HIP-HOP & HOLINESS: A QUEER BLACK WOMAN'S EXPLORATION OF DAMN. BY KENDRICK LAMAR
Written by Aurielle Marie
It’s 2PM in San Francisco- on a sunny day in April. It's Good Friday, a time that provokes a nostalgic recalling of long-as-hell church services and impossibly uncomfortable dresses for me. If I was back home in the South, I’d be helping my mother cook in preparation for Easter. But I’ve left home in search of my purpose, in pursuit of answers to larger questions about my life’s work and it’s meaning. As a Black activist in a post-Ferguson America, I’m used to exhaustion. Like many of my peers, I’m shifting my focus to a disciplined pursuit of theory and praxis. But… that’s another Op-Ed. On this day, under the direction of a spiritual guide, I am to sit at the altar I’ve built and concentrate on being present. (Trust, it is much more difficult than it sounds). As I’m gathering sage and incense, I scroll my twitter feed. One of the rap game’s most prolific artists has released his latest album, and, unsurprisingly my timeline can’t catch their breath. As I am in preparation for my own spiritual process, I press play on the album that is causing a roar. It is Good Friday. I am at my altar.
Once the record begins, a haunting, rich melody transports me into a world of compelling storytelling. Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” confronts the common plight of mortality and value that spans the chasm of the African Diaspora. We have always sat in juxtaposition to whiteness, and have paid the price for it. Our bodies, voices, even our joy has been historically policed to fit inside the rigid binaries that Eurocentric standards impose. Its some fuck shit. What’s curious about the method of storytelling in DAMN., is that it is just as biblical as it is secular. Parables are woven with prophecies; each track reads like a prolific book of the bible. Kendrick even creates comparison between his own persecution and that of Hebrew Israelite several times. (If that’s a lil’ too hotep for you, girl, same. But we’ll get to that.)
What’s interesting about the ongoing struggle between holiness and humanness (or battle of wickedness and weakness, as Bēkon reminds us on the first track) in DAMN., is that Lamar seems to assert that the behaviors of folks who struggle on the margins are damaging displays of weakness. Take the song “PRIDE.” for example. He states:
“race barriers make inferior of you and I/
See, in a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches/
I'll choose work over bitches, I'll make schools out of prison.”
All throughout the 7th track on the album, over an ironically humble beat, we watch the emcee struggle with binary paradigms that juxtapose haughty Blackness with a more subdued, modest (read: respectable) demeanor. He seems to lament, that if only we weren’t Black, we could do something “productive” with the natural, enviable talents that are embedded in our DNA. I got beef with this dangerous dance Lamar engages throughout the album, a flirtatious relationship with anti-Black aspirations of “holiness” and a thinly veiled contempt for oppression that seems to target the oppressed just as often as it targets the oppressors. In this vein, Kenny connects his fears of failure, loss, and mortality in ‘FEAR.” to his belief that Black folks are somehow restricted from the anointing of God. He raps:
“I'm talkin' fear, fear of losin' creativity/
I'm talkin' fear, fear of missin' out on you and me/
I'm talkin' fear, fear of losin' loyalty from pride…
'Cause my DNA won't let me involve in the light of God”
Listen, I’m a Black Queer woman from Atlanta. I’ve seen firsthand the impact of white supremacist aligned religious doctrine. I’ve had to unlearn the lie that Blackness lives in antithesis of godliness (or that godliness itself built the metronome measuring good and evil). The fear of eternal damnation is real. And honestly, it shouldn’t be a shock: the encoding of whiteness (which is to say, the assertion of White Supremacy since chattel slavery) has historically been enforced by white people under the guise of Western Christianity. God, as told by European colonizers, is white and civilized. “Barbaric” West African people, their descendants, and the traditions that have followed us are an abrasive, corrosive agent to the hold white supremacy has on institutions. Naturally, to slow this erosion, it makes sense to vilify Blackness in order to thwart our access to power and resources. For Kendrick, “righteous” self-realization seems to be extrapolated from an understanding of either who God is… or who God isn’t. In a real-ass blend of rage, fear, apathy, and audacity, Lamar attempts to explore the meaning of his own Blackness inside a religious world that romances whiteness. He’s so focused on finding answers that he sometimes reveals the places that he’s internalized anti-Black rhetoric, specifically in tracks like “LUST.” and “XXX.” It reminds me how easy it is to believe the lies white supremacy tells us about us.
Kendrick is, and has always been, so masterful with word play, with alliteration, with his manipulation of sound, effects, and lyricism, that one may forget he is—in fact—not a god. We forget to critique the man who is behind these brilliant and painful reflections of Blackness both on and off record. We forget to remind him that his truths can enact the same violence that he’s escaped from by using his pen.
As an MC who has dedicated a ton of airtime to commentary on systemic ills, you’d think Kendrick would have incentive to broaden his lexicon of the impact of social injustice—even that which extends beyond his immediate proximity. But, ya’ know, cishet Black man tings. The album’s first single, “HUMBLE.” set off a series of turbulent conversations regarding Hip-Hop’s infamous relationship with Black Women, especially in light of the current and historical role Black Women assume in initiating liberatory efforts for Black men. I had a ball dissecting his intentions behind the record… and by ball, I mean niggas were hella pressed on twitter. HUMBLE. is an elixir of clever word slurry, ego boiled into sap, and misogynoir disguised as empowerment. The hit single trains it’s aim on a long list of targets that rapper Kendrick Lamar finds himself at odds with. Competitive peers in the industry are reduced to nuisance. God is either fable or foe, and maybe both, on this track, and for some peculiar reason, Black women are scolded too:
“I'm so fuckin' sick and tired of the Photoshop
Show me somethin' natural like afro on Richard Pryor
Show me somethin' natural like ass with some stretch marks”
Like… nigga, you could’ve just kept us out of it. On Twitter I stated, "Kendrick's HUMBLE. weaponizes hip-hop against Black women" while listening to a fury of chorusing (cishetero male ass) voices singing the artist's praise. I mentioned how tired I was of Black women being attacked because we try to keep up with the impossible beauty standards set by men... I love K. Dot, but these lyrics were the furthest thing from love. And as I fired off tweets that voiced my opinions, I was met with violent resistance from male "hip-hop heads" whose only interest was in silencing me as a Black woman for the sake of a good beat and crafty lyricism.
Interestingly, the feel of this entire album follows a similar fashion. It is incredibly masculine—often in ways that are distracting, in ways that feel toxic. It may be because the only amorous mention of a non-man is the syrupy-pop joint “LOYALTY.” featuring Rihanna, while most other utterances of a woman character are zoomed in on death, deception, or incredible trauma, like in “BLOOD.” and “FEAR.” In “LUST.” Lamar is begging to be allowed to penetrate a woman, as he simultaneous narrates a parable that highlights the dangers of succumbing to the desires of the flesh. It’s a mood killer, to say the least. What we can glean from these aloof, albeit fleeting interactions the record has with women, is an indifferent if not straight up hostile regard for Pussy and the bodies they’re attached to. If you’re familiar with the queerphobic, (lowkey anti-Black) hotep doctrine of the Hebrew Israelites, then you’re as unsurprised about this finding as I am.
But it ain’t all bad, y’all. In the years following a radical push for intersectional Black resistance, most Black folks (myself and my peers included) are trying to find their place on the spectrum of good and evil, love and hate. Black folks are not DAMNed. We are a soothing tincture knead into wounds left by a godless country. We are magic. Think of how often magic is mistaken for taboo. Think how long white folks have vilified that which they cannot comprehend. Everything we touch, even the ritual we call Hip-Hop is a spiritual phenomenon. Sorcery like ours ain’t found in Deuteronomy, though, Kenny. It is encoded in centuries of resistance, and it lives and breaths in our bodies, our work, and our art. This album comes right on time for a generation of radical artisans who want to explore their connection to spirit and ancestry while lighting a flame under this nation. We were reading articles and discussing protest models while blasting M.A.A.D City in our living rooms. In the summer, we shut down highways singing “Alright” at the top of our lungs. We danced in crowded bars to the funkadelic “i,” and we dissected all the lyrics in between. If there’s one thing Kendrick Lamar has held onto, it is an unwavering stubbornness, a commitment to exploring the recesses of his heart and the basement of his fears. And aren’t we all afraid? Aren’t we all trying to demystify the peculiar position in which we find our Black selves? This album pushes me to hold space for the nuances, the dualities of our experiences. Not unlike my Black, Queer, magical ass, Kendrick Lamar is in search of something bigger than this world. This is unmistakably Hip-Hop.
I turn the album off after getting to the end, just as it cycles seamlessly back to the beginning. I can’t help but think about the connections to religion and faith, to God and the Damned as I sit in front of my altar, lighting candles. This is, of course, the effect Kendrick wanted. I set my intentions for the day, and move into a place of awareness and “presence.” I can’t help but notice in this moment, that I sit in the company of my ancestors. They buzz in my bones. An unexpected reminder that somebody is always praying for me. Damn, for sure.