Reflections on Dissections: S5E7 — “ELEMENT.”

Femi Olutade
Nov 8 · 10 min read

The nightmare of looking in the mirror at our own hatred and evil

< Previous: S5E6 — “YAH.”

Next: S5E8 — “FEEL.” >

The cover of Kendrick Lamar’s debut album, Section.80, established the themes of sex, money and murder by showing a desk with a box of condoms, a stack of dollar bills, and a handgun with two bullets. In the background, we also see that Kendrick has recently put the Bible down on the desk.

In the previous post, we discussed how the track “YAH.” introduced us to Kung Fu Kenny, the main character of DAMN.’s narrative. Moreover, “YAH.” presented Kenny as a prophet who had chosen to reject God’s call and follow his own intuition to pursue sex and money. “YAH.” is then followed by the track “ELEMENT.” where Kenny’s desire to continue enjoying sex and money have made murder an attractive option.

I’m willin’ to die for this shit
I done cried for this shit, might take a life for this shit
Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit

Here, Kenny reveals his intent to violently retaliate against those who have previously hurt him. Kenny does this by referencing the law of retaliation, which was one of the commandments that Moses gave to the Israelites.

“If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.”

- Leviticus 24:17–20

As we pointed out during the podcast, Kenny seems to have missed the point that the law of retaliation was actually meant to limit the extent to which the Ancient Israelites could retaliate against those who had hurt them. Such laws were common throughout the Ancient Near East and in most cases prescribed equivalent retaliation in order to prevent a cycle of escalating violence. However, over the centuries it became clear that limiting retaliation was not sufficient for preventing cycles of violence. As a result, Jesus taught his followers to not be satisfied with limiting retaliation. Rather, Jesus claimed that those who want to enter the Kingdom of God must eliminate all retaliation.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.

- Matthew 5:38–42

Instead of going eye for an eye, Jesus taught that his followers should “turn the other cheek” meaning that they should offer sacrificial love to their enemies. The fact that Kenny “put the Bible down” before going eye for an eye seems to suggest that Kenny used the commandment about retaliation from the Old Testament to justify his use of violence and the promptly ignored the rest of the Bible, particularly Jesus’s commandment about turning the other cheek. Just like Nat Turner and numerous other figures, Kenny has selectively used the Bible in order to give divine approval to his own intuition. In doing so, Kenny has seemingly become the antagonist of DAMN.’s narrative.

Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman

Fittingly, the third verse of “ELEMENT.” features a line in which Kenny compares himself to Candyman, the main antagonist of a series of horror films of the same name. In the narrative of the films, Candyman was originally a black man named Daniel Robitaille who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. Daniel’s father was a former slave who became financially successful. His father’s success afforded Daniel the opportunity to become a painter, fall in love with a white woman and have a child with his lover. However, Daniel’s relationship angered the woman’s father and the other white citizens of Chicago. The woman’s father then organized a lynch mob that kidnapped Daniel and sawed-off his right hand.

(Left) A lynch mob chases Daniel Robitaille and captures him. (Right) The mob saws off Daniel’s right arm, which explains why the vengeful Candyman has a hook in place of hand. — From Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

After sawing off Daniel’s hand, the mob then smeared his body with honey. The honey attracted a swarm of bees that landed on Daniel and began stinging him to death. A small boy who had joined the mob tasted the honey and then mocked Daniel by calling him Candyman. The mob laughed along and continued to say the name Candyman five times. As Daniel was dying, his lover’s father taunted Daniel by holding a mirror in front of Daniel’s face so that Daniel could see his own disfigured face before he died. The lover would later take the mirror as a memory of Daniel and hide it in Daniel’s birthplace.

(Left) After spreading honey on Daniel, a swarm of bees land on Daniel and begin stinging him to death. (Right) Daniel’s lover, a white woman, looks on as her father taunts Daniel by holding a mirror up to him. — From Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

Because of Daniel’s torturous death, Daniel’s spirit sought revenge by making all future generations fear the name Candyman. In order to instill such fear, Daniel’s spirit would appear and kill anyone who looked in a mirror and said the name Candyman five times. This spirit of revenge would thus lead to the deaths of numerous people, including many white Americans.

In modern times, a white woman dares to say the name Candyman a fifth time. Candyman then appears and slashes the woman to death with his hook — From Candyman

At the same time, Daniel’s spirit also tried to convince some individuals to join him in becoming vengeful spirits. In the second film installment, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Daniel appeared to a white woman who turned out to be Daniel’s great-grandaughter, a descendant of the child that Daniel had with his lover. After his great-granddaughter found the mirror that Daniel’s lover hid, Daniel explained to her the deep significance of the mirror. He claimed that his vengeful spirit derived its power from the mirror because he had become a reflection of the hatred and evil that was perpetrated against him.

The mirror is the secret of my strength. The keeper of my soul … I was not always this way. This is who I’ve become. You must see what they did.
… Be my witness. See how I became the reflection of their hatred. Their evil. See what it means to call me by that name: Candyman.”

- From Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

Upon learning that the mirror was the source of the spirit’s strength, Daniel’s great-grandaughter smashed the mirror which then caused Daniel’s spirit to shatter like glass.

Daniel’s great-grandaughter smashes the mirror that gives strength to Candyman’s spirit. As a result, Candyman also shatters like a mirror.— From Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

By comparing himself to Candyman, Kenny seems to be showing us that the vengeful spirit inside of him is merely a reflection of the hatred and evil that America has perpetrated against him and against black men and women throughout history. Later on in the season, we will see how the idea of Kenny being a mirror reflection of America will become central to the message of DAMN. Fittingly, here in “ELEMENT.” we see how Kenny’s history of pain and suffering drives him to assert that his name should be said five times when people list the five greatest rappers.

Mr. One through Five, that’s the only logic
Fake my death, go to Cuba, that’s the only option

They won’t take me out my element
Nah, take me out my element

Damned if I do, if I don’t
God damn us all if you won’t

At the same time, Kenny reveals that his acts of vengeance and associations with the criminal element in Compton have made him a target of retaliation by gang members and a target of investigation by federal agents. Facing threats on both sides leaves Kenny feeling that he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. These threats also lead Kenny to the conclusion that his only option is to fake his death and flee to Cuba. In doing so, Kenny would be following the path of several prominent black men and women who fled to Cuba after becoming enemies of America.

One of the most famous black fugitives who escaped to Cuba is a woman who was born in New York City with the name Joanne Chesimard. She attended college in New York City during the mid-1960s where she became an activist who participated in protests, sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience. After graduating from college, Joanne moved to Oakland, California, where she joined the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary group that was part of the black power movement and routinely used deadly force to fight back against police brutality. She eventually left the Black Panther Party believing that it did not have a proper understanding of black history. She then joined the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party, which led a campaign of terrorist activities against the U.S. government, using tactics such as planting bombs, holding up banks and murdering drug dealers and police. Around the same time, she rejected the name Joanne Chesimard — which she considered to be a “slave name” — and subsequently changed her name to Assata Shakur.

A 1981 propaganda poster requests support for the Black Liberation Army in there attempts to free all black prisoners and establish an independent black nation in the American south.

Assata Shakur’s criminal activities with the Black Liberation Army soon put her under investigation by federal agents. Then in 1973, Assata Shakur along with two other Black Liberation Army members was stopped by a New Jersey State Trooper. The traffic stop eventually escalated into a gun battle in which the State Trooper was shot to death along with one of the Black Liberation Army members. After attempting to drive away, Assata was stopped by other State Troopers and arrested. In 1977, she was eventually convicted on two counts of murder and six counts of assault for which she was sentenced to 26 years in prison. However, in 1979, just two years after Assata was imprisoned, a group of Black Liberation Army members was able to sneak guns and dynamite into the prison while visiting Assata. These BLA members then took two correctional officers hostage and helped Assata escape from prison. After her escape from prison, Assata flew to the Bahamas and at some point managed to arrive in Cuba where she was eventually granted political asylum. Assata still lives as a fugitive in Cuba. Due to the fact that the U.S. has yet to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after cutting off relations in 1961, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been unable to arrest Assata Shakur to this day.

(Left) In 1977, Assata Shakur is led away handcuffed after being convicted of murdering a New Jersey State Trooper (Right) A 2013 poster offers $2 million in exchange for helping to deliver Assata Shakur into the hands of law enforcement.

In addition to inspiring countless black revolutionaries, Assata Shakur also had a very personal influence over Kenny’s rap predecessor, Tupac Shakur. As it turns out, Assata Shakur is Tupac Shakur’s godmother and step-aunt. Tupac even paid homage to Assata Shakur during a damning critique of America on a song called “Words of Wisdom” on 2Pac’s debut album, 2Pacalypse.

Nightmare!
That’s what I am
America’s Nightmare

I am what you made me
The hate and the evil that you gave me
I shine as a reminder of what you’ve done to my people
For four hundred plus years
You should be scared
You should be running
You should be trying to silence me
Ha, but you can not escape fate
For it is my turn to come
Just as you rose you will fall
By my hands

America, you reap what you sow
2Pacalypse, America’s Nightmare
Ice Cube and Da Lynch Mob, America’s Nightmare
Above The Law, America’s Nightmare
Paris, America’s Nightmare
Public Enemy, America’s Nightmare
KRS-One, America’s Nightmare
New Afrikan Panthers, America’s nightmare
Mutulu Shakur, America’s Nightmare
Geronimo Pratt, America’s Nightmare
Assata Shakur, America’s Nightmare

- From “Words of Wisdom” by 2Pac

Much like Candyman’s vengeful spirit, Tupac declared that the nightmare he had become was a direct result of the hatred and evil that America perpetrated against him and generations of black people for hundreds of years. Like Kenny said in “DNA.”, Tupac declared that America would reap what it sows. Finally, Tupac ended “Words of Wisdom” by declaring that — like himself — his godmother Assata Shakur was America’s nightmare.

Indeed, similar to Assata Shakur, Tupac Shakur faced numerous troubles with law enforcement. Like Assata Shakur, Tupac was emprisoned in the state of New York after being convicted of assault. Tupac was released from prison when Suge Knight, the CEO of Death Row Records posted a $1.4 million bail in exchange for 2Pac signing with his record label. Suge Knight would later be the man driving the car in Las Vegas when Tupac was shot to death in Las Vegas in 1996.

Despite police records and news reports about Tupac’s death, many fans became convinced of conspiracy theories which claimed 2Pac did not die during the shooting. These conspiracy theories claim that in reality 2Pac faked his death and fled to Cuba, just like his godmother, Assata Shakur.

(Left) A prison ID of Tupac Shakur during his imprisonment in New York state in 1995. (Right) In the last photo of Tupac taken before he died, Tupac sits in the passenger seat of a car in Las Vegas while Suge Knight drives.

Lastly, we should also recall that “ELEMENT.” takes place within the context of a broader album narrative, which seems to be inspired by the story of Jonah. Within this narrative context, we should note that Kenny’s inclination to escape from America and flee overseas mirrors Jonah’s decision to get on a boat and sail away from Nineveh, the city that God told Jonah to prophesy against.

After choosing to reject God’s call, Jonah boarded a ship and fled overseas in the opposite direction of Nineveh — From The Bible Project — Read Scripture — Jonah

Jonah’s choice to flee overseas would eventually cause God to send a great storm to halt Jonah’s escape. As we will see in the next track, “FEEL.”, Kenny will similarly face a storm of emotions that will make Kenny reconsider his need for God.

Next: S5E8 — “FEEL.” >

Resources:

- Candyman Farewell to the Flesh (lynching scene)

- Candyman Farewell to the Flesh (broken mirror scene)

- “Words of Wisdom” by 2pac

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade