The rapper appeared on stage as a prisoner to deliver an electrifying and politically charged performance
Kendrick Lamar isn’t just one of the greatest rappers of our age – he’s also the closest thing America has to an authentic political voice of a generation. His lyrics examine racial dynamics, identity and inequality within 21st century America, refracted through the jazz-infused soundtrack of recent album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’.
At last night’s Grammys Lamar delivered a provocative, political message. Appearing on stage dressed in a prison uniform, accompanied by a lone saxophonist, Kendrick shuffled out onto the stage with a bowed gait, chains jangling. If the symbolism of Kendrick’s outfit was lost on you – perhaps you aren’t familiar with the statistic that African-Americans make up 12% of the US population, but 60% of the prisoner population – then the lyrics of opening track ‘The Blacker The Berry’ underscored his message. “I mean; it's evident that I'm irrelevant to society/That's what you're telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.”
If Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance gently explained that #BlackLivesMatter to Middle America, Kendrick rammed the message down their throats. Introducing a new verse into ‘The Blacker The Berry’, Kendrick highlighted the death of Trayvon Martin; the teenager shot by George Zimmerman whose death prompted a global debate about racial discrimination in America.
Although Kendrick picked up the Grammy for Best Rap Album last night, he lost out on the overall Best Album award to Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. Kendrick has form when it comes to being snubbed by the Grammys; famously losing out on best rap album to Macklemore in 2014 for his breakout hit ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’. Macklemore agreed that Kendrick was ‘robbed’, and subsequently apologized to Kendrick after his win.
Kendrick is first and foremost a rapper who engages with American history and politics through his own experience as an African-American who grew up in Compton. In fact, his Grammy performance even ended with an outline of the Compton city boundaries projected up behind an empty stage. You’re reminded of the line from ‘U’; ‘a friend never leave Compton for profit’. In an era where rappers the world over are diversifying into product lines and fashion ranges; headphone brands and trainer collaborations, Kendrick has avoided that entirely – preferring to highlight his Compton roots (receiving a key to the city days ago) and focus on the music, with limited commercial collaborations.
Praise for Kendrick’s performance swept social media, and the rapper found support in the highest quarters – with a congratulatory tweet from The White House. When even the President recognises you as the authentic political voice of a generation – one that continually evolves in response to the events around you – you’re probably doing something right. Watch Kendrick's performance below.