DAMN: An Exploration of Black Identity And Colonized Faith
“The Lord will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart….you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you.” Deuteronomy 28:29.
It is often assumed that discussions about religion are centered around God’s existence. In part, it is an assumption that is a reflection of privilege, where debates around existence alone are the sole concerns people have. But, for Black people, the matter of God’s existence has never been the sole focus of theological debates. Kendrick’s “Damn” is an exploration of Christian faith that brings the discussion back to its roots, posing the question that has shaped Black theological thought for generations: in a world defined by Black suffering, what is the role of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God?
Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
Are we gonna live or die?
Bēkon opens the album, introducing the two themes that will become key components in this debate: wickedness and weakness. On BLOOD, Kendrick tells a story about attempting to help a blind woman with the down-trodden acceptance of a man who isn’t entirely surprised by the gunshot that comes at the end. The track’s outro takes us back to Alright from To Pimp A Butterfly, the unofficial summer protest song.
“Lamar stated his views on police brutality with that line in the song, quote: ‘And we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho’…’”
By sampling a Fox News broadcast where reporters misquote and criticize the song, the outro reminds us that this album is centered in the Black experience before we get too far in.
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
I was born like this, since one like this
On the next track, Kendrick unleashes the quiet intensity that had laced his voice during BLOOD. From highlighting themes such as war and peace to power and poison, DNA alludes to the most important juxtaposition in DAMN: damnation through personal sin or damnation through birth.
Personal sin is explored through the mention of the 7 Deadly Sins (notably, PRIDE vs HUMBLE, LUST vs LOVE). In DNA, and throughout the entirety of the album, Kendrick wrestles with doing good to please God, while failing because of faults that are pre-programmed.
To some, blaming genetics for your damnation is nothing more than a scapegoat, but again: this is an album centered in Blackness. When it comes to discussions around Black people’s salvation, or lack thereof, the conversation has never been as simple as personal blame. Within Kendrick’s context, the relationship of Black Americans, descendants of enslaved African people, to Christianity is complicated and will always carry markers from chattel slavery. The concept of damnation from birth is the reason that debates around God’s existence alone haven’t often taken center stage in Black communities. The question is less focused on whether or not God exists; the central debate is: whose God is it?
On YAH, Kendrick brings the issue to full light when he says, “My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth / Said know my worth / And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed.”
The lyrics are referring to the Curse of Ham, sanctioned by Noah in the Book of Genesis, with the consequences outlined in the Book of Deuteronomy. Ham is believed to be the father of Black people, with Egypt being referred to as the “Land of Ham”. Genesis 9:20–9:27 tells of Ham finding his father, Noah, naked and drunk outside. Rather than averting his gaze and covering his father, Ham tells his brothers, who then came to cover Noah. When Noah wakes, and hears of what Ham has done, he doesn’t respond by cursing Ham. Instead, he says, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” The number of sons Noah has is debated (because of contradictions within texts), but one interpretations says Ham is the fourth son. Canaan was named in the curse as the fourth son of Ham, but it is still ultimately Ham who is believed to have sinned and Ham’s descendants who must continue to answer for it.
It was this curse that was abused to explain away the existence of Black people (with dark skin, in particular, being seen as an after-effect of the curse) but also to justify atrocities committed against Black people, including chattel slavery. Ham became a perverted symbol of Black people’s ‘natural inclination towards rebellion’, an excuse for suffering, and a reason to cast us from God.
On Fear, the lyrics “Cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the ‘light of God” are not a reiterated excuse, but Kendrick coming to terms with the common understanding of damnation having no meaning for Black people. Damnation, defined as condemnation to hell by God, is usually understood as being a consequence of your own actions. But, as Kendrick wrestles with his own sins and his fear of them, he is also forced to remember that we knew Hellfire from the start.
Towards DAMN’s end, we hear cousin Carl Duckworth’s voicemail, where he re-centers the album using a frankness that family always has when calling you out on your shit.
But you have to understand this, man, that we are a cursed people. Deuteronomy 28:28 says, ‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.’
Deuteronomy and the Curse of Ham reverberate throughout the album. The effects of the curse can be found sprinkled through every track, but the theme of blindness stands apart. It is a blind woman Kendrick approached to assist, committing an act of service as God says we should; it is a victim of the curse who recognized another and it was the curse that pardoned Kendrick from God’s protection. And on DUCKWORTH, the album’s final song, we are brought back to the beginning: “So, I was takin’ a walk the other day….”
It is the Curse of Ham that marks the loop of the album, DUCKWORTH’S continuous play into BLOOD. In some ways, it mocks how we’ve been forced to wrestle with faith. What does damnation mean when you are cast out of God’s light before conception? In a faith that claims Jesus died for our sins, while the Curse of Ham continues to plague Black existence, what does it mean to be saved?
Maybe the closest Kendrick comes to knowing is on GOD, where he jubilantly sings:
This what God feel like, huh, yeah
Laughin’ to the bank like, “A-ha!”, huh, yeah
Flex on swole like, “A-ha!”, huh, yeah
You feel some type of way, then a-ha!
But on an album where God is questioned as an unreachable and cruel figure, is the title of the song about dominating the rap game and accumulating wealth truly about the flex? Or does it capture a bitter acceptance that wealth might elevate one of us, temporarily alleviating pain like a pill, but it will always catch up in the end.
Despite all the innovations of man now, modern medicine cannot end an ancient curse.And what would the rest of the world do without their Curse of Ham and exploitation, the continuous highway robbery that is Black people’s suffering?
“See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder,” Carl says, finishing his voicemail with a reminder to Kendrick Lamar that resonates with the rest of us who navigate the world with side glances and unease that’s become our primary home, “Until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way.”