OPINION: Let 2017 be the year black artistry wins

Through appreciation - and accepting that not everything is made for white audiences - everyone wins

OPINION: Let 2017 be the year black artistry wins

Kendrick Lamar in the video for 'HUMBLE.'

A matter of urgency - that's how Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar described the release of his new album 'Damn.'.

Lamar became an unlikely political figure on his last album. The critically-acclaimed 'To Pimp A Butterfly', tackled tough subject matter - institutionalised racism, how the systemic oppression of black people continues in the 21st century, his own declining mental health. Alright, one of the album's lead singles, was adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement as its unofficial anthem.

Now, Lamar wants to move the dialogue on - this time, he's focusing on the issue of misogyny. 

“This is what goes on in my mind as a writer," he said in an interview with T Magazine. "One day, I may have a little girl [...] She’s gonna grow up. She’s gonna be a child I adore, I’m gonna always love her, but she’s gonna reach that one point where she’s gonna start experiencing things.

"At one point in time I may have a little girl who grows up and tells me about her engagements with a male figure — things that most men don’t want to hear. Learning to accept it, and not run away from it, that’s how I want this album to feel.”

Albums this immersive - particularly those which attempt to work in part as a social commentary - have warranted unsightly and unnecessary reactions in the past. 

When life gives you lemonade

Let's consider the polarising reaction to Beyoncé's 'Lemonade'. Beyoncé's 'Beyhive' has grown to be a varied autonomy, 'slaying' those on social media who cross their queen.

But many fans and critics were left almost startled by her decision to embrace her identity and claim ownership of her black womanhood in the most unapologetic fashion. 'Lemonade' was a rare glimpse into the other side - a side white audiences will never truly understand, but were invited to appreciate the good and remember the bad.

Ultimately, such an outspoken display from a figure as powerful and influential as Beyoncé unnerved many. Like Lamar's Alright, Beyoncé's single Formation and its message of hope was misinterpreted - mainly by right-wing media outlets - as being anti-police for its imagery involving sinking police cars, so much so that several police unions threatened to boycott the singer's “Formation World Tour.”

Instead of seeing this as an invitation to kick off an honest discussion surrounding police brutality, some white audiences rejected it, feeling intimidated as they thought artists were pushing the idea that only black lives mattered. 

“I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice,” she told Elle magazine. “Those are two separate things.

"If celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me. I’m proud of what we created and I’m proud to be a part of a conversation that is pushing things forward in a positive way.”

Now, allow me to quickly check my privilege here - I am a young, white middle-class woman who will never in her life experience oppression on the same level as Lamar and his peers. I am not suggesting that music produced by black artists is superior to that of white artists' (though in the vast majority of cases, in my subjective opinion, it is). 

But I do feel it's a shame that you're more likely to hear Lamar when he's piggy-backing as a collaborator on a thirty-something white man-band's Top 40 track (Maroon 5, I'm looking at you). Especially so, because Lamar has acknowledged that while white audiences will never relate to specific experiences he's written about, there are universal themes within his work which do resonate. Certainly, white audience members can be familiar with a concept - slavery, gang culture, black male incarceration - but they will never live through it.

The cover art for Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly'.

"One particular fan broke it down to me: ‘I connect through your music not because I know about the gang culture; it’s the sense of wanting to be set free,'" he said in an interview. "Simple as that. He said, ‘That’s the message that you get across in this album. You’re dealing with that, but I’m dealing with drug abuse; you’re talking about the gang culture and you want to escape that and I want to escape my own self-afflictions and addictions. That’s where the connection comes from.’

"And when I understood that and it resonated with me I felt like, OK it’s always a line of communication where we can agree on something: We just choose to or choose not to."

The same can be said on 'Lemonade' - themes addressing the institution of marriage, feminism and so on, can speak to everyone. It just so happens that she's chosen to present it as Beyoncé, the black woman - baby hairs and all.

Cultural appropriation

And when it's not being met negatively, black music is admired a little too closely, as mainstream artists continue to appropriate. I mean, that's been happening since Elvis was king. Why can't we just leave well enough alone?

Why was the continuous chatter surrounding Beyoncé's image during the 'Lemonade'-era so focused on her blackness, but Iggy Azalea's faux Southern-drawl is acceptable and seemingly unquestioned? Not to mention her obsession with 'twerking'.

Iggy Azalea performs at the BLI Summer Jam concert at Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York. Image: PBG/EMPICS Entertainment

The same goes for Nicki Minaj, who, for years, adopted a more Western-ised image in order to sell records. That's not to say Beyoncé didn't do the same - she did. 'Lemonade' saw her hang her leotard up, let her weave out and stop pandering to white audiences that, frankly, didn't deserve it.

Our embrace of black artists - Nicki, Drake, even Kanye West - wasn't white audiences embracing black artistry. It was them enjoying a diluted product. When Kanye wore shutter shades and pink polos, we were all ears. When he spoke of black skinheads, new slaves and blood on leaves, suddenly, we weren't as interested.

'Damn.'s significance

On the cover - which received a middling reaction upon release - Kendrick Lamar takes centre stage. He's never featured so prominently on any of his albums' artworks.

 

"I wanted to make something loud and abrasive," graphic designer Vlad Sepetov said. "And maybe some won’t see that, but I’m glad that Dave and Dot saw the value in making something that didn’t fit the mold. Just given the bare bones we fleshed something out that has a lot of people talking."

Lamar is an artist who continues to cross genres and demographics - through the mobilisation of his messages, he's reaching more and more ears. And most importantly, those ears are listening. Young people recognise his talent as an MC - 'To Pimp A Butterfly's King Kunta definitely saw a surge in Google searches asking 'who is King Kunta?' Older people admire his artistry - his unshakable flow as he flits from jazz to R&B.

Undoubtedly, 'Damn.' will prompt further conversation on police brutality, racism, the societal power struggle and discrimination.

White audiences should not feel threatened by music produced by black artists just because they struggle to relate to the concepts put forward by them. Recent LPs released by Beyoncé, Kendrick and most recently Stormzy have been invitations to join the dialogue, demonstrating that black music is rarely exclusionary. And even if it does make us uncomfortable, how can that be a bad thing? Surely it just means they're executing their message most effectively?

Black artists aren't looking to advance an agenda. They aren't looking for apologies or empathy - they just want their excellence acknowledged and appreciated - not appropriated. It's not about them reinventing the wheel - artists like the aforementioned are building a critical mass and creating a space for music to not automatically be dismissed by people who aren't black.