January 31, 2018

SWAN | Kendrick Lamar’s Satire

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The 60th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony was held on Sunday evening and opened with an appearance by Kendrick Lamar. His performance consisted of a medley with songs like “DNA.” and “XXX.” from Damn. and “King’s Dead” from the Black Panther soundtrack. To accurately describe his performance in words would ultimately futile —  though I will briefly attempt to do it anyway.  I encourage you to check it out. Seriously.

“Vicious” is the first word that comes to mind following Kendrick’s act. In one of Spike Lee’s production journals for Do the Right Thing, the director uses the same word to describe a Public Enemy track that was newly released in 1988, “Bring the Noise.” Like that of Public Enemy, Kendrick’s music – and particularly his work from Damn – is relentless in its honesty as it brings the more frank aspects of urban, African-American identity to the forefront of our attention.

Obviously, he does this primarily through his lyrics, such as those in “XXX.,” and through the samples in his productions – like the soundbite of Geraldo Rivera’s aggressive misunderstanding of Lamar’s thoughts on police in “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” Yet, in Lamar’s Grammy appearance, it was the choreography of his fellow performers that perhaps most viciously drove home the weight of the rapper’s verses. In the beginning of his performance, a number of dancers dressed in military gear march in a square formation as an American flag —  one so large as to possibly be considered gaudy —  flies on a screen in the background. Lamar launches into “XXX.,” and at the end of his first verse, a gunshot sounds and the stage becomes dark. On the screen behind him appear the words “This is a satire by Kendrick Lamar.” Bono and The Edge come onstage to play their feature, then Lamar and the soldiers suddenly break into a portion of “DNA.” remixed to sound rawer and percussive while the soldiers dance in a raucous way as to match the remixed music. At the end of this segment, Lamar simulates being shot in the head by one of the soldiers. At this point, to add to the surreal nature of what’s happening, Dave Chappelle interrupts the performance to remind the audience “that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America, is being an honest black man in America.” Lamar goes into “King’s Dead” from the Black Panther soundtrack, and after another sequence and interruption by Chappelle, the performance ends as each of the dancers are gunned down to the sequence of Lamar’s cadence in the epic finality of his verse in “King’s Dead.”

The performance and its choreography is indeed vicious, but I also can’t help but to feel quietly horrified after I watch it. Its poignancy lies in all of the military gear and simulated gunshots and erratic dance-stomping as all of these factors synthesize to show that the black body itself is (and has always been) the actual setting of race relations in the United States. Though all of the violence occurs in streets and storefronts and patrol cars and centers of detainment, it is ultimately the family that becomes war-torn, as sons and daughters and fathers and mothers are literally gunned down. Kendrick’s performance is vicious and perhaps even inspirational in its honesty, but the truth which it conveys is an abomination, a tragic story of failed race relations and subsequent violence and death.

What is the “satire” that Lamar references? One might assert that the satire comes about from the mock patriotism inspired by the American flag that waived just prior to the message. Of course, to say that figures like Lamar or Chappelle are proud of the state of the union is indeed laughable. However, I don’t think that Lamar is letting us off the hook so easily, and to be honest, I don’t think that he’s trying to side with us on this matter. There is something a little awkward and uncomfortable watching the performance take place at a mainstream awards ceremony broadcast by a major network, and I believe that this is the satire which Lamar seeks to highlight. His performance deals with tragedy, and yet we all gawk and cheer at the end anyway, like in some future dystopian universe. Chappelle’s comments make sense; watching Lamar is indeed terrifying, and being Lamar is even more terrifying, so why do we cheer? What do we really do about any of it?

While it may appear trite or oversimplifying to interpret his satire as an attack on white liberalism, I don’t think it is grossly harmful or erroneous. Lamar has dedicated his life to moving people spiritually through his music, and so to take his message as a call for greater responsibility is certainly not unproductive.

Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornellsun.com. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.