Self-Determination Is The Highest Expression Of Democracy

Mr. Morale and Survivalism: an African Internationalist analysis of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album - InPDUM

Over the past 12 years, Kendrick Lamar’s music has defied the form and genre that has historically been applied to hip hop culture and rap music.  There has historically been a division between what people call “conscious rap” and “hardcore or gangsta rap”. 

Kendrick Lamar’s immediate entry into hip hop has been to give definition to the African experience under US counterinsurgency. This was the point of his debut studio album Section .80 and it has continued for the past 11 years.

While defining the conditions that Africans endure, Kendrick, like many other African artists, does not point the political way forward.  

On a recent episode of Black Power Talks, the Black Power 96 radio show hosted by InPDUM Vice-President, Matsemela Odom, and Information & Education Coordinator, Dexter Mlimwengu, they dove into the album. Joined by Burning Spear Newspaper managing editor, Solyana Bekele, the three gave an African Internationalist analysis to Lamar’s latest project. Below are excerpted responses from Part 1 of the discussion: 

What was your reaction to the album?

Matsemela (M): In many ways this album is a continuation to the album he dropped 5 years ago. I can see his political development between the albums. There is a bit of idealism (spirituality, mysticism) that he holds onto but I see him participating in what we as African Internationalists call criticism and self criticism. He’s criticizing the conditions imposed on African people throughout the album but on tracks like Auntie Diaries, I see him giving a self-criticism. This kind of complex understanding of African thought has really allowed Kendrick to stand out amongst his peers. I love how Kendrick, through his music, can engage the larger history of African music coming out of Los Angeles and elsewhere without just mimicking it.

Kendrick’s discography, more than most artists, is seen as a documentation of his “journey”. How do you see his development between 2011’s Section .80 and 2022’s Mr. Morale- particularly as it relates to how the world has changed for African people between 2011 and now?

Solyana (S): I agree that his discography is a reflection of his developing politics. On Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (GKMC), for example, there was alot of optimism about the conditions of our people. Then on To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), the song “Alright” had really become a sort of anthem for black people. “We gon be alright” became a catchphrase. On Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers (MMBS), we see that the mood has drastically changed. He seems less idealistic and more realistic about our conditions. I see the self-criticisms that Matsemela mentioned on songs like We Cry Together, Father Time and United in Grief. On all these songs, he’s critical of himself and the role he’s played in unhealthy relationships. I think he’s hitting on many issues that we experience as Africans. The only thing I’d say is lacking in his analysis is that he doesn’t say what the correct way to deal with these issues should be. 

With lyrics such as “I pop the pain away”, “I slide the pain away”, “money wipes the tears away” and others, there’s a consistent theme of numbing the pain. How would you describe the pain that he’s consistently trying to escape? 

S: The pain that he talks about is something that we’ve identified as colonialism. These are issues that we deal with on a daily basis and he’s rxpldinoj how he copes with this pain. However, I think we also need to recognize Kendrick’s own class. I remember seeing a tweet that said something like “these are the issues that Kendrick raps about but does nothing about (solving the issues)”. While he raises awareness about these issues, he also makes money off of these songs. 

M: That’s a good point. It seems like hip-hop is the one cultural form where the cultural production isn’t separated from the artist himself/herself. We always assume that the music is a representation of the exact lived experiences of that artist. So when we listen to Kendrick, an artist who clearly has all kinds of money, we assume that he’s speaking on his personal pain on this record as opposed to having a larger discussion about mental health through this character that is not necessarily Kendrick Lamar Duckworth but a character he’s portraying on this album.

Dexter (D): This makes me think of the album cover of MMBS. It portrays Kendrick and his actual family living in projects when clearly that is not Kendrick’s real living situation. That just adds to this distinction between Kendrick, the entertainer, and Kendrick, the character portrayed on this album. This also reminds me of this ongoing question of ghost writers in hip-hop. People are always shocked and appalled at the idea that a rapper would enlist the help of other writers to make his songs and whenever a rapper is “exposed” for using ghost writers, they lose credibility as an emcee. Thats not a standard that any other artist of any other genre is held to.

In Father Time, Kendrick explores the relationship between him and his father throughout his childhood. He talks about the “tough love” his father gave him.  He told him to hide his feelings, never cry, never look weak, never show emotion. As a result of this upbringing, he has difficulties expressing his feelings today and has developed what he calls “daddy issues”. We’re African internationalists. We understand that all of the issues we experience in our community- even these issues between Kendrick and his father- have their basis in colonial-capitalism. With that understanding, how did you feel about Father Time?

S: I think Father Time explores the experiences of black men- hiding your emotions and “being strong” in the face of these oppressive conditions. In the song, Kendrick acknowledges that even though he’s experiencing these emotional issues today as a result of his fathers tough love, he understands his father’s intention behind the tough love which was to prepare him to face the world. He also notes that he was still unprepared to face these conditions of the world, despite his father’s tough love.

M: I think this song gets to a contradiction in hip-hop. I believe that hip-hop has collectively been about survivalism- survivalism pending revolution but not about how to actually make a revolution. So his father is giving him a survival strategy but the survival strategy in and of itself doesn’t overturn the conditions he’s trying to survive against.  

D: Right and that’s why Kendrick was ultimately unprepared still. This track stood out to me as well because theres an assumption out there that black men can’t show emotion and black fathers can’t show emotion. They’re either emotionally neglectful or outright emotionally abusive. That’s why it’s important that we approach this song as African Internationalists because we’re able to trace all of these family emotional issues to a source. Without coming at it from this perspective, we end up saying that the black man is the problem or the black woman is the problem or, in this case, the black father is the problem. African Internationalism helps us understand that none of us are the problem, we are the victims of the problem which is colonialism. 

Look out for Part 2 of our African Internationalist breakdown of Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers!

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