I was hoping to write my column this week on something mundane and sweet and a little dark, a sort of Valentine’s Day hangover cure. Picture this: me, my 93-year-old grandmother, and my parents in a snowed-in theater, watching Rob Reiner’s rom-com classic When Harry Met Sally. Then, the day after, me in my room, alone, shades closed, watching Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness: a hallucinatory, nihilistic portrait of post-Gulf War Kuwait’s burning oil wells. It’s a funny juxtaposition, and the column writes itself (if you’re familiar with Werner Herzog’s famously dreary, unforgiving and very German manner of speaking): Imagine if Werner Herzog narrated When Harry Met Sally! Get it? It’s a send-up of trite Hollywood conventions in a cruel and ephemeral world!
Alas, that column will have to wait, because on Sunday, Kendrick Lamar EVISCERATED the Grammys. The all-caps hyperbole (thanks, Huffington Post Jon Stewart coverage) doesn’t even quite capture it.
Kendrick’s performance of “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and an unnamed, unreleased track at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards has to be ranked among the most visceral and unapologetic political statements ever to take place on the national stage. On a night that saw him sweep the rap field but lose to Taylor Swift’s 1989 for Album of the Year, his kinetic performance threw mass incarceration, the Ferguson protests and the injustice of the Trayvon Martin case into the spotlight. Forget the awards — this will be what lasts in the collective memory of everyone who tuned in. I try to avoid this sort of grandiose statement-making, but then again, I can’t think of any other times I’ve witnessed a televised performance quite like this one.
Perhaps Beyoncé’s recent performance of “Formation” during the Super Bowl halftime show stacks up. In case you missed it, Beyoncé led a spectacularly choreographed phalanx of leather-clad Black Panthcers and, in front of the biggest television audience of the year, asserted her identity as a black, southern woman, and took pride in her success against all odds. (It’s unconfirmed, but there are reports that Coldplay was also there.)
As author Lasha notes in Salon, that performance has been loudly maligned by some for ostensibly “exploiting black resistance” to drive her personal brand. Yet, the double standard to which such critics subject Bey is blatantly unfair: Kendrick will undoubtedly receive less backlash for an equally political and sales-boosting performance that will similarly improve album sales. I think most reasonable people would agree with the author’s notion that “Celebrating and embracing sensuality and fighting the revolution would seem to be mutually exclusive for the black woman” under this frame of criticism. To attack her performance on this front is thus counterintuitive to the goal of combatting racism and laying the groundwork for feminist liberation.
Similarly, one might argue that Beyoncé’s “conflation of capitalistic success with feminist liberation,” as Tiffany Lee puts it, is wrongheaded, but then again, a song that so boldly seeks to ignite and organize a nascent social movement need not be the last word on these subjects.
Finally, in the same article, Lasha is right to point out some of the possible shortcomings of Kendrick’s Grammy performance. Specifically, while she asserts that his performance represents a powerful example of resistance, she argues that it focuses only on structural racism, rather than the specific struggle of black women to overcome multiple, overlapping forms of oppression.
With all that said, Kendrick’s performance was undeniably special, the kind of event that could draw national attention to social justice movements across the country and shed light on the persistent psychological toll of 400 years of oppression.
I’m required to give the play-by-play now, but trust me, if you haven’t seen it, just go see it. This was no Imagine Dragons collaboration. Lamar sauntered onto the stage with a chain-gang of mock-inmates, twitching as he approached the microphone, flanked by jail cells in which jazz players softly noodled dissonant, melancholy harmonies. Struggling in handcuffs to hold the microphone, Kendrick launched into the first verse of “The Blacker the Berry,” rapping the controversial first lines, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” as his rhythm section came to life.
Kendrick goes on, in the original version of this song, to say he’s a hypocrite because he mourns the unjust death of black men and celebrates pride in his heritage while also having participated in violence against black youth. When it was first released, some criticized Kendrick of falling victim to respectability politics — of attempting, perhaps unfairly, to police fellow black men and women. Others, such as novelist Michael Chabon, have argued (on Rap Genius of all places) that hypocrisy is an unfortunate but possibly inevitable condition of an oppressive world which drags its victims through morally ambiguous situations.
However, in this performance, Kendrick ditched the most controversial segments of this track. Over an angry prog-jazz arrangement, Kendrick spits the politically charged first verse, which focuses on African American and Pan-African pride in the face of a country which “Hate[s] my people,” whose plan is to “terminate my culture.” As the music built up, and the lights dimmed, Kendrick’s fellow inmates lined up behind him, their prison garb lit up in day-glo, a visual counterpart to their continued vibrancy even under simulated conditions of incarceration.
Suddenly, he threw the audience into “Alright,” another To Pimp a Butterfly cut which has become a staple of the Black Lives Matter movement. A bonfire — reminiscent of scenes this past year in Ferguson — became a site of an African dance and exaltation: a vision in the face of continued violence, of a diaspora ended and an escape achieved.
Finally, thanks to some crafty camera work (good job, CBS), Kendrick’s manic stare was broadcasted into millions of homes through a series of disorienting cuts between close-up angles. He tore through a verse full of despair, which explored the personal and societal implications of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012. He lamented that the crime “adds to a trail of hatred” in his community, as more Black Americans come to believe that the law is not meant to protect them, but that is instead actively designed to prevent their resistance against oppression with any means necessary: in the worst cases, murder.
His response? Though he fantasizes of nihilism (“hollow tips is all I got”) or even violence (“I plan on creeping through your door and blowing out every piece of your brain”), his ultimate reaction is to promote “Hiiipower,” a term he’s coined meant to signify “heart, dignity and self-respect.” In a world gone mad, Kendrick’s approach is simply to keep the madness from engulfing his community. It is, in short, an attempt keep inner equanimity in the context of extreme outer turmoil. His performance certainly shook up my aforementioned grandmother in the process, but that’s a whole other story.
Sam Bromer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. No Place Like Brome appears alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.