The Blacker The Berry

Racism and injustice is alive and well. With the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and more recently Tamir Rice, this is clear and difficult to dispute. With movements such as Black Lives Matter beginning to thrive in the United States, we are seeing an upheaval against such oppression, eerily reminiscent to those of the 1950s and 1960s.

However, this is not the only tension to be present within the black communities of America. Gang violence is not new, however in the current times we live in, where communities need to stand strong together against the oppressing and unjust society around them, many seem to crumble at times under the communally-imposed norms of the gang behaviour and mentality that they are surrounded by.

Has this been acknowledged by the communities? It could be argued that the continuation of gang violence suggests not. But gangs and their related violence are complicated things. If it were as simple as ‘just stopping’, then it would happen. But there’s more to it than that: the environment around them, their financial situation, and being oppressed into that position all play a vital role. Being told by society that, if you are born in a certain area and into a certain financial background, then you will amount to no more than gangs, death, or prison.

“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” expounds Kendrick Lamar, in his newly released song ‘The Blacker The Berry’ – protesting against his own mentality towards the on-going violence against black communities, whilst also being a part of the black-on-black gang violence that is still so evident. The song, referencing the 1929 novel by Wallace Thurman – which also comments on colourism and racial discrimination – was released shortly after the Compton-rappers double win at the Grammys.

Racking up almost three million views on YouTube in three days, Lamar has most definitely made the impact he intended to with this ruthlessly tense and racially alive track. The production was provided by Jamaican-born producer Boi-1da, and Los Angeles rapper-producer Terrace Martin. It offers a classic boom-bap sound, with sinister undertones akin to revolution-invoking atmospheric sounds. The hook is provided by the Jamaican dancehall artist Assassin, who delivers powerful lines depicting the past racism towards Africans and African descendants – “I said they treat me like a slave, cos’ me black / We feel a whole heap of pain, cos’ we black / And they said they’d put me in a chain, cos’ we black”, followed by “How you no see the whip, left scars on me back”.

Lamar taps angrily into his culture, delivering a raw and passionate performance on the track. Brutally electrifying and self-aware lyricism runs rampant, with emotional serenading evident from the very start – “Everything black, I don’t want black / I want everything black, I ain’t need black / Some white, some black, I ain’t mean black / I want everything black” – setting the tone for the struggle of African descendants in modern society. This is only a snippet of what is to come in the song.

He later attacks us with a plethora of raw emotion and mind-twistingly good lyricism, screaming “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 recognise that I’m a proud monkey / You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me”. Lamar is questioning the listener’s feelings towards not only him, but towards his culture and his colour. He asks us to question ourselves – are we racist without realising it? He declares that his culture is being seized by the white-man, and that its roots are being tarnished as it happens – a line reminiscent of the recent Iggy Azalea controversy, in which she was heavily accused of attempting to steal and appropriate black culture, without giving any acknowledgement to it. He then solidifies his pride in his colour by taking the racist remark often used against black people, and twisting it into an insult against the attacker by mocking them with it.

Two of the hardest hitting lines of the songs come later on. “I’m African-American, I’m African / I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan”. Here, Lamar certifies his roots. He chooses to emphasise that he’s African, and begins to lose his association with America, through dropping the ‘American’ in the line. He then takes his skin colour and compares it to the Aryan: taking his racially abused heritage and contrasting it to the Nazi ideal – a regime that is most commonly associated with Aryans.

The final line is perhaps the most prevailing one. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang bangin’ make me kill a ****** blacker than me? / Hypocrite.” This line conveys what the song boils down to – hypocrisy within the black community. Lamar takes himself to be hypocritical in negatively commenting on the deaths of black people, specifically Trayvon Martin, by those of a different race, whilst also being a part of a culture that kills its own race, in the aforementioned gang violence. Lamar is urging for no violence anywhere: black, white, or any race. He is stating that it’s wrong for him to criticise those who kill black people if they are a different race, whilst still accepting black-on-black crime as a part of the culture they live in. It seems that this song is a powerful projection of Lamar’s repressed anger after seeing people around the globe angry about specific violence, but then seemingly apathetic towards other violence.

Kendrick is right. There seems to be a double standard, specifically in areas where gang violence is present, between the violence against themselves, and the violence that they impose against each other. This needs to change. Organisations such as #BlackLivesMatter are targeting cases in which “Black people are left powerless at the hands of the state”, and in “affirming the lives of black queer and trans folk, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records”, which is good in a community that has a history of discriminating against “gay, queer, trans people”, but seem to lack acknowledgement of gang violence. Indeed, the state plays a huge role in the continuation of gang violence, but there is still a certain amount of responsibility to acknowledge on the side of the community. As Lamar raps, “It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war / Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy / Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door / Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score”.