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Kendrick Lamar Can Gon’ Somewhere with His Black Respectability Politics

Let me preface this by saying Kendrick Lamar is incredibly talented and is easily one of the realest dudes in hip hop right now.  And I appreciate his expression of self-love throughout most of “The Blacker the Berry.”  That said, I’m still not here for his respectability politics which dominate the third verse and, frankly, I’m disappointed that he doesn’t understand why it is problematic and how it amounts to anti-Blackness.

In “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick raps from the perspective of a young Black man who feels hypocritical for being outraged at police violence and other forms of systemic oppression in his community while simultaneously contributing to gang violence and the perpetuation of Black self-hate himself.  A running theme throughout the first two verses is “You hate me don’t you?” a question directed at a unnamed (White?) audience as he articulates the myriad ways in which Black people have been oppressed.  But in the third verse he poses the question to other Black men.  He raps, “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, I can tell ‘cause it’s threats when I see you.  I can tell ‘cause ya ways deceitful.  No, I can tell ‘cause you in love with that Desert Eagle, thinking maliciously.  He get a chain then you ‘gon bleed ‘em.”  He closes with “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging made me kill a n*gga Blacker than me?”

As I mentioned, Kendrick articulated these lines from the perspective of a Black man who, himself, had killed other Black people.  And the accusation that it is hypocritical for Black people to be outraged at police violence while some Black people kill other Black people in their own communities is fair and valid when leveled exclusively against those Black people who do kill or have killed other Black people – a small minority of us.  But, given comments he made about the Michael Brown shooting in an interview with Billboard magazine in December, I think Kendrick intended to suggest to all Black listeners that we should rethink where our outrage is placed. He intended to call us all out as hypocrites.  He said in the interview, “But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how can we expect them to respect us?  It starts from within.  It don’t just start with a rally.”

I have two issues with this argument. Firstly, it is completely possible to be outraged both by police violence and Black intra-community violence, and to recognize both as issues that need to be discussed. I am and do.  But they require separate conversations. One requires a conversation on the causes of violence within the Black community, the other a discussion on systemic racism that impacts us from without. Regardless of whether Black people do or don’t kill each other, the problem of police officers killing us and getting away with it still remains, and the solutions to that problem are different from the solutions to the former. The former should not be used to silence the conversation around the latter. Both need to be addressed.

But even so, Black people killing Black people does not justify the police doing it, nor does it delegitimize the anger Black people feel when an officer kills an unarmed Black person.  When Black people kill Black people, they go to jail.  We don’t have that same guarantee when police officers kill us. So we protest and shout and make a scene in the streets because we have to to get the media to talk about it – to get anybody to care.  Furthermore, as I mentioned previously, it is fair to make the hypocrisy argument only against Black people who kill other Black people.  It is not fair to make it against Black people who sag, or use the N-word, or do any of the other inconsequential things that people point to as “Black self-disrespect,” but that have no relationship whatsoever to death.  And it’s not fair to say to other Black people that they can’t be upset about state violence against Black people because other Black people commit these trivialities.

This is the same argument made by racists who say that all Black people should shut up about police violence against Black people because some Black people kill Black people too.  Or racists who attempt to justify the killing of unarmed Black men by citing their choice of clothing, or that they posted a Facebook photo throwing up hand signs which, to them, indicated that the victim was a “thug.” It may well be beneficial for Black people to rectify some of the issues we have within our communities and to stop doing some things. But us not doing them is not a precondition for our being able to walk down the street in peace or for our rights to life and liberty to be respected. We aren’t more or less deserving of these rights depending on whether we are or aren’t “respectable,” our lives don’t have more or less value, and the anger we feel towards our oppression isn’t any more or less legitimate. We don’t have to have kids in wedlock, speak proper English, or smile in pictures.  All we have to do is be human.  And that we are.

Again, I like Kendrick Lamar.  He has contributed a lot to hip hop.  But he got it wrong on this song and I expect better from him.  To love Black people is to reject the idea that we have to do anything more than be human in order to deserve our freedoms and for our feelings to be legitimate. The argument that we should be or do more is dangerous – life threatening – and we should challenge it when it is articulated, no matter who it’s articulated by.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He is an aspiring journalist and his writing has been published by Politic365.  Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.

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6 thoughts on “Kendrick Lamar Can Gon’ Somewhere with His Black Respectability Politics”

  1. Overall, I see your point (I think clearly) and definitely see why Kendrick’s December comments are problematic. I wonder though if the last couplet isn’t so much directed at the Black community as a whole or if he’s speaking from the perspective of his character (or semi-autobiographically even) specifically about actual violent actors and those who glorify it.

    I agree that no one should try to use respectability politics to deny or delegitimize outrage over racist vigilantism/police brutality, but what if Kendrick’s statement is more of “Please don’t wear your ‘I Am Trayvon’ shirt Monday and your ‘Free So-and-So’ shirt the next day, when Zimmerman and your guy, So-and-So, were charged with the same crime”? Is that different? Is the difference significance?

    I’m honestly asking, I want to understand better. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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    1. To your first point about the last couplet perhaps being from the perspective of the character, I think it is, in fact, specifically a thought that is intended to be heard as the character’s inner thoughts. But I also think that, given Kendrick’s previous remarks, that Kendrick’s intent was to suggest to Black listeners that they too should rethink where their outrage is placed. And, no, I don’t think we should have to do that.

      To your second point, I listened to Blacker the Berry understanding it within the context of his December comments. The ‘we’ in his comments was pretty broad and general: we can’t expect them to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves. Your question about whether Kendrick’s statement is directed specifically at people claiming to oppose violence against Black people one day and then supporting their friend who is a murderer the next requires a more nuanced or specific understanding of Kendrick’s point that I don’t thin k is possible to guage from the song as is. All I know is the blanket statement he made in December that “WE are hypocrites, so I interpreted his suggestion as being aimed at that same genera we.

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      1. And no, I don’t think they are different. I think they are absolutely the same. But when your argument is not directed only at those people that’s when it becomes a problem.

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      2. Thanks for the response. As I read your response, I do think the context of the December quote does lean towards your reading over what I presented . . . I’m just wishing that it could be explained otherwise. Respectability politics is so ubiquitous! Lots of people I really admire, who are doing great things in my neighborhood are basically evangelists for some form or another of it . . . but at the same time, I know the underpinnings are destructive. Thanks for your time.

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  2. I really like the way you articulated your argument. I especially praised the idea that there needs to be separate conversations for police brutality on Black people and Black-on-Black crime. That was something I never thought about before. Overall, I like the direction of the article and the ability to challenge Kendrick Lamar’s philosophy.

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