Dear Kendrick Lamar,
You recently released a very catchy tune called “The Blacker the Berry” regarding your antipathy towards white people. Mr. Rembert Browne, writer for the popular sports/pop culture website Grantland.com, wrote a response to this song wondering how the villains of your story, whites (or perhaps non-blacks in general), might react to your lyrics. I think that’s a fascinating question, so let’s get right into the “sweeter juices.”
The first thing I notice, Mr. Lamar, is that the conception of the enemy in this song presupposes his incredible strength. The whites of the world possess power to “church me with your fake prophesizing that I’mma be just another slave in my head” and “[make] me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga.”
I can evidently enslave the protagonist of the song through the power of my religious suggestions (though as a relatively quiet deist in the vein of Voltaire, I’m not sure what those are) and make a murderer of the protagonist with nothing more than, I don’t even know. Perhaps my presence? I had never thought of myself as this kind of demigod, but to conceive of myself in the same terms with which your character seems to conceive of “my” people, it sure is empowering. Might I suggest that conceiving of oneself in the opposite terms, the injured mouse in the paws of whitey’s inexorable and infinite power, might be somewhat disempowering? Might there not be a better chance of success for oppressed blacks who view whites as normal folks, who can be out-competed and overcome just like anybody else? Maybe it’s all just a character portrait.
I mean, there is a villain for the desired comic book morality system and an automatic excuse for failures, and that is comforting. But is that moral clarity more desirable than seeing enemies for what they actually are?
As for the vileness of the villains in your narrative, we find many examples in this gloriously enjoyable song. “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture, you’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey, you vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me.”
While I get what you’re going for, Mr. Lamar, I do find a problem or two with the good and evil narrative as constructed. Marcus Garvey, who you admiringly mention as a beacon of black pride in this very song, in a sense got what he wanted. If evil is a property of a racial group, black nationalism’s project to remove the noble, oppressed slaves from white dominated America to black Africa should have ushered in an era of black prosperity and justice. Unfortunately, this fails to explain the immense crappiness of Liberia then and now, including the fact that former slaves, upon arriving in Liberia, enslaved the locals. If, as I suspect, oppression comes from a combination of being weak and easy to distinguish, then both the African enslavement in America and the Liberian clusterfuck make a lot more sense.
Further, I wonder about how sincerely you mean it when you say “you’re fucking evil.” I mean, the first time I saw you, you were sharing a stage with all-white band Imagine Dragons. I saw you the second time whilst you were laughing at Stephen Colbert’s jokes and performing The Colbert Report’s final musical act. It seems that you profit quite a lot from your associations with evil whites like myself. I wonder why Stephen Colbert and the Imagine Dragons didn’t vandalize your perceptions or terminate “your” culture.
Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of white privilege. I don’t know what it feels like to be black. I could very well be wrong in everything I’ve said about the black community, but I do have experience with what it feels like to use and take advantage of white privilege. From my perspective, whiteness really doesn’t mean anything and that is precisely why it’s useful.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that whiteness is 100% compatible with both crime and lawfulness, artistry and accounting, liberalism and conservatism. I can be a homosexual, white mob enforcer who enjoys Japanese food, swimming and hip hop and nobody blinks twice. I can be a fire and brimstone pastor calling down damnation on the heretics and nobody thinks it racially odd. I can marry a Korean/Honduran/Indian and nobody calls me a sellout because there’s nothing to sell out.
This is why black/Asian/whatever pride has always confused me. I don’t understand why people want a racial identity that, from what I’ve seen, does nothing but constrain? I can’t remember a single day of wanting my ethnicity to mean more.
Why do we fondly remember the white race traitors of yore while black race traitors like Russell Wilson earn revulsion from “their” people? Why, Mr. Kendrick, does it seem that you want the little black boys and girls of your neighborhood to, facing the myriad possible ways one might betray the proud black race, enjoy less freedom than I have?
And this bleeds over to another reason why the lyrics of this song don’t actually offend me. Whiteness is amorphous, it is almost meaningless. In fact, pretty much the only type of whiteness that has any meaning is the proud whiteness which most people would very much like to avoid. “I’m proud to be white,” since the 1960’s at least, has meant “I’m a trashy, dependent and not very smart person with whom you absolutely don’t want to speak.”
As such, most of us white privilege users embrace the amorphousness of white. Thus, when you attack “fucking evil” white people, it doesn’t really stick to me. Considering the absolute lack of outrage to your song, I’m guessing I’m not unique, either. The annoyance, Mr. Kendrick, comes mostly from the fact you think a meaningful racial identity, which to me seems very trashy and outdated, applies to me. It’s sort of like a stranger offering you treatment for leprosy – it’s the connotation that rankles.
I’d like to go back a bit and talk about the desire to destroy black culture we whites have. While I can’t speak for everyone, especially given the meaninglessness of “white,” I have to say that I personally feel no animus towards black culture, I confused.
I see black kids who think that success and race treason are synonymous and I wonder why. I, living in South Korea, see hip hop culture exported to Asia and cringe. I see two generations of Koreans whose entire exposure to your culture is twerking, Lil’ John and references to marijuana. I feel relieved that I don’t have to explain “we’re not all stoned, promiscuous murder enthusiasts.” I see all of these powerful, stereotypical meanings attached to the black community and I wonder why they deserve to be maintained.
I wonder, Mr. Lamar, if reducing black identity to an amorphous blob of nothing might help more than it hurts. I ask because a lot of what you stand for – the upward mobility, the intellectualism, the writer before rapper shtick – are beautiful things.