Kendrick Lamar and reigniting the fire of protest music

Last week, thousands of supporters and activists of all races met in the nation’s capital for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March.

In 1995, the march was meant as a way for African-American men to take responsibility for their families and communities. In 2015, it is fair to assume that many of this year’s participants were probably in diapers the first go around, that’s if they were alive at all.

One thing that remains the same is the fiery emotion of protest shared by both eras. While previous generations have had to endure unspeakable hardships on legal and social levels, this generation has found itself literally fighting for their lives against a seemingly non-stop assault at the hands of our nation’s police.

This generation has had its heart ignited with a passion to face injustice with its fist balled and jaw tight.

And thanks to one young rapper, this generation also has a soundtrack.

This year, Kendrick Lamar dropped what has the potential to be one of the most important albums of its genre and generation.

To Pimp a Butterfly has already broken records and has already been deemed a classic. And much has been written about its ambition and vision. So I won’t discuss that here.

Instead, I want to talk about blood and bleeding; open wounds and picked over scabs, and the background music that historically has been set to the somber, yet noble, activity of protest.

Death of protest music
Whether Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield, protest music seems to be indelibly tied to the late 60’s anti-war movement. The time period seemed rife with unsatisfied, anxious sentiments.

America did not like what it was becoming and the music perfectly reflected that.

Then something happened. Maybe it was the drug-induced apathy of the 70’s, or maybe the narcissistic capitalism of the 80’s, but by the 1990’s, the only people making any type of recognizable protest music were rappers.

If you’re into conspiracy, maybe you can figure it out and enlighten, but someone, somewhere, flicked a switch and the music stopped.

In the end, and as would later prove to be the sad norm, hip hop was left to stand on its own. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Tupac, KRS One and the like, took up the mantle of angrily shouting down the rising waves of racial and cultural ambivalence.

I’d like to believe these artists sowed the seeds to the genre’s resurgence.

NWA’s “Fuck the Police” was one of the first shots fired into the sky, filling the dance floors while simultaneously screaming that there was something terribly wrong in our communities. Ice Cube’s “Black Korea” was one part hateful and the other righteously indignant.

But it was perhaps Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and it’s lead single “Fight the Power” that most perfectly encapsulated the mood during this era.

The mood was anger and nothing but.

Anger is a clouding emotion. It emanates from the body like smoke and in waves. It fogs glasses and erases clarity. If properly angered, the average person experiences reduced visibility; similar to driving on a highway, lost in a rain storm.

Wiping the windows won’t help. Mirrors are useless, so there is no reflection and all that’s left is the five feet directly out front.

There is no peripheral. There is no spatial awareness. There is no context.

There is only the immediate space of the situation. A bubble, closed off to the world, where nothing else matters until some similarly lost person, wanders confused into your path.

New-age revolution
This is why Kanye West is so important.

More than any other emcee before him — and more than quite a few artists ever — Mr. West has opened himself and his frailties to the scrutiny of the outside world.

Yes, he’s arrogant, but we first found out after he told us so. We know he’s insecure, because he let us in on the secret. He then turned the microscope around, pointedly asserting that we were as well.

The generation of emcees that have followed Kanye — Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake and, to some extent, Big Sean, and even songstress Jhene Aiko — have adopted this penchant for self-analysis. Hip hop is so neurotic nowadays.

It is this trait that separates this era’s protest music from the 90’s: the ability to escape the fog of anger, look inside and see what needs to be fixed within oneself, along with what needs to be fixed externally.

The polarizing reality of this new post-Ferguson era is static-electric. Following the death of Michael Brown — as well as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford III, to name a few — there has developed a period of tension in our country that has been punctuated by political unrest; all while the country convulses and spasms in its attempt to adapt to a world where a black man, in the highest office, continually tells white citizens that they haven’t paid what they owe.

Being analytical, whether introspectively or externally, has never been more important.

Everything is charged nowadays, sparking and ready to arc in a loud, violent explosion of vibrant emotion. This was the garden bed that Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly which could possibly be the most important protest album in several generations.

The album was secretly released on March 16, with little to no warning or fanfare, and landed deliberate and heavy on the pop culture consciousness, burying itself deep under the epidermis with the violence and immediacy of a meteor shot from the heavens.

To Pimp a Butterfly is a prophetic warning as well as bitterly biting self-critique. It’ Chuck D and Kanye West; Ice Cube and Andre 3000. Kendrick Lamar has created an album that acts as the culmination of a generation’s struggle to figure itself out on a national stage.

The album’s power remains in its ability to shout down the great devils of western civilization, as well as the devil on Lamar’s very own shoulder. Songs such as “Institutionalized” and “u” are both intense as well as introspective. This is most apparent in the song “The Blacker the Berry,” where Lamar anchors his attack on systemic racism with a deep and sobering douse of tough love.

It is this self-analysis that has been missing from true protest music. The acknowledgement that there is work to be done in the African-American community before it can have any hope of standing, united against any outside threats.

To Pimp a Butterfly follows the lead that had been set by D’Angelo’s brilliant neo-soul reintroduction Black Messiah, which also attacked social issues.

As hard as it was to digest, it was just as masterful in its attempt to encompass the sense of unrest and discontent that blacks were feeling. Like waves of heat, anger rose from the recordings as if they were asphalt. The album, both sonically and lyrically, spoke on feelings of anger, protest and cynicism.

J Cole also stepped up, dropping the song “Be Free” in response to Brown’s killing. T.I. followed with “New National Anthem,” which feels to be the gangster-rap polar opposite to Cole’s soulful wail.

To Pimp a Butterfly is a prophetic warning as well as bitterly biting self-critique. It’s Chuck D and Kanye West; Ice Cube and Andre 3000. Kendrick Lamar has created an album that acts as the culmination of a generation’s struggle to figure itself out on a national stage.”

While anger has its place, it can be corrosive. Plus it burns too quickly, like pure ethanol, and there’s no time or opportunity for any type of fire to catch, build and grow. The flame just bursts, bright and white, only to be quickly snuffed, suffocated by its own ambition.

There’s much needed room to grow in To Pimp a Butterfly. There’s room to grow, room to move, and room to breathe; and breath is life. There was air in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” just as there was in Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. There’s life in Isaac Hayes and in Aretha Franklin. There’s life in struggle, both inner and out.

And now, once again, there’s air in hip hop, breathing life and reigniting the long dormant fires of protest.

Thanks Kendrick.

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