And if we’ve learned anything from the backlash Beyoncé received, what Kendrick’s performance represents is downright scary to lots of folks — mostly white conservatives who don’t have the artists on their playlists.
But why? Beyoncé is far from being the first racially-aware R&B singer, and King Kendrick is far from the first pro-black rapper, so why were some folks in the crowd so damn uncomfortable?
Well, the reality is that Kendrick Lamar, just like Beyoncé, is a star — a star that might land in the same category or on the same stage as a Taylor Swift or a Chris Martin from Coldplay.
Some are simply not ready for their children to receive this steady dose of unfiltered blackness.
Calling Kendrick a star or a pop star is not to detract from his authenticity as a rapper; it’s just a simple, factual statement about the current condition of rap music as a whole. As someone who has been listening to hip-hop for close to 30 years, sometimes it’s actually alarming to see how far the music has penetrated its way into mainstream America’s ears.
Pre-90s, hip-hop was so marginalized in mass media that DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince boycotted the 1989 Grammys because they wouldn’t air the award presentation; messages by pro-black acts like Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Sister Souljah were easy to contain.
There were no file sharing services or social media sites to propagate the music, so if you didn’t have access to a Source Magazine or a quality, local radio station, those messages stayed largely confined to a section of black folks. Although albums like Fear of a Black Planet and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted were jarring to white society, they could take solace that the pop station their children listened to would not play those records, and the TV stations they watched wouldn’t air those videos.
Just like how drugs were not considered a national problem when they were concentrated mainly in the projects, hip-hop was so far-removed from the mainstream that it was impossible for white society to see it as much more than a momentary musical fad that wouldn’t bare any substantive social impact.
The rappers that did break through were the ones with safe messages like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer and, ironically enough, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
Fast forward to today, and now an artist like Kendrick Lamar is appearing on songs with Taylor Swift who, contrary to Kanye West’s assertion on the track “Famous,” is one of the largest pop sensations on Earth.
Swift’s Grammy-award winning album 1989 and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly could not be any more different — yet both now land within the reach of the same audience.
Swift is a genuine fan of Kendrick’s art, and when you think of how far-reaching his hits like “Swimming Pools,” “Poetic Justice,” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” have truly become, that shouldn’t surprise you. Whether you want to believe it or not, you’re just as likely to hear those songs at a cookout as you are at a high-school dance at a nearly all-white school.
Yet for a nation that isn’t fully comfortable with black artists being heavily political and basking in their unrepentantly exquisite melanin, a problem arises.
It was all good to have gangsta-rappers like 50 Cent talk about the ills of the projects, a plight many whites don’t feel connected too or responsible for. But it’s another thing when entertainers start addressing issues such as state-sponsored violence and mass incarceration, which are problems those same mass of white folks may have contributed to not just in verbal advocation but in actual votes during elections.
Kendrick Lamar is not the caricature of inner city gang-warfare that the mainstream media has grown to love — he is an affront to a society that institutionalizes blacks and railroads our children.
Every few months, a tragedy occurs, and people of color are forced to engage white folks in a serious conversation about white supremacy, privilege and racism. These moments are typically clouded by people who point fingers at those leading the conversation by accusing them of “race-baiting” and creating a “racial divide.”
Yet the truth is that no one incident can create a divide, because the racial gap has never been bridged. We don’t know how to talk about race and racism in America, and that’s what makes Kendrick Lamar so scary.
While standing in the spotlight, in front of millions of fans of all races, creeds and backgrounds, he dares to confront racism head on — and his message cannot be ignored or marginalized like some emcees before him.
He has the world’s attention.