In the lyric pamphlet to Black Messiah, D'Angelo's third album after 14 years away from the spotlight, the soul-savant explains his reasoning behind its title and sudden release: "Some will jump to the conclusion that I am calling myself a Black Messiah," he begins. "For me the title is about all of us...It's about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It's not about celebrating one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them."
The album's December release came at the end of a year stained by never-ending black and brown death (or at least it felt that way), increased incarceration rates among the most marginalized communities, mass protest, and unrelenting state violence upon those who'd yet to meet the barrel of an officer's gun. Sparked by the changing and turbulent times, a particular cohort of rap and soul artists began to scrutinize these myriad national injustices in their music. In addition to D'Angelo; Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Tink, J. Cole and others have released songs that reflect our current moment.
So, to help me explore the state of black liberation music released in the last year, I reached out to Gawker contributing editor Kiese Laymon, Jezebel's Julianne Escobedo Shepherd and Clover Hope, and The New Yorker's Matthew McKnight. Our conversation appears below.
Jason Parham: Since To Pimp a Butterfly is the most present in our minds (well, at least in mine), I think it's as good a place to begin as any. The album's intro is as defiant as it is unexpected. The Flying Lotus-produced track ("Wesley's Theory") samples the classic Boris Gardiner tune and proclaims: "Every nigga is star." EVERY. NIGGA. IS. A. STAR. Those are literally the first words you're greeted with on the album. It's easily one of the most self-affirming, unapologetic, middle-finger-to-the-man intros I've ever heard. It's almost too perfect. But as much as it's an act of resistance (because, you know, the world doesn't actually subscribe to that belief), it's equally an act of self-love. We're all bright black stars, says Gardiner. As the Butterfly intro continues, it becomes clear that though this may be true, the reality of it is a lot more tangled and complicated. Patron Saint of Space Age Funk George Clinton intones: "You'll slip through the cracks hoping that you'll survive/ Gather your wind, take a deep look inside/ Are you really who they idolize?" But his mere presence on the song confirms a sort of alt-narrative to Kendrick's gang-filled, death-choked, conflicted present: that there are black people in the future. So perhaps it's not really about black and brown folk being present in an imagined future, so much as it is about the battle to get there, the metamorphosis we undergo, and how this battle—this resistance to be who we are despite the fame or struggle/movement or whatever having a profound impact—shapes us.
And since we're speaking about beginnings and trajectories and resistance, I think it'd be mindful to consider J.Cole's "Intro" on Forest Hills Drive. His message is more direct, though no less potent: he raps, "Do you wanna be happy? Do you wanna be free?... Free from pain, free from scars, free to sang, free from bars..." The ache and sorrow in his voice are audible, and the song is much more melancholy than Kendrick's feverish opening. Perhaps the common thread between the two tracks, and what we're really talking about here, is sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice? What are you willing to give up to be free? Kendrick, though self-aware of his agency, seems less certain. "I didn't want to self-destruct," he later admits on "For Sale? (Interlude)", "so I went running for answers." He knows he has to find the answers. His survival depends on it. He just doesn't know what they are. I'm not really sure what I'm asking here. I think I'm still figuring it out, too.
Clover Hope: Yeah, besides sacrifice, the other thread to me is confusion. We're all still figuring it out, maybe forever. With Kendrick and J. Cole, you can tell they're in a state of turbulence about their place as black men in society and that it's compelled them to create some combative music. "The Blacker the Berry" is so moving because on the surface it's supremely indignant. Kendrick is aware of his specialness (it's the "emancipation of a real nigga"). But then he's telling these outside forces, "It's evident that I'm irrelevant to society," which is such a sad thing to even have to wonder about and then accept. The insecurity is latent. There's a lot of intrigue in that. It reminds me of what Rawiya wrote in a Fader piece where she talked about the importance of liberation music that expresses bafflement—"songs that acknowledge political realities while interrogating them existentially. Music that asks as many questions as it tries to answer." That said, it's so interesting to go back to J. Cole after listening to Kendrick's album because I feel like Cole took the more populist approach, which I know is just a matter of that being his natural aesthetic. Kendrick is able to pull back and be nonlinear: "Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta/ Black man taking no losses." While Cole says flat out: "What's the price of a black man life?" I can appreciate both the straight and abstract approach because it speaks to how differently people internalize injustice. Kendrick seems way up in the clouds with it. J. Cole, more grounded.
I find that a song like Kanye's "All Day" leans more aspirational and it's more focused on elation. I get the feeling Kanye's album will be, jubilant? And if so, it'll be a cool contrast to these other works. He's more definitive with his rage and kind of flippant also (his new, more pacifist perspective on racism seems to confirm this). And I'm just going to throw in D'Angelo at the end here because I love that he's an older man ("a witness to this game for ages") who's just as anxiety ridden. Like on "1000 Deaths": "I can't believe I can't get over my fear/ They're gonna send me over the hill/ Ah, the moment of truth is near/ They're gonna send me over the hill."
Matthew McKnight: These days, more than ever in my life, the link between our music and our place in America feels inextricable. Just that statement might feel a bit trifling and self-evident: How could any people not create art that is an extension of their lives? But, still, the statements that Black Messiah, B4.DA.$$, To Pimp a Butterfly, and other albums make about who isn't afforded full citizenship in America is striking and immediate in this moment of resurgent attention to violations of civil rights. Those albums encourage us to scrutinize our nation, and I think we ought to listen. So, more than thinking about imagined futures or lands where Black people are kings and queens, those albums have kept me focused on understanding the many failures of true democracy that have accumulated to produce our present.
I don't think it's an accident that we have all these Black artists who were born around the same time and who are now making art that urges on liberation. America produced us. If there's any clarity that we can derive from the different stories being told—whether J. Cole's populist approach or Kendrick's tales of sacrifice—it's that a lot of people are fed up. That all of these albums have allusions, both obvious and obscure, to liberation music from previous generations tells us how long Black people have been fighting. The music we're discussing is so beautiful and so layered that, notwithstanding the subject matter, it makes these explorations delightful. I haven't been so excited about music since high school. And I feel challenged, as a journalist, to dig into those stories and peel off the mask that America wears, and I appreciate our musicians for their direction and inspiration.
What else can we do to make the liberation that they're singing about real?
Kiese Laymon: Y'all are making me work, making me "peel off the mask" that I damn sure wear. One of the questions y'all are making me think about is the role of liberation music in the age of the internet. I grew up literally believing in Ice Cube, MC Lyte, Chuck D, and KRS in ways that veered towards religious. I wanted to believe what they believed, dress how they dressed, resist in ways they resisted. So much of that had to do with age but a lot had to do with the absence of the internet. Not only did I not have access to how these jokers were outside of the booth; I didn't have access to this mega platform where my words and their words literally occupied the same screen. I wasn't mediated. At all. Now, nearly all of us are.
So when Kendrick ask, "When shit hits the fan/ Are you still a fan?" of course, I thinking of the ways the internet enabled Common to ether himself, Kendrick previously to ether himself, Azealia to ether herself, etc, but also how when the shit of our lives hits the fan in many of our hyper-mediated lives, do we have what it takes to believe in liberation living, much less liberation songs?
What is liberation for us in the age of the internet? And real talk, what do we do when the black artists creating outside of music are so much more radically embracing of a truly intersectional liberation? As dope as Kendrick is, and breathtaking as his relationship to music, to vibrations, to rhyme is, I wonder what happens if he reads some Brittney Cooper, some Audre Lorde, some Darnell Moore, some Mychal Denzel Smith, some Marlon Peterson? The Kendrick album made me cry because of how dope it was as an album, but it also made me cry because, even though he's working, he's so far from thinking about the ways black "liberated" men terrorize black "liberated" women everyday. We ain't even talking about that because the bar is so low. Still, I love that Kendrick is working. He's 27 and he's working to be beautiful, fair, and lovingly black in spite of what we've given him to work with. That's what's so dope, and gulp, so possibly liberating. He gave me room to accept and forgive myself on this album.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: Kiese, I'm glad you brought that up. I've been mulling that since the cover art dropped and Jamilah Lemieux tweeted, "the idea that someone's fantasy of Black rebellion contains few Black women (the artist who made the image, Kendrick, etc) hurts." On the album, Kendrick's woman relationships/relationals are complex as the rest: with its extended America-as-thot metaphor (effective, succinct, cutting, but been seen), with its heart-open momma tough love, with the most salient acknowledgement of black women on the album via Rapsody, "Call all your brothers magnificent/ call all the sisters queens/ we all on the same team/ blues and Pirus/ no, colors ain't a thing." That's some heavy shit, but it's important that she dissolves that rival-gang bullshit. bell hooks knows.
It also makes me think about how bluster is just another form of mustering self-esteem, though. A mask, too, but a conjuring. If I may go back to self-love, and the fact that most of To Pimp a Butterfly's sonic reference points are to black music made in the eras of important political and cultural uprisings—'60s jazz and soul, '70s funk, in particular—I can't stop thinking about this compilation I've had in rotation since 2005. It's called Back to Black, made to accompany a London gallery's exhibit of black liberation art from the '60s and '70s, and it shares an essence, a full-spectrum clatter, and most importantly a spiritual validation in company with what Kendrick's given us.
Nikki Giovanni's on it. She opens "Seduction/Kidnap Poem" like this:
Which you so laughingly call hands
Are, in fact, two round butterflies
Fluttering across the pleasure
The rest is just as sensual, talking about legs touching legs, the unraveling of secrets, loving the way "you" snore and smile—"I know you cry when you're hurt, and curse when you're angry, and try when you don't feel like it, and smile at me when you wake up." The "you" is a lover, or a captive, the "you" is arms outstretched and it is imagination. She's quantifying things she learned on instinct, gleaned from collective memory, her voice standing at strong-posture at just 32, five years older than Kendrick is now. Where that really hits my gut is in relation to Kendrick's line that "loving you is complicated," where he's mustering the fortitude to choose himself, on the song called "u." Shout to his hotel housekeeper with the Méxican accent, yelling that his time is up, and he thinks it might be—but in the end, by "i," he chooses himself, too. There is so much him to choose!
Jason Parham: It's funny you mention Jamilah's tweet, Julianne. I remember scouring Twitter that morning for news and seeing it, and thinking she was way off base. Not in the fact that there are no women on the cover (Is the baby a little girl? Perhaps a symbolic gesture that women are the future of the black liberation movement?) because obviously women have been central to all liberation causes: black, Latino, queer, and otherwise. And Jamilah is certainly justified in her feelings of being hurt or feeling disrespected; the black freedom struggle is, and will continue to be, nothing without women at its center (the most marginal of marginalized voices). There were others, including several friends, who felt Kendrick's exclusion of women on the cover was wrong, and professed a half-truth. But to believe that Kendrick doesn't think, or believe, black women are apart of the struggle is to misinterpret the essence of his music altogether. (Not to say Jamilah and my friends believed this, but it got me thinking, you know?) A black woman—his mother—was the heart of his first album. In large part, his mom drives the narrative on GKMC. Her monologue at the end of "Real," where she charges Kendrick to "tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton," where she let's him know how important it is to remind them that he "rose from this dark place," and that they can too, proves as much. Kendrick's strength and resolve are only made possible through the aegis of his mother. Let's also not forget that a woman saves Kendrick and his friends—altering their course via baptism—at the end of "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst."
Of course, the love he has for women, and the love he has for himself, is a lot more conflicted on Butterfly (which explains the cover some, though doesn't excuse it altogether). And I think this has a lot to do with what Kiese mentioned, Kendrick not being fully aware of the ways "black 'liberated' men terrorize black 'liberated' women everyday." Though personal and collective liberation seem to be his end goal, his scope remains limited. So I'm wondering: What does it mean to create music about freedom versus creating music from a place of freedom? And what does that freedom look like to you?
Black Messiah, like Butterfly, is a good example of an album doing both, though I'd speculate D's album is less politically minded than Kendrick's. "All Day" on the other hand—which I've been bumping since it leaked—is Kanye fully free, just talking his shit and being unbothered with non-black eyes. Unapologetic isn't quite the word, because the record is beyond reckless and yet so overwhelmingly proud. "All Day" speaks to a kind of personal revolution, it's about the interior struggle to self-identify brazenly and not give a single fuck about anybody's feelings. It's, as Kiese mentioned elsewhere, about de-centering whiteness from the story. Thirty black dudes in all black mobbing on stage at the Brit Awards as Kanye raps, "I don't let em play with me/ I don't let em talk to me no kind of way/ They better watch what they say to me/ Niggas still gettin' popped on a day to day" is revolution (or at least a revolutionary act). It's a fearless step forward for us—blackness in the mainstream; blackness on our terms, not blackness filtered through a white gaze—and perhaps even more epoch-making given the value of black life in 2015 America. These dudes—Kendrick, J. Cole, Kanye, D'Angelo, Joey Badass, etc—aren't paragons of what black love and liberation should look like, but I think they are pushing forward in ways, and on a level, we haven't seen and heard in a very long time.
Clover Hope: God, "All Day" is like peak happiness. I've also had it on repeat and worked out to it (on repeat). I have a drafted tweet that says: "Let us read from the book of Yeezus 3:16: 'All Day,'" that I never posted. I'm sure I would've loved that song without any type of visual, but seeing it presented with a mob of blissful, blessed black men on stage (while the audience of mostly white people stands there) was so gratifying. There was one moment in the performance—I think it was Allan Kingdom who did this walking lunge move that looked like he was wiping a counter in a very swag way. I appreciated that. So it's sad to hear Kanye say stuff like "Racism is a dated concept" because I have no idea where he's going with that. In the same way that Kendrick and Cole are figuring out their semi-fucked existence, maybe Kanye is coming from a place where he's been there, having rapped a ton about black struggle, and he's now seeking personal peace without that burden. A targeted recklessness. I can't rock with his statements, obviously, because it's too dangerous a message. But, damn you Kanye for making me so conflicted while giving me music that makes me love us.
In my head, "i" sounds like a close cousin of "All Day" since they're both about emotional release. It's the second to last track on Butterfly, and Kendrick's rapping about taking things "one day at a time": "Dreams of reality's peace/ Blow steam in the face of the beast/ Sky could fall down, wind could cry now/ Look at me, motherfucker, I smile." I had a hard time connecting with it at first, even though I really loved the sentiment but now, having it in a broader context of both personal freedom and blackness, it's amazing. I've played it to cool off from the more anxious records on Butterfly. So Jason, when you ask: "What does that freedom look like to you?" I think it looks like finding some kind of inner peace (partially through the knowledge that our joy and pain is interconnected) and then finding a way to disperse that. Especially to the younger generation. One of my former VIBE editors Erik Parker wrote a great thing on my Facebook wall regarding Butterfly: "Hearing affirmations of blackness from one of today's premier artists is so rare it's revolutionary."
Yes, there's a ton of powerful black liberation music out there (thanks, Julianne, for that Back to Black link) and there are artists who've cared enough to say what Kendrick says. The knowledge is out there to consume. But these movements happen in phases and this dude is 27. The reason we seek out this music in the first place is to either release or contextualize real life demons and mentally audit the past to make sense of everything. As much as I absolutely love D'Angelo's falsetto freedom cries, I'm really glad some of this liberating music is coming from younger artists who can maximize impact. Their albums have such a sadness to them that I wondered for a minute whether young heads (like under age 30) would really digest it when they so easily dispose of everything. But they seem to be. I wouldn't underestimate. You see them participating in marches and rallies and you understand why for some young people, this music could feel like the mirror they never had because they didn't grow up 1) Seeing the shitty system operate on such a large scale and have it build up inside 2) Seeing someone spit that back to them in ill ways.
Also, I don't want to leave out artists like Tink who contribute on a less mainstream scale. She released "Tell the Children" not too long after the Darren Wilson grand jury decision and she's rapping about police brutality: "My people shed blood on the acres you had sold." The singing on it sounds like a young old-soul who just found a negro spiritual: "Tell the children to watch out. Keep running, running, running, running." I hope she can bring the black woman's perspective that's missing in all this because her stuff is personal and political and extra powerful because it's a forgotten voice.
Matthew McKnight: I'm inclined to give 'Ye a break on his assertions that class divisions are the new racism. Like Kiese said about Kendrick, Kanye is working—his interviews over the past couple years tell us so—and I feel fortunate to witness his work. But, more than that, to me, his claims reveal the confluence of racism and unbridled capitalism, which both compel people to operate from a place of fear, detachment, and insularity. Patriarchy, as you all have noted, works that way, too. And one of the externalities of those triple-terrors is confusion: from different vantage points, one or the other can seem more violent and more urgent to eradicate. But, of course, they all work together; they can't be separated.
So the moral position that Kanye is trying to stake out by lowering the barriers to high-quality fashion is much the same moral position that Kendrick stakes out on "The Blacker The Berry," when, talking to white people, he raps, "You hate me, don't you?/ You hate my people/ You're plan is to terminate my culture/ You're fucking evil!/ I want you to realize/ that I'm a proud monkey." Things gets scary for a lot of people, and more confusing, when the moral position that most people would articulate for themselves is called "Black," but, in a real way, there's a truth in there that has been borne out by American history: the moments of celebrated civil-rights triumphs began with the agitations of African-Americans and ended up with the extension of rights for all people; white supremacy, built on racism, capitalism, patriarchy, exists to obtain and exert power in ways that do not allow for the full dignity of others. Decades ago, James Baldwin warned us all about the price of becoming white. I wonder, now, in this moment of blackness, if we're beginning to see some costs associated with the identity and moral position that is being carved out. A more obvious one is that it further traps us in the language of racism. Lots of people are loving being black right now, so we might be okay with that. And there should be room for reveling in who you are and for healing. But I still feel like we'll need better words to help us think about who we are and who we want to be.
Kiese Laymon: Y'all are spinning the goldenest of gold in this piece. The really ill thing I understood after listening to the album for about six hours straight is that Kendrick might be one of the few populous emcees, who not only doesn't want to be white but doesn't want what whiteness affords white people. And I will die knowing that this white racial supremacy shit has fucked with white folks psychologically, intellectually, and soulfully more than it's fucked with any of us. I think it was near the end of the Bush regime when we started to hear black emcees use George Bush as a kind of proxy for ultimate power. "I'll George Bush the button."
We've seen emcee after emcee vie for the position of the most sexually manipulative, most sociopathic, the biggest accumulator of stuff, illest inventor of the most ig'nant catch-phrase (got to give Drizzy Drake the trophy for YOLO). But Kendrick, though again he's really at the beginning of working through his abuse of power in a heteropatriachal empire (like a lot us), isn't even playing the same lyrical and emotional game with these dudes. Drake, for instance, uses "nigga" over and over and over again. I wish someone would just say, "Aubrey, what is a nigga?" Or, "Aubrey, are you a nigger?" Or most appropriately, "What is your relationship to the nigger? Do you lyrically love black people? Where's the proof? Where's the work?"
I love that Kendrick and Drake, two emcees so vastly different can break Spotify in the same month, but I really wonder if the stakes are too high for vacant art and artists to continue to produce without anyone ever really calling them out for creating vacant, loveless art. I spent the weekend with young black folk from the middle of the country who have gone through 3 and 4 gas masks fighting for their right to love and live and walk through their neighborhoods without being murdered by uniformed reps of the state. Every black artist in this country needs to create with those folks and their love of us in mind. Kendrick is doing that while acknowledging that loving himself and us "is complicated."
And thank black Jesus, all the aliens and them, for Tink.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]