Black Music And White People: The Problem Kendrick Lamar Faces With Fans In 2016

"We 'gon be alright" isn't really about the white boys screaming in the front row.

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Kendrick Lamar’s top five songs on iTunes are, at the time of writing: a song about depression brought on by a brutal adolescence; a song in which he compares himself to a slave; one about PTSD caused by his involvement in gang violence; a protest song against police brutality; and a song about alcoholism in the African-American community.

It’s heavy subject matter for a commercial artist, the kind of stuff that many politicians don’t even tread near. And yet, it increasingly feels like some fans — like the large groups of predominantly young white men you might have seen rapping the n-word in the crowd on his latest Australian tour, or at last weekend’s house party — are disregarding this, ignoring the complex political aspects of the songs and turning them into simple party anthems.

There’s little doubt that Kendrick’s music is important, but there is a question as to how Kendrick’s mainstream popularity can continue to coexist with his increasingly prominent position as a political activist. A bigger audience means he has more people to deliver these important statements to, but the more popular Kendrick gets, the more and more his music seems to be misinterpreted by fans, muddling the concerns so important to his work.

How Kendrick Crossed Over 

Kendrick Lamar has had the kind of career that seems too good to be true. His major label debut, 2012’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City, was that rare beast that finds success both commercially (three Top 40 singles and a platinum certification) and critically (‘Universal acclaim’ on Metacritic). This swiftly led to Kendrick’s ascendance to Legitimate Star status — a title confirmed by seven Grammy nominations a year later, each a stamp of approval from a body not conventionally known for its acknowledgement of highly political artists.

It helped that Good Kid M.A.A.D City’s knotty lyrics were tempered with raucous, infectious beats and monstrous hooks — the earworm-y nature of the songs anaesthetised the brutality present in Kendrick’s descriptions of gang warfare and substance abuse. The production style convincingly placed Lamar in the same aesthetic realm as other significant crossover rappers like Drake and Future, but the frank discussion of black life in the US was relatively unique in mainstream music. Kendrick found himself at the centre of something more significant than any amount of certifications or accolades: the Black Lives Matter movement.

Trayvon Martin was shot just before the release of M.A.A.D City; in the months which followed, hundreds more unarmed African-Americans were killed in gang warfare, by police, by other civilians. Lamar’s music, with its rawness, realness and blackness, gave a voice to others affected by violence and injustice. Somewhere between M.A.A.D City and his third album, To Pimp A Butterfly — probably around May 2013 if the contents of recent songs are any indication — the focus of Kendrick’s music switched from the internal (his past, and the specifics of his life) to the external, and the position in society of all black men. This, of course, led to TPAB: an album denser and more raw than anything he had ever released, openly informed by other black artists and often explicitly made for black audiences.

When it was first released, it seemed unlikely that TPAB would yield as many hits as M.A.A.D City, if any at all. Of course, it did, but while M.A.A.D City was unique in how the appealing production somewhat masked the brutal lyrics, TPAB was almost defined by the way that its lyrical content couldn’t be ignored. Much of the media coverage surrounding the album in the months after its release focussed on one song, ‘Alright’, which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Its hook, “We gon’ be alright”, became a symbol of hope in one of the darkest periods for African-Americans in many years, and its powerful cinematic music video drew extra attention to this political subject matter.

The usage of ‘Alright’ as a black rights anthem may be one of the few moments in Lamar’s career when his intentions have lined up with what happened in reality. Lamar, like all artists, doesn’t always control how the music is heard, how it’s interpreted, how it’s used and appropriated.

White Boys And Tone-Deaf House Parties

While TPAB found a significant black audience attuned to its incisive portrayal of life, it also found an audience — one perhaps even larger than the former — that has taken the music and lyrics at face value, distorting and reappropriating statements of both suffering and triumph as party anthems. ‘i’, a song about Kendrick’s depression brought on by a childhood surrounded by violence, was recently used in the trailer for Hollywood rom-com How To Be Single, while ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ and ‘King Kunta’ (which came second in this year’s Hottest 100) are regularly pumped at house parties by macho college boys and suburban teens — an ill-fitting soundtrack to the drink-ups of privileged white kids.

This disconnect between the content of Lamar’s work and the reception with significant groups of his fanbase could be seen on a massive scale at his recent show at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. The (predominantly white) audience rapped along with every word. As Lamar played ‘Swimming Pools’, a song about alcohol abuse, many in the crowd raised their beers to the sky, put their arms around friends and chanted along with the song’s disturbing but catchy hook. During ‘King Kunta’, in which Lamar implies that he still feels like a slave despite his success, they screamed and started to jump and mosh. While performing ‘Alright’, Lamar left out most of the uses of the n-word that occur in the recorded version of the song, perhaps wanting to dissuade the crowd from saying what is a racial slur from anyone other than an African-American. They said it anyway, at times turning a joyful and powerful song into something somewhat alien and icky.

Though not malicious, this misinterpretation of lyrics is the result of a lack of awareness, the same kind of apolitical interpretation of songs that led The Church’s Steve Kilbey to describe ‘King Kunta’ as “gangsta malarkey” after its placement in this year’s Hottest 100. But the phenomenon behind this isn’t specific to Kendrick’s music. There’s been an insidious trend creeping through much of the dialogue surrounding music by black artists recently; critics and consumers alike misinterpreting and bastardising the messages within.

It can be seen in the way US police have boycotted Beyoncé’s upcoming tour, pushing back against an “anti-police” message; in uncomfortable parodies of black songs; in goofy covers of black rappers’ work by white artists. It’s a frustrating and demoralising trend, especially because music has long been one of the most potent and indelible forms of political activism. These artists, whether consciously or not, are conveying a dynamic portrait of black identity; in return, they often receive appropriation and erasure.

Last month, Kendrick released untitled unmastered, a collection of eight demo tracks from the TPAB sessions. There were no titles, no accompanying music videos, not even any album artwork; just the songs themselves. With this context, it could be seen as almost reactionary; a response to the reappropriations. Without the imagery of partying that accompanied songs like ‘King Kunta’ and ‘Swimming Pools’, there might be more of a focus on the content and political purpose of the music.

All of this isn’t to say that white fans shouldn’t be listening to and enjoying Kendrick’s music; of course, they should. But this seems like the perfect time for them to take another look at the lyrics sheet.

Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.