultural identities and also signifies to the Black community. What’s also common is that they are all performing artists. India.Arie writes about her experiences:

“The most important artists, the most creative, the most imaginative artists, are the most sensitive, and they are generally self-medicating just to MAKE IT through! True artists have MAGIC and LIGHT that people are rightfully drawn to. When too many hands grab at such a delicate thing, the light is extinguished…”

How do I know this is true? Because I know what it is to be an artist in my own lived experience. Of course, I’ve never reached the caliber of Kendrick & Bey! But in order to give an authentic response to their work as of late, I have to call forth that side of myself as well. In a recent and public Facebook status, I mused:

“I was trained in a Theater tradition where being the “triple threat” (singing, dancing, and acting) was the lens. I was a Creative Writer, focusing on Poetry, before I ever wrote a think piece.

And here is what I know about art: Your art reflections where YOU are in your internal process and evolution, and your art is a byproduct of love for self and love for your community. It’s amazing to read the analyses and critiques, but at the same time I’m sitting with their contributions as artists and as the primary makers and creatives of the content we’re critiquing.

As Rev. Dr. Lee Butler Jr. states(1), “Black rage is expressed in Black creativity”, and if we don’t want anyone policing what our Black rage looks like, I’m not sure why we’re so interested in dragging Bey or Kendrick for what it looks like in their lives.

“Our faves can be problematic”(2). And I’m grateful for the ways that that is lovingly & creatively ‘called out’. But there’s a difference between asking for accountability and dragging folk”.

So, I want to pivot here just a bit from the artist themselves. I want to hear the thoughts of other musicians, art historians, ethnomusicologists, creatives, artists, singers, and makers (I know many are still breaking down the performances and that’s okay; we actually can wait). I want to pivot here and ask a few questions that I hope you will engage: When and how do we find constructive ways of holding artists accountable in ways that don’t dissuade them from creating in ways that attempt to speak to us? When and how do we also find constructive ways of holding  other consumers-of-art accountable in both their analysis and their appreciation of artistic works? Finally, what weight do we give expertise in writing specifically for and about musical and art itself?
(1) Butler, Lee. “Black Rage”. Visionary Care: Black Mental Health and Economic Justice [Conference]. Chicago, IL. 12 Sep. 2015.
(2) From a public post by Danielle Stevens, Visionary behind ‘This Bridge Called Our Health’

 

Image Credit: CreateHerStock.com

 

On Kendrick & Sick Sociolinguistics: TPAB Blog Series

 

This post is a part of a series. Missed Pt I? Click here to get caught up!

“The mind of a literate writer, but I did it in fact

You admitted it once I submitted it wrapped in plastic
Remember scribblin’ scratchin’ dilligent sentences backwards
Visiting freestyle cyphers for your reaction
Now I can live in a stadium, pack it the fastest…”
– Kendrick Lamar, Momma

TPAB stood out to me, initially, for its musicality. Freakin’ George Clinton is on that project. And Lalah Hathaway. And Robert Glasper. And everybody else and their musically talented cousin.

The album, comprehensively, holds all the elements of story: various settings, conflict, climax, resolution. But the approach that Kendrick Lamar makes in telling the story is particularly interesting. In order to fully communicate his ascent to fame, his internal struggles, his soul searching & seeking, and his trips from South Africa back to Compton, he pulls on all of his linguistic capital: the socioculturally relevant linguistic choices he makes (because… ‘A1 from day 1’ means something very specific), the dialects & rhythmic patterns that fit with particular musical themes, and variations in tone. In TPAB, Kendrick Lamar gives us all a brief lesson in sociolinguistics (def: interpersonal, societal, & culturally bound ways of using language to “to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and who we associate with”) and linguistic capital (the ability to use dialect & cross-cultural forms of language to communicate understanding).

Tara J. Yosso’s 2005 study, “Whose Culture Has Capital”, addresses the various forms of wealth (capital) that communities of color bring into the educational sphere. For the purposes of this post I will drawn a comparison to the sphere of entertainment & musical storytelling. In this study, Yosso (2005) explains:

Linguistic capital reflects the idea that (People) of Color arrive… with multiple language and communication skills. In addition, (they) most often have been engaged participants in a storytelling tradition, that may include listening to and recounting oral histories. This repertoire of storytelling skills may include memorization, attention to detail, dramatic pauses, comedic timing, facial affect, vocal tone, volume, rhythm and rhyme. Linguistic capital also refers to the ability to communicate via visual art, music or poetry. Just as students may utilize different vocal registers to whisper, whistle or sing, they must often develop and draw on various language registers, or styles, to communicate with different audiences… (Yosso, 2005, p. 78, italic additions mine)

So, what the heck does this mean for TPAB and how does this work in TPAB?

  • Recounting oral history
    Kendrick Lamar has said in multiple interviews that his music serves as a teaching / learning tool for himself and those who might be influenced by his music (he explicitly names friends & family back in his Compton community & college students). KL is particularly aware of the fact that oral histories impact present realities and understandings and displays this awareness in songs such as ‘i’. KL includes the use of what Yosso (2005) calls “parables, cuentos (stories), dichos (proverbs)” to contribute to community wealth & knowledge. A few examples of this stand out:

    • Parables – The album itself is a parable. Its crux is the metaphor of the caterpillar who is  “a prisoner to the streets that conceived it. It’s only job is to eat or consume everything around it in order to protect itself from this Maad City. While consuming its environment, the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive. One thing it notices is how much the world shuns him but praises the butterfly. The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness and the beauty within the caterpillar…” (Kendrick Lamar, Mortal Man). The album talks about the struggles in transitioning from the caterpillar to the butterfly & the varying needs / wants / desires of the caterpillar & the butterfly. Although the work, in and of itself,is a parable there are few tracks that hold a similar form. These include How Much a Dollar Cost (and I’m going to pause and just mention that the allegory in These Walls... #masterful).
    • Proverbs in TPAB – For the purposes of the post, I define a proverb as a brief statement which conveys a body of wisdom or knowledge & informs philosophical beliefs from one generation to another. Proverbs that fit these definitions includes refrains from Institutionalized (“I guess my Grammama was warnin’ the bul, she said, ‘Sh!t don’t change until ya get up & wash yo @**…) and You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said). Although to some, these particular proverbs seem crass, they effectively communicate the world in which Kendrick Lamar (and many of KL’s listeners) draws understanding and makes meaning of lived experiences.
  •  Using dramatic pauses, tone, & rhythmic timing to convey emotion & knowledge
    When TPAB starts, we are both musically and lyrically thrown (seriously, listen to it) into a representation of KL’s early ascent into stardom. Wesley’s Theory is busy with sound. The cadence of his rap almost leaves him breathless at the end of measures, which ultimately helps with the imagery of the frenzy to acquiring more, more, more, moremoremoremore… and the ever-looming threat of reconciling all of this material wealth with Uncle Sam (“Taxmancomin’,taxmancomin’, taxmancomin’, TAXMANCOMIN’). Another poignant example of this can be found at the beginning of “u”, where Kendrick uses variations in tone to depict the ups & downs of his emotional state at the moment (“Lovin’ u is complicaTED, lovin’ u is complicated). Each song is tied together by the sequential poem. This method helps to keep the listeners on track with the greater story and narrative while Kendrick Lamar manipulates rhythmic patterns, pauses, and tonal qualities to convey different realities and even different characters (i.e. Lucy & Kendrick’s conversation in For Sale?)

As Yosso (2005) explains, “using language for cross cultural awareness” (p. 78) both shows and brings form of wealth to communities of color. Kendrick Lamar’s TPAB is masterful for its musical appeal & experimentation but also for its ability to convey oral histories that are nuanced, colorful, explicit, imaginative, and socio-culturally poignant. Seeing and communicating these connections may perhaps be why the idea of TPAB found Kendrick… and perhaps why the idea of TPAB blog series found JadeTPerry.

Creative Commons License
On Kendrick & Sick Sociolinguistics: TPAB Blog Series by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Image Credit: Jon Elbaz, used with permissions under this Creative Commons license

Resources & Links:
Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth
Wofram. Sociolinguistics Definition from the Linguistic Society of America.

JTP’s Side Eye Symposium: Intro & the Grammy’s

Let me just be honest & say that I can’t remember the last time that I sat down to watch an entire Grammy’s show. Typically, I just wait until all the social media commentaries and clips come out and that is precisely what I did this year. But the events from this year are making me move forward with something that has been on my heart… JTP’s side eye symposium. There are so many things that warrant the side eye in life, and I’m here to talk about mine.

But first, some context: Tracey Michae’l, contributer at ForHarriet.com, wrote a hilarious piece on the definition & phenomenon of the side eye. She explains, “In situations where we might feel silenced (or have chosen to silence ourselves) for whatever reason, in those all too frequent moments when we feel like we are drowning in micro-aggressions and plain out foolishness, it’s our way of saying, “Oh so you just going to say/do that?” or “Okay, I see you,” or simply, “Stop.”

There are some absolutely wonderful versions of the side eye out there, but my absolute favorite side eyes tend to come from Prince. Here’s his latest:

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Prince’s Epic Side Eye,
Image Credit: http://www.theroot.com/blogs/the_grapevine/2015/02/how_one_photo_of_prince_perfectly_summed_up_the_grammys.html

Again… I’m taking notes:
Bye

So, in my side eye symposium series, I will cover the various events, happenings, etc. that I think would warrant a fictional session in my side eye symposium. The level of side eye that I give to each event will typically be ranked from Level 1  to Level Prince (aka 5).

There are a lot of commentaries on why the Grammy’s were problematic this year, so I won’t rehash those. Today, I’m focusing on a few of the nuanced events that happened surrounding this year’s Grammy award show that I am incorporating as a session in the symposium.

ISSUE 1
Yesterday, I read an article about India Arie’s experience with Lady Gaga’s security guard. According to the source (and India.Arie’s tweets), India Arie was reaching out to greet Lady Gaga, but was “swatted on the hand” and “touched aggressively” by her security guard. India.Arie navigated this exchange with lots of grace, online, explaining that her sole issue was with being touched by that security guard (here I will add aggressively and without consent, but those are my words).

After posting the source article via my personal social media page, I witnessed the most amazing case of man’splaining I’ve heard in quite some time. The general sentiment was that the security guard was just doing his job, and though he may have been too aggressive, this type of behavior was within the constraints of his job. I had to put my ear to the computer to check because that explanation sounded like something I wasn’t here for…

So today, I’m giving a Level 4 Side Eye for the actions of Gaga’s Security Guard & the by-proxy explanations of his action. Here’s why:

  • Far too often, we see this societal pattern and belief that keeping a woman in check physically is normal and within the constraints of some acceptable end (u.e. getting the job done). It’s inappropriate and far too often, a verbal discourse would be sufficient in the conflict resolution process.
  • The notion from the mansplainations that Gaga’s body was not to be touched, while India Arie’s body was allowed / acceptable to be touched aggressively and swatted is incredibly problematic. When I look closely at that notion, and those who are apt to defend the bodyguard’s actions, I can’t help but to see the undervaluing of the body of a woman of color. As India.Arie vented on Twitter, it did not take long for people to begin with their arguments. Meanwhile, that experience was her experience. She was explaining it from her point of view, and a corporate group took to social media to say (in so many words), “Nope, your experience is invalid… he was just doing his job”.

ISSUE 2
This one is a bit stickier for me because it involves four artists / musicians / entertainers that I respect for their body of work. Those entertainers are Ledisi, John Legend, Common, & Beyonce. If you haven’t heard already, Ledisi is the artist that played famed gospel artist & singer Mahalia Jackson, in Ava DuVernay’s latest movie, “Selma”. There is a scene in which Ledisi, in character, absolutely sings the snot out of the hymn, Precious Lord. In this year’s Grammy show, however, artistic rendering of that song was given to Beyonce, as per her request. I will let you draw your own conclusions on the performance.

Of course, media outlets showed feedback and further insights about the performance from both singers, as the flames of controversy grew. Radio shows and news outlets asked the question of whether or not Ledisi had been “snubbed”. Beyonce’s team produced a mini-doc explaining her creative process, while Ledisi shared her thoughts with ET. (Ledisi for the win on her comments!)

So, let’s dial back and then I’ll give out my side eye. How did Beyonce get this gig in the first place, if Ledisi was the one who sang it in the recent movie, Selma? She asked. According to sources, John Legend explained that “You don’t really say no to Beyonce if she asks to perform with you.” My heart was sad… because I love John Legend. I love his activism and philanthropic work, and there’s no denying his musical talents, as well. I also love Common and his socially conscious rap and acting pursuits. But in this particular moment, I gave them both a loving level 1 side eye (it broke my heart, too). Why?

Because there are some real implications when you say that you could not say no to Beyonce, even if it was at the expense of Ledisi… a colleague in the very movie that you worked on. Ledisi never received the implicit no. So, what made it so easy to say no to Ledisi in the Grammy’s format, after her being cast to sing this song in Selma? And why aren’t people talking about this while fixating on dualistic Beyonce versus Ledisi rants?! Something about the notion of crafting media narratives that pit two women artists against each other sounds alarmingly like…something I’m not here for.

When we peel back those layers, we also understand that neither Legend nor Common are the final decision makers of who gets to be on the Grammy platform. So I’m giving Grammy board members, execs, (‘n nem) a level 4 side eye. I’m not sure why we are equating levels of celebrity to technique within a specific genre of music. When I initially heard the story, I was not sure if there was colorism going on, to be perfectly honest. I’m not sure if this is another way that popular media outlets and big-time-peer-reviewed spaces are keeping DuVernay’s work and interpretations out of the spaces that need it most. For these reasons, they get the level 4 side-eye. I’m passing them out pretty liberally today.

Note: I am accepting submissions for bloggers who want to host a session in the JTP Side Eye Symposium! Contact me & let’s chat about it!