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.