Last week saw Fox News launch a barrage of accusations at Kendrick Lamar over his performance at the BET awards this year. Here, Calum Gordon spells out why that was out of line.
“Hip-hop is not the problem, our reality is the problem.” These were the words of Kendrick Lamar last Thursday, in reaction to media criticism of his performance at the BET Awards on June 28. Following the event, Lamar was lambasted by Fox News commentators for performing his track “Alright” atop a vandalized police car.
As their round-the-table critique continued, host Geraldo Rivera claimed: “Hip-hop has done more to damage young African Americans in recent years than racism.” It was a statement indicative of the news channel’s blinkered stance on the musical genre, adding to a litany of prior attacks on rappers such as Lupe Fiasco and Cam’ron. Hip-hop has always been an easy target for Fox – a station whose stance on racial politics could be described as “deeply conservative” at best – as lyrics are taken out of context and held up as an example of promoting violence, drug abuse, or pretty much anything else they chose to turn their attention to that day.
However, Fox News doesn’t hate hip-hop; in fact, the station craves it. Hip-hop allows Fox to launch into critiques of Black America which otherwise would likely be considered highly racist. Despite what Rivera claims, it was not hip-hop that caused Dylann Roof to open fire on a South Carolina church congregation last month, killing nine people. Nor has hip-hop been the cause of a spate of deaths of young black males within police custody over the past year. And Baltimore’s alarmingly high murder rate – which Rivera spoke of in his Kendrick Lamar spiel – is more likely due to a lack of job opportunities imposed by institutional segregation and racism than the lyrics of any BET attendee. The issue of racism within America has never dissipated, but in artists like Kendrick Lamar, communities now have a voice for the grievances, experiences and solutions.
The manufactured controversy surrounding K-Dot’s performance is not the first time the Compton-native has found himself under the spotlight for his stance on race relations in America. In the wake of the Ferguson shootings, Lamar told Billboard magazine: “What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within.” The comments saw the rapper come under fire from many within the hip-hop community, with critics arguing that police brutality should not be excused. It was a statement that was later given context in his critically acclaimed sophomore album To Pimp A Butterfly, which highlighted Lamar’s progressive outlook on black unity within America. There are few rappers with such reach who are trying to inform social progress through their ideas and lyrics, but Kendrick is one of them.
In Lamar, we are presented with an increasingly political artist, whose ability to take complex ideas and boil them down to a few, uncomplicated bars is unparalleled. Often he seems more at ease articulating these thoughts in the recording booth than he does in front of an interviewer’s microphone. With To Pimp A Butterfly, his stance on black unity and self-love was the same as what he had tried to convey in his Rolling Stone interview, but the album’s 78-minute running time allowed him to properly explain these ideas. Ironically, of all his tracks on TPAB, “Alright” was one of the least politically charged – its message of hope was one which shone through for most listeners, Fox News hosts notwithstanding.
But there were other ideas woven throughout his album, which also reflected progressive intellectuals’ views on race in America, without seeming preachy or detached from reality. The radio-friendly track “i” echoed the views of prominent black feminist intellectual Bell Hooks in her book Outlaw Culture. In it she conducts a conversation with legendary West Coast rapper Ice Cube on the same concept of self-love. “It’s hard to be black in America. Look at all the images that run across us, from television, school, just everything in general,” Cube says. “They put everybody in such a bad light. It’s mainly their fault, our self-hate. We got to really fight to love ourselves.”
Despite the generational difference, both rappers and Hooks draw the same conclusion: that self-love within the black communities of America is important in fostering respect and unity. This is an idea elaborated on by Lamar in his closing track, “Mortal Man,” stating: “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.” It is just one idea presented on a multifaceted album which has provided more proposed solutions for America’s oldest problem than Fox News ever has. In each song, weighty concepts are broken down into consumable culture – it is the definition of food for thought. And with Lamar’s young, multiracial audience, his use of his music to promote social causes is not only admirable, it also stands a chance of being effective, as the malleable minds of a young generation are informed by his work.
But back to the matter at hand; Lamar is an artist and his BET performance was representative of his art. He is one of the few rappers who are unflinching in their critique of police brutality and the image of a vandalized police car was the perfect juxtaposition to a song that was designed to inspire dignity, not violence, in the face of mounting racial tensions. In his response to Rivera’s comments, Lamar pointed out that these real issues were being subverted by this debate surrounding a stage prop and the line, “we hate po-po.” That was probably the point of all of this, because Fox News seem unwilling to have a proper debate on why young, black men are dying at the hands of the law.
In his TMZ interview, Lamar bemoaned the fact that Fox News had chosen to “take a song about hope and turn it into hatred.” And for all of the dark moments on Lamar’s most recent project – from suicidal thoughts to the reality of gang-related killings – that an artist is willing to appeal for rival gang members to respect one another or champion black femininity does bring hope. Last week also saw the rapper’s Section.80 project turn four years old, which opened with a track promoting racial harmony entitled “F*ck Your Ethnicity.”
It would seem that Kendrick’s desire to inspire progress is far from fleeting. And it is that word – progress – which is why he and Fox News will never get on. If, as a society, we open ourselves up to allow the kind of ideas proposed by Lamar – ones of harmony and equality – to flourish over the knee-jerk reactionism of Fox News, then we might just be alright.
Words by Calum Gordon for Highsnobiety. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.