Kendrick Lamar: Shifting Conversations and Spaces

Heated discussions circulate from time to time about who reigns as the “sickest” lyricist in hip-hop. The prowess of an emcee has been calculated and determined on several levels – from wordplay and quick-draw spitting, to affiliation and credibility. However, the presence and lyricism of one artist, born and bred in the streets of Compton, CA has somehow muffled – and rightfully so – the quarrels of who’s the best.

Kendrick Lamar in the "King Kunta" music video, set in Compton, California.
Kendrick Lamar in the “King Kunta” music video, set in Compton, California. | Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine

Since hitting the underground back in 2003, at the ripe age of 16, Kendrick Lamar’s allegiance to and admiration for the sounds and stories of Black Life are apparent in his art. Drawing inspiration from California legends, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, Lamar – aka King Kunta – has revamped the sound of rap music and removed much of the artificial gloss and glamour attributed to 21st century hip-hop culture. The release of his 2014 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was proof of that, as Lamar created a soundtrack to narrate Black trauma and common narratives. But through a historical moment in October 2015, the Compton artist painted his music in living color through a new space.

Garnering a diverse crowd of ages, races and backgrounds, Lamar sold out the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, alongside his band and the National Symphony Orchestra. His profound third eye was electric during the concert. Well aware of his audience, Lamar performed tracks from his latest album, including, “For Free? Interlude,” “Wesley’s Theory,” “How Much Does a Dollar Cost,” “Complexion,” “i,” and “The Blacker the Berry.” These songs, along with others on TPAB, illustrate issues that afflict society and Black Life – financial woes, colorism, gang violence and genocide, racism, humane treatment and conflicts with one’s spiritual self. Lamar capped off the night with a high energy performance of “Alright,” which has become a battle cry for Black activists in 2015.

The marriage of Lamar’s lyrics and the NSO’s aural finesse shifted the typical energy of the Kennedy Center, sending audience members on their feet almost immediately into the show. Prior to that night, news of Lamar’s arrival swept the DC metro area and sent people abuzz as they wondered how to get their hands on the golden tickets; in fact, tickets were sold out within hours on their general admission selling date. But, the appeal was not exclusively the venue or the artist – but both. Historically, the demographics for philanthropic giving to arts institutions has consisted of  a specialized segment of the population: moderately affluent art aficionados whose tastes in culture have been visually affirmed in spaces of prestige. Distinctions between what is high and low culture have drawn a sociological and socioeconomic line in the sand, limiting means of access and appreciation. The Arts Consulting Group, which resides in the District, explains that a person’s interest and ability to invest in an organization is contingent on connection, commitment and capacity. Kennedy Center members and frequent goers, who typically are middle-aged, White, and well-off, have an established connection with normalcies seen within that space; their commitment to spaces like this are signified in their attendance and/or financial giving, all which amount to their capacity (Thibodeau, 2012).

Kendrick Lamar performing with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. | Photo credit: The Atlantic
Kendrick Lamar performing with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. | Photo credit: The Atlantic

With Lamar’s one-night only appearance at the Kennedy Center, ideas around the typical spectator shifted and a presence of otherness was gratified. While the faces of veteran attendees of the venue were present, they were outnumbered by youthful spectators, many of whom were Black. Art education and its respective programs have continuously been stripped from school curricula due to ever-present budget cuts, particularly in the DC area. Schools with economically disadvantaged students (typically and predominantly children of color) are the hardest hit (Walker, 2012). Fortunately, institutions like the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest DC exist to foster expression through musical performance for its majority Black student population. Proof of the school’s success is displayed with the Mellow Tones, a co-ed vocal ensemble, who opened the show for Lamar, belting tunes in crisp acapella with accompanying hand-object instrumentation. Considering the suppressed artistic expression amongst minority youth in conventional spaces, along with the visibility and success of a Black artist like Lamar, the financial ability of nabbing a seat to this concert is sparse, but the interest to obtain a seat is great.

Ticket prices for this event hit the triple digits, which is not unusual for a Kennedy Center exposé. The difference, however, in this instance, was the predominantly Black audience. More than a quarter of Black people in DC live below the poverty line, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (Fatzick, 2015). Thus, the capacity for some to even consider purchasing a golden ticket to see King Kunta signifies privilege and an inescapable economic gap within DC that divides not only races, but classes of people. Frankly, having a budget line specifically for leisure and entertainment is not affordance allotted to many in the DC area. However, the intent behind hosting a musical event of this scale and rarity is not to exclude individuals, but to expose individuality and transcend boundaries.

Lamar himself disregards the grandeur and allure of a capitalistically driven lifestyle – a choice likely influenced by his upbringing in Compton, which touts a track record of financial downturn. His down-to-earth nature and musical eclecticism garners respect and admiration from many within and outside the industry. Powerfully enough, Black art, rap music and such performed narratives are seemingly gratified as a mainstream art form when approved in a space like the Kennedy Center. Moreover, Kendrick Lamar serves as a modern-day griot and liaison of sorts in his ability to relate to stories of Blackness and display it musically in popular culture. His art and message simultaneously confirms the voices of whom he represents – check the cover of To Pimp a Butterfly – and grants him certified Black genius, surpassing notions of Black exceptionalism.

The impact and against-the-grain approach of Lamar is undeniable. Officially dubbed as the “New King of the West Coast” by musical predecessors like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and The Game, Lamar’s craft has been legitimized within and outside of Black culture. From doing features with J. Cole, Taylor Swift and Jidenna, Lamar is holding his own and the legacy of Black artistry very well. Respectfully recognizing predecessors like George Clinton and Tupac in his music, Lamar is carving a path and carrying a torch for a more authentic, shape-shifting style of hip-hop culture. From inspiring and narrating to invading new spaces and sparking needed discourse, it’s safe to say the debates can be put to rest: King Kunta reigns supreme.

[1] Thibodeau, Bruce. “Strategic Fundraising Through Objective Research: Understanding Donor Capacity.” Arts Insights. (2012): 1-5. PDF.

[2] Walker, Tim. “The Good and Bad News About Art Education in U.S. Schools.” neaToday. National Education Association. 5 April 2012. Web. 2 November 2015.

[3] Fatzick, Josh. “More Than a Quarter of Blacks in DC Live Below the Poverty Line.” Daily Caller. The Daily Caller News Foundation. 23 September 2015. Web. 2 November 2015.

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