When Kendrick Lamar launched into his single Alright at the Grammy Awards this week, backed by pyrotechnics and traditional African dance, the performance surpassed the realm of entertainment to become a politically charged act of racial insurgency.
Lamar both begins and ends the performance out of breath – like the Twitter hashtag used in memory of Eric Garner, he is struggling to breathe. (It was immediately easy to see why the song has become a staple in protests against police brutality across North America.) And just like that, the rest of the Grammys' pomp became mere background noise as Lamar used his six minutes of airtime to reveal a reality that America has been historically reluctant to hear.
Hip hop cannot be removed from its spatial and topical origins, and that relationship has scarcely been more entangled than in the art of Lamar. Born in 1987 under the shadow of Reagonomics, Lamar grew up in a Southern California where the poverty gap was widened along racial lines. That environment fuelled the themes on his stellar debut album, 2011's Section .80 – and when young rappers who are reverential of the past but intently focused on the future release works of that calibre, key industry figures take notice. When it came to producing his sophomore effort, 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city, Dr. Dre took Kendrick under his wing.
The product was a concept album that blended a personal narrative of struggle with a shared autobiography of the "eighties' crack babies" who grew up in a system that repeatedly told them their existence was expendable. The album went platinum and earned Lamar a GQ Magazine cover on their 2013 Men of the Year issue.
But by the time Lamar arrived at To Pimp a Butterfly, his gentle introspection had become firm, just as 2015 presented one of most racially heated years in recent memory. From the album's first single, King Kunta, inspired by the African slave and protagonist of the novel Roots, it became clear that Lamar won't ignore the role diaspora plays in the institutional mistreatment of black bodies. This is conscious rap for unsuspecting hip-hop fans who arrived only for the hits.
On the track u, for instance, bottles break and Kendrick openly weeps in an altercation with his conscience. He breaks down from the weight of his own insecurity and the task of being a role model. Despite generations of brutalization at the hands of a broken justice system, men of colour are rarely given such a space to express this vulnerability. When made visible by one of the biggest rappers in the world, explicit emotion becomes a reparative action, the first step in healing, and an essential building block to relearning pride. It's the overarching objective of To Pimp a Butterfly.
For the majority of Lamar's fan base, the marriage between pop music and racial commentary has been pacified. Beyoncé's carefully timed release of Formation is not a coincidence. In an age of Ferguson and the continuation of carding policies, we are in the middle of a crisis that erodes any belief that we have entered a post-racial state.
During his Grammys performance, Lamar added a new line: "On Feb. 26 I lost my life, too," referring to Trayvon Martin and providing a stark reminder of why pop cannot ignore the trauma of its creators.
By refusing to censor himself and the lived experience of his community, Lamar has crafted an epic testimony on the state of black America. Like the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, his case for reparations on To Pimp a Butterfly is not foreign to his fans. He is requesting an end to the devices of anti-black racism and the implementation of a new system that instills pride in its next generation. Kendrick Lamar has taken that task into his own hands, and that is worth far more than any single industry award.