‘What the black man say? / Tell ’em we don’t die, tell ’em we don’t die / Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply…’
When Kendrick Lamar arrived in South Africa in February of 2014, he was riding the wave of his critically acclaimed album, good kid m.A.A.d city. He was a rap star, no doubt, but the world was still warming to him.
Two years – and seven Grammys – later, Kendrick is primed to go down as one of the greatest rappers of all time. He’s spoken at length about how influential his South African visit was. And this influence has manifested beautifully in his lyrics, his production and his performances.
To Pimp a Butterfly was near perfect. The jazzy sound that he opted for on this album suggested a heavy African influence.
good kid m.A.A.d city was a classic – let’s get that out the way. But, as seen by the glowing reviews from virtually every reputable source, To Pimp a Butterfly was near perfect. The jazzy sound that he opted for on this album suggested a heavy African influence – after all jazz as a music genre was deeply influenced by slave folk song and West African culture.
His music since 2014 has positioned itself in a genre of its own. A sort of socio-political genre that blends hip hop, R’n’B and jazz. His performances have been laced with creative activism and awe-inspiring statements of defiance (at the 2015 BET Awards he rapped provocatively on top of a police car, and, more recently, he produced a sprawling, ultimately triumphant performance on black life at the 2016 Grammys).
His latest album untitled, unmastered. sees Lamar continue with this new theme. Kendrick’s commitment to telling the truth and acting as the voice for the voiceless is more evident on this project than it has ever been.
‘F*ckin’ up the system, I ain’t f*ckin’ with society / Justice ain’t free, therefore justice ain’t me…’
Here are some songs that have displayed Kendrick’s love of the African continent over the last two years.
Kendrick Lamar’s genre-bending shift to colourful jazz-influenced beats in the last two years can be tracked back to the release of i – which fittingly earned him his first Grammy last year. Kendrick has described the song from To Pimp a Butterfly as the best song he’s ever written, probably because it was a defining moment in his evolution as an artist.
At the end of the song (the album version), Kendrick goes on a rant in front of a rowdy crowd questioning the use of the phrase ‘fuck niggas’. In this enlightening, deeply thoughtful moment, Kendrick goes on to propose an endearing alternative to the n-word – straight from Ethiopia!
‘Well, this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish
The history books overlook the word and hide it.’
How much does a dollar really cost? That’s a question Kendrick grapples with following an encounter he has with a homeless man. He raps about an experience he had in Johannesburg when a homeless, drug-addicted man asked him for ten rand (roughly equivalent to a dollar at the time). Kendrick’s storytelling ability on the To Pimp a Butterfly track is at its most potent here as he shares his guilt at brushing the man off – particularly after he’d shared a bible verse with him.
‘It blew my mind,’ Kendrick told MTV. ‘These are moments. It’s more than just handing somebody a dollar. Me talking to him, was simply a thank you from God. I felt God speaking through him to me.’
Alright is one of Kendrick’s most important songs. The simplicity of its hook – he repeats the lyrics ‘We Gon’ Be Alright’ several times – gives it a powerful message of hope. Protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement have adopted that mantra in some of their rallies as a call for resilience and strength in the face of their struggle. Unsurprisingly, this is another song which was inspired by his visit to South Africa.
‘Going out there really inspired me. I wrote a lot of records out there. Just going to South Africa and being able to move around out there like I did. That was a turning point.’
Ever since he went to Robben Island and visited Nelson Mandela’s cell, Kendrick’s sort of positioned himself as a voice for Black America. There’s no greater example of this affinity than on Mortal Man, the final track of To Pimp a Butterfly.
Mortal Man is about Kendrick’s desire to be a leader of his generation and to be loved like Nelson Mandela. Kendrick opens up about his fear of being crucified for his imperfections like many of the black leaders who came before him.
‘The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it
Let these words be your earth and moon
You consume every message
As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression
And with that being said my nigga, let me ask this question: When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?’
Blacker the Berry – also on To Pimp a Butterfly – sees Kendrick contemplate the concept of black pride. ‘You hate me don’t you?’ he raps venomously, as he questions the devaluing of black life.
Kendrick goes on to weave an intellectual thread about black on black violence and the hypocrisy of mourning for victims of police brutality yet gang affiliations have caused the death of several young men around him. It’s littered with strong African references.
‘It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war
Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy
Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door
Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score!’
Seven of the eight tracks on untitled, unmastered. can be dated back to 2014, in the period after his visit to South Africa. On Untitled 08 (09.06.2014) Kendrick randomly shouts out Cape Town. Throughout this project, he speaks with pride about his African heritage and, on Untitled 03 (05.28.2013), he brags endearingly, ‘Look at my heritage, we blessed.’
Kendrick Lamar’s body of work is challenging the intricacies of black life – drug abuse, police brutality, black on black violence – in an honest, reflective way. He celebrates his African roots with a sense of pride that’s raw and refreshing.
There’s been a clear shift in perspective since his visit to South Africa in 2014. This shift has spawned perhaps the most influential artist of our generation – King Kendrick!