kendrick lamar

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.

To Pimp a Butterfly: The Blog Series Intro

I asked my partner to play Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly through my speakers last weekend while on a road trip. Despite its March 15th (2015) release date, I’d waited almost 6 full months to give it a first listen. I hadn’t heard Lamar’s previous album, “good Kid, M.A.A.D. city” (#dntjudgeme) and only knew about his single King Kunta through the radio’s rotations.

I honestly don’t know what I was waiting on. I always start off skeptical about artists with mass appeal, but when my partner (who is a singer / songwriter & guitar player) put the album in his iPod rotation AND when my PhD carryin’ ethnomusicologist / musician e-friend began listing tracks and liner notes (that included some of my favorites such as Robert Glasper, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway & talents such as Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and more) I knew I’d better take some time and listen to it. A road trip was the perfect atmosphere.

I felt the influence of George Clinton’s funk on the first track, “Wesley’s Theory”, before I knew Clinton was actually on the track. Yet, I also experienced a lot of dissonance with the lyrical content. At the time, I was primarily focused on finding the right roadside exits but his flow was absolutely undeniable. It didn’t take long to realize that he was creating lyrical dissonance in order to unpack a learning experience with the project. Nonchalantly, I asked my partner to tell me what he thought this song was about (he’s brilliant with things like that), and after hearing / comparing his analysis with my own, I knew this was a project I needed to dig into. I have been listening to it every day, twice a day, since then.

I don’t usually do music reviews on JadeTPerry.com although I have done them before & have some background in music / vocal performance. This isn’t a review per se. It’s an acknowledgement / compilation of the thought processes that TPAB set forth for me. As I listened, I began to think about how this project would help:

  1. In discussions on memoir writing and telling authentic stories
    (TPAB puts me in the mind of memoir-writing in dialect and without prioritizing “standard” forms of English expression as better than any other dialect of English)
  2. In discussions on mental health & wellness
    (The song ‘u’ gives us a lot of space and text to discuss cognitive distortions: problematic thought patterns which lead to negative symptoms. Conversely, the song “i” gives us text to discuss challenging problematic thoughts and building resilience)
  3. In discussions on spirituality and writing / rapping / creating through a few broad spiritual themes: In many interviews, Kendrick Lamar talks about his art as a spiritual discovery for himself. In good Kid, M.A.A.D. city, Kendrick begins the dialogue by using what some might recognize as a version of “The Sinner’s Prayer”. In TPAB, Kendrick then starts unpacking broader themes of spiritual formation & processing including struggles with good & evil (i.e. For Sale?), loving & serving others genuinely (How Much a Dollar Cost), & self-love (i).
  4. In discussions surrounding navigating two communities: This theme jumped out immediately to me because of the work that I do with many first generation (first in the family to attend college) students, students of color, and students w/ financial needs as they enter academia / higher ed.

Two days later, I wrote a private Facebook post for a few friends in the field:

“There are just TOO many ways to utilize To Pimp a Butterfly as a supplemental illustration / text to discuss first year academic transitions, navigating home community and academic community (and the emotions that sometimes come along with that transition esp for 1st gen students or students anticipating accessing a different socioeconomic status than other family or community members after college), memoir and telling our authentic stories, financial literacy, managing debt to income ratio and credit in college, self efficacy / seeking help, accessing and contemplating the importance of studying abroad… like… just too many ways. Ain’t gone do it till I got that good ole academic freedom…… but I’m sayin’ doe….‪#‎Kendrickdonegaveusawholesemester‬

So, in the days, weeks, (and perhaps months if it takes that long), I will be unpacking To Pimp a Butterfly with attention to those four points. It’ll be the first full series on JadeTPerry.com!

As I entertained the idea of using TPAB for a series, it was uncanny that the refrain, “I remember you was conflicted” replayed through my speakers. For me, the conflict occurred in mining through some of the more explicit songs and language in order to piece together helpful threads. A vague memory of the high school teacher, Brian Mooney, who used TPAB to create dialogue around race, privilege, and oppression alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye came to me. In an explanatory post, he left a note about his “pedagogical decision to provide the edited or clean lyrics to a select group of songs on the album and… even post(ing) a link to the “edited” version on iTunes

So, LET. ME. BE. CLEAR: I listened to the explicit version upon my first listen. In my personal process, as a writer, professional, and artist (trained in Theater & Creative Writing), I thought it was important to work through an unedited script and body of work. Yet, I, like the high school teacher Brian Mooney, honor the “pedagogical practice” of using clean versions for this series as well – but for differing reasons. Many of the themes were so hard-hitting & the analyses of race, bias & systemic oppression so raw that if you lived it… or even some shade / form of it… the language can and could be equal parts mirroring and / or triggering. Working through the unedited text is a highly personal choice and endeavor for those who would LIKE to take that on.

I have absolutely no idea how long this series will take (full disclosure :), but I do know it’s worth doing & thinking through. Stay tuned…

Image Credit from Wikipedia