The Million Man March

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

On October 16, 1995, the first Million Man March, a massive gathering of African-American men, took place in Washington D.C. The goal of the demonstration was to promote unity among the African-American minority in the US. In the year 2015 the Million Man March celebrated its 20th anniversary and the same messages that were conveyed in 1995 were echoed again this time around. The event was accompanied by the slogan “Justice Or Else”, a substantial and strong statement that is not at all surprising regarding the fact that Louis Farrakhan, who organized the first gathering in 1995 and who belonged to the list of prominent speakers again last year, is known to sow the seeds of discord between the black and white population. A list of demands (goals, so to speak) can be viewed on the campaign’s website, the first one being the following: “We want Justice for Blacks in America who have given America 460 years of sweat and blood to make her rich and powerful.”

People who were on sight in Washington or watched the available livestream were able to observe a specific phenomenon. The crow was repeatedly heard chanting “We gon’ be alright!”

Kendrick Lamar’s track Alright is seen as the unofficial — one could almost say official — anthem of the African-American civil rights’ movement of our days. As Kendrick himself stated in his song Black Friday: “There is nothing more influential than rap music”. His second major label record To Pimp a Butterfly, which was released in March of 2015, rendered this statement to be true.

Kendrick Lamar gained mainstream popularity through his major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City which catapulted him to fame and made him one of the most recognizable faces in the Hip Hop genre. The album was met with rave critics and was named album of the year by Pitchfork.

His follow-up received comparable vast critical acclaim and was hailed as an instant classic as well. Kendrick is able to capture the fragmentation of the United States and expertly criticizes it from various angles. Whereas Good Kid tells a more personal story, To Pimp a Butterfly tackles grander problems in society without neglecting the personal touch which made his first album a masterpiece. In U Kendrick depicts his post-fame depression which stemmed from doubt about his role as the savior of Hip Hop and leader of a black movement, whom he is praised to be. He accuses himself of failing in helping his closest to overcome major problems. He blames himself for his teenage sister’s pregnancy and his friend’s death. How can he help change society when he is not even able to help better the lives of his loved ones? “Where was your antennas, where was the influence you speak of?” he asks himself.

The amount of cases of disproportionate police brutality against the black population has left many wondering, if there have been any steps made towards racial equality. The events in Ferguson or Sanford led to a tremendous public outcry and triggered an abundance of demonstrations against police brutality within the context of equality. Many musicians have confronted this topic in their works and Kendrick tackles it with an even more extensive fierceness than on his last record. „And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho“, Kendrick raps in Alright. The track does not convey the message of falling into despair due to the injustice but overcoming it through solidarity. The message is exactly the one that was chanted by the African-American community during the Million Man March. Everything will be alright. At the 2015 BET awards Kendrick performed the track on top of a police car to highlight the purpose of the song being a protest against police brutality, an imagery which was later picked up by Beyoncé in her music video of Formation.

The album consists of a dense combination of different genres, which might make it less approachable than his former releases, but more interesting as well. Its influences reach from funk and jazz to nineties’ boom-bap. One only has to look at the list of collaborators including Flying Lotus, George Clinton and Thundercat to grasp the complexity of the stylistic approach.

Similar to Good Kid Kendrick portrays the problems of an upbringing and a life in Compton. This time around, though, he goes even further and blames the government for many of the problems people encounter: “They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs“, he states in Hood Politics. Furthermore he compares the political system of the United States to gangs in the ghetto, calling the American parties “Democrips” and “Rebloodicans”, which hints at a book by former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Kendrick uses the comparison to attack the hypocrisy of the government criticizing gang violence while working in similar manners, but leading to a way larger effect on the American population. Kendrick highlights the government’s ineffective system in which the president is incapable of making good of his promises of change.

To Pimp a Butterfly does not only look for guilt elsewhere, but he also takes a look at the problems from another angle. The Blacker The Berry is arguably the most dense and controversial song on the record. Kendrick starts off stating that he is the biggest hypocrite of 2015. Without further elaborating the meaning of this line he lists a cornucopia of allegations of stereotypical and racist mindsets that he is sure the white man possesses. “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture“. After a tirade along the lines of the given example the song ends as follows: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging made me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!“. In the very last statement of the song, Kendrick turns everything around and forces the listener to completely change his perspective towards the meaning of the track. The purpose of the foreshadowing of himself — or one should say of the black community — being a hypocrite is laid out in the open. How can one grief over the death of Trayvon Martin (due to a quick trigger of the police) and metaphorically blame the white man for the black population’s problems when oneself has been responsible for death and therefore responsible for those problems. It turns out that Kendrick is not only the wished for leader and figurehead of an equal rights’ movement of the black community, but also the biggest critic of this very community.