I was driving back home from L.A. when Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. came on the radio. After rapping along for a few minutes, as anyone with unrealized dreams of being a rap star does, I changed the radio station. Kendrick Lamar was playing. Again. This time it was the radio edit of m.A.A.d city. I changed the station. And—yes, you guessed it—Kendrick again, this time backed by Rihanna on LOYALTY.
Within the span of 10 minutes, I’d listened to three different Kendrick Lamar songs on the radio. Though it felt excessive in the moment, it’s not incredibly surprising. Throughout his career, Kendrick Lamar has had 28 songs break onto the Billboard Hot 100, including all 14 tracks from his most recent album DAMN. His music has frequented radio waves, college parties, workout playlists, and everything in between. But the Compton-bred rapper’s popularity begs a simple question: What is it about his music that makes it so popular amongst a broad, and largely non-black, American public?
On the surface, it’s because it’s radio friendly. The songs are catchy and well produced. But underlying the apparent innocence of radio-friendliness is the fact that white audiences are consuming his music without grappling with the struggles of the black American experience.
For example, the version of m.A.A.d city that gets played on the radio is a butchered edit of the original. The full version is nearly six minutes long, with a beat switch halfway through. The second half opens with the line, “It ain’t nothing but a Compton thing...I’mma teach you some lessons bout the streets” and Kendrick proceeds to talk about gang violence, drug abuse, and shootings in his hometown. This portion of the song never gets played on the radio or at parties and, not surprisingly, reflects a larger trend of ignoring the black pain that inspires black art.
Kendrick Lamar’s most popular songs—HUMBLE., DNA.—are those that white audiences can consume without confronting the subject matter. Kendrick Lamar’s second album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was highly political and concerned with issues of colorism, racialized self-hatred, and growing up amongst violence and poverty. Put simply, it was an album about the black experience in the United States, inspired by jazz music, performed in chains, and black to the core. But the album wasn’t played as widely because of its heavy subject matter and complex jazz compositions. Unlike DAMN., To Pimp a Butterfly is harder to consume. It’s important listening, but it’s not easy listening.
American obsession with black art that is easy to swallow isn’t new. Although rap and hip hop gained popularity through songs that dealt with the struggles of black communities, the genre has been massively commodified by white America. Hip hop has come to influence the majority of pop music, and white rappers who perform for mostly white audiences are becoming increasingly popular.
Miley Cyrus, after releasing an album that borrowed heavily from the rap and hip hop music scene, spoke negatively of the genre, saying “that’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock.’” In her unapologetic appropriation, she reveals a truth about the consumption of black art. White people love black art until it forces them to see or engage black pain beyond caricatures and stereotypes. To avoid confronting black pain, white audiences turn to white artists who appropriate black art without substance.
At other times, white audiences discredit the political nature of black art completely. When contemporary artist Kara Walker made a 35-foot sugar sculpture of a black, female sphinx, she intended it to be “overwhelming.” The piece was meant to represent the “countless black women whose unpaid labor and overworked bodies bore the burden of our culture’s rapacious desire for all things sweet.” Yet, in the whitest fashion imaginable, Brooklyn go-ers took pictures of themselves performing sexually explicit acts on the sculpture.
At Harvard, it’s common for a Kendrick Lamar song to play and for the whole room to sing along, n-word and all. One night, a friend walked past a final club and heard Kendrick Lamar’s Alright, a song that’s become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, playing. As if that in itself wasn’t bad enough, the members had changed the lyrics from, “We’re gonna be alright” to “We’re gonna be all white.” Instead of dealing with centuries of pain, white Americans take the convenient, consumable aspects of black art and exploit them for their own pleasure.
While these examples differ in their transgressions, they all show how easily white people push aside the histories of suffering that inform black art. We add another injustice to the list whenever we consume black art without supporting the black struggle. Police officers are still killing black Americans, you’re six times more likely to be incarcerated if you’re black, and anti-black racism pervades every aspect of American life. So don’t consume black art born of black grief without being down for the cause.
Kendrick Lamar has done his part with DAMN. He’s created a work of art with a purpose, referencing his album’s message when he said, “You need to hear it. I can’t sugar coat the reality.” It’s time white Americans give up their sweet tooth and begin to enjoy black art for what it really is.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.