This ain’t personal. I don’t know Mr. Lamar. Certainly not anything about his actual relationships with the women in his life. I trust that he loves and values his mother, girlfriend, nieces if he got them. My concern is about some of his masterful art. A true measure of a fan isn’t blind loyalty, it’s thoughtful critique. I hadn’t really given his gender politics much thought until last weekend during his Essence Festival keynote address. Before that, my analysis only went so far as to notice that he likes to say dick a lot. Which is my fault for being satisfied with him sharing thoughtful artistic reflections on matters of race and class, but less so on gender (hashtag: the black power movement).
I was a few minutes late to Kendrick’s set. One who loves music simply does not leave a stage where Bilal is improving with the Robert Glasper quartet. So I missed the beginning of the first hip hop act to ever close out the Essence Fest. As I approached the main stage I knew Kendrick had started due to the swarms of older folk walking swiftly away shaking their heads. Mary J. Blige was the finale for them. Some elders stayed though, maybe to see what the kids are up to. I was sitting behind a 60 something looking women (she was probably 95, hashtag: black don’t crack) who seemed like she was being held hostage by the mixed age group she came with. She tried to get into it, there was an obligatory head nod on occasion. Followed by a cringe when she’d catch a line like “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower”. I wanted to rush over and explain: it’s not like that, there’s a whole storyline, he’s playing the part of a young kid growing up in Compton, he and his friends are just in the backseat freestyling, making the raps up they as go along, it’s a metaphor, about powerlessness. I didn’t say anything though, it was too loud.
The moment that made me cringe was when Kendrick serenaded us with the chorus from his A$ap Rocky collab: “I love bad bitches that’s my fucking problem. And yeah I like to fuck, I got a fucking problem”. I don’t think that was a metaphor. I found that song to be a disgusting set list choice at the Essence Festival, a space intended to celebrate and empower black women. I have ‘complicated relationship’ in the title because while Kendrick was performing this song he was enthusiastically joined by hundreds of women. No one boo’d. Just because I found it off-putting doesn’t mean I get to decide what a women finds acceptable, entertaining, desirable, or offensive. Which always brings us to the classic conundrum, the clash between an understanding that people are not a monolith and the desire to have some common understanding about what we deem toxic.
Of course there are contexts. Kendrick’s art is part reflection of the values he is taught (and not taught) by the systems that feed him, which is true for everyone. Kendrick is a rapper, and if I wanted to complain about lyrics that degrade women there are much easier targets. But I’m not a fan of them, there’s no need to struggle to support them, lots of them should just be banished. More context: Kendrick is a Christian, and the church also has a complicated relationship with women . And Kendrick lives in America, which has a complicated relationship with anything it can’t commodify.
I wanted this feedback to come from a man. Women have already shared some concerns about Kendrick’s positions on women in his music. (i.e. Arielle Newton and Raquel Willis). There’s a part of man culture that allows lots of really dangerous stuff to slide because we don’t want to be lame. In private men spaces we do a lot of evaluating about whether a comment or story told by our homie is problematic enough to speak up about, or just laugh off, or ignore because the narrator is cool, popular or perceived to be one of the good guys. It’s also difficult for men to speak thoughtfully about gender, especially in academic spaces. Lupe Fiasco learned that the hard way with “Bad Bitch” . These are the conversations that are gonna save us though, if we truly believe that black lives matter. We need more thoughtful men courageously challenging each other, with love. And we need spaces where men and women come together to create ways to honor the humanity in all of us, whether we identify as male, female, trans, or none of the above.
In closing, there was a tender moment during Kendrick’s show. In between songs he saw a black boy, maybe 9yrs old, in the audience with his dad. While the music was paused Kendrick has a conversation with the boy, told him to keep up his grades, listen to his parents and honor God. I hope that Kendrick doesn’t fail to realize that wasn’t the only time he was in conversation with that boy. He had been talking to him all night. Teaching him. Guiding him. And his father was co-signing the lesson. Everyone that waved their hands in the air as if they didn’t care, spread those vibrations throughout the universe. It’s an awful burden Kendrick. But don’t worry, we are here to support you. And sometimes remind you of your responsibility. In case you forget how important you are to us.