(What the white man say?)
A piece of mine's
That's what the white man wanted when I rhyme
Growing up white in my small mountain town of Bailey, Colorado—filled with rednecks, conservative Christians, new age hippies, construction workers, adventure enthusiasts, and commuters to Denver—I knew only two black kids in high school. The show South Park is pretty much an amalgamation of the towns of Golden, Fairplay, and Evergreen, Colorado—all of which were a forty minute drive from Bailey—and South Park only has two black characters in the show, one of whom is named, “Token.” I was introduced to the black experience through music and literature.
In high school I used to record songs by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem from the radio onto blank cassette tapes with my Sony boom box so that I could then play the songs back whenever I wanted. My first mix-tapes. My Christian parents wouldn’t allow me to buy CD’s or tapes with ominous “Explicit Content” warnings, so I did what I had to do for the sake of rap music. By the time I was in high school, hip-hop had made its way into mainstream pop culture and the homes of black and white alike (unfortunately many of my classmates in the small, white town in which I grew up were more interested in listening to Insane Clown Posse than West Coast hip-hop).
Rap or hip-hop wasn’t necessarily for me, but I enjoyed it and listened to it and so did other white people. Sometimes we even profited from it, perhaps none more so than N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller in the late eighties. There is a strong history in this country of colonialism and cultural appropriation, specifically white people coming in and taking. Beginning with First Nations people and all the way to rap music and systemic racial profiling by law enforcement today. To pretend we have always been a monolithic culture of white European, Judeo-Christian ancestry in America is to be willfully ignorant of history and plain reason.
Even though I may not be the intended audience for rap or hip-hop or Beyoncé or James Baldwin, I feel it is my duty as an artist/human to acknowledge this past year’s incredible string of music and literature—specifically albums and books that deal with race, black identity, and the black body. Albums and books that successfully dismantle and take on the dominant narrative of white, modern, Western-European influenced culture that is sometimes called America.
This past year alone, Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé released her visual album Lemonade. Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me, and National Book Award Finalist Claudia Rankine released her book of poetry and lyrical essays about the black female body called Citizen. The hip-hop musical Hamilton was recently nominated for an unprecedented sixteen Tony’s and consists of a mostly Latino and Black cast. The rap group Run the Jewels brought politics back into hip-hop, with members Killer Mike (black) and El-P (white) slinging take-down lyrics about the police, the state, and the church, with a ferocity and intelligence not seen in many years. They’ve joined forces with folks like Zach de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Indie-music site Pitchfork named 2015 the best year of rap since 1993 and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” is practically the video that represents the Black Lives Matter movement.
The two biggest albums to come out, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, show truly inspired artists at the top of their game. What Beyoncé and Lamar have in common is the ability to write music that exists on multiple levels. Essentially, both Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly resemble novels more than they do entertainment albums or Top 40 singles. They require participation and engagement and operate in a variety of voices and styles.
They transcend mere music.
Beyoncé’s new visual album Lemonade hit HBO for a limited release on April 23rd and then went straight to the new music streaming service Tidal. The album made an impressive debut, more for it’s personal content as much as its experimental format. In Lemonade, Beyoncé swaggers as a proud black woman, jealous wife, and overall bad-ass/goddess of the universe. On the surface, the album is about infidelity and her rocky relationship with her husband Jay-Z. Beyoncé spits such lyrics as “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy,” and “You can keep your money, I got my own,” but the album also contains a diverse array of musical influences and visual styles.
On Lemonade, Beyoncé begins with the theme of infidelity but soon is giving us a manifesto on the black female experience. Lemonade is really about race, identity, gender politics, sex, and power. To focus solely on Beyoncé’s relationship to Jay-Z misses the point. Lemonade prominently features poems by black female poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Ethiopia to Somalian parents. Her poems form the periods and punctuation between Beyoncé’s songs; adding even more power, punch, and depth to a manifesto on black female bodies, power, inferiority, and on.
Antioch alum Jamie Moore wrote an article for Book Riot titled “Beyoncé’s Lemonade is Made for Readers” and analyzed the album through this narrative lens. Moore says the album causes us to ask the same questions of the album as you would a novel such as, “How much of this is autobiographical/what is the context for the content?” )
The same is true for Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. For Lamar the first, cursory level of his music is one where he writes first-person lyrics about growing up in Compton (“King Kunta,” “Hood Politics,”) and some larger socio-political themes (“How Much a Dollar Cost,” “i,” “Mortal Man,”). The next level goes deeper—one wherein Kendrick Lamar occupies a variety of voices and visions (“Wesley’s Theory”, “Institutionalized”, “Untitled I”) and is constantly moving from one topic to the other, making it unclear in many songs who the “who” is. He switches voices and tempos like Nicki Minaj in Kanye West’s “Monster,” as his lyrics unfold, expand, and contract. The album is also incredibly black—Pitchfork called To Pimp a Butterfly, “Black As Fuck.”
This is to say nothing of the special way Kendrick or rap itself is riffing off the poetic form using alliteration, rhyme schemes, multiple POV’s, anaphora, metaphor, allegory, and so on.
Listening to Kendrick and Beyoncés new album I am reminded of MFA faculty Steve Heller’s presentation on voice this past residency at Antioch University Los Angeles, and how writers do not operate using one “single,” voice, but go in and out of many different voices throughout their works. During the same residency, Lidia Yuknavitch gave a presentation on the similar idea of “Heteroglossia.” A term coined by Mikhail Bahktin, Heteroglossia is the co-existence of distinct varieties within a single language or book, or in this case, album. This is important because both Lemonade and TPAB present stories that are outside of the “mono voice.” They exist in opposition to the dominant, the white, and the homogenous and they braid multiple narratives into their songs.
Macklemore tried to tackle the issue of race in his song “White Privilege II”—whether or not he succeeded depends on your point of view, and this point of view largely depends upon if you if you are black or white. He succeeded if you feel that white people of a certain age, who might not listen to Run the Jewels or Kendrick Lamar or gripe about Lemonade, will listen to Macklemore and perhaps be more open to alternative views on race; but it fails, largely because it is a white man trying to address the problem of racial inequality from his position of power and privilege; not to mention the painfully cliché lyrics, “Am I on the outside looking in or the inside looking out?”
But Macklemore has never claimed to be an amazing lyricist. His appeal is in his simplicity. The attempt to tackle race in “White Privilege II” is perhaps admirable, but ultimately puts Macklemore in a tough spot of either not speaking up about what everyone’s already saying or releasing a song like “White Privilege II.” Black Lives Matter said that they “appreciate the effort” and explained how Macklemore and his team had opened up a dialogue with BLM before the debut of the song.
And yet, I often wonder, am I doing the same thing?
Both Lemonade and TPAB already have enough written about them to warrant a small anthology, but I’ll go so far to to say that these are two of the most important albums of my generation. They tackle the intellectual, personal, racial, and socioeconomic issues of our day. As Lidia Yuknavitch said this past December, “If you shut out the other voices to the story (i.e. voices not typically part of the dominant cultural narrative) you are committing a colonialist act.”
And though I may be preaching to the choir, the timing could not be more pressing. The current political state of our country (i.e., the rise of white nationalism seems to point to two very different national identities. One wishes to celebrate and propagate one cultural narrative over the others and doesn’t acknowledge that it has been the single voice for so long and that perhaps there are other lenses/perspectives out there. It’s easy to do for anyone. I recently heard a poet/speaker by the name of Micah Bournes talk at a church about how what we assume is “orthodox” theology, is primarily white-European theology, and that this is not bad per say, but that most of us fail to acknowledge the particular lens this theology represents.
The other national identity is one of immigrants. This identity seeks to celebrate the multiplicity of voices that exist/have existed for many years. And what Beyoncé and Kendrick really show us in their music is the diversity of experience outside of the mono-culture—whether it’s race or gender—and this is one of the crucial aspects of their music. This diversity is more important than ever.
So may we read, engage, and most importantly, listen.
This article was previously published on lunchticket.org
Levi Rogers is a writer and coffee roaster out of Salt Lake City. He has a degree in English and Creative Writing from University of Utah and is currently getting his MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. His work has been published in Devour Magazine, Sojourners, Lunch Ticket, Akashic Books, and Revolv Magazine. He's currently working on a book about depression and mental illness. He lives with his wife Cat, his dog Amelie, and two cats, Chicken and Waffles.