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Commentary: Kendrick Lamar's 'The Blacker the Berry' Puts Race Back in Rap

Commentary: Kendrick Lamar's 'The Blacker the Berry' Puts Race Back in Rap

Compton rapper revives hip hop music’s racially outspoken past.

Published February 11, 2015

Fear and loathing at the Grammys wasn’t the only music news this week. Kendrick Lamar caused a major buzz after sharing his new anthem of Black rage “The Blacker the Berry” via social media.

Angrily toying with racial stereotypes, the TDE rapper unleashed an emotion-filled tirade against racism and white supremacy, rhyming, “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/You're f**king evil I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey/You vandalize my perception but can't take style from me/And this is more than confession/I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion.”

Except for Yeezus, commercial hip hop music hasn’t heard such unflinching honesty and unbridled vitriol toward racial injustice from a Black rapper since the genre’s golden age. Given the turbulence around the police killings of Eric GarnerMichael Brown and Tamir Rice (all giving rise to the nation-wide Black Lives Matter movement) K Dot’s expression of bold Blackness begs the question: does this sound represent a shift — or at least a widening — of rap’s overall focus to include the bold political feelings of a community it claims to represent? It’s an obvious thought given that hip hop’s Black and brown audience is now speaking out nationwide against racial injustice and rap music, for the most part, isn’t.

The arrival of “The Blacker the Berry” at such a racially turbulent time is comparable to hip hop music’s pro-Black era. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, rap acts like Public EnemyQueen LatifahX-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers mixed messages of pride and history with their bravado as a burgeoning hip hop nation was moved by racial violence in states like New York and, among other issues, the world-wide fight against apartheid in South Africa. But since the gangster-fixation of rap and the commercial explosion of hip hop music heading into the ‘90s (and beyond), there’s been a noticeable separation between the socio-political turmoil of the Black community and rap music’s willingness — more like refusal — to blatantly speak to that turmoil.

But in these supposedly post-racial times, where America’s first Black president doesn’t deny the fact that Black America undoubtedly suffers from police brutality (among other problems), the release of Kendrick Lamar’s song — like Black lives — matters. While “The Blacker the Berry” doesn’t sit within a cannon of current rap songs keenly reflecting today’s racially-charged atmosphere, it does lead the growing cadre of artists like J. Cole (who released “Be Free” for Mike Brown), Joey Bada$$ (penning thought-provoking cuts like “Save the Children”) and others who are pushing their social perspective more and more to the center of the music.

Will “The Blacker the Berry” be that cut to nudge rap music back toward its race conscious roots? Only time will tell.

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(Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Written by Rahim Ali

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