Artist in Focus: Kendrick Lamar

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Confessional, controversial and overtly political, Kendrick Lamar is at the forefront of a generation of black artists unafraid to speak out against systematic injustice.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born in 1987 and grew up on the streets of Compton, California, a city renowned for its rap scene, as well as drugs and gun violence. A quiet and thoughtful kid, Kendrick was inspired to write music after seeing Tupac and Dr Dre record the video for ‘California Love’ on the streets of his hometown. He started releasing his own music at the age of 16, first under the name K-Dot, and gradually started receiving attention from the likes of The Game and Dr Dre. You can find an in-depth insight into his background on his 2012 record, good kid m.A.A.d city.

Throughout his adult career, it’s been said that Lamar has earned a place among the greats of black history such as Malcolm X and Tupac. His intelligent lyrics and innovative storytelling have helped to make the black experience in America a topic of national conversation. His lyrics are well known for tackling taboo topics; police brutality, institutional racism and mental illness, to name a few.

This gritty, unapologetic attitude is present not only throughout his lyrics but in his performances too. His performance at the 2016 Grammy awards was unforgettable, as he performed ‘The Blacker the Berry’ and ‘Alright’ whilst shackled in chains and dressed in a prison jumpsuit, a powerful visual aid to highlight a serious problem. Kendrick’s vocalisation of the hardships of African American life has been greatly appreciated and drawn on by the general public, with ‘Alright’ being used by activists during protests against racially-charged police brutality.

Kendrick’s lyrical genius is perhaps most clearly seen in his 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, which is nothing short of a musical and lyrical masterpiece. Exploring themes like institutionalised racism, African American culture and discrimination, the album won Best Rap Album and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 58th Grammy Awards. The album also proved to be popular in the White House, with then-president Barack Obama naming ‘How Much A Dolla Cost’ as his favourite song of 2015. One of the most striking things about To Pimp A Butterfly is the number of cultural and literary references to key points of African American culture. The opening words of ‘Alright’ “Alls my life I has to fight” are a direct quotation from Alice Walker’s landmark novel The Color Purple which focuses on the lives of African American women in the South. The repeated mention of “yams” in ‘King Kunta’ is a reference to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, another landmark work of African American literature, where “yams” are a symbol of African-American culture. And track number 13, ‘The Blacker the Berry’, is also the title of Wallace Thurman’s novel, exploring the issue of colourism within the black community.

Kendrick’s celebration of diversity isn’t just confined to his lyrics. The rapper has a reputation as a prominent activist, working closely with those in his childhood home of Compton. He has donated generously to the Compton Unified School District’s music, sports, and after-school programs “to help keep Compton students off the streets and in the classroom.” Recently, Kendrick hired out three cinemas so that children from low-income neighbourhoods in his hometown could see the newly-released Black Panther, which celebrates African culture. He has been named the 35th Generational Icon by the California State Senate. In Kendrick, we see an example of someone actively using their platform to inspire social change, someone truly passionate about their roots and who works tirelessly to promote diversity in the public sphere.

After the notable success of his 2017 album DAMN., Kendrick is continuing to promote diversity through his work on the soundtrack of the phenomenal Black Panther. He continues to speak out through music and activism, refusing to back away from difficult social issues. In the era of police brutality and the re-emergence of the alt-right, Kendrick Lamar is the voice our society needs to hear.

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Second year languages and linguistics student. Often found making music and/or drinking coffee.

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