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What Does Protest Music Look Like Today?: The Rebellion of Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples

Two West Coast rappers offered two very different but very valid forms of protest music last year.

by Brian Josephs
04 January 2016, 2:00pm


Vince Staples, left, in the video for "Norf Norf" and Kendrick Lamar, right, in the video for "Alright."

“King Kunta” isn’t exactly the definitive Kendrick Lamar song. On the surface, at least, it doesn't seem to be what people are talking about when they hail the bold political vision of Lamar's album To Pimp a Butterfly. Rather, it’s Lamar attempting to channel Payback-era James Brown. He’s a black man whose best ally is himself (“Black man taking no losses”), and he’s confident enough to throw a strong sneak jab at a rap heavyweight and get away with it. “King Kunta” is not the song where To Pimp A Butterfly peaks; we should all agree at this point that’s “Alright.” But there’s more to it than a funky bass line: The song’s blatant funk contextualizes the entire album.

“You always need an adversary to provoke you into making the funk,” George Clinton told me last fall. Funk is not a genre but a concept. It creates a free space for African-Americans in a country that systematically seeks to restrict them.

“What George understood is that it was always about creating a metaphoric space for protest and resistance,” says cultural critic Greg Tate. “They’re part of that lineage—that pre-Civil Rights lineage of black music that found a way to give a voice to black rage and resistance, to joy and protest.”

To Pimp A Butterfly doesn't all sound like funk, even though Lamar slides into the P-Funk realm in the album-opening “Wesley’s Theory,” which features Clinton. But it does reflect the same philosophy. The crux of To Pimp A Butterfly follows Lamar into the reclamation of black self-love and humanity, an inherently rebellious act in a society where blackness is synonymous with criminality.

It’s a generations-old protest for generations-old strife. It was around this time last year—after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner went unpunished following a dehumanization campaign for both—that we were praying for a better 2015. Not much has changed. The Chicago police is still a symbol of very abject, very inhumane corruption; Freddie Gray’s broken spine was only enough for a hung jury; and there are people saying that 12-year-old Tamir Rice deserved to have his life ended by what was essentially a police drive-by.

Lamar's proclamation as an individual in an antagonistic America that sees blackness as something to be ignored and dehumanized is a bold one. But its pro-blackness and the ugly truths it examines don’t mean its unavailable white America (again, not dissimilar to Clinton; Parliament existed within a party that invited all colors). If anything, To Pimp A Butterfly’s live instrumentals and dense lyricism make it comfortable Grammy bait, and a voting demographic that’s still made of mostly white men can pat themselves on the back for meeting the diversity quota. It’s a safe to admire, and it is also exhausting enough of a listen for you to forget that it can be interpreted as promoting pernicious black respectability politics.

The same can't be said for the fatalistic ethos of Vince Staples’s Summertime 06, an acerbic project that offers a very different, very valid worldview. The higher power “Alright” draws strength from isn’t here. We might be all right, but what about now within Long Beach’s mortal danger, where guns and police are consistently ruining the lives of black men? Summertime 06’s environment is molded by fear and the cold pragmatism needed to survive Long Beach’s darkness. Hope is an abstract concept; the country’s first black president is being inaugurated in the east, but AKs are hot around your mother’s crib (“Norf Norf”).

The doom is so abject that the act of being human is a liability in the centerpiece “Summertime”: “They never taught me how to be a man / Only how to be a shooter.” Combined with Clams Casino’s melancholic production, the track is the sound of nihilism combating humanity and winning. “Summertime” is a symbolic representation of the worldview Staples explicitly states on “Like It Is”: “You're looking at a person telling them that they story don't matter is really no better than me, walkin' down the streets tryna shoot at somebody.”

Black men don't get a voice because their experiences are written off, whether by a system that inflicts physical violence, death, or incarceration on them or by more seemingly innocuous forces like an entertainment industry that commodifies their stories instead of listening to them. Staples wants to counteract these impulses, to put a name to the statistics, a reality to the fiction.

“The way I look at music—especially urban music, black-people music, whatever you want to call it—is that we’re all in the zoo,” Staples said to Pitchfork. “And the listeners are the people outside of the cage.”

Kendrick Lamar's concept of blackness isn’t as physical as Staples’s. Instead Lamar is interested in pursuing the history of black music to reconfirm a truth: That perseverance lies at the core of blackness in America. He puts himself and his story in a lineage of people who have used musical and spiritual expression to subvert a Eurocentric culture.

This is expressed through To Pimp A Butterfly’s holistic treatment of black culture. Lamar is no Mahalia Jackson, but he channels a bit of gospel for the new civil rights anthem on “Alright.” The conscious-expanding possibilities of jazz frequently pop up, like in “For Free?” and “Momma”’s outro. Lamar is deriving power ancestral connections. Here is perhaps where Clinton's place as inspiration can be best seen: He used that cultural weaving to build his way out empire. His bandmembers Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, and Fred Wesley were taken from James Brown’s band. “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)” uses a call-and-response choir that recalls gospel tradition. Clones of Dr. Funkenstein’s “Gettin’ To Know You” uses those Brown-inspired horn arrangements for unmistakable soul. “Mothership Connection,” the title track of their intergalactic masterwork, uses the negro spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as a refrain. Clinton built a vision of the future while standing on the shoulders of the past.

The magic of P-Funk is how it draws upon past tradition to actualize creative possibilities and envision a greater destiny. The argument has been made that science fiction and the connectivity of black music are parallel. Mark Dery’s famed 1994 essay “Black to the Future” considers the condition of African-Americans while drawing a metaphor: People stolen into a foreign land and are forced to express themselves in coded language to escape death. We had to learn to move in this white western culture to survive. This tradition eventually evolved into the colorful vernacular of hip-hop, a genre that used sonic bricolage as a way to rebel.

“I hear nuance in Parliament-Funkadelic, and I hear nuance in hip-hop,” says Berklee College professor and “punk-funk” generation member Prince Charles Alexander. “And that nuance has a lot to do with the coded signal of black people trying to express themselves through a Western identity. So for the very idea of hip-hop as a coded language, you even have to be introduced to in order to even understand what somebody is rapping.” Lamar brought the cornrows instead of a spaceship, but here he is using the power of black expression to flatten time for the sake of unity.

It’s admittedly hypocritical to argue that blackness and the expression of its multitudes is an inherent form of expression, yet only cite Summertime 06 and To Pimp A Butterfly simply because they fit neatly into a pattern of protest music. The forms of black expression that functioned as protest in the past year were myriad. Lamar made a civil rights anthem, but Future came through in the VVS so we could fly. Staples gave us a visceral vision of his Long Beach, but Kodak Black is in the verge of being the Haitian Horatio Alger story. Earl Sweatshirt delivered a compelling perspective from within his bedroom’s darkness, and Rae Sremmurd turned swag into a Power Rangers formation. And they’re all valid; a black voice heard is in itself a form of protest.

But put To Pimp A Butterfly and D’Angelos Black Messiah side-by-side, and you get a glimpse into the monolithic tradition of black liberation music. Put To Pimp A Butterfly and Summertime 06 together and you get the narrative of two West Coast men who were damned at birth by America’s rigged construct. And yet, they rose as individuals. What made hip-hop great in the last year was how there wasn’t one album or act that became the de facto representative of a genre that grew to represent a silenced people (like RTJ 2 became for a dry 2014). There were multiple, and it represents the multitudes of black America—and, inherently, its humanity.

Brian Josephs is a writer based in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.