Even Kendrick Lamar’s View of Black Respectability is Problematic

Even Kendrick Lamar’s View of Black Respectability is Problematic


Let me preface this by saying Kendrick Lamar is incredibly talented and is easily one of the realest dudes in hip hop right now. That said, I’m still not here for his respectability politics on “The Blacker the Berry,”and, frankly, I’m disappointed that he doesn’t understand why it is problematic.

In “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick raps from the perspective of a young Black man who feels hypocritical for being outraged at police violence and other forms of systemic oppression in his community while simultaneously contributing to gang violence and the perpetuation of Black self-hate.  A running theme throughout the first two verses is “You hate me don’t you?” a question directed at a unnamed (White?) audience as he articulates the myriad ways in which Black people have been oppressed.  But in the third verse he poses the question to other Black men.  He raps, “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, I can tell ‘cause it’s threats when I see you.  I can tell ‘cause ya ways deceitful.  No, I can tell ‘cause you in love with that Desert Eagle, thinking maliciously.  He get a chain then you ‘gon bleed ‘em.”  He closes with “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging made me kill a n*gga Blacker than me?”

As I mentioned, Kendrick articulated these lines from the perspective of a Black man who, himself, had killed other Black people.  And the accusation that it is hypocritical for Black people to be outraged at police violence against Black people while some Black people kill other Black people in their own communities is fair and valid when leveled exclusively against those Black people who do kill or have killed other Black people – a small minority of us.  But, given comments he made about the Michael Brown shooting in an interview with Billboard magazine in December, I think Kendrick intended to suggest to all Black listeners that we should rethink where our outrage is placed, to call us all out as hypocrites.  He said in the interview, “But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how can we expect them to respect us?  It starts from within.  It don’t just start with a rally.”

I have two issues with this argument. First, it is completely possible to be outraged both by police violence and Black intra-community violence, and to recognize both as issues that need to be discussed. I am and do.  But they require separate conversations. One requires a conversation on the causes of violence within the Black community, the other a discussion on systemic racism that impacts us from without. Regardless of whether Black people do or don’t kill each other, the problem of police officers killing us and getting away with it still remains, and the solutions to that problem are different from the solutions to the former. The former should not be used to silence the conversation around the latter. Both need to be addressed.

But even so, Black people killing Black people does not justify the police doing it, nor does it delegitimize the anger Black people feel when an officer kills an unarmed Black person.  When Black people kill Black people, they go to jail.  We don’t have that same guarantee when police officers kill us. So we protest and shout and make a scene in the streets because we have to to get the media to talk about it – to get anybody to care.  Furthermore, it is fair to make the hypocrisy argument only against Black people who kill other Black people.  It is not fair to make it against Black people who sag, or use the N-word, or do any of the other inconsequential things that people point to as “Black self-disrespect,” but that have no relationship whatsoever to death.  And it’s not fair to say to other Black people that they can’t be upset about state violence against Black people because other Black people commit these trivialities. This is the same argument made by racists who say that all Black people should shut up about police violence against Black people because some Black people kill Black people too.  Or racists who attempt to justify the killing of unarmed Black men by citing their choice of clothing, or that they posted a Facebook photo throwing up hand signs which, to them, indicated that the victim was a “thug.” The fact that the Black community has issues within itself or that some Black people do problematic things does not lessen the significance of the crimes committed against us or of violations of our rights, or the legitimacy of the anger Black people feel towards our oppression.

We don’t have to be “respectable” for our lives to matter or for our feelings to be legitimate.

We don’t have to have kids in wedlock, speak proper English, or smile in pictures.

All we have to do is be human.  And that we are.

Again, I like Kendrick Lamar.  He has contributed a lot to hip hop.  But he got it wrong on this song.  Black people should reject conversations on violence against Black people that seek to delegitimize Black outrage at state violence by framing it as incompatible with the existence of intra-community violence or other problems within the Black community.  They are not mutually exclusive or antithetical.  The argument that they are is dangerous, and we shouldn’t buy into it.



  1. I dont think he ever justified it. I respect what people have written but from what I have read he never sd or implied what people have accused him of saying or implying from my reading of the article or listening to the song. People comprehend things differently though. I tire of this role of victim that we seemingly have to be subjugated to. There are definitely systemic and institutional factors African American deal with but since the civil rights movement I don’t see any organized movement to move the community forward. There have been individual successes though but as far as community is concerned to say or imply that African Americans aren’t responsible for their own selves is self defeating. This society and those who have succeeded wont conceit anything. So for my community who suffer from poor high school graduation rates, high teenage pregnancy rates, high rates of chronic health issues caused by lifestyle, incarceration and unemployment who is going solve the issue if not those persons its adversely affecting. Especially since it is implied that there are systemic and institutional barriers against your community. Stop it. We been having the same talk since the 70’s bro. As far as entertainment is concerned if you want to chastise Kendrick you should be boycotting everything else of the radio and tv cause its all sex, violence, drugs and false lifestyle. But I didn’t see that article. The youth are to quick to jump and over express negative thought. I have seen this young man be called all kind of names because he expresses his opinion and belief. To me that is the epitome of ignorance. He is 27 years old. How much is he supposed to know truly and why isn’t this standard used against others with rare exception. Young man please be more humble before using your platform to express yourself. You may just be implicating yourself as well.

  2. I don’t think he was taking anything away from the argument of systematic racism or police brutality. I’ve had the same feelings myself. I think it was more like a, “Yes, this is a problem, but we have bigger problems to deal with” or “Let’s stop killing each other first, so we can properly stand together and make change.” They won’t take us seriously when we don’t take ourselves seriously. Yes, there’s crime in every neighborhood, but that’s not what’s on the news or on Cops every day. If I learned nothing else in the navy, I’ve learned that perception is everything. America doesn’t act, because they don’t get shown anything different from what they’ve always seen us as. Because we don’t show them anything different, the battle is up a steeper hill than it already was. We have to BE better, not just do. That’s when we can demand justice and actually get it.

  3. Strongly, disagree with this article. I don’t see his song as a reflection of respectability politics. A song exclaiming that white people hate the African-American community and culture is clearly not focused on black’s being respectability. Listen to the Ice Cube song: US on or Tupac’s: Changes. Hope to heard more like this from other artists.

  4. Just noting that in his song the character he is portraying got away with murdering another black person. So from his perspective, questioning his grievance over Trayvon getting killed & the killer getting away with it is the same as his own experience. Therefore calling himself a hypocrite is verified. He wasn’t making a general statement. He was asking himself.

  5. I respect your take, but I think you (as well as others) are trying too hard to force Kendrick’s song into a box of your politics.

    Listen to it: He consistently sings it from a first person perspective and systematically criticizes the oppression and hatred in which he is living. His hypocrisy is NOT a result of YOUR political view but of HIS (the first person speaker’s) having killed a black person via gang banging AND noticing himself crying about the loss of a black kid to the hands of Zimmerman (not a police).

    As you say, he’s an artist. I think he deserves to have his stories and lyrics treated as such.

    Great conversation for us all to be having though.

  6. Chris, well put! I think if people are going to try to argue that this record is saying that “black people” are hypocrites for being upset about police violence, they are going to have to at the very least acknowledge that song’s lyrics and storytelling structure first, especially the point you make: the main character got away with murder and is responding to the grief he feels about same act in different social-context. It’s brilliant and I can’t see why we should be distorting the story to fit into a political framework that changes the way Lamar carefully sets up the entire event.

  7. I echo the sentiment of Rod.

    The type of conversation we should reject is the one that does not engage all perspectives of the ills that plague our community. We could go on and on about systemic racism. That’s an perpetual feature of this country. Our country was founded on systemic racism. True, it’s disgusting, but what’s worse is when my people don’t get fired up when one of their own kills their own. Someone was murdered down the Blick from my crib just last week and all he got was a cardboard box and candles. Had that been a cop that smoked him, I wouldn’t be able to get down the block because of the protesting. Fact of the matter is, the rally cry of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is only powerful once we confront ourselves and realize that the sword cuts both ways. If color is just color, what does it matter if a white cop killed a black kid? Right? If we want to begin eradicating racism then that needs to be realized. No snitching when a Black dude kills a Black dude, but a White cop kills a Black kid and we want to throw them under the jail? That double standard hinders growth. That’s the plain reality of it… We can get mad or get real.