The Blacker the Album

On Kendrick Lamar, awards shows, and racial politics

by Kelton Ellis

published February 5, 2016

“Black man, taking no losses!”

That was how Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, ever tenacious, aligned himself with would-be Maroon Kunta Kinte on last year’s single “King Kunta.” Kinte, for the uninitiated, is the central character of Alex Haley’s historical novel Roots, who attempts a flight from slavery, only to have his foot amputated as punishment. The reference conjures images of escape from the racial strictures that the US and the world at large have placed on peoples of African descent. A number of other such conflations pepper nearly every track on Lamar’s universally-acclaimed third album To Pimp a Butterfly. Here Kendrick transcends Kendrick, becomes a vessel for Nelson, Tupac, Huey, Michael, Wesley, even Barack. Obama himself identified Lamar’s song “How Much a Dollar Cost” as his favorite song of 2015. When Kendrick paid a visit to the President, the two, perhaps knowingly, channeled the album’s cover photograph, which depicts ebullient Black people standing in front of the President’s domicile as an unconscious white man lay beneath their feet—the White House becomes Black. “And when you hit the White House, do you,” Uncle Sam advised Kendrick on “Wesley’s Theory,” and that’s just what he did. The instrumentals themselves sound like a chronicle of African-American music: Lamar shuffles between blues, jazz, and funk beats to craft an idiosyncratic brand of hip-hop that merges these forms just as it merges past and present. The album is distinctly, dauntingly, Black.

It’s as if he saw it coming.

This year, Lamar has a chance to make good on those sweeping claims to historical relevance. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has nominated the MC for a stunning 11 Grammy Awards, more than any of this year’s other nominees. Before this year, no hip-hop recording artist had been nominated for so many awards in a single night. Had Lamar been up for just one more award, he would have equaled the record for most nominations in a single night—a record, notably set in 1984 by the most popular and influential Black musician ever known, his idol Michael Jackson. 

All of this despite the structural disadvantages that Black artists face at the grand, overblown spectacles that we call awards ceremonies, of which we were reminded recently. Last month, widespread frustration flared at the news that, out of the many Oscar nominees for acting awards, not a single one was a person of color. The wildly successful Straight Outta Compton, a testament to the value of Black art, goes into the Oscars with one measly nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And the screenwriters are white. Sadly, when social media activists took to using the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, it was the second consecutive year they felt they had to do so—the Oscars nominated no actors of color last year, either.

The Grammys are similarly beset by these troublesome statistics. Far too often, the Recording Academy has hoisted white artists as beacons of the music industry over arguably more deserving Black ones. The Grammys’ stated aim of “recognizing outstanding achievement in the music industry” seems facetious when a career-making record like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be wholly ignored in the Album of the Year category, even as it sold platinum and became 2010’s best-reviewed album. Indeed, at least twenty major publications, including Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Slant Magazine, and Billboard named it that year’s best. Additionally, when they are nominees, Black artists are often relegated to “urban” categories like Best Rap Album or Best R&B Song, sometimes only to lose these categories to white, mainstream-palatable upstarts like Iggy Azalea or Macklemore. Critics and the rapper himself were forced to contend with Macklemore’s place as a white musician in a predominantly Black genre in one of the more startling upsets of 2014’s awards season, when Kendrick Lamar’s lush and turbulent debut good kid, M.A.A.D City lost Best Rap Album to Macklemore’s comparatively safe, easy-going The Heist. Lamar had compellingly depicted the difficult conditions of urban Black life that were the genesis of hip-hop, but Macklemore won for catchy rhymes about thrifting. “You got robbed, I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you,” Macklemore texted Lamar later that night before posting a screenshot of his apologies in a characteristically self-centered attempt at grappling with the system that allowed the victory. Doubtlessly, Macklemore thought of this awkward episode when he composed his last single, the aptly-titled “White Privilege II” with which Macklemore has continued the pattern of making racism more about himself than about Black lives. As far back as 1989, when Will Smith boycotted that year’s Grammys due to the omission of Best Rap Performance from the ceremony’s television broadcast, the Grammy Awards have been a glaring showcase of that white privilege at work. It seems little has changed at our awards ceremonies in the 27 years since— Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett have been the most vocal boycotters of this year’s Academy Awards. 

To be sure, winning big at the Grammy Awards is hardly an accurate indication of a musician’s talent and singular vision; rather, the Awards are an extremely visible spectacle that have tremendous power to single out and legitimize figures in pop culture, for better or worse. As Grammy voter Rob Kenner wrote in Complex in 2014, the voting process for the awards show includes economically-invested record label executives and a secret nomination committee that is typically concerned with high television ratings and a musician’s popularity, not with real artistic value (whatever “real artistic value” means). Still, for the average top-40-listening American who dares not venture onto Pitchfork or Metacritic, the Grammy voters are the tastemakers, and if the committee decides an LP is worthy of Album of the Year, so be it. 

Kendrick Lamar’s nomination grab seems a truly bizarre occurrence in light of the Grammys’ mainstream, white sensibilities. Although Lamar is a popular and well-known rapper, To Pimp a Butterfly is suffused with Blackness to a degree that can sound alarming to the unprepared ear. It is an album about police brutality, slavery, violence, colorism, dearth of opportunity in Black communities, and the unbearable burden of history laid upon the Black body daily. No wonder the simple, affirmative hook of his infectious “Alright” serves as the closest thing Black Lives Matter has to an anthem— “we gon’ be alright” might be read as a modern “we shall overcome.” This year’s Grammy Awards, then, have the potential to become more than spectacle. They can become a vital platform on which Black issues are considered and vindicated by a broader American culture.

Can Lamar win, particularly in categories like Album of the Year that are not hospitable to Black musicians, much less rappers? Some facts might suggest not. For one, Lamar faces tough competition in Grammy darling Taylor Swift, whose extreme popularity and lily-white image are ultimately better predictors of victory than his critical adoration and deft social commentary. And as I wrote earlier, the Grammys have failed to give much-deserved accolades to Lamar and his ilk before. 

For his part, though, Lamar is an idealist. In January, when The New York Times asked him for his thoughts on success, awards and Black Lives Matter, he replied, “Ultimately, for the hip-hop community, I would love for us to win them all. Because we deserve that. Period. … I want all of them. Because it’s not only a statement for myself, but it’s a statement for the culture. … Nas didn’t get a chance to be in that position. Pac. So to be acknowledged and to actually win, it’s for all of them.” Stakes is high. On February 15, Lamar will not merely represent a moment, but a movement that stretches back decades and encompasses millions. 

And yet, why should it matter? Why should Lamar have to win praise from mainstream white culture, and why can’t his art just stand on its own uncompromising principles? But representation in the broader culture (reppin’, if you will) is a necessary part of the racial healing America so desperately needs. The pioneering Black social psychologist Claude Steele wrote in The Atlantic in 1992: “The particulars of black life and culture—art, literature, political and social perspective, music—must be presented in the mainstream curriculum of American schooling, not consigned to special days … or to special-topic courses and programs aimed essentially at blacks. Such channeling carries the disturbing message that the material is not of general value … it wastes the power of this material to alter our images of the American mainstream—continuing to frustrate black identification with it—and it excuses in whites and others a huge ignorance of their own society.” Steele was writing about the racial insults that stem from American education, but much the same is true of awards ceremonies. When awards committees deny fair representation at the national spectacle of awards shows, they publicly reinforce the longstanding outsider status that has disadvantaged Black people in the US since its inception. It is more than the loss of a trophy; it is targeted and dangerous alienation, part of the same system that enables more quotidian, and more fatal, discrimination.

As I return to that initial image of the runaway slave, Kunta Kinte, I am reminded of the redemptive power of Black music, of the old Negro spirituals that made a life of uncompensated servitude an iota more bearable, of the activists in the Civil Rights Movement who shot their voices skyward in a remarkable feat of hymnal resilience. Kendrick Lamar is the heir to these complex sonic legacies. For now, let’s hope that this year’s Grammys do not replicate the harmful, common narrative that hip-hop is no art form at all. Let’s hope for an awards show that does not repeat the Oscars’ embarrassing mistakes. Let’s hope that when we chant in unison, “Black lives matter,” we mean that Black music does, too, for Black lives are improved all the more when the art they create achieves the recognition it’s due.


KELTON ELLIS B’18 is taking no losses