To Pimp the Black Woman: On Kendrick Lamar’s Limited Black Liberation

If music is the product of its original environment, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has become the quintessential arbiter of this notion. Through his storytelling abilities and lyrical prowess, his latest release, To Pimp a Butterfly, seeks to elucidate the current state of black consciousness and liberation in his most combative effort to date.

The album has instantly become a classic in hip-hop circles, but has also — on a larger scale — become a portrait of race dynamics in a post-Ferguson America. Compared to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, which was seen as a necessary therapeutic response to the overarching discussion of police brutality and anti-blackness, Lamar’s Butterfly takes a more aggressive stance — baring visceral angst, discontent, and a call for deeper consideration.

Lamar is clear in his position — both of his own accord and through factors out of his control — as a black man who has “made it” in America. He discusses being a pawn for white capitalism and his desire to see more opportunity and growth for the entire black community, however, for all of his racial “consciousness” there seems to be little room in his conversation for where black women (and other black bodies) stand.

The first major tell of his brand of black liberation was the album artwork. It’s striking, for sure: a group of black men (ostensibly from “The Hood”) in front of the White House hovering over a fallen white politician — no doubt Republican. There’s even a little girl who appears to be white in Lamar’s arms, which seems to play on the long-standing idea of black men being a threat to white women. Perhaps it goes further to suggest that black men already covet the white woman, a la Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. But what’s most striking is the lack of black women in the image. It visually suggests that Lamar’s view of black liberation stops at black men acquiring power — or at least that he thinks once black men are free then everyone else will be.

Lyrically, the album prompts very little discussion of black women, but the sole major inclusion is a misguided use of one in the “For Free” interlude. In the jazz-laden track, the woman represents the pressures and expectations that white America places on the black man. It’s an ill-favored conflation of the relationship between black men and black women and the relationship between black men and the ills of white supremacy and capitalism — suggesting that in America, black men suffer an oppression that black women routinely serve to augment. This choice would have been better executed had Lamar personified his issues with an actual white man to portray what it seems he was truly trying to say. It serves as an “artistic deployment” (or pimping) of the image of the black woman to do his bidding, to present his need to resist being used by White America.

Further, this antagonist serves as a caricature of black women and plays on tropes of the “gold digger” conflated with the “Sapphire” and the “Strong Independent Black Woman.” She’s presented as an exacerbation of Lamar’s problems, as if black women do not deal with their own struggles at the hands of White America and capitalism. (Part of that struggle being the attempt to exist outside of these stereotypes.)

The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden (1509–1510), Michelangelo Buonarroti

Stripped of the racial context, this character ultimately hearkens to “the woman as temptation.” Think the biblical Eve, even Lilith. It speaks to the underlying misogyny that many marginalized men (black, gay, etc.) feel they can skate past because of their minority status. No doubt many black men deal with the expectations of taking care of the women they may be dating and having to work harder than other men — mainly white men — to be half as successful and valued, but for an album that is being touted as a great reflection of racial oppression it does so at the expense of black women.

“By naming sexist oppression as a problem it would appear that we would have to identify as threatening a group we have heretofore assumed to be our allies — Black men. This seems to be one of the major stumbling blocks to beginning to analyze the sexual relationships/sexual politics of our lives. The phrase “men are not the enemy” dismisses feminism and the reality of patriarchy in one breath and overlooks some major realities.”

–Black feminist activist Barbara Smith from Notes for Yet another Paper on Black Feminism, or, Will the Real Enemy Please Stand Up?

I must admit that my bias against the hyper-masculinity displayed throughout the album threw me off at points — not unlike the hyper-masculinity that categorically finds a place within hip-hop and the black community on a larger scale. Often the mindset is that because black men have been historically emasculated — through castration of their bodies, limitation of power and the dismissal of their worth — that any criticism only eclipses the “real” struggle.

There is no denying this emasculation (and adherence to an inherently misogynistic system) is why rappers often refer to themselves as wielding power through the metaphorical use of their genitals. In the “For Free?” interlude, Lamar repeats through a rapid-fire explanation of his anger at white, capitalist America and the black woman, “This dick ain’t free.” This serves as subversion — a penetration and domination of White America, the antagonist. But this unwieldy concept spills over into the consciousness of black men, one that often covets the position of white men without grasping for respect and power on behalf of black women, as well.

To feminize the negative or to negate the feminine serves nothing new or revolutionary to hip-hop or art in general. The woman as muse concept has been used to portray womanhood and femininity as properties that must be organized and made sense of through the lenses and voices of men. Hip-hop, both as an artistic genre and a historic outlet for the black experience, is no different.

J. Cole’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

Most recently, “No Role Modelz” of 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole, uses the image of a superficial, unintelligent, overly manicured woman as a stand-in for what many consider to be a degradation and dumbing down of today’s mainstream hip-hop. He opines, “Don’t save her, she don’t wanna be saved.” This is not the first time J. Cole has used the woman as a personification of larger concepts, but it must be acknowledged that when women are conflated with negativity — as is done here — there often is some misogyny that must be checked.

When we overlook the plight of other black individuals — particularly black women — we lazily dismiss other necessities of equality. If we encouraged these discussions rather than running from them, then we could start a much-needed ousting of misogyny from hip-hop. Perhaps a rapper of Lamar’s status could be a champion for more than just black men. We have the ability to tackle more than one issue at a time.

I’ve engaged in numerous discussions with black men on why I identify as a feminist, which is mistaken as me championing gender equality over racial equality. That, however, is a confused description of what I see as progress. I am not simply a feminist picking up bits and pieces of ideology from the mainstream feminism that often — in turn — champions gender equality without nuance. I come from the school of feminists like Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, who critically consider dismantling both of those oppressions at the same time. But I step into the honors courses of said school and reflect on the words and thoughts of Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Janet Mock, and Laverne Cox, black LGBTQ women who have had to consider something deeper than those other two oppressions. So for me, it is difficult to respect the privileged hierarchy that many black men place on liberation.

Going further, the insistence that black women are confused pawns in white supremacy when they speak out against how black men are capable of and often do wield misogyny just as “well” as their white counterparts is erasing a major part of Black American history. The same could be said of the Civil Rights Movement that stripped power and agency from black women and black LGBTQ individuals in order to “focus” on, again, the real struggle.

Overall, I appreciate Lamar’s confrontation of these issues and the album’s authenticity through describing the balance of purpose for different segments of humanity. Throughout the album, he uses the symbols of the butterfly and the caterpillar as two mutable forces that ultimately need each other to survive. In fact, he suggests that every individual encompasses elements of both. His ending salvo, “Mortal Man,” finally drives home the dichotomy he’s created of the black community and White capitalist America, but it also serves as a perfect representation of the inherent synergy between black men and black women.

“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it / Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city / While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive / One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly / The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness and the beauty within the caterpillar / But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits / Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him / He can no longer see past his own thoughts/ He’s trapped / When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots, such as going home and bringing back new concepts to this mad city / The result? / Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant / Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle / Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”

I don’t expect Lamar to speak from the black woman’s experience, but I do expect him and our community to actively engage in discussions about the myriad black experiences out there, and that can’t adequately be done when we tie black identity narrowly to heterosexual, cisgender, black men. When you talk about black liberation, you must mean the liberation for all black folks — not just black men. As has been said before, #BlacksLivesMatter means all black lives. If we are to effectively deconstruct a white supremacist American Dream, we must tackle misogyny and the erasure of black women from the portrait, as well. Expanding the ideological media we create and consume would be a great place start.

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Follow Raquel Willis on Twitter at @RaquelWillis_
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