Lift Your Head and Keep Moving, Turn The Mic Up.
Lift Up Your Head and Keep Moving, Turn the Mic Up
A Reflection on White Privilege, Black Lives, and the Music Shaping the Narrative
Written by Alec Stern
On February 15th, 2016, Kendrick Lamar lost Album of the Year at the Grammys, and I knew it was coming. I knew it when “Alright”, the song that has become a rallying cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police brutality, and has changed the course of thousands upon thousands of lives (not to mention the next generation who will undoubtedly grow up inspired by this song the way our generations continue to preach “We Shall Overcome”) lost Song Of The Year to “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. I knew it was coming as soon as his performance began; when the cameras pulled to show Kendrick in prison garb, shackled in chains, shuffling and pivoting his weight every fourth step, as he spat the words “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” back in the faces of the uncomfortable mostly white voting party at the ceremony. These were not his people. It was as if he was the only person in the room who was able to see, and used that stage to mock the blind. He had to have known what was in store for him before he even received his almost-historical 11 nominations. He had to have known the history: that Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill are the only hip hop albums to ever win Album Of The Year in the Grammy’s 58 year history. He had to have known that his mentor Kanye West, who has more Grammys than anyone his age ever, has in his words “never won against a white person”. And while this quote from may not be factually true, like most black artists, he has only ever won in the Rap categories. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album commonly cited as the greatest of the 21st Century so far wasn’t even nominated for AOTY. Kendrick must have known all of this, but yet he still showed up. He still accepted his awards in the Rap categories with his usual charisma and a genuine sense of appreciation. And as fate would have it, he accepted his award for Best Music Video with the person who would end up beating him later that night, Taylor Swift. Going in, everyone assumed it would be either Taylor or Kendrick for the big award, and any other year, it would be hard to disagree with Taylor taking it home. She is the first ever female artist to win Album Of The Year twice, and 1989 launched her into the stratosphere of fame, all the while being a critical darling that won over droves of followers who had previously been on the fence (myself very much included here). Other than Adele and arguably Beyoncé, she is the biggest star on the planet. So while very few would argue that she shouldn’t have won, it still felt like a kick to the ribs when Kendrick didn’t.
We are living in one of the most electrifying and damn-near essential times in music ever right now. And when I say that, I specifically mean black music. I’m referring to D’Angelo’s return with Black Messiah. I’m talking about Run The Jewels 2. I’m talking about Yeezus. I’m talking about Channel Orange, and Summertime ’06, and Undun, and The Epic. I’ve never seen the word “unapologetically” used in more music reviews than I’m seeing now, and what a powerful word to attach to a piece of art, especially art like this; art that is so revelatory in it’s honesty and point-of-view that it transcends all boundaries. All of these records, and many, many more released in the last several years alone, have been written by black artists using their gifts as a means of expression to paint a picture of the world as they see it today, and never before has it been so crucial for these stories to be told, and more importantly, heard by the masses. In terms of audience, most of the artists themselves would likely point out that these records were made for black listeners as a shared experience. But as this music has become more accessible and continues to permeate our culture, other voices have stepped into the conversation in an oftentimes unwarranted fashion. On the news, we’ve seen a large increase of white reactions to these black records, and their disregard for context and understanding has been disheartening. First it was Fox News’ condemnation of Kendrick Lamar’s fiery performance atop a vandalized cop car in front of an enormous waving American flag at the BET Awards, a performance that led to their statement that his lyrics and hip hop in general “have done more damage to young African-Americans than racism”. Then it was the Anti-Beyoncé rally at the NFL Headquarters following her performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl, and Rudy Giuliani’s declaration of the performance as a “platform to divide the country and antagonize the police.” The actions of those who are neither the audience nor the authority for these songs and their messages have cast an unprovoked and damaging shadow over art meant to inspire and captivate, all the while maintaining their respective institutions within their racial status-quo. The headlines written about this overall white outrage over the “unapologetic” blackness of music of the last several years will certainly continue, and has already created an intimidating divide in this country. As a white man, I have been targeted by these powers-that-be to not only shun this music, but to condemn those who create it, and to keep the communities and stories of which the music is based upon out of sight and out of mind. This is art that wasn’t made for me; an art that details a reality I will never understand, and therefore I have been conditioned to only engage it as a source of entertainment. This is a world being kept out of reach; a truth turned abstract, not to be interacted with or considered on a deeper level. But rather than denouncing this music, I have used it as a textbook in my own search for context, understanding, and above all, empathy. These artists have provided the necessary tools for my own harsh examination of privilege, racism, and the pervasive fears my own race holds as the realities of black America continue to seep into a larger public discourse. The era of colorblindness and racial ignorance as allowable institutions is coming to an end, and white people are finally being forced to uncover their eyes. The opportunity to truly examine race as a social construct, what it means, and what we wish it to be, is upon us, and for the questions I have needed to ask and the answers I am still looking to find, it has always been the music that guides me through.
When discussing music, it is common for people to talk about songs that spoke to them on a level no person has been able to reach, or soundtracked a definining and pivitol moment, or fostered an unbreakable connection with a significant member of their lives. We’ve seen time and time again that music is limitless, and the gamut of emotions a certain song can bring out in people, individually and as a collective, is as far-reaching as emotions can go. Like most listeners, I have always had a very one-on-one relationship with music, meaning that it makes me think about my life and very little else. I listen to “A Case Of You” and I think about my girlfriend; I’m not thinking about whose face was drawn on that map of Canada (twice) at a bar, or who drew it or why. When I hear “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)” by Radiohead, I have an incredibly specific memory of hearing of the passing of a good friend just days before my senior year of high school began. I have a personal relationship with “All My Friends“ by LCD Soundsystem, “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam, and “Never Meant“ by American Football. Like so many others, music provided me with a crucial sense of purpose and self-identity. I wouldn’t be who I am without the songs my dad played in his convertible, or the songs I illegally downloaded from Limewire. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that music took on a different significance in my life. I was approaching an age of newfound social awakedness and was looking for a way to personally grasp what was happening in the world around me. This was the moment the bubble of racial tensions in America burst, and a group of musicians had bravely set out to give this moment a voice.
It’s a very privileged point of view to think that the tragedies of police brutality and racial inequality we now see on the news daily are somehow “new”, or that they “came out of nowhere”. I have to think there is majority of the white population in America that for decades either never really gave the livelihood of other races much thought, or blindly assumed that in the years between Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the killing of Trayvon Martin, the lives of black people in America were perfectly quiet and without conflict. To be honest, I can understand why this prominent feeling exists. Segregation was abolished in the 60’s as a product of the Civil Rights Movement, but the furthering of policies such as Redlining (the practice of denying or increasing the cost of services, access to jobs, and access to health care to residents in racially determined areas) and pushbacks against policies such as Affirmative Action have kept blacks and whites separated like never before. And while black culture has become both more accepted and simultaneously appropriated by the masses, inequality and favoritism have remained. Look no further than Professor Andrew Hacker’s book “Two Nations: Black & White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal” and his studies regarding the monetary price it would take to convince white people to trade in their skin color for black. Unsurprisingly, the most common answer was in the millions. So while the last several decades have had many extremely promising shifts toward equality (although black progression can rarely be valued on it’s own terms- it’s always about inching closer to the white benchmark- aka “equality”), there are so many realities for black American’s that white people have no idea about, both purposely and just as often by no fault of their own.
A source of the prominent colorblindness of the last several decades has to do with where news and public knowledge were coming from. Up until very recently, national news (and in turn, what was on peoples’ minds and tongues) was completely made up of white-owned media who used censorship as a weapon to silence anything that didn’t fit a specific agenda. But things have shifted drastically in the last few years. Today, in the age of social media and smartphones, everyone has the power to create the news. For the first time ever, our news doesn’t just come from those at the top who decide what people need to know about; it comes from on the ground. It’s not that racism, or mass incarceration, or police brutality are new phenomena. What is in fact new is that the communities of the victims of these crimes finally have a voice to speak on them to a worldwide audience like never before. It’s a beautiful thing, but it also spotlights an incredibly tragic reality that too many Americans have either avoided or simply haven’t been aware of for far too long. Similar to the ways technology has leveled the playing field for news creation and distribution, the same outcomes have applied to music. New technology has allowed for anyone and everyone to create and share music like never before. This is an absolutely essential point to mention when discussing the soundtrack of the last several years. The fact that artists have the capabilities of recording a song and distributing it directly to the world in as little as a few hours means that the music being made today has the luxury of being timely to a degree music has never been before. If we were still living in the old model of music creation and distribution, something like Prince’s “Baltimore” very likely might still not be released some 10 months after the Baltimore riots of 2015. And even if he was able to record it in a studio quickly, there is a chance his label wouldn’t want to distribute something so provocative to the masses of mostly white CD consumers. But in today’s world, he was able to record the song in days, and not only release it quickly, but directly to the ears of fans through a streaming service of which he is a part owner with no middle men holding up the process. There is no way to overstate how remarkable and essential this shift has been. The stories of today’s world can now go from headlines to artist expressions in essentially real-time. Creative interpretations and outsider perspectives have come to be as essential as journalistic reporting. But while we’ve seen countless instances of society (on scales grand and intimate) affecting music, we’ve also seen rare instances where the river has reversed flow: where music has reached out and pushed the world into an unexpected turn. It takes a supernatural talent to make this kind of noise; it’s the kind of voice that guides High School courses, the kind of words that fill history books. When the world looks back to the time of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, they will see the voice that belongs to my generation: Kendrick Lamar.
Months after To Pimp A Butterfly was released, it had already been destined as a game-changer for the genre. I couldn’t recall ever hearing anything so dense ever before; there is a palpable weight that can’t be shaken just from the title alone. If there was ever an album where I wish I could encapsulate the sense of wonder I felt upon my first listen and keep it around with me to remind myself that such a feeling exists, it would be this one. I felt stronger, braver, more intellectual, more confident, more alive through this record. It made me feel like I was on the edge of understanding something monumental. The record opens with the soft crack of vinyl, and the next 79 minutes, culminating in the infamous “Pac!?”, are nothing short of a spiritual reawakening. Kamasi Washington’s arrangements lifted me off the ground, while Assassin’s growls threw me back down to earth. Terrace Martin, Anna Wise, Robert Glasper, and Thundercat became my musical heroes. I examined every pixel of the album art, watched every interview, and obsessed over every annotation on Genius (particularly Michael Chabon’s words on “The Blacker The Berry”, which was an early indication that this record was going to be a cultural milestone). Somehow, in the months following the album’s release, this sense of wonder only grew, but I couldn’t have guessed where it would go until I saw the following headline on July 29th 2015: Cleveland State University conference attendees chant Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” in protest against police. Below, it read “Protestors leaving a Black Lives Matter conference used the rapper’s latest single as a rallying cry for solidarity”. The story chronicled that during a peaceful protest, a 14-year-old boy had been reportedly slammed to the ground and detained by police. In an effort to stop the brutality, many protestors tried to block the police cruiser’s path, but were severely pepper sprayed as a response. There was undoubtedly confusion and pain and anger in the hearts of these protestors, and it’s likely that they felt very little hope in this moment. But something miraculous happened, and it still gives me chills to this day. The protestors stood up, locked arms, and began singing the words “We Gon’ Be Alright. We Gon’ Be Alright. We Gon’ Be Alright. We Gon’ Be Alright.”
If something like this had happened even 5 years ago, it would likely be nothing more than folklore. Maybe a few people at that rally would tell others what had happened, and how a rap song that had been first heard a mere four months prior had created a sense of unity among strangers. Or maybe everyone at that rally would have gone home and went on with their lives, forever erasing this moment from history. But it happened in 2015, and inevitably someone had taken out their cell phone and hit record. While there is still a feeling of myth that can’t be shaken (we will never know who began the chant or why), this ethereal moment where music transcended all barriers was documented and became available for the world to share in the click of a button. And with that, my relationship with music was elevated, and became something so much more than it had ever been. It destroyed me that a song like this needed to exist for people to chant in moments of suffering, defiance, and harmony, but I was thankful it did. And I knew that as a white man, I could never tap into the deep rooted understanding of that mantra, or what made those protestors belt it out when nothing else came to them, but also that I wasn’t supposed to. That wasn’t the point. I realized that there were certain things I would never fully be able to internalize, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t lend my voice, and my body, and my mind, and my heart to this movement and those it touched. “Alright” is a song unequivocally for the black communities around the world to come together as one in the face of brutality, apartheid, and discrimination. But it is also part of an ongoing history of art reflecting the ugliness of racism into something aggressive, poignant, and oftentimes beautiful.
I began developing a narrative. Like a string of yarn zig-zagging across a map, I started to visualize how race and music had been influencing each other for decades. Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” was one pushpin, David Bowie challenging MTV’s lack of black videos was another. I craved information, researching everything from the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999, to arguments surrounding reparations, to the racially motivated causes and response of the Flint Michigan water crisis. And all the while, I was soaking in the music being created alongside each event. Songs like “American Skin (41 Shots)”, “Alabama”, and “I Can’t Breathe” were visceral and full of so much emotion and urgency. The music was my guide to finally examining and uncovering a history of racial turmoil within this county in a way other mediums rarely dare to touch. Art has the ability to shape histories into feelings, and the emotion poured into these recordings is as tangible as the words and notes themselves. Music has always been there to give voice to those who need it most, and in looking back, I couldn’t help but notice how the turbulent and tragic events of the day have time and time again forced art to be better than ever before. This has never been more true than right now. Black artists today are putting themselves in the front-lines of conflict, and their bravery and artistry have broken down doors of both music and activism by using radical means of expression.
One specific medium that has proven lately to be particularly impactful is music videos. Artists have flocked to film as a canvass for think pieces, like Vince Staples’ “Senorita” and “Like Me” by Joey Bada$$. The former depicts a neighborhood where machine guns aim and fire at bible-toting gang members who march the streets defiant and ready for absolution. It’s incredibly unnerving to watch these men simply fall to the ground, one by one, without a sound or any sight of a bullet. But even more profound is the ending; as the last man standing hits an invisible wall, the camera pulls back to show it is nothing more than a television screen, with a white Rockwellian family of three watching the carnage from the comfort of their privilege. Staples himself annotated the track on the site Genius.com saying, “People don’t care about what’s happening in Long Beach, or Compton, or Watts. When they look at these people they don’t seem themselves”. Then there is “Close Your Eyes And Count To Fuck” by Run The Jewels, which explores the traumas and legacy of racially motivated violence. The clip opens on what looks like another instance of a white police officer assaulting an unarmed black man, but it quickly escalates to something different. Their clothes are ripped, their breathing is labored, and they move as if their minds and bodies are working against them. These men are both brutally exhausted, yet continue to destroy each other as if it is their destiny manifesting itself. You imagine that they have been clashing for so long that nether of them even remembers why the dispute began in the first place. While you sense that both of these men desperately want to stop this maddening violence, they both fear that as soon as they stop attacking, they could be done for. They are helpless to stop the generational legacy of hatred they have inherited, and it’s tearing them apart. In the end, the thing that divides them is their skin, but what connects them is their complete and utter sadness in the realization this fight will likely continue for the rest of their lives.
These videos are fictional and highly dramatized stories that speak to larger and often tragic and senseless truths within our society. The artists creating them are using an entertainment platform to make earth-shattering statements defending their beliefs and telling their stories. For someone like me, these visuals are where my mind goes when I think of the current and violent state of race in America. These videos, these lyrics, these beats, these vocals: these are what feeds my hunger to be involved. They are what lead me to write about a topic as truthfully uncomfortable and complex as this. But I also have to reckon with the fact that in a way, it’s cowardly to turn to music in my own visceral search for the truth of the real world rather than to the real world itself. Maybe I’m unable to look the real problem, and the real people it’s affecting out of simple fear of what I will discover, so I view it from behind a glass like the family from “Senorita”. I don’t deny that any of this may be true, and I accept that many of my views are based on a commercialized version of reality. But at the end of the day, this music has lead me to a place of greater social empathy and historical knowledge. It has challenged my beliefs and preconceived notions. It has made me a better friend to those I know, and ally for those I don’t. So how can it not be justified? Can the value of an opinion be diluted by the means of which it was formed? Can the means of a discussion being had possibly be as important as the discussion itself? These are questions without clear answers, and responses are likely to differ depending on who you ask. But this critical thinking has been crucial in my own judgments toward one particularly polarizing piece of work within this movement: “White Privilege II” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis burst into mainstream culture a few short years ago, but they have made a presence that has been both easy to dispute and hard to ignore. While they launched into the stratosphere with the hit “Thrift Shop” which became an instant zeitgeist for today’s meme and Buzzfeed culture, it was the song “Same Love” that made critics really pay attention. The song is Macklemore’s open declaration in support of gay rights, and to many, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Not only did it comment on routine gay bashing on a mass cultural scale, specifically in regards to the cloak of anonymity the Internet affords, it commented on hip hop’s role in the issue (specifically with the line “If I was gay, I would think hip hop hates me”). Mainstream hip hop has never exactly been known for opening its heart to the gay community, and this line was a pointed, albeit somewhat passive aggressive, swipe at the genre this artist was himself participating in. While I think it would be an overstatement to say this song altered the narrative of hip hop and the Gay Rights Movement in the United States, it’s hard to ignore how much has changed in both of these regards since the song was released. The duo then went on to make history at the Grammys the following year, when several couples, many of them same-sex, were married live on TV during their performance. It was a massive and enormously positive moment for the duo, for gay rights, and for hip hop. But that Grammys’ night turned into a long one for the duo. In a head-scratching turn of events, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won Best Rap Album over the current Mount Rushmore of rap: Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, Drake, and Kanye West. The music world at large generally didn’t even consider the duo to be rapppers (partially for their pop-leaning tendencies, but given no one accuses Drake of not being rap for that same reason, one has to assume the real issue here is their skin color), and on a deeper level, many accused the duo not of participating in their genre, but exploiting it. Later that night, Macklemore texted Kendrick Lamar, the favorite to win in that category, saying “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you…” and then made the self-satisfying mistake of Instagramming that text message on his own page. Needless to say, hip hop fans were not pleased. Who was this imposter who, aside from stealing their culture and their awards, was now pandering and trying to make nice, all the while making his white savior complex all the more real by posting the message publicly? Most, myself included, found the move incomprehensively ignorant, and a textbook example of the inadequacies of white guilt. It seemed that any goodwill that had been garnered from the live same-sex marriages just a few hours prior had been replaced with anger, bitterness, and resentment toward the star.
When “White Privilege II” was released on January 22nd, 2016, the world at large was once again discussing a song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and the message it preached. Similar to “Same Love”, it was another extremely timely topic that, on the surface, does not affect Macklemore or Ryan Lewis first-hand as straight white men. It was unexpected and intriguing, and led to extremely polarizing responses and emotional think-pieces. Some instantly hailed the song as a cultural landmark; others maintained the song did more harm than good. Going back to the question of the means of a discussion vs. the discussion itself, I personally had very contradicting feelings on the song, and I think most of those feelings initially stemmed from not knowing who the song was for. Was it for the black hip hop audience as a mea culpa for his Grammys rob? Was it for his white fans to start a dialogue about the role they should play in what most see as a black-only issue? Was he just piggybacking on a clear cultural trend of hip hop artists holding up a mirror to the reality of racial tensions in America today, a trend for which this very piece is based upon? In listening to the song repeatedly over the last several weeks, my opinion has swayed from the cynical assumption that his motive is to cash in on other people’s struggles, to my thoughts now that the song was made to give his white audience a stimulus for a much needed discussion. I may be putting too much faith in Macklemore, but I believe he has an understanding on how his role can be used, and I think he chose the right card in his deck to play.
In an interview with Colorlines News, when asked what he found most surprising about the reception of the project, he remarked that the demographic he found was engaging with the song the least on social media in terms of comments, blog posts, written testimonials, and even number of streams was the demographic I believe he made the song for: his young white audience. I find this extremely unsurprising, as conversations about race are clearly most uncomfortable for white people to participate in. This is part of the reason I have to give credit to Macklemore- he stepped out of his luxurious comfort zone of privilege and into the unknown with this song, and to me, that deserves a round of applause. I can’t argue that he isn’t profiting off of an injustice that doesn’t directly affect him, but I think he’s looking at the bigger picture here, and that is to bring this scary and seemingly contagious discussion to those that have spectacularly avoided it. In doing so, he is highlighting a blind spot for most of his listeners, many of which will hopefully become more engaged and enlightened due to this project. But the fact that this song in particular has sparked so much national dialog sheds light on an inherently troubling phenomenon in our culture where we have given different value to different voices. As a white man, Macklemore simply wields more power to get the masses to actually stop and think (and especially in today’s culture, to share) messages like this than a black person. Similar to “Same Love” with declaring support for gay rights, there is surely a large demographic of people that assume Macklemore is the first person to ever be outspoken about white supremacy. This is obviously an enormous oversight as hip hop, the art form he uses to express these views, was itself birthed from the injustices of white supremacy. But the reality is that a white man’s microphone tends to be louder than a black man’s, so even if two artists are expressing the same thing, it should be no surprise which voice gets heard. The only exception to this rule I can think of off-hand is Beyoncé, and this is likely why she seems to be taking more heat than her contemporaries since entering an unequivocally political realm with the song “Formation” and its “anti-police” message. This song is hardly “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A, and yet it has provoked frightening responses from police units around the country. Beyoncé is of course black (a truth Saturday Night Live made very clear), but other than President Obama, there isn’t another black person in America who has this degree of influence over the masses (which very much includes white people) as she does. This kind of authority will always be seen as a threat to those in control, and based on their boycotts, it is clear the police understand the power a single voice like this can wield. Depending on how you look at it, its arguable whose back is currently against the wall.
“White Privilege II” has reintroduced powerful and frightening new language to the masses, even if Macklemore isn’t the first person to share these ideas on such a large scale. Within music, he is not even the first white rapper to discuss this topic (look no further than the “let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half” verse on Eminem’s “White America”, released in 2002), but at the same time, he does appear to me to be first white entertainer to call these experiences by their proper name, and that should be taken very seriously. White privilege, and even more so white supremacy are terrifying words, particularly to white people, and both of these phrases are used effectively in this song. These words are equated with the absolute worst in human character; their power is the connection to the far too recent history of slavery, and fear of association with these terms has caused a few distinct alternatives to actual acknowledgement, such as white guilt, colorblindness, and the all-too-common coping mechanism of white amnesia. You will be hard pressed to find any white people who would openly claim their privilege or supremacy, or that either phenomena exist, and the irony is that this denial is exactly why these facts of life are so clearly real. The reality that white people never have to consider how the color of their skin affects the way others treat and perceive them is their privilege. The reality that white is “normal”, and the collection of every other race and creed and color is lumped into “other” is their supremacy. It’s one thing to have an understanding of the validity of an experience, but it is another thing altogether to give it a proper name, and if there is anything the music of this movement has taught me, it is that words are an incredibly powerful thing. Take, for example, the word “racist”. There may not be a single word that white people fear more than being labeled as a “racist”. It’s revealing how often the phrase, “Not to be racist, but…” is used in causal conversation without second thought. Or how often we routinely hear the fascinating five-word phrase “I am not a racist” spoken from podiums on the news. It’s perplexing, but people can’t fathom that they might be casually racist, and this delusion halts progress. Being associated with this word today equates one to the KKK; an absolute monster who has no place in today’s society. Maybe instead of constantly shielding behind the five-word phrase of absolution (“I am not a racist”), we as white people acknowledge that while we don’t want to be, many of us have been conditioned to routinely see people by color first and by relatable human qualities second. It’s a tragedy that has plagued this country since its inception, and it’s going to take a lot of talking and reflection and pain and strength to move forward. But if we can at the very least acknowledge what is going on, then maybe we can finally take a small but essential step. The old saying goes that the first step to solving any problem is admitting there is one. So while I struggle with the reality that this end result (a wide-spread discussion surrounding white privilege) was made possible because of the means of which it came about (coming from a white person’s voice), I’m still siding with Macklemore on the issue itself in thinking the problem is closer to home than most white people are able to admit. Many have debated what role is appropriate for white people to play in these race conversations, but for white people themselves to suggest that they have no part in the discussion, understanding, and solving of this problem is to keep change forever out of reach. Based on the Macklemore’s white fanbase, and their lack of dialog surround the piece, it’s clear that most white Americans either don’t understand this concept, or aren’t ready to open themselves to it. But that doesn’t make the discussion itself worthless.
It’s now been a few weeks since Kendrick lost Album Of The Year at the Grammys, and the world has moved on. There were no protests, no grand think pieces, no restless sleep. And the pain I personally felt when his name was not called has faded. I spoke earlier of narratives, and the importance they play in making sense of our lives. To me, the verdict of the Album of the Year award felt like a grand culmination of a narrative that began with the death of Trayvon Martin. My brain had woven together all of the captivating and tragic instances of racial discrimination in the past several years, soundtracked them with the music being created in tandem, and placed them all in the same envelope that eventually declared Taylor Swift the victor. Before her name was announced, this award felt like the final turn on a racetrack. I felt part of a “we”, and “we” were so close. And yet, with time, I have understood that this award would not suddenly validate all of the loss that has been suffered. As vital and remarkable as To Pimp A Butterfly is, it does not encapsulate black America. Nothing can. But music has a power to bring people together in celebration of life, and at the end of the day, I believe that has been the great gift of the music discussed here. To take a quote from Chicago cellist Tomkea Reid, “You can’t put black music in a box. It’s too big”. This music has the power to change the narrative of how people treat each other. This music has altered the course of my life by daring to be so much more than music. In speaking on hardships, this music has shed light on resilience. In playing notes fueled by aggression, the notes themselves have reflected peace. In singing about those who have been lost, these artists have given voice to those who have lived. And that is what the detractors will never understand. After all, it’s Black Lives Matter for a reason. Black Music Matters too.
I recently watched an episode of VICELAND which featured a discussion with Kendrick Lamar on the city of Compton, and what he said was as powerful as anything I would expect to hear from any of the mythological leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. “From Compton, I could have easily come out and said I did this, I did that…I killed a whole bunch of niggas, I….just given the fact of where I’m from. But that ain’t me. I’d rather talk about my reality….I’d rather talk about something a little bit more deeper than that. The reasons, and the problems, and the solutions behind it. So when you hear these stories in good kid, M.A.A.d city, when you hear these stories in To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s a little bit deeper than just the music. It’s cats out here who are really trying to do something and really trying to spark the idea of positivity in the community. Let me tell my story, let me tell other stories that’s out here that want to do something different…but can’t. Because you are in an environment where you just gotta adapt. And what happens is it invites people in to get another perspective. It brings another side of the world to Compton, to this backyard right here and say ‘okay, these are actually…people’”. I have a deeper source of empathy for people of all backgrounds today than ever before, and I’m proud of that. And I’m glad that the music of Kendrick Lamar, and Chance The Rapper, and Eryn Allen Kane, and Anderson .Paak, and countless others have provided me the groundwork to ask myself some very important questions about the world and my place in it. To Pimp A Butterfly was released in the height of racial tensions in America, and leading up to its release, everyone was looking to Kendrick for answers. In thinking about that record, the element that makes it so powerful to me, and what gives it the official “timeless” stamp is that it is an album made of questions, not answers. And throughout history, the music that is strong enough to ask questions has been the music that makes the world spin a little differently. This to me is the thread that connects Bob Dylan to Miles Davis, and Kurt Cobain to Flying Lotus. Talent and potential can break down barriers, open up minds, and inspire dialog. This music has forced my eyesight to be stronger with how I see myself and the world around me. Above all, it’s provided me with a sense of urgency. No longer am I content with staying silent and letting my white privilege speak for me. I’m ready to step into the unknown and to be vulnerable, and I encourage others to do the same. I understand this may cause tension with some people that I love, whose opinions and worldviews may be different than mine. In speaking on race, I’m opening myself up to criticisms and conflicts unknown. I also understand the realities of my privilege, and that as much as it may feel like I am alienating myself with expressing these views, the color of my skin provides me a level of protection that others simply don’t have. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth speaking up. It may not be much, but if I’m not willing to step outside of my privilege and into an uncomfortable and potentially hostile place, then I can’t expect anything to change. In my eyes, this is the challenge for any white person who, like me, wants to see a difference. Be educated. Have conversations with your family, with friends, and with people you don’t know from other communities. Read “Between The World And Me”, and then read something not on the best-sellers list. Write your own essay dismantling every opinion I have stated here. Question the PG version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. they fed you in school. Form an opinion and argue it. Research where your government officials, and those running for office, stand on these issues. Join a protest. Join a parade. Join hands with people of different skin color than yours. And if you are like me, pay attention to the music being created today that is providing not only a riveting soundtrack for these times, but is lending a voice that is utterly essential to the conversation. Music has often been called the “universal language of mankind”, and I can’t think of a greater healer to guide us through.
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On March 3, 2016, Kendrick Lamar released untitled unmastered.
And with that, a new chapter in the narrative begins.