I will say this: Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” served up another passionate model for how Black artists, in particular, should perform in front of the academy – that’s if you have to perform in front of one of the academies.
Of course, there were rumors of boycotts by some of the industry’s top artists. (Including Kanye West, who tweeted, “I’m practicing my Grammy Speech. I’m not going to the Grammys unless they promise me the Album of the Year!!!(sic)” Which, to me, read like a lame attempt at a joke about himself and his reported narcissism, but still, the think pieces came.) Nevertheless, Lamar’s performance on the main stage was everything that is right about hip-hop. It was inspirational, powerful and political. It was bold and brash. It was Africa and African-American. It was very much conscious of the White gaze but also very defiant of it.
In short, it was a thing of artistic and political beauty.
However, what it did lack was much of the same criticism that Beyoncé received just a week earlier after she dropped “Formation” and performed at Super Bowl 50.
And I’m not talking about what White folks have to say. White folks always have something to say. And truthfully, getting White folks to react and say something is the ultimate point of these performances anyway, right?
But even among us (and especially among us) there was a lot of reaction, critique and criticism. I won’t list it all because I am certain you have read just about all of it (or, at least, glanced at the headlines). But within hours of the surprise video drop, folks had their evaluations already uploaded and circulating through social media.
We questioned her color politics and raised curious eyebrows over her choice to rock a blond weave while singing about Black being beautiful. We debated the appropriateness of using images connected to both the Black radical movement of the past and Hurricane Katrina. We analyzed each frame of the video and combed through each lyric searching for any nugget that proved or disproved how down she was.
We did all of this for one little song. Heck, folks, to this day, are still weighing in on the impact of both her words and the images used to go along with that one little song.
And I even jumped into the fray, particularly noting the contradiction of the song, video, and our overall culture. In particular, I wrote:
It’s for the generation who is openly considering the class consciousness of Cornel West, Adolf Reed and Bernie Sanders, but will form a protective shell around the political moderation and downright social conservatism of the President Obama. A generation that speaks of revolution but are just as comfortable in its conspicuous consumerism. The generation that wants to build our own, away from the dominant White supremacist power structure, but will celebrate each and every “first” the system produces. A generation that will demand that they “stop shooting us” but doesn’t really have a plan of action for the “or else.” A generation that wants our women and girls to be socially carefree, but also requires them to be gracious, demure and not too loud or angry-looking. And a generation that will make pro-Black affirmations of self-determination while showing up, performing for and collecting a check from corporate sponsors at the Super Bowl.
Truthfully, we can direct the same criticisms towards Lamar. After all, the Grammys haven’t ever really given a damn about Black folks – no matter how many of us have graced the Grammy stage. Proof of that is how it has consistently given most of its hip-hop and soul music awards offstage. Proof of that is the 1989 boycott of the awards ceremony by Public Enemy and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (yes, the same year he won and made history at the Grammys was the same year that Will Smith opted not to show up). Proof of that is how the Grammys nonchalantly mentioned Natalie Cole in its annual memorial of those who have passed on in spite of her being a nine-time Grammy-award winner and deserving a tribute of her own.
Therefore, performing on the Grammy stage, and reaping all of the benefits from its platform, is sort of twisted validation in itself.
But we are and will be less likely to make those critiques of Lamar. Several hours and into the first half of the news cycle day, Lamar has been showered with a considerable amount of praise for his powerful and revolutionary performance. Even the official Twitter page for the White House has chimed in and specifically thanked Lamar for being “#MyBrothersKeeper.”
Meanwhile, President Obama didn’t have anything to say about Beyoncé and her formation, and she too has been a guest at the White House.
Beyoncé and Lamar are two sides of the same coin. They both make music for Black people. They are both braggadocios (although Lamar doesn’t talk much about what he has and other materialistic pursuits, he is quick to remind us that he is one of the greatest artists on the scene, just like Beyoncé) and ready to put a hater in their place. Lamar, who hails from Compton, regularly prophesies ghetto life. And although she hails from a much more affluent middle-class background, Beyoncé has been known to show much love for the ‘hood too. So does Lamar. And like Beyonce, he also appreciates his baby (chin) hairs and Jackson Five nostrils.
And they are both performing contradictions.
Some would argue that it is because Lamar is not as big of a star as Beyoncé that his performance wasn’t criticized in the way that hers was. However, I would argue that there is no denying Lamar’s reach, particularly in our community (again we’re not talking about the larger dominant culture), is just as prominent as Beyoncé’s.
Perhaps we see revolutionary acts as less than when they just so happen to be accompanied by breasts stuffed in leotards? And perhaps we are so blinded by our misogynoir to the point that we can relate, apologize for and bypass the contradictions more in Lamar’s work than we can with Beyoncé’s.
It’s possible. It’s likely. However, when we look back at this moment in history, I have a feeling that it will be Beyoncé’s “Formation” and not Kendrick’s “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry” performance that will still have tongues wagging. And that ultimately says something about where, and with whom, the real revolution is happening in our community.