When the Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the Black Blues Narrative
By Rachel Kaadzi GhansahJanuary 31, 2013
The sound of the blues is pre–Civil Rights. It’s oppression. In high school I had a friend who asked me why I played the blues, that black people don’t play blues. And for the most part, he was right. But I said, how can you abandon what we come from? All the stuff that you’re jamming to [now] came from this foundation. Jimmy Reed sang “Big Boss Man,” and, as a black man, he sang that because he couldn’t say it in the workplace. He sang that and had people dancing to it. If guys like that were ballsy enough to put that out, how can you deny it? That was the foundation to be able to say whatever the fuck you want.
— Gary Clarke Jr.
When the lights shut off
And it’s my turn to settle down
My main concern
Promise that you will sing about me
Promise that you will sing about me
— Kendrick Lamar
IN A MOMENT I will tell you why Kendrick Lamar, a young rapper from Compton, deserves much of the acclaim, and, even more so, the analysis he has received, but first let us deal with the vanguard of black memoirists who came before him and in whose well-forged path he follows.
In the summer of 1945, Ralph Ellison wrote a review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Wright’s semiautobiographical novel about his tough boyhood in Mississippi. In Ellison’s piece he suggested that Black Boy is shaped more by the blues tradition born from the same hard countryside as Wright than it is by any literary genre or narrative model. Ellison would explain that, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Twenty years later — still long before he converted to Mormonism, or ran as a Republican candidate, or invented Christlam, his own religion with its branch of military forces called The Guardians of the Sperm — came Eldridge Cleaver’s first book, Soul on Ice. But first, Cleaver, on the lam from a shoot-out with the Oakland police, moved to Paris and became a fashion designer. He made pants with a codpiece, calling the cloth prosthesis that fell from their fly the “Cleaver Sleeve.” “Walking tall … walking proud … walking softly but carrying it big. You’ll be cock of the walk with the new collection from Eldridge de Paris,” he advertised.
Although it is difficult to understand Cleaver's intentions in designing the pants, it is easier to configure them into the strange blues that was Cleaver’s life. They were merely another leitmotif in his homophobic, sometimes rambling obsession with his own masculinity. Cleaver was a man full of the almost embarrassing desire to express all of the makings of himself despite the costs, open to all mediums and seemingly unconcerned about how much ridicule or scorn that self-expression might bring him.
Eldridge Cleaver was also a rapist. There can be no rationalizing of that, and we can’t go further without acknowledging that fact. And if Soul on Ice wasn't so extraordinarily powerful and so honest about his violent misogyny, it would be easy to dismiss the praise he received from established literary forces like Norman Mailer as the result of the strange, congratulatory bond men can share over the violated bodies of women.
A classmate introduced me to Soul on Ice in my last year of middle school. I was hesitant to read it because, for starters, I was deep into my 20th read of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series, but also because I simply could not reconcile Cleaver’s past with his reform, his literacy with his criminality. But my classmate insisted, “No, you don’t understand, it is much more complicated than that, he is more complicated than that, just read it.”
In some ways, she was right: even though I cannot dismiss his past so easily, even to this day, Soul on Ice is a persuading and profound book; it is the bildungsroman of a young criminal who reinvents himself as a Black Panther and revolutionary. It works for a number of reasons. But what stands out to me now is Cleaver’s earnestness in the book, his bluesy-wounded tenderness, that neither he nor the world around him had any idea what to do with it.
For the record I recognize that I’m easily prey
I got ate alive yesterday
I got animosity building
It’s probably big as a building
Me jumping off of the roof
Is me just playing it safe…
Step on my neck and get blood on your Nike checks
I don’t mind because one day you’ll respect
The good kid, m.A.A.d. city
— Kendrick Lamar
“There’s a certain kind of American story that is characterized by a laconic surface and a tight-lipped speaking voice. The narrator in this story has been made inarticulate by modern life. Vulnerable to his own loneliness, he is forced into an attitude of hard-boiled self-protection,” writes Vivian Gornick in her essay “Tenderhearted Men,” in which she takes to task the terse, unchanging masculinity of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus. Gornick, however, could just as easily be writing about the emotional impasse found in hip-hop.
A few months ago, when Kendrick Lamar released his album good kid m.A.A.d city, it excited all of the critics who get paid good money to not get too excited. They were mesmerized by the album’s narrative arc and the power of Lamar’s storytelling. The cosigns and cameos Lamar had received from his Compton godfathers Dr. Dre and MC Eiht impressed them. Lamar’s first major label release wasn’t just good — it also had the strange fatalism of a plaintive, grave, 25-year-old man-child unafraid to sound all Septimus Smith with his anxieties, to break open the status quo’s “laconic surface” with his youthful vulnerability. He is young, but also old enough to know that nothing in life is promised for men like him except death. So, on the album’s strongest song, he asks for only one thing and it recalls the blues elegies of Son House and Robert Johnson: “When the lights shut off, and it is my turn to settle down, promise that you will sing about me.”
I could easily tell you that Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is one of the best songs to come from hip-hop in the last few years, and since I like grand statements, I might even give him the decade. Lamar’s style is uncanny: at times when he raps it sounds like a Congo Square bamboula, fueled by inflated tears. His lyrics deal with his mortality, his fears, and the futility of street life, and his phrasing is such that he seems to both pause and dervish over his well-selected beats, but that is not what makes Kendrick Lamar’s work important. What makes him important is the way in which the autobiographical good kid m.A.A.d city is so novelistic and so eloquently anchored in the literary blues tradition of which Ellison wrote. Lamar is equal parts oral historian and authorial presence, and more than many authors writing today, he has captured all of the pathos and grief of gun violence, poverty, and the families who carve their lives out amidst all of that chaos. Lamar has offered up his hymnal for a lost generation, a defense for the black family, and in his jumpy prosody, his shell-shocked sensitivities, his clipped memories, and recorded conversations, he has produced “a novel from life” that single-handedly revives the long lost, suppressed literary tradition of young, working-class black boys on fire, with pens smote in hell, telling us how they become gifted, tenderhearted, black men — something we have been missing even though no one seems to notice it.
A few months ago I stood in my windowless, dimly lit classroom in Jamaica, Queens, a working-class neighborhood in New York City, and asked my new students, who were black and West Indian 20-something-year-olds from all over the borough, to tell me something about themselves. How often did they read novels? Who were their favorite authors? Hands flew up. A slim, unsmiling girl with wild hair pulled into a ponytail, spoke first.
“I love to read. Right now, I read at least four books a week.”
She then told us that she had so many books she had to keep them in her closet and they still didn’t fit.
The image of her overflowing closet was captivating. I had another question: “Out of all of the books that you’ve read, can you tell me some of your favorites?”
She paused to think, and then had to compete with the rest of class who began speaking at once, calling out titles I hadn’t heard of.
“True to the Game II, the first True to the Game, Dutch, all the Dutch books, basically … anything by Teri Woods. Gangsta, Coldest Winter Ever. A Street Girl Named Desire. Baby Momma Drama. I read that in one night. I loved that, too. Do you read Flexin and Sexin?”
“Miss,” one of them asked, “are we going to read those books or the kind they teach in school?”
I was there as part of a program that brings college classes to underserved communities. Having once taught English in a Brooklyn public high school for a year, I rattled off the curriculum I remembered with little to no response from them. Were these the books they read in school? And then I got to Toni Morrison.
“Toni Morrison?” asked a neatly dressed girl in the corner.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Toni Morrison, didn’t she win that award for being like the only black author alive?”
“No. That award doesn’t exist. Toni Morrison …” I began, but was cut off by a boy in a newsboy cap who mumbled, not looking up from the notebook he was doodling in.
“Toni Morrison. I know her. I read her in English. Some dude started flying to freedom at the end? And the other one was about the girl who wanted to be white? Am I right?"
“Yes,” I said.
“Yeah, Toni Morrison,” he said, “I know her. She is deep. And she still writes about us.”
If I mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat?
Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?
And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep
With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor
Instead of boy with a chopper that hold the cul de sac hostage
— Kendrick Lamar
As excellent a lyricist as Kendrick Lamar is, as a young writer who is quietly committed — like Morrison — to telling stories about the community most familiar to him, he also enters his story at a time when black American literature has become splintered between battling narratives: the haves and the have-nots. It was because of my students’ struggle to find contemporary stories they could relate to that I realized we no longer hear many narratives from black Americans who did not go to college, who are not middle-class, who aren’t privileged with access. The problem is not that these authors are privileged — that is not at all the issue. The problem is that during a time when moralizing about the lower-income, black body is once again at an all time high, many of these authors continue to tell us about all the ways they are “feeling rich,” while for everybody else, as Joan Didion would write in The New York Review of Books, it is glaringly apparent “that we [are] living in a different America, one that [has] moved from feeling rich to feeling poor.”
Even more curiously, many of these authors are wide-open to discussing what it means to be a person of color now in America, but in their many talking points, very few are willing to look beyond their own social realities. Nor are they agitating against, or even addressing, the very real issues facing their communities at large, like stop-and-frisk, a policing policy that disproportionately targets black and Latino men — a practice that is slowly being dismantled because it seems to indeed be unconstitutional. In his book The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics, Fredrick C. Harris captures the vastness of the divide:
The black poor are told they should demonstrate greater personal responsibility in their lives and that they lack the moral standing necessary to deserve public benefits. From city ordinances banning sagging pants, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s request to deny food-stamp recipients the right to purchase sodas, to DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s one-woman crusade to restore the sanctity of marriage to black families, these policy initiatives have the blessings of middle-class blacks who believe black poor people need to be policed by black elites and by the state.
Of course, the grip of respectability is not at all new, and perhaps that is why to some extent the black authors who loom as literary lions today seem to do so not only because they are gifted writers but also because they performed dual functions, even when they were made uneasy by the confines of biological allegiances. The examples of such commitment run long: James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry with the Civil Rights Movement; Zora Neale Hurston’s relationship to ruralism and afro-agrarianism despite it being out of vogue; bell hooks, Jayne Cortez, and Ntozake Shange with womanism; Octavia Butler’s and Ishmael Reed’s radical world-building.
The battle between marginality versus acceptance has long attempted to put a chokehold on many voices that would have told stories about those outside the talented tenth. Hilton Als, a critic at The New Yorker, wrote about this in his book The Women, as it concerned Alain Locke’s New Negro arts movement in the 1920s, for which “the New Negroes were roundly applauded by white publishers and patrons, who rewarded them with stipends, book deals, and no criticism whatsoever. What the New Negro was: a model of repressed and repressive colored middle class aspirations.”
But after the 2008 presidential election, there was a change in the game that made things markedly different from before: black Americans, like much of America, wondered out loud and naïvely if those communal problems hadn’t disappeared — and even if they hadn’t, did they still need to be articulated out loud? Maybe because America is driven by the theme of migration and reinvention, we had an inbred predisposition to believe that in 2008, as an entire country, America could start anew and wipe the slate containing its story clean. The notion was compelling: that with conviction alone a new world could be constructed where race mattered little and the election of a mixed-race president could signify more than any one man can. Suddenly after Obama’s election, race, particularly blackness, in America was discussed as though it had became optional, as if one could be black but did not have to be defined by their blackness. Blackness, pundits said, was now an identity that many people seemed keen to shed, especially since sometime towards the end of the 20th century, it had become a set of prescriptive, problematic behaviors born out of prison and hip-hop culture, with both of those things acting as a wall to a prouder history.
It was out of this moment that a new generation of black writers arose, like Thomas Chatterton Williams, who in his book Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture wrote that “black life had changed in dramatic ways. Human and civil rights were in, hip-hop was in, nihilism was in, self-pity was in, the street was in, and pride and shame were out — two more cultural anachronisms consigned to the African-American dustbins of history, like jazz music and zoot suits.” Williams, who takes care to describe himself as being black “despite my mother’s being white,” as if having mixed heritage is something he needs to explain or apologize for, was raised by her and his black father in an upper-middle-class, two-parent home in suburban New Jersey. He grew up comfortably with used German cars and many books but somehow became enamored with all of the things he considered “street.” He smoked weed, he slapped his girlfriend, he wore gold chains. After failing his first year at Georgetown because he preferred to party at nearby all-black colleges rather than stay on campus with the more studious, mostly white students, he came to the realization that hip-hop had literally hoodwinked black youth culture into settling for less. In a chapter unironically entitled “Beginning to See the Light,” Williams recounts his decision to begin dressing up for class, writing that, “If it is true that it feels good to look good, then it is equally true that it can feel gangsta to look gangsta and it can feel thugged-out to look thugged-out, or on the other hand, it can feel smart to look smart. I wanted to feel smart.” Dressed now in slacks, he found that his professors became more agreeable; they now looked him in the eye, and it was as if he had “stepped from beneath a shapeless burka or a pasteless mask” and finally become the kind of young man his culturally conservative black father, Pappy, wanted him to be. He never stops to question the politics of his newfound identity, because he has seen the light.
This desire, however, for a more fluid racial self was not just relegated to young, emerging authors like Williams. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would tell Touré for his book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: “If there are 40 million Black Americans then there are 40 million ways to be Black. There are 10 billion cultural artifacts of Blackness and if you add them up and put ’em in a pot and stew it, that’s what Black Culture is. Not one of those things is more authentic than the other.”
In the year after Obama’s election, before Thomas Chatterton Williams’s book was published, Colson Whitehead made a move. He abandoned the historical backdrop he used in John Henry Days and the pointed allegoric commentary in his first book, The Intuitionist, to tell, in his novel Sag Harbor, a story more personal to him: that of a young black New Yorker who summers and comes of age in a wealthy black enclave in the Hamptons. Obama, it seemed, and his ascent to the presidency as a Harvard-educated, bicultural lawyer from Hawaii, had given the black middle-class the confidence to resurface and stake their claim to the culture. The shift in tone and subject in black literary writing seemed to be less incidental and more so the birth of an unorganized subgenre. Having been held hostage by the masochist capitalism and the wild of hip-hop, the black middle-class was finally pushing back.
This was the return of all those who had had their blackness questioned, or because of class, parentage or schooling, had somehow felt alienated from a culture to which they felt they belonged. In this post-racial, post-black, post-hip-hop world there was no longer any one correct way of being black but there were still many ways that one could be proto-black, aggressively black, or overly wedded to the old narratives of blackness. Wyatt Mason, reviewing Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, saw Obama’s election as evidence that “our national house was revealed to be more stable than we knew, more richly peopled, more capable of supporting higher floors,” and said he could not “help but feel, during this most unusual American year, that Morrison’s fable about America’s beginnings and its legacy strikes a peculiarly shortsighted note.” It was astounding how many people had taken to heart the myth surrounding the new president. The notion was just too captivating: that an event that had seemed implausible only a decade ago had actually overnight jettisoned centuries of a conversation. A few months before Obama’s first win, Zadie Smith, in an essay about Franz Kafka and his own conflicted feelings about his Jewishness, would suggest that Kafka’s dilemma (“What have I in common with Jews?”) was one that spoke to us all in these postmodern times: “We are all insects, all Ungeziefer now.”
But quickly it would become obvious that we are not all insects now nor are all insects the same. In their rush to reinvent and refute blackness as it was — yes, yes, we could become the president, we could learn to ski and speak German — somehow, the gestalt of class had been conveniently ignored. Instead, a conversation that began back in the days of Reconstruction about the new wonders of blackness and possibilities of freedom was allowed to coyly continue. Blackness was so new, but no one was using any new language or ideas to explain how. Sometimes the most inescapable ghetto is the one that you build for yourself. Amid all of the talk that things were changing for the better, for most of poor, black America things were actually getting worse. In 2010, the median household net worth for whites was $110,729 versus $4,995 for blacks. In 2011, black unemployment shot up to 15.8 percent. In 2012, 13.6 percent of black Americans were jobless — the national average was 8.1 percent. Gun violence was once again surging in predominately black cities like Camden, Oakland, Chicago, and Philadelphia. What happened after the election was a shift, but in the rush to become a post-racial, post-black society, had anyone actually stopped to see if the relationship between race and poverty in America had really changed? Had the possibilities and realities for the poorest Americans truly become any different?
I’m fortunate you believe in a dream
This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine
— Kendrick Lamar
While some black writers busied themselves grifting in the post-racial world, other black writers were filling the vacuum by writing gritty, salacious urban fiction about fast cars, drug dealers, and women full of aspiration who were not afraid to use sex or guns to achieve their ends. These books — often busy with crime, light on plot, and initially messy with copy errors — are written by authors all too happy to be what Jonathan Franzen has called a “contract writer.” Utterly disinterested in mining any “discourse of genius and art-historical importance,” they instead “provide words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” It is a business that has become so lucrative, so popular, that urban fiction authors such as Sister Souljah and Teri Woods have each sold close to a million copies of their books. Woods’s self-owned publishing company has grossed $10 million dollars since 2001, and eyeing her success, Borders Bookstore signed a deal to spotlight her imprint nationwide in their stores. These authors are no longer marginal influences. They are so mainstream that companies like Atria, Simon & Schuster, and St. Martins Press have signed some of them to six-figure, three-book deals. When asked to explain the success of her book Dutch, Teri Woods would tell Salon, “You want me to tell you why that book sells so well? Because Dutch is what every black man feels right now. Go to traffic court, dude. Go to criminal court — it’s fucking disgusting! It seems like white life is excusable, and black life is intolerable. […] I’m like this far away from injustice. I’m not going to let it go. […] It needs to be aired out.” In a time when no one was supposed to be angry, no one was supposed to look back, there were still millions of readers who seemed to think differently.
As some literary black authors struggled to find a culture of readers who looked like them, their would-be readers seemed to be thinking the inverse of the question: where are the literary writers who are writing stories that sound like mine? The post-racial generation had created their own disconnect, and the authors of urban fiction were vampiristic. They saw a void and filled it — cheaply, but they filled it. They became the writers who were still speaking to black and Latino Americans who were slipping through the cracks, a group of people the new literary generation seemed reluctant to acknowledge as an audience or as subjects. And their failure to do so is what makes work that deeply and realistically deals with class (like the fiction of Z.Z. Packer, Junot Díaz, Edward P. Jones, the reporting of Jelani Cobb, the early music journalism of writers like Bonz Malone and Touré, the theoretical work of Tricia Rose and Greg Tate, and the poetry of Thomas Sayers Ellis and Nikky Finney) so necessary — and it is also why Lamar’s project is more relevant than ever.
What am I to do when every neighborhood is an obstacle
When 2 niggas making it out had never sounded logical
3 niggas making it out, that’s mission impossible
— Kendrick Lamar
In 1992, David Foster Wallace coauthored with Mark Costello one of the finest essays ever written about rap music, Signifying Rappers. I’d like to cite it all but I will make do with this paragraph:
Our opinion, then, from a distance: not only is a serious rap serious poetry, but, in terms of the size of its audience, its potency in the great 80s Market, its power to spur and to authorize the artistic endeavors of a discouraged and malschooled young urban youth culture we’ve been encouraged sadly to write off, it’s quite possibly the most important stuff happening in American poetry today. “Real” (viz. academic) U.S. poetry, a world no less insular than rap, no less strange or stringent about vocab, manner, and the contexts it works off, has today become so inbred and (against its professed wishes) inaccessible that it just doesn’t get to share its creative products with more than a couple thousand fanatical, sandal-shod readers, doesn’t get to move or inform more than a fraction of that readership […] Because of rap’s meteoric rise, though, you’ve got poor kids, tough kids, “underachievers,” a “lost generation” … more young people — ostensibly forever turned off “language” by TV, video games and low U.S.D.E. budgets — more of these kids hunched over notebooks on their own time, trying to put words together in striking and creative ways, than the U.S.A has probably ever had at one time.
Although more than 20 years have passed since they published that essay, I imagine that Kendrick Lamar’s magpie, bibliographic mind and his anxiety-ridden prodigiousness would excite David Foster Wallace. Kendrick Lamar was born in 1987 in Compton, California, by parents who had migrated west from Chicago. The year after his birth was considered to be the golden year of hip-hop: Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane all released albums that are now considered classics. In Los Angeles, N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton. It begins: “When something happens in South Central, Los Angeles, nothin’ happens, it’s just another nigga dead.”
In the spring of that year, 1988, The New York Times sent Robert Reinhold into Los Angeles County, the gang capital of the nation. He reported back, “In L.A. County there are about 70,000 gang members, including the ‘wannabes’ and ‘gonnabes,’ the prepubescent boys awaiting initiation, which sometimes requires a drive-by murder. During the first four months of this year, there were 109 gang-related killings in the country, many of the victims innocent bystanders.” South Los Angeles, nestled under the Hollywood sign and fawning palms, just miles from Sunset Boulevard, with its pastel, stucco bungalows and Spanish tiles, was once middle-class, but the clenches of post–World War II unemployment, white flight, heavy-handed police profiling and harassment and the rise and execution of black power movements in the 1970s, had seen a cluster of neighborhoods produce young men who were not only destitute but also disillusioned. They were young men who saw no reason not to vivisect their cities into elaborate codes of customs and colors, or a cycle of gang violence that turned their city into a warzone.
To listen to Kendrick Lamar is to hear a hope chest of these voices unleashed; they are his arsenal, and because he has lived near them and collected and stored them all, he has become their imperator. At times Lamar laments that he is not a better soldier. But what Lamar does differently is to tell us of what it means to grow up as an observer and witness to an under-discussed inner-city war, while remaining for the most part uninterested in joining the battle. He instead sings a tender blues for the permanently underclass.
Good kid m.A.A.d city is a memento mori haunted by dead and living ghosts. It is constructed out of them: there are old messages left by his mother and his father on his phone warning Lamar to focus, to come home, to stay out of trouble. There are the vivid images clipped from his childhood in Los Angeles: that the one in front of the gun lives forever, bodies on top of bodies, Pirus, Crips, Rosecrans, Warriors, Techs, AKs, Leadshowers, Dunk!, Homies, Drank, Church’s Chicken, Steppin’, Bible Study, Red and Blue, Racial Profile, Bullets, The Hood, a smart boy as a human sacrifice. When they are pieced together as a sequence they act like Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope: they give us the impression that from these clips we are watching a black boy learn to fly above it all.
Because Kendrick Lamar has exploded into the stratosphere of hip-hop and there are no fans as adoring and passionate as real hip-hop fans, there are dozens of video clips of him small-talking all over the Internet. Kendrick Lamar is sitting on a couch, he is wearing a white shirt, and there is a faint part cut into his hair; he looks younger than he is. He is bashful, like he is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with doing interviews, or maybe it is just difficult to talk to strangers about your dreams and the astrological signs your mother taught you to interpret. Kendrick Lamar is doing one of his favorite things: alluding to Tupac, connecting himself to him in emotional ways, in statements that seem to be part business savvy — torch-carrying but, more so, hip-hop emo.
It’s a crazy true story, actually. You know one of them things when you really delirious in your sleep? It’s a real situation where I was sleeping one night and a silhouette [came] and he said, “Keep doing what you doing, don’t let my music die.” The shit scared the shit out of me! Just off the fact that prior to that, a day before, my mom [said], “You know, you and Tupac, y’all like days apart, y’all birthdays.” I never knew that shit, that’s some wild shit. Once she said that shit — and I’m really big on shit like that — somebody comes in your dreams and relays a message, you gotta listen to it because I’ve got past family relatives that’s been coming to my dreams forever and been talking to me.
When Tupac died, many people mourned his physical body, his music, his energy, his muscles, and his doe-eyes rimmed with long lashes, and he did indeed look like a poet. Nowadays, people like to call Biggie and Tupac hip-hop’s Keats, our Lord Byron or whatever, as if we must be tied to the West to be of relatable, understandable value, but Keats didn’t get shot at a stoplight, so the connection doesn’t quite capture it, does it? Now that Tupac is gone, we always hear about his expansive book collection, how he was named after an indigenous Peruvian leader who fought against Spain’s colonial grip; we connect this to his complicated but powerful mother and his stepfather Mutulu Shakur who was a revolutionary fighter, now imprisoned for life. We take these things to mean that Tupac was born with difference and greatness in him. We don’t have any royal families, so we respect this lineage. We still wonder who he would have become. What we are mourning most of all though was the abbreviation of his possible greatness. We see the way that kids in developing countries and despots in Russia look to him for strength because his voice had so much velocity that it seems to still boom from the afterlife. It is not that Tupac was the most lyrical; instead, he had dimension in his stories — they weren’t all arty-farty, nor were they all leathered in toughness and street life. He too was shell-shocked, a writer, a man divided up among many loyalties, a livewire. Only our parents thought the Thug Life tattooed on his abdomen had much to do with bullets and the flimsy glory found in a gun. Tupac was the original good kid in the mad city, the most compelling one we might ever see. And the Thug Life tattoo on Tupac’s stomach just seemed like a reminder to stay liberated, unchecked, free. Tupac had wisely disavowed himself of the cruel optimism that seems to blind much of black literature of today. Lauren Berlant described cruel optimism as when “a desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Acceptance. Respectability. Post-ness. It is not that those desires are misguided or wrong, but I challenge you to name another black man who presents a more respectable image than Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He is a bespectacled, distinguished professor at Harvard, hosts a TV show on PBS, and is nicknamed Skip. And yet, for all of that, for all of the 40 million different ways of being black, now in his emeritus, Skip Gates, Jr. on his own porch, was stopped by a cop, and the professor almost went the way of so many overpoliced men of color. Kendrick Lamar might intend to keep the music alive but what Lamar channels most of all from Tupac is the understanding that there is no making sense of this nonsense. It is a blues: near-tragic, near-comic, and it can make one anxious, oppositional, or emotional. So here is another clip: Tupac Amaru Shakur, with his red T-shirt raised to show his bare-chest, turns towards the cameras following him and spits mouthfuls of water on them and their cameramen. He saunters off. He slides into the passenger side of a SUV. He is surrounded by a frantic entourage. He smiles. Teeth all megawatt. As the trunk pulls off, he leans out of the window to shout, “Have a good summer.” He is laughing. He seems to live forever. Thug Life.
Shortly after the Watts riots, Guy Debord wrote about them:
Los Angeles blacks are better paid than any others in the United States, but they are also the most separated from the California superopulence that is flaunted all around them. Hollywood, the pole of the global spectacle, is right next door. They are promised that, with patience, they will join in America’s prosperity, but they come to see that this prosperity is not a fixed state but an endless ladder. The higher they climb, the farther they get from the top, because they start off disadvantaged, because they are less qualified and thus more numerous among the unemployed, and finally because the hierarchy that crushes them is not based on economic buying power alone: they are also treated as inherently inferior in every area of daily life by the customs and prejudices of a society in which all human power is based on buying power. Just as the human riches of the American blacks are despised and treated as criminal, monetary riches will never make them completely acceptable in America’s alienated society: individual wealth will only make a rich nigger because blacks as a whole must represent poverty in a society of hierarchized wealth. Every witness noted the cry proclaiming the global significance of the uprising: “This is a black revolution and we want the world to know it!” Freedom Now is the password of all the revolutions of history, but now for the first time the problem is not to overcome scarcity, but to master material abundance according to new principles. Mastering abundance is not just changing the way it is shared out, but totally reorienting it. This is the first step of a vast, all-embracing struggle.
I’m trying to keep it alive and not compromise the feeling we love
You trying to keep it deprived and only cosign what radio does
And I’m looking right past ya
We live in a world, we live in a world on two different axles
You live in a world, you living behind the mirror
I know what you scared of, the feeling of feeling emotions inferior
This shit is vital, I know you had to
This shit is vital, I know you had to
Die in a pitiful vain, tell me a watch and a chain
Is way more believable, give me a feasible gain
— Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is close enough to Watts in proximity to understand its despair, close enough to the civil disobedience of the 1992 riots to understand their rage, to understand that there is no exit. He is young enough to idolize the golden age of hip-hop, innocent enough to engage in shameless hero worship, a fan enough to put Mary J. Blige and MC Eiht on his album. But he is also old enough to know that nobody followed Tupac’s body to the morgue. That a bullet fractured one of Tupac’s fingers, fingers often used to so brazenly flip off the world. Lamar is wise enough to know that, in hip-hop, the jig is up on a lot of things (overstated capitalism, the battering of women), and he isn’t flashy — he calls himself the black hippie. His abundance is his talent. And yet, because of his murdered uncle, his fretful grandmother, and the gang-raped girl whose voice he occupies in the same way De La Soul did Millie’s, Lamar is not just a wandering preacher in town to be angry at the locals and their chaos. Nor is he salaciously telling their stories, hoping to give people an angry crime fantasy so that he can bait and hook anyone who is susceptible. It is not that Lamar’s album is perfect, either. At times it is uneven: the song with Drake is annoyingly schmaltzy. But Kendrick Lamar has made a third way, and by the end of his album, one cannot help but feel excited for him.
His tone at the end of the album is remarkably similar to that of a young Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice, recalling a day in 1965 when Cleaver, locked up in Folsom Prison, watched:
[A] group of low riders from Watts assembled on the basketball court. They were wearing jubilant, triumphant smiles, animated by a vicarious spirit by which they, too, were in the thick of the uprising taking place hundreds of miles away to the south in the Watts ghetto.
“Man,” said one, “what they doing out there? Break it down for me, Baby.”
“Baby,” he said, “They walking in fours and kicking in doors, dropping Reds and busting heads; drinking wine and committing crime, shooting and looting; high-siding and low-riding, setting fires and slashing tires; turning over cars and burning down bars; making Parker mad and making me glad; putting an end to that ‘go slow’ crap and putting sweet Watts on the map — my black ass is in Folsom this morning but my black heart is in Watts!”
Tears of joy were rolling from his eyes. It was a cleansing, revolutionary laugh we all shared, something we have not often had occasion for.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist and critic whose writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Observer, Bookforum, Transition, Rolling Stone, and The Best Music Writing of 2012. She has taught at Columbia University, Bard College, and Eugene Lang College. Read her work at the-rachelkaadzighansah.tumblr.com.
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