Kendrick Lamar’s Influence and Commentary on Black Culture
What is Africana philosophy and autoethnography, and how did Lamar influence the ideology?
Late 1995 in November, the renowned hip hop artists behind “California Love” left for Compton, California to film a music video. Midway recording, the duo began to interact with fans, and one boy who sat eagerly on his father’s shoulders watched as the two men conversed with their audience. This young boy was Kenrick Lamar; born in the middle of 1987, Lamar is a modern-day mainstream American rapper and songwriter from the West Coast.
Coming from a dysfunctional family who he would watch sell drugs and illegal weapons on his doorstep, Lamar takes great inspiration from his childhood and community, incorporating these factors into his music and most notably his first major album from 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city. With twelve songs, Lamar describes the album in an interview with Fuse, an online multi-community platform,
“It’s like a self-portrait, I felt that I needed to make this album in order to move on with my life (Fuse).”
Lamar’s album has been critiqued for its vulgarity and bruteness towards depicting his childhood, yet people such as James B. Haile III -- a philosophy professor at the University of Rhode Island -- contends otherwise, labeling the album to be more than a conversation or more than a man telling a story, and instead of a display of art combining Black narratives in their cultural and social lives.
In a journal published by Penn State University Press, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Haile elaborated in his essay, “Good kid, m.A.A.d city; Kendrick Lamar’s Autoethnographic Method,” that:
“....we, the listening audience, are not listening to another hip-hop album… but as a distinct method for… understanding the experiences and existence of black people (Haile 1).”
Haile then goes on to state that Lamar’s album would be categorized as an autoethnography -- a way of research and writing that connects an individual’s culture to the autobiographical nature of their society, arguing that this autoethnography is essential in understanding one’s reality and expression while also fulfilling Africana philosophy in the modern-day.
Haile begins his essay by defining the concept of theory, stating that a theory is a topic that one can study in a scientific manner while going hand-in-hand with theories revolving around race and culture (Haile 2). It is said that an autoethnography challenges the ideas of truth and universality but also one’s individuality and relationships. In Africana philosophy, Haile states how slave narratives or biographies -- whether non-fiction, fictional or semi-fictional -- are not philosophical since Africana philosophy focuses on subjects further than the European and Anglo-American resources; Haile states in regards to what European and Anglo-American sources:
“[Africana philosophy is] a fundamental approach to knowledge from which all philosophical forms can learn (Haile 3),”
Throughout the next few paragraphs, Haile gives credit to scientist Margaret Walker and sociologist Carolyn Ellis’ study of autoethnography, noting that for Africana philosophy, narratives can be general and less well-known when compared to Fredrick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, furthering his point by asking:
“Why is your story more valid than anyone else’s?”
Responding to the inquiry by stating how the audience has a set of tools and literature to utilize while others telling your story do not (Haile 7). In regards to Kendrick Lamar’s album, Haile says that Lamar blurs the lines between his own stories and the stories of others, amalgamating the voices into one to create multiple meanings and that:
“we, the listening audience, spy on his ‘self’-interrogation on black male youth culture (Haile 13).”
Haile claims that through this album, Lamar has generated a new wave of hip-hop and rap, performing in a sense of narrativity and analysis rather than the approach most modern-day artists in hip-op do. He claims that:
“[r]ather than speaking for those who do not have a voice, Lamar blends their voices with his own without subsuming them (Haile 13),”
And, that the narrative behind the album is more than just Lamar himself and instead of the Black community as a collection. Haile states in the song “Sing About Me” that there is a constant shifting of perspective; Haile contends that although Lamar is utilizing a lot of first-person pronouns, that by the end of the song, the audience should understand that the song is instead about a friend and Lamar is speaking from not only his eyes but others he has encountered. It goes on to Lamar singing how difficult it is to sing from a narrative that is not your own but argues that incorporation of another’s narrative is no longer acceptable when it twists the truth and exploits the original voice (Haile 23). Haile continues this point by elaborating on the way Lamar uses voice in his song and that his approach to re-telling stories of others is in hopes to transmit knowledge to others and enforce individuality change within communities.
“Lamar suggests that part of his concern for telling the stories of others as if they are his, is for someone else to tell his as if it is their own (Haile 28)."
By the end of his article, Haile summarizes the point that Lamar offers mindful insight into knowledge and tradition, stating how culture could be incorporated into one’s writing about themselves and others.
“And, in the end, if ‘he’ is successful, and even if ‘he’ might have, nevertheless, developed a coherent narratological framework to express those elements of human life… creat[ing] avenues for new ideas (Haile 29),”
Haile suggests in the second to last paragraph of his essay, furthering this point as he clarifies that although there are limitations to what autoethnography is towards African philosophy, Lamar’s concern over the subjectivity of the individual is still worth exploring.
Barnes, Tom. “The Story Behind How Kendrick Lamar Became the King of West Coast Rap.” Mic. 15 May 2015. https://www.mic.com/articles/119372/the-story-behind-how-kendrick-lamar-became-the-king-of-west-coast-rap#:~:text=K.Dot%3A%20Lamar%20first%20started%20writing%20his%20own%20raps,told%20The%20Morning%20Riot.%20%22It%20was%20a%20high.%22
Fuse. “Kendrick Lamar Explains good kid, m.A.A.d. city Album Cover.” Youtube, uploaded by Fuse, 18 Sept. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jq81F8VRpY&ab_channel=Fuse
Haile, James B. “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City: Kendrick Lamar’s Autoethnographic Method.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 32, no. 3, Penn State University Press, 2018, pp. 488–98, https://doi.org/10.5325/jspecphil.32.3.0488