Being Real Black for You: Who Kendrick Lamar Is Rapping to on ‘The Blacker the Berry’

TDE

I don’t remember the first time I heard “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” I do recall, however, the first time I was instructed to listen to it.

The version was Donny Hathaway’s take, from his 1970 album Everything Is Everything. At the time, headed to fifth grade and abruptly leaving the familiar bubble of my all-black school, I was told to pay attention to the lyrics. I didn’t know the full history of the song, or lineage of the phrase. I didn’t know about the Aretha Franklin version, from an album of the same name. I didn’t know about the original Nina Simone version. And I didn’t know that Simone wrote the song in memory of her friend Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun.

I didn’t know about the Elton John version either.

Since I was introduced to it, the song has remained by my side, because it’s talking about me and talking to me. It’s an exercise in self-love, as well as a plea for others to show us love. It feels private, but it isn’t nearly as effective had it not been so public.

From Hathaway’s version, it’s outward:

In this whole wide world
There’s a million — a million boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black
That’s a fact, oh yes it is

And later, inward:

Don’t you know that the joy — the joy of today is —
Is the day that we all — we all be proud to say
That we are young, gifted — gifted and black
And it’s sho’nuff where it’s at

At Simone’s 1969 concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (that would become Black Gold), she spoke to the crowd before performing the song:

Now, it is not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.

Hathaway, on his version, riffed toward the song’s end:

I ain’t trying to bring down nobody else but I know it’s sho’nuff (gifted, gifted)

These were two artists singing a song for a select group as if the door’s closed, but slightly cracked for anyone who cares enough to hear.

I’d wondered what it might be like to encounter, enjoy, or even sing along to the song and not be black. But it’s a fleeting curiosity. All I truly cared about was what it stood for — a song, birthed in strife, made for me.

♦♦♦

At the 2015 Grammys, Kendrick Lamar won two awards — his first Grammys — for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, for the song “i.” When the song came out, much of the immediate reaction was that Kendrick had finally gone pop, because of the song’s seemingly cheesy catchphrase: “I love myself.” Here’s Kendrick, on the target audience of the song, speaking to Hot 97:

I wrote a record for the homies that’s in the penitentiary right now. I also wrote a record for these kids that come up to my show with these slashes on they wrist saying they don’t wanna live no more. If I say something this blatant, this bold, this simple, they can take reaction from that, they can lock your body, they can’t trap your mind for my homies that’s in the pen. For the people that’s outside they have something more to live for, it starts with yourself first, and you won’t be thinking all these negative things that’s completely corrupt in your brain.

In Kendrick’s mind, this message is pointed at a particular group, but it resonated beyond its target. Through a cynical lens, it went “mainstream” — that’s what two Grammy wins validates.

Since the release of “i,” we’ve heard two additional offerings from Kendrick that could land on his follow-up to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. There was the untitled song he performed as the final musical guest of The Colbert Report.

It’s a song about power through the lens of race. It’s about a clearly delineated minority and majority, with Kendrick addressing how Asians, Indians, and blacks exist as minority groups under a powerful white majority. And then, broadly, expressing how minority groups will have their cultures co-opted by the white majority, should they compromise their beliefs.

A piece of mines
That’s what the white man wanted when I rhyme
Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99
I go platinum from rapping, I do the company fine
What if I compromise? He said it don’t even matter
Make a million or more, you living better than average
You losing your core following, gaining it all
Put a price on my talent, I hit the bank and withdraw
Hit the bank and withdraw, hit the bank and withdraw
Put myself in the rocket ship and I shot for the stars
Tell me what you accomplished and what he said to the boy
I’mma make you some promises that you just can’t ignore
Your profession anonymous as an artist
I don’t target your market
You ain’t signing your signature when I throw you my wallet
A lot of rappers are giving their demo all in the toilet
World tour, your masters, mortgage, I need ya

Ultimately, it’s a song about distrust. It’s us versus them. And while “white man” can be understood as a metaphor for the industry, or those generally in power, it doesn’t have to be.

As the song ends, Kendrick focuses on his own race.

What the black man say?
Tell ’em we don’t die, tell ’em we don’t die
Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply
Tell ’em we don’t die, tell ’em we don’t die
Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply
Tell ’em we don’t die, tell ’em we don’t die
Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply
Tell ’em we don’t die, tell ’em we don’t die
Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply

It’s a call to arms, akin to something chanted at a rally. It’s Kendrick talking as a black man, about black people, to black people, but with the clear intention that everyone (including those in power) can hear his explicit point: We don’t die, we multiply.

And then there’s “The Blacker the Berry,” released Monday, the day after his Grammy wins.

Attempting to decode every nook and cranny of a song, what it all means, and why Kendrick said what he said is difficult — and arguably irresponsible — two days after a song is released. But what is clear is that, through this song, he carries with him traces of his outspoken, black music-making ancestors, from Nina Simone’s tone and overall focus to Tupac Shakur’s self-aware perfection.

Discussing her audiences, Simone once said her job was to get black listeners “more aware of themselves and where they came from … and I will do it by whatever means necessary.”1 Her focus was not listeners, it was black listeners, all while playing venues that were often filled with white audiences smack in the middle of the civil rights movement. And this sentiment only intensified with time, from Simone’s note on “ignoring” white audiences in 1969 (which, as you can hear from the recording, is met with loud applause by audience members white and nonwhite) to Simone commenting that whites were in attendance “because they think it’s the thing to do.”2

When Tupac was interviewed by MTV in 1994, he admitted to being a work in progress ultimately trying to make things better. Not a Chuck D–esque revolutionary leader with a plan, but someone who could report it as he saw it, even if it affects him negatively, for the purpose of pushing black people forward.

I’m trying to find my way in the world, you know, I’m trying to be somebody instead of just make money off everybody. You know what I’m saying, so I go down paths that haven’t been traveled before and I usually mess up. But I learn, you know what I’m saying, I come back stronger. I’m not talking ignorant, you know what I’m saying. So I obviously put thought into what I do. …

When they see me, they know that every day when I’m breathing is for us to go farther. Every time I speak, I want the truth to come out. Every time I speak, I want a shiver. I don’t want them to be like they know what I’m gonna say because it’s polite. … I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world. And that’s our job: It’s to spark somebody else watching us. We might not be the ones, but let’s not be selfish and because we not gonna change the world let’s not talk about how we should change it. I don’t know how to change it, but I know if I keep talking about how dirty it is out here, somebody gonna clean it up.

Nina was fed up. Tupac was fed up. And if you were black, they both seemed to think you should be, too.

This is all contextually relevant considering the direction Kendrick has taken. The message in “The Blacker the Berry” is targeted: It’s well beyond a rap song about race. Or even a rap song about being black. It’s the rare reality of an entire song, by a major artist, that is wholly targeted toward one audience — one racial audience — and at certain points against another.

Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I’m African American, I’m African
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re fuckin’ 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
I’m guardin’ my feelins, I know that you feel it
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’
You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga

The “fuck you, you did this to us, you want to be us, fuck you”–ness of the song is very clearly Black versus White (or even Black versus Everyone Else), and it stays true throughout the majority of the song. It only gets more specific and pointed as it progresses.

I’m African American, I’m African
I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan

The twist to the song is that there’s a reveal. In each verse, he begins by referring to himself as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” In his final verse, he goes through a list of stereotypes — often related to being black — and then follows them by questioning the so-called positivity in his own blackness.

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia state “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gangbanging make me kill a n-​-​-​-​ blacker than me?
Hypocrite

Kendrick is attempting a lot in one song. It’s an internal monologue, made public, in which he’s working out his own issues, acknowledging his own demons. Is it conservative? Is he coming down hard on black people? Is he coming down surprisingly hard on white people? Does he fully understand race and power and inequality as much as one perhaps should before jumping in this sea of generalizations? There are days and weeks and months and infinities left to parse out these ideas. But what is true from even the first listen is that Kendrick is talking directly to black people.

Kendrick’s fed up. And if you’re black, he seems to think you should be, too.

Both Simone and Hathaway, in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” allude to this idea of not putting anyone else down, but — which is their way of creating a safe environment while making it explicitly clear that the song is not an equal-opportunity listen.

To say Kendrick is putting “people” down would be an understatement. To use his own words:

Excuse my French but fuck you — no, fuck y’all
That’s as blunt as it gets, I know you hate me, don’t you?
You hate my people, I can tell ’cause it’s threats when I see you

So what now? I know how this song makes me feel. It makes me feel proud to be black, proud that a black man created it, but also mad as hell. But that’s just me. But what happens when the majority of the rap-listening audience — Kendrick’s audience — represents the bad guy, in a major song from one of the most awaited albums of the year? What comes of that? Is it guilt? Denial? Or is the answer to ignore what’s being said and just nod along to the beat?

It’s unclear. But I can’t wait to find out.

Filed Under: Music, Kendrick Lamar, The Blacker the berry, Rap, Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, The Grammys, To Be Young Gifted and Black

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert