Kendrick Lamar’s set at the 2018 Grammy Awards this past January began with an American flag projected over a dark stage. Gradually, as the beginning of “XXX” from his 2017 album Damn played, rows of ski-masked and camouflage-clad dancers marched in place, to the beat, and made an opening for their prophet to announce his entrance.
“Yesterday I got a call from my dog like 101 / Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds.”
The opening line comments on the disposability of black bodies, possibly alludes to Martin Luther King, and might sneak in a nod to 101 Dalmatians. Some moments later, the stage went black as the words “THIS IS A SATIRE” lit up behind him, telling us that the ostensible patriotism means something more. The messages were some of the most overtly political to occupy such a stage since, well, Kendrick’s Grammy performance in 2016.
Lamar, in many ways, is an aberration, a huge mainstream artist whose oeuvre rarely eludes the grasp of his salient politics. But his music’s reception deeply complicates the messages he endeavors to send. Usually, instead of provoking robust debate, Lamar’s music is taken at face value: as vulgar, angry, and dismissible. Otherwise, it becomes fodder for movements that remain confined to Twitter and Instagram. In 2017, we saw a lot of the latter — artists realizing their personal feel-good initiatives by commandeering the political megaphone.
We cannot allow the fear of feeling indecent or immoral compel us to impose a narrative of saviorhood on a story of survival.
It’s important now, as much as ever, that we promote marginalized voices, allowing them to tell their own story. We cannot allow the fear of feeling indecent or immoral compel us to impose a narrative of saviorhood on a story of survival.
In 2017, performative politics reared its head in music. Not only was allyship and solidarity once again marketable, but some artists built personas within this superficial political context. Take Justin Timberlake and his new embarrassment Man of the Woods, an Emerson-esque treatise that probably smells like Bon Iver and rides a single-speed bike. The album’s centerpiece is the politically charged single “Supplies,” four-minutes of quasi-political word vomit that include such prescient prophesies as: “Some shit’s about to go down…I’ll be the one with the level head.” Timberlake also released a video that sees the artist, quite appropriately, just watching world events in a doomsday shelter. Pitchfork editor Ryan Dombal observes accurately, “Yes, the world is a terrible place. But Justin Timberlake’s woke-pop brain farts will not save us.”
Justin Timberlake and the like may mean well, but their intentions are irrelevant. One of my professors puts it quite well: “It’s the job of white allies to contribute to the solution while realizing their proximity to the problem.” Their music has the very real effect of making less space for performers of color to tell their own stories. I don’t need Eminem to go on an eight-minute-(mile)-rant on the revolutionary discovery that Trump is a piece of shit when Joey Bada$$ released 12 tracks calling “Amerikkka” what it really is. I don’t need Kelly Clarkson making “Go High” a pop anthem when Jamila Woods is vying for influence with “blk grl soldier.”
Their music has the very real effect of making less space for performers of color to tell their own stories.
All of this is not to say that the peak of the mainstream was totally devoid of genuine societal critique by artists of color. Returning to Kendrick Lamar, his newest offering, DAMN, won Album Of The Year, and Jay-Z’s “The Story of OJ” was also nominated for a Grammy. But, these artists did not get popular because they made political music. Their celebrity was the precondition permitting their messages’ relevance. In turn, their pointed critiques become linchpins in a superficial debate, typifying a single view for a multitude of experiences. While pockets of Twitter may engage in Jay’s discussion of the nuances of Blackness and capitalist success, largely, he was either applauded for his bravery or chided for saying the N-word too much.
But when white artists posit themselves at the center of the importance of Black lives, listeners gain a distorted view of what action is, being validated in their moderation rather than challenged by urgency.
Ultimately, music is not going to dissolve the chains of oppression. Neither Killer Mike nor Janelle Monáe will eradicate racism even if they perpetually shared the top of the charts, but let’s not forget, the Black Panther Party had a house band. But when white artists position themselves at the center of the importance of Black lives, listeners gain a distorted view of what action is, being validated in their moderation rather than challenged by urgency. And young people who look like me lose hope that their voices will ever hold sway in the conversation over their lives.
These issues of reception are on full display in liberal havens like my hometown. Places that pat themselves on the back for their 70% Hillary vote and fulfill their morality quotas with week-long service trips. Where police brutality is only a matter of bad cops. Where I’m seen as lucky to be able to put “African-American/Black” on my college applications. Places that remind me that I’m the black kid.
Political posturing by white mainstream artists emboldens cultures of perfunctory goodwill. When people treat politics just as a topic; interchangeable with sports and the weather, it becomes impossible for people of color to convey the urgency of their circumstances. A dangerous myth persists: that public white decency absolves even the possibility of racism. Indeed, white privilege is the ability to divorce a song’s meaning from its words.
Every weekend, the mindless abetting of racism is on full display, my closest, most “culturally-aware” friends belting out the opening epitaph to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”: “Alls my life I had to fight n****!”
Written by E. S. Levine. Originally published in Rocket Vol. VIII, Issue 2.