The air sat stale, tension filled, preserving both fear and pain all at once. A middle aged white man slowly steps towards the black boy hanging by the cuffs of his wrist. By throwing two fingers up, he conducts a pause and says, “I want to hear you say your name. Your name is Toby. What’s your name?” The weakened and fatigued boy exhales, “Kunta...Kinte.” With the simple wave of those same fingers, the whipping continued and the atmosphere was no longer still. *Wuh-pshh* each crack *kuh-chh* each snap *wuh-pshh* met with groans, winces, and screams. The pink faced man returned to the boy and asks the same question...“Toby,” he replied through shallow breaths. “Say it again. Say it louder so they all can hear you, what’s your name” (Haley)? The next time he says not his name, the life that once existed in that air is depleted, or moreso dead, as is any morsel of hope.
In Natale Graham’s essay, What Slaves We Are, the author mainly explores the connection and misrepresentation of history through art. This unorthodox relationship between the two involves the daunting aspects of power, trauma, and freedom. Within her prose, Graham combines thorough observations with detailed analysis to dissect the production and reception of the book based miniseries, Roots. Through this careful examination, the writer ultimately exposes a major flaw in the way that we consume Roots then, as its subtitle suggests, is deeply preoccupied with creating spaces where viewers can identify with the struggle of heroic characters as part of a unifying “American” identity without identifying this struggle as created or sustained by enduring U.S. policy or cultural norms. More specifically, it invites identification with the symbolically powerful, but essentially harmless hero-protagonist, Kunta Kinte, and his descendants as American and “us” regardless of who “we” might be. (123-124)
Here, Graham is presenting critical insight pertaining to the intersection of art, history, and time that everyone should ponder with caution. The glorification and internalization of film has led consumers to primarily perceive in concordance with what is presented, and not to question the possible omittance of perspectives. Roots, the 1977 ABC miniseries, was derived from the 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, written by Alex Haley. This story follows the generational descent of a West African slave, Kunta Kinte, and his family from the eras of colonialism to reconstruction. It’s an extended memoir, and furthermore, an attempt to retell a piece of history that was lost in books, yet found in blood–since the author also claims lineage to the protagonist family. ...
I doubt that Haley worried himself with consumer desires as much as subject matter, but I do think that the consumer became the sole focus in the year it took to adapt the book to film. Graham alludes to the power behind creative control of art by exploring how ABC managed to transform the reality of the past into an ignorance of the present–by means of exaggeration. This leaves the audience to perceive white men as the only perpetrators of evil, and the direct display of force and cruelty as that evil–associating them with the notion of obvious oppression. Unfortunately, this nation has increasingly become more oblivious as we struggle to acknowledge the conceptual harnessing of an ill, power-driven, racist social system. The underlying pain and hopelessness is only displayed throughout the series to place the two everlasting emotions in the past, along with a living conflict disguised as dead history.
Kendrick Lamar explicitly reveals the burying of African American integrity when he yells “Fuck your sources, all distortion, if you fuck it's more abortion.” Subsequently, he digs at the superficial roots then exclaims “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich / now my dick ain’t free.” In reaction to the unapologetic statement, an audibly irritated woman screams “Imma get my uncle Sam to fuck you up, you ain’t no king.” The voice of Darlene Tibbs represents the social facet of America, while the uncle that she’s referring to represents the visceral support of American policy, proving that there’s always a stronger power at play. These words sting the ear throughout the final seconds of Lamar’s “For Free” off of To Pimp A Butterfly. This pain endures and takes on a new point of view in the next song of the album.
“King Kunta” serves as a perfect response to the development of the Roots miniseries by uncovering the deeper roots of African American identity, specifically starting with the sounds derived from West Africa and NOT Jamestown, Virginia. The song is sonically pushed through the low end, where the 2000 sample of Mausberg’s bass dominant “Get Nekkid” sits. Furthermore, the rhythm and funk that reside within Lamar’s flow and lyrics show the intent to reveal remnants of James Brown’s “The Payback”. Kendrick draws upon popular lyrics from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” to Jay Z’s “Thank You.” This immediately serves as a clever recalling of both sources and memories that complement this custom re-telling of history–through sound. I use the word custom not for the lack of restrictions surrounding the history he’s providing, but because of the way that he’s presenting it. His lens shows a sense of truth in his black identity as these individual sounds are a huge part of it. This truth is for content, not coin.
Through his carefully selected words, Lamar is providing us with insight into his life as it seems to resonate with some aspects of Kunta Kinte’s life. He refers to himself as King Kunta, bringing about the aspect of a king who still remains a slave in the mind. As a black man in America, Kendrick knows pain, struggle, and even death. This experience grants him the understanding and opportunity to win the hearts and wallets of many through his rhymes as he makes his way towards the throne. However, as a black man, that’s exactly it. This craft can be just what makes the record companies richer and in result turn the black man against himself–like a double edged sword. His weapon of art serves different purposes for different people. Kendrick is saying that everybody “wanna cut the legs off him,” so he doesn’t end up running away with the game. He’s dangerous in power. Any black man is dangerous “When you got the yams—(What's the yams?) / The yam is the power that be / You can smell it when I'm walkin' down the street.” Lamar references Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, specifically when the protagonist claims “I yam what I yam” after eating the bountiful root vegetable. The yam symbolizes authenticity through the truth of ethnic roots (Rife). When a black man knows where home actually is and can furthermore be supported through that base, he’s unstoppable. Sadly, blacks have been stopped and frisked of their identity since 17th century, Angola (The First Africans). Moreover so black men don’t get ahead of the game they’re playing, chains are placed on their wrists, limiting any opportunities for financial longevity. This is a solid representation of the slave dynamic that continues to exist in “free black men” of the entertainment industry. These artists have the ability to clear up the intangible jumble of shit that we call history. “King Kunta” contains the real exposure of roots, everything that the miniseries should’ve been.
ABC couldn’t have intended to alter the perceptual landscape of black history, or at least have known the larger forces influencing their production. However, when consumed by one’s own subconscious beliefs, it’s easy to become innocent to the inevitable ignorance. The manipulation of this historical content superficially comes from a desire to attract larger audiences within film & television, which is deeply rooted in the racist and capitalist moral system of America. The production team may have thought that they were making the show more entertaining, while on the other hand, they were sacrificing black integrity and shielding white supremacy. Thereby, money is the primary motivator at the expense of clarity. This is an Afro-pessimistic manipulation of history through art. The term, afro-pessimism, invented by Sony Lab'ou Tansi, was further developed by Dr. Frank Wilderson III, who phrased its meaning in a daring question: “How are the political stakes of analysis and aesthetics raised and altered if we theorize the structural relation between Blacks and Humanity as an antagonism (an irreconcilable encounter) as opposed to a (reconcilable) conflict” (Incognegro)? This implicitly antagonistic mindset meets at the intersection of money and politics, feeding into the prioritizing of capital over colored people. The blind belief in these morals is concrete enough to the point that a social system, exploiting black lives for economic gain, can hide behind art as a puppet master. It is one of the most powerful mediums and contains the capacity to control for means of bad, good or both.
Quite coincidentally, many of the greatest artists channel their creative control through past works of art, specifically within the music industry. The difference between this particular re-usage of music history and ABC’s glorified embellishing of U.S. history is that there’s no soiling of what lied before–and quite frankly still exists under the dirt. Hip-Hop, in its essence, captures and recreates the foundational sounds of West African derived genres such as blues, jazz, funk, and soul. Two household names that utilize this concept of black re-creation are Kanye West and Jay Z. The best sonic example of this mechanism is seen in “Otis” on their joint album, Watch The Throne. I had only known of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” from the Chris Brown cover in This Christmas, but I was bound to look back in time and down at my roots. Kanye is known for his use of samples, from old school 70’s hip-hop to 60’s r&b and even 80’s electronic dance music. This strategy to reproduce sounds of a certain time worked well with Jay Z’s old soul for rhythm & blues. The compelling and dynamic grunts of Redding prove to the listener that the roots of rap and rhythm reside in soul music. The hollowed and heavenly organ chords bring a nostalgic gospel atmosphere to life in the song. The warm timbre of the blues guitar mixed with a hybrid of new and old MPC drum machine samples brings about an untouched audio and timescape. The power of this music throws the listener into a 60’s composition aided by a 2010’s production. Music can tease and toy around with the confines of time, seamlessly expanding them to new lengths, simultaneously exposing the hidden roots of authenticity that were covered up in history. However, it takes an artist who can understand this power and what to do with it.
Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, consists of a similar approach to convey time and feeling through sound. The album has an “Otis” style of execution, but this stretches beyond the simple repetition of a sample. The manipulation of time is carefully fleshed out through the complete cohesion of the project. By learning from figures like Jay Z and Kanye, Lamar came to master the understanding of time through art just as Graham used it to construct her Roots analysis. This knowledge is necessary in order to capture moments through music–as it retains the best memory of the physical and the intangible. Music is history and Kendrick even shows us in his debut album, good kid m.A.A.d city, that you can always manage to exist in this world if someone “Sing[s] About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” In the longest song of the album, Kendrick takes on the persona of a friend who loses his brother to gang violence, and a girl who loses her sister to the dangers of prostitution. He dives even deeper into his mind when his last verse comes from his own perspective. He explores his relationship with Athazagoraphobia–the fear of being forgotten–through a reflection of the previous verses, explaining his desire to keep the two alive through his songs and stories. Though history tells about that which has already happened, it has the power to bring past elements into the present.
In To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick focuses on the continuous storytelling of his life. In the time between good kid m.A.A.d city and his second release, Lamar has been exposed to a world beyond the purview of Compton. He best describes it in “King Kunta” as moving “from a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king”. As his following began to exponentially increase due to mainstream emergence, the corporate world started to interfere with Lamar’s artistic existence. Though described as simply business, here we can see fragments of this race-based system that spreads like a virus, specifically impeding on the black entertainer’s livelihood and mental state. This is the pimping brought on by Ms. America and Uncle Sam. For most blacks in America, money has always been the motive since pipe dreams of escaping poverty because the ghetto is all that most of us know. Stepping back and seeing as to how inner city project housing was a byproduct of the great migration and the social paradigm shift that took place after slavery's most obvious form ended, I see how I’ve contradicted and will correct myself. Money was never our intrinsic motivation, but due to a seemingly unreachable aspect of political and social control, money became the country's priority, leading blacks to constantly seek for any hope of physical and mental survival through the almighty dollar.
In a piece of spoken word that evolves throughout the album, the rapper goes through many stages of reflection: “while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city / I was entering a new one / A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination.” Lamar’s personal experience with the industry presented him with a depressing sense of survivor’s guilt, ultimately bringing him face to face with a different side of the same problem–America’s foundational vice of a socio-economic structure–that affects the marginalized grounds from which he escaped. Throughout good kid, he examines himself in the context of Compton–witnessing gangs, drugs, and both the enforcement & legislation of the law. Furthermore in To Pimp, Kendrick’s newfound knowledge and fresh perception of the outside world attracted him towards older black influences and sounds, as he utilized these to earnestly depict the reality of our national history better than ABC could.
On To Pimp, Kendrick addresses the often ignored, perverted and repressed history of African Americans in a country where we’re forced to forget–an aspect closely related to the suppression of trauma. He personally reflects on the aftereffects of this pseudo-history and its warped retelling. This overall speculation is what drew Lamar closer to the authentic sounds of black music, in attempts to clear the misrepresentation of the past and show his roots to the world. In his 2015 volume of American Music Review, Will Fulton says that “As [a] self-reflexive, conscious musical statement about the present informed by the ‘spirit’ of past performers...To Pimp a Butterfly provide[s] ...Lamar and [his] collaborators [with] strategies to stage current black musical culture within a continuum of African American cultural production and experience” (2). Through Kendrick’s observation and introspection, he’s able to converse with his inner and outer demons while simultaneously affirming the untold stories of the ghetto–past and present. Kendrick uses his art as a vessel and overtime he sees himself as that critical conduit, allowing for connection amongst the oppressed, the invisible and the underground. True power lies within honesty–uncontaminated truth.
The first sound introduced in the first song, “Wesley’s Theory,” is the crackle of spinning vinyl, accompanied by Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star.” Similar artifacts, lyrics and attitudes from Parliament’s “We Want The Funk” are heard in “King Kunta.” This is an implicit nod to Lamar retelling his history, since “funk” is a fundamental style of black music. He ominously repeats this refrain: “Now if I give you the funk, you gon take it?” The rapper is questioning if the listeners will receive this new age education that he’s putting forth. Almost all of the tracks are powerfully driven by the low end of Thundercat’s funky Ibanez 6 string. Living legends of the black music scene like Ronald Isley, Kamasi Washington, and George Clinton are both featured and sampled on the project–kind of like adjunct professors in a Black History Through Music class. Moreover, the whole album was overseen in production by Jazz musician, Terrace Martin. Kendrick played chess with this album, seemingly pushing and pulling the intangible concepts of time and sound, in order to combat this conflict that exists in the metaphysical realm.
In her analysis of “King Kunta,” Natalie Graham points us to how “Lamar evolves a constellation of possibilities of blackness by interrogating and remixing the tropes of trauma, agency, and power” (132). This evolution is explicitly seen in the audible imitation of jazz and blues, the use of countless samples–reworked to redeem themselves–, the involvement of black musical figures from different times, and even the repurposing of immortal lyrics. In the final song of the album, Kendrick says that “the only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations. A lot of people don’t even understand how important it is...I can get behind a mic, and I don’t know what type of energy I’m gonna push out, or where it comes from.” Unknowingly enough, he provided an energy on To Pimp a Butterfly that came out of the curiosity of black existence in another time. Kendrick “went back home,” but not to Compton. Home is more than just what you know, it’s what you have yet to ascertain as well. After all, in order to learn, one must look back with hopes of moving forward.
Rapper, Talib Kweli, says that as black artists "We need perspective for our vocabulary, because some of it serves a fucked up system...As a lyrical artist your responsibility is to be very aware of words and their meanings" (Allandi). Another influencer of Lamar, Kweli is pointing to thorough education and not just a superficial glance at the roots, acknowledging that they merely exist. This education requires deep research and even deeper analysis. He forewarns the black artists to understand the power of language because, as Kendrick continues to teach, power can make a black man dangerous. One of the most dangerous black men in history, Fredrick Douglas, said in his What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July? address:
“By an act of the American congress...slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form...The power to hold, hunt, and sell [blacks] as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution but is now an institution of the whole [country]...Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport” (Douglas).
Language was one of Douglas’s most powerful weapons, as he always constructed strategies for how to use it against this nation of oppressors. By touching on the topic of education mixed with the acknowledgment ill minded institutions, he finds a way to use their word against thems–the words that built this nation. In the U.S. Constitution, slavery was not literarily acknowledged until the 13th amendment was ratified. This amendment is primarily known for its abolishment of slavery and modification of the 3/5ths compromise–which shows how blacks were first written into law, as a little bit more than half human. Furthermore the 13th specifically states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…,” legislatively allowing slavery to exist within the prison system–where, statistically, 1 out of every 3 black men will end up (History.com editors). Language is a critical aid in the process of education, one must truly understand both what they’re reading and what it means in the context of everything. America’s moral corruption physically manifested itself in slavery then became social and superseded its physicality, so now there’s no other place that it can be disputed except in the mind.
Towards the end of the album, Kendrick really understands his roots, and starts to display how he uses them for means of connection and growth–pressuring the listener to pay close attention. In one of the album’s singles, “The Blacker The Berry” we are brought face to ear with an enraged Kendrick who is in the midst of resisting white manipulation through an aggressive reclaiming of his black identity. “This plot is bigger than me, it's generational hatred / It's genocism, it's grimy, little justification / I'm African-American, I'm African / I'm black as the heart of a fuckin' Aryan / I'm black as the name of Tyrone and Darius.” Through straining screams, Lamar inserts anxiety in between these lines, the tension that will forever exist as it does in “King Kunta.” James D McLeod writes that “Lamar expresses the anxiety of being an African American in a culture working systematically against his success” (129). He may be figuring things out to better himself, but as long as white continues to react to black as a problem, he’ll remain “just another nigga,” as will the rest of the race.
However, as we heard earlier in the album, “every nigger is a star,” and it’s up to Kendrick to use that stardom, that experience, and that agency to transcend the social construct of race–hopefully educating those around him. In the album version of “i” we are brought into a live concert setting, adding a relatively intense amount of energy to the sound and words. In the middle of the third verse, a fight amongst the crowd–consisting of his black Compton brothers–breaks out. Kendrick cuts his song short and starts opening up to the audience:
Retraced my steps on what they never taught me
Did my homework fast before government caught me
So I'ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah
On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us
this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; king royalty - wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: black emperor, king, ruler, now let me finish
The history books overlook the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don't recognize we been using it wrong
So I'ma break it down and put my game in a song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me, or say it no more
...Take it from Oprah Winfrey, tell her she right on time
Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.
Here, in his hometown, Kendrick offers the African American race–who feel like tenants in our own home–access to the hidden garden of yams, through his creative entryway. This is a truth that can’t be shown in Roots, because America is the guiding context. One must be thrown out of their comfort zone–or where they’ve been trained to stay stagnant–in order to learn what wouldn’t have been shown otherwise. Kendrick took us through that journey, so we could learn with him. He wants to ignite our personal and national growth through his own. Disregarding skin color, as a general audience, we resonate because his vulnerability proves his humanity. Through all forms of art, even gangster rap, the public is brought into the artist’s life, scars and all. Humanity is the only thing that truly connects us all, and if we can’t see that, then we’ll forever remain disconnected, a nation divided. This is why Kendrick’s words are so powerful. This is why black artistry is so powerful–it’s an uncontained combination of education, experience, and creativity. Kanye West and Chance the Rapper said it best, “music is all we got.”
Allandi, Joonatan. “Talib Kweli Explains the Problems With Today's Celebrity Activism.” Mic, 7 May 2019, www.mic.com/articles/137607/talib-kweli-explains-the-problems-with-today-s-celebrity-activism.
“Athazagoraphobia.” Athazagoraphobia - Fear of Being Forgotten, Fear of Forgetting, Fear of Being Ignored, common-phobias.com/athazagora/phobia.htm.
Douglass, Frederick (1982). Blassingame, John W. (ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches Debates, and Interviews. Vol. 2, 1847-54. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 359-387.
Editors, History.com. “13th Amendment.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/thirteenth-amendment.
Haley, Alex. “Roots” ABC, screenplay co-written by James Lee, ABC, 1977.
“Institute News.” Brooklyn College | The Performer as Historian: Black Messiah, To Pimp a Butterfly, and the Matter of Albums, www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/academics/centers/hitchcock/publications/amr/v44-2/fulton.php.
Incognegro, a Memoir of Exile and Apartheid, www.incognegro.org/afro_pessimism.html.
Mcleod, James D. “If God Got Us: Kendrick Lamar, Paul Tillich, and the Advent of Existentialist Hip Hop.” Toronto Journal of Theology, vol. 33, no. 1, 2017, pp. 123–135., doi:10.3138/tjt.2017-0006.
Rife, Katie, and Katie Rife. “Kendrick Lamar Imbues a Root Vegetable with Literary Meaning.” Music, Music, 23 Aug. 2017, music.avclub.com/kendrick-lamar-imbues-a-root-vegetable-with-literary-me-1798286383.
“The First Africans.” Historic Jamestowne, historicjamestowne.org/history/the-first-africans/.