” I am all of us”- Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar last week in the build-up to the release of his long-awaited anticipated fifth studio album dropped a single titled The Heart Part 5 along with a music video. The music video begins with a black screen with white letters that make up the phrase ” I am all of us”. This phrase serves as the description for the premise of the song. In The Heart Part 5 K-Dot articulates and illustrates how he shares experiences with several Black men such as O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Kobe Bryant, Nipsey Hussle, and Jussie Smollett. It is these shared experiences that unite these Black men and Lamar. The idea of unity is a major theme throughout Lamar’s fifth album Mr. Morale and the High Steppers. Additionally, the theme of unity has me returning to an earlier project of Lamar’s titled God is Gangsta. In this project Kung fu Kenny expresses himself in a similar fashion on a black screen with white letters but this time the words come together to form the unifying sentence “God is Gangsta”. This sentence may seem vague but it speaks to the identity Lamar comes to know in his work.
In life, the existential questions we find ourselves asking the most are “Who am I”? “Who or what is God”? Or “what is the meaning or point to all of this thing we call life”? The rapper Pusha T opened up his verse of the 2012 single New God Flow with “I believe there’s a god above me/I’m just the god of everything else/ I put holes in everything else/”New God Flow,” fuck everything else”. The Chicago rapper Common try to figure out who God was when he rapped on his track titled G.O.D. “Some say that God is black and the devil’s white, well, the devil is wrong and God is what’s right…As a child, given religion with no answer to why just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die”. Then, Rahkim rapped on Move The Crowd “ With knowledge of self, there’s nothing I can’t solve” as a way to engage in self-determination. The Queensbridge rapper Nas joins Rahkim in this idea of self by rapping on the song I Can “I know I can/ Be what I wanna be/ If I work hard at it/ I’ll be where I wanna be”
These notions of self and ideas of God give us some temporary comfort but they often lead us to ask the question in the words of Kanye West on I Wonder “You ever wonder what it all really mean”? This question of what does all this mean is the question that keeps us up at night? Our mind wanders to every nook and crack of our imagination trying to imagine why the hell we are here? Why is there is so much evil in the world? And what does it mean to love? Exploring these imaginations and questions only adds complications, complexities, and suffering to our lives. But like D.M.X. said on Slippin “ To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering”. Kendrick Lamar in his 2016 short film titled God is Gangsta invites the viewer in on his journey of finding meaning in his suffering. In turn, Lamar forces the viewer to also reflect and find meaning in their suffering. Ultimately though Lamar engages in a highly philosophical project in which he disidentifies with hegemonic ideas of masculinity, anti-Blackness, capitalism, patriarchy, and religion. Through this disidentification project, Lamar participates in a dialectic wherein which he finds Self and God.
To uncover and to find meaning in the performance Kendrick Lamar is making we must first know who Kendrick Lamar is and we must also know the context in which he is making this performance. So Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born June 17th, 1987 in Compton, California. In his debut studio album titled Section.80 which was dropped in 2012 Kendrick Lamar allows listeners into his life. Lamar reveals that he not only grew up in section 8 housing, but his father was also a member of the notorious Chicago street gang the Gangster Disciples, and many of his friends growing up were members of the Piru Bloods. It is the environment of poverty of section 8 housing and the constant relationship to gang life that both serve as pathways or entries to the hegemonic creation of the gangsta culture. However, in God is Gangsta Lamar actively rejects the gangsta culture which tells Black men“ that only the predator survives”(hooks,2001,p.27) Ultimately this conditioning, violently urges Black men to be hard, tough, not be emotional or self-reflective, anti-romantic, violent, and to be constantly pursuing money at any cost. Or to simply summarize this mentality or pursuit we can say “ Get rich, or die tryin’’. But it is these attributes that are forced upon Black males which destroy the Black male psyche which doesn’t allow them to know self. And through not normally being able to know self Black men are often dismissed and suffer in silence and solitude. This suffering stems from controlling images which are stereotypes that “ are “designed to make racism, sexism, and poverty appear to be natural, normal and an inevitable part of everyday life” (Collins, 2000, p.69). One of the many controlling images that are ascribed to Kendrick Lamar and other Black men is patriarchal masculinity which is the idea that “if a man is not a worker he is nothing” (hooks, 2004, p.30).
Thus patriarchal masculinity presents Black men with only two forms of masculinity which are Legible masculinity and Illegible masculinity. Illegible masculinities are in essence masculinities “queerness as a radical rescripting the accepted performances heteronormative blackness masculinity”(Neal,2013, p.4). A legible image of a Black man can be thought of as, the “ Black male body is often thought to be a criminal body and or a body in need of policing and containment- incarceration- is just a reminder that the Black male body that so seduces America is just as often that the Black male keeps America awake at night”(Neal, 2013,p.5). These legible images of Black males are the stereotypes that surround them that control their images as Black men. The stereotypes that surround Black men are that they are thug-like, gangsters, and lazy. Legible images create the gangsta culture and the culture wherein Black males’ knowledge of self is limited.
In addition to rejecting the gangsta culture and finding himself, Lamar also finds God. However, his discovery into finding God was not as easy as some other’s people experiences might be. Lamar’s process is complicated by the trauma that he has and continues to face. But also, his journey to finding God was also complicated due to his own complicated relationship with Christianity. We know that America is a country that was founded on the ideals of Christianity. We also know that America is broadly a country of Christians. Therefore, to be Christian in America means one has access to the hegemony and believes in some of the hegemonic thoughts. Now, there are many denominations of Christianity, but principally they believe in the same ideas. In essence, Christians believe there is one true metaphysical God that is the creator of all, that God does no wrong, Jesus Christ is the one son of God, and if something bad happens in our life it is because you did something wrong and turned your back on God and sinned. It is this last tenant of Christianity that it appears that Lamar is stuck upon. He could be stuck on this tenant because of the trauma or this snag could be from how Kendrick was shown God through family members like his cousin affectionately known as Duckworth who is a Hebrew Israelite. The Hebrew Israelites are a Black religious group that was founded by former Black slaves during reconstruction, and they believe Black people are direct descendants of the original twelve tribes of Israel. They also believe that the slavery of Black people in America was because they have turned their back from God and so God Punished Black people and sent them to North America as slaves. Much of the beliefs of the Hebrew Israelites revolve around one verse from the Holy Bible in particular which says “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth”(Deuternomy:28).
While Kendrick Lamar has identified himself as a Christian there is no doubt that he has been influenced by the Hebrew Israelites. And this influence can be seen through the messaging from the Hebrew Israelites which are infused with several of his lyrics. For example, in his 2017 song Yah where he rapped “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’/ That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’/My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth/Said know my worth/ And Deuteronomy say that we all been curse”. Also, this influence can be heard on Kendrick’s verse on DJ Khaled’s 2016 song Holy Key which he delivered the following “I don’t wear crosses no more, Yeshua’s coming back, I ain’t scared of losses no more, I see life in that”.
It is clear to see how the Hebrew Israelites have influenced Kendrick Lamar and his work. But it becomes evident in God is Gangsta that the Hebrew Israelites have aided with his trauma to cause confusion in his understanding of God and Self. However, it is in this confusion that Kendrick engages in a disidentification project wherein which he breaks down the hegemonic expectations of Black masculinity.
In March of 2015, Kendrick Lamar released his third studio titled To Pimp a Butterfly. This was received very well and was critically acclaimed. To Pimp a Butterfly is filled with very unique sounds that come from obscure jazz and soul samples. In addition to the unique sounds Kendrick masters the art of storytelling in this sixteen-track album. Coming off this album we are left with many iconic tracks like King Kunta, Alright, How Much a Dollar Cost, The Blacker the Berry, and Hood Politics. The album that Kendrick made would go on to be nominated for many awards. In preparation for the 2016 Grammys Kendrick Lamar on January 13th, 2016 dropped a short film titled God is Gangsta which accompanied the album. God is Gangsta is a seven-minute and twenty-second short film directed by Jack Begert & the little homies, and the film is musically scored by two of the songs from To Pimp a Butterfly which are the sixth track U and the eighth track which is an interlude titled For Sale?. Hearing the songs outside of the short film one would hear a story about a man going through a tough break-up with his girlfriend. However, the way that Jack Begert & the little homies capture Kendrick we get a completely different story which tells the story of a man who is trying to find himself and God amidst the chaos.
The film opens up with a clearly intoxicated Kendrick Lamar dressed in all black screaming while he sits at a wooden table with a glass scotch decanter in the middle of the table as he is surrounded by a room full of glass mirrors.
Kendrick Lamar sits at the table drunkenly and he begins to repeat the phrase “ Loving you is complicated, loving you is complicated”. As Lamar continues to repeat this phrase the audience is forced to think about who Kendrick is talking to? Who is the person that he loves? And why is this love complicated? However, as the scene progresses, the audience gets some clarity as Kendrick remains seated and raps “I place blame when you steal/ Place shame when you steal/ Feel like you ain’t shit/ Feel like you don’t feel, confidence in yourself/ Breakin’ on marble floors/ Watchin’ anonymous strangers tellin’ me that I’m yours/ But you ain’t shit I’m convinced your talent’s nothin’ special”. Hearing this while Kendrick is seated at the table the audience gets a sense that he is dealing with some feelings of shame but also some insecurity in not being special. But it is still not a hundred percent clear who Kendrick is talking to. In spite of this confusion, Kendrick clears the air as he stands up and drags himself in front of a mirror and it becomes clear that Kendrick is talking and reflecting to himself. Through the mirror he reflects and raps “fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure you ain’t no leader/ I never liked you, forever despise you I don’t need you/ The world don’t need you, don’t let them deceive you/ Numbers lie too, fuck your pride too, thats for dedication/ Thought money would change you”. It is in this reflection that Kendrick first identifies what patriarchal masculinity tells young Black men which is you need to be a worker or leader and ultimately you need to make a lot of money. But then Lamar disidentifies with patriarchal masculinity by realizing money does not change you or make you more of a man. And like Biggie said “Mo money, mo problems”. Lamar is dealing with these problems in the mirror and throughout the space of the room.
Lamar picks up his reflection away from the mirror. This time he reflects on his relationship with his community and he questions what does it mean to be a follower of God? As a way to articulate this reflection he raps “Where was your presence, where was your support that you pretend?/ You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend/ A friend never leave Compton for profit /or leave his best friend/ Little brother, you promised you’d watch him before they shot him”. With these bars, Kendrick says and questions many things. First, he questions his legitimacy as a friend and a Christian for the way he feels he turned his back on his home Compton and his friends. And because of the act of turning his back, he lost a friend, therefore, he like the Hebrew Israelites and many Christians believe that this loss is because of his own actions. This belief can be summarized in a succeeding bar which is “Then he died, God himself will say, “You fuckin failed”. This summary demonstrates that Kendrick has come to the truth that loving yourself is complicated because your actions have consequences that are enforced and punished by God.
Following this coming to an understanding moment the video shifts into its second act. The second act begins with Kendrick Lamar being baptized. This baptism serves two functions. The first function is that it wipes Kendrick of his sins and rids him of his first understanding of himself. Secondly, the baptism presents Lamar with a new life and the opportunity to pursue a new understanding of himself and God.
When Kendrick emerges from the baptismal pool he wanders aimlessly through a strip club searching for truth. We can read Lamar’s wandering through the strip club as he may be searching for himself in sexual and erotic heterosexual desires created by ideas of masculinity. But as he wanders he hears the voice of a God-like figure in the American-Singer Bilal who says “ What’s wrong, nigga?/ I thought this you wanted/ They say if you scared, go to church/ But remember, he knows the Bible too”. It is in hearing this that Kendrick begins to really question what does he want? What does it mean to be a man? But ultimately he questions who is he and who is God? To begin to search for these answers Lamar continues through the strip club bumping into the goers and observing them.
Through his journey and his observations, Kendrick Lamar reaches his third moment of understanding and he concludes that God is Gangsta and this realization is presented to the viewer on a Black screen with white letters.
By making this realization Lamar completes his dialectic and reaches the third moment of understanding which is God is not just one metaphysical figure who is the final judge, the jury, and executioner. Rather, he now sees God as Gangsta, meaning that God is a part of him, God is in his friends, God is in everything, God is in the bad, the good, and the ugly. With this vision of God Lamar no longer sees God only as a Christian but almost like a practitioner of an eastern religion like a Hindu who believes that God is “ ever-present to those who have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life is as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me” (Gita 6:30-31). With this new vision from his new understanding of God Kendrick Lamar uses this video to disidentify from the hegemony which reduces his ability to know himself. In turn in this video, he comes to know himself. And Kendrick Lamar now knows himself in the way that God told the original Israelites who he was “I am that I am”.
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