America’s Racial Refrain:

We Should Still Be Thinking About Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 Performance with the National Symphony Orchestra

On a Tuesday night in a packed house with his band behind him, a cross around his neck, and a head of short, tight cornrows, Kendrick Lamar prepared to begin his set. Looking in from the edge of the stage, Lamar’s lineup would have seemed normal, his regular drummer-bassist-guitarist-sax musical cocktail of performers sharing the stage. Normal until about twenty feet in, where Steve Reinke, the conductor to the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) stood. Past the army of woodwinds, brass, and percussion you’ll find yourself backed against the measured wooden walls of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Lamar’s set list for the night consists mostly of songs from his critically-worshipped album To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) which, at the time of this October 2015 concert, is nearly half a year old. Of the 2000+ people that fill the audience, most are active donating members of the Kennedy Center who received early access to buy tickets based on their donor status. If they aren’t then they’re damn lucky to have gotten tickets, as every seat was claimed mere minutes after sales opened up to the public. It’s safe to say that this isn’t the audience Kendrick normally performs for and this will not be a normal performance. Disregard the entire orchestra accompanying him — this show will instead be unique for the political statement it makes. In an orchestral performance it is customary to remain seated and only clap at the very end. Mere seconds into “For Free?”, his first song of the night, Kendrick asks the audience to get up on their feet and only half will stand.

Lamar’s NSO performance came at an interesting point in his career. His sophomore album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was a runaway success. Fans, critics, and detractors alike had been waiting anxiously for his next major album release. TPAB dropped suddenly and with an irrefutable strength. It was an album not only aware of and vocal about the pressure it faced after M.A.A.D. City, but one that went further with those insecurities, turning them into artistic virtuosity. The day after its unexpected release the accolades came pouring in. Immaculate ratings rained down. The Verge called it “perfect.” Rolling Stone declared it “a masterpiece.”

It became clear that no one was quite as prophetic at describing many elements of the experiences of Black America as Kendrick was. Pitchfork contributor Carvell Wallace is wary of calling him or his music “a savior,” but instead points out that “Kendrick makes the kind of music that can lead you to fight for your own survival.” That’s exactly what it has done. “Alright” is one of the most impactful expressions on TPAB and has filled the throats of protesters on the street. It is a cry of resilience and of outrage. It feels like it was written with the express intent of being the next “We Shall Overcome” protest anthem, and it hits that mark with pinpoint accuracy. Kendrick has crafted his music and his identity into tools that the Black Lives Matter movement and its counterparts can adopt. Even more impressive, Kendrick has crafted his work and himself to be incorruptible by mainstream white culture.

Lamar finds political individuality in his interactions with white listeners. Hip hop as a genre occupies a fascinating cultural space that invites white listeners into intimate and complicated parts of the black experience. White fans of hip hop are gently initiated into a culture that is characterized by violence and pain and struggle. A bridge is built between cultures. Blackness is shared through music. White fans look to hip hop to absolve them of their racial guilt. Black rappers deliver sermons demanding peace and equality and racial unification and their white fans feel vindicated because they have opened up their ears and their mind to a different perspective. Those white listeners then take no further action, make zero sacrifices for said equality and unification, as if hearing and relating to the struggles of black Americans is all that a white listener has to do in order to exonerate himself/herself.

Kendrick creates new ways to talk about the black experience, his own experience, and does not invite white listeners into his posse in the same way other rappers do. His nuanced and tentative self-examinations leave listeners with a perspective that, though highly based in his own experiences with race, is universally personal. White listeners can relate emotionally based on their own reality but cannot appropriate his experiences with blackness as their own. Kendrick talks about race and he talks about peace, but as Wallace puts it, he doesn’t “assuage white guilt by preaching peace and unity and colorblindness and one love.” He speaks to white listeners but he doesn’t let them think that listening is the same as acting.

“Rap’s legitimacy has been consistently undermined by its ‘realness.’ ”

His unique relationship with white audiences that also puts Kendrick Lamar on the frontline of the battle for rap’s artistic legitimacy. He excludes an entire race from treating the experiences he raps about as their own. Instead of taking his words literally they should interpret them much more personally. Encouraging listeners not to take lyrics literally shouldn’t be revolutionary but in hip hop, it is. Rap’s legitimacy has been consistently undermined by its ‘realness’. Early hip hop artists cultivated ‘street cred’ in the same way they honed and collected rhymes. Jay-Z could rap when he was nine years old, but he didn’t want to rap until he had what he calls in his memoir Decoded: a “story to tell” or a struggle to rap about. The cultural mirror of that practice is a toxic form of literalism by those who are removed from hip hop and its sub cultures, as Jack Hamilton explains in Slate: “Black music has often been taken literally because doing so confirmed fears among the kind of people who wanted their fears confirmed.” Denying black rappers any granule of artistic validity went hand in hand with confirming racial biases of violence and drug use, among other things.

For Lamar realness is not derived from stories of struggle or from teardrop tattoos but instead from the realness of his musical virtuosity and political prowess. There is little discussion of Kendrick’s past offenses but rather what the effect of his music is today. As Hamilton sees it, detractors look to criticize and thereby validate hip hop’s street cred “because denying its figurativeness was a convenient way of denying its intellect.” Kendrick does not join that conversation. The stories he tells in his music are not for white culture to appropriate or for high-culture to literalize.

Kendrick Lamar performing with the National Symphony Orchestra sends a message to his detractors: rather than work his way up to the level of artistic legitimacy he deserves and that hip hop artists have long been denied, he’s going straight to the top and his message will trickle down. Here, on a Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center, a short walk away from the Lincoln Memorial steps and the sites of innumerable civil rights victories and failures, Kendrick has set his sights on cultural disruption. By performing with NSO at a time when his most popular song is an anti-oppression anthem, Kendrick elevates the conversation of race and of hip hop’s role as a cultural bridge. This audience is dressed in suits and in sweats. Some clap between songs while others wait for the finale. When, less than one song in, Kendrick asks the audience to get onto their feet, not all will stand. Not everyone is meant to agree with him or like his music, certainly not all will, but this show wasn’t meant for his diehard fans anyway. By performing to a mostly white audience in a mostly white arena he is not preaching inclusivity or colorblindness for unity’s sake. He’s making the point that hip hop and classical music should have always been held at the same artistic level.

This show was meant to jab a finger into the wound of racial tension in the U.S., to demand that the relationship between hip hop music and whiteness change. Hip hop is art and the very real struggles that set the foundation for hip hop don’t make it any less artistic. Listening to hip hop isn’t activism and feeling assuaged of racial guilt by relating to the struggle of a black rapper is akin to complete apathy. Taking Kendrick Lamar’s musical virtuosity and anthemic protests seriously is a step to taking hip hop and the struggle of Black America seriously. Over a year after Lamar stepped foot on the Kennedy Center stage, that remains an undeniably relevant message.