On Monday, rapper Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for music for his 2017 masterpiece DAMN. It was the first time that a musician who isn’t a jazz or classical composer has won the music Pulitzer. The judges were apparently unanimous in choosing DAMN. for the award, calling it “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Kendrick looms so large in hip-hop that he’s already entered the “greatest rapper of all time” debate – even though he’s only 30 years old. (He’s certainly my favorite rapper working right now. I saw him in Brooklyn last summer and it was the most anticipation I’ve ever had going into a show, perhaps other than seeing Springsteen at Wrigley Field six years ago.) He’s been reshaping American music for more than half a decade by now. DAMN. – again, a legit masterpiece – followed his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly which followed his 2012 masterpiece good kid, m.A.A.d. city which followed the pretty damn good Section.80 which followed a string of mix tapes. In between Butterfly and DAMN. he also released untitled unmastered – which was mostly comprised of song sketches from the Butterfly sessions that didn’t end up on that record, and which was still one of the best hip-hop records of 2016. Each of his releases has been greeted with more anticipation then the last, and while people can argue over whether DAMN. is Kendrick’s “best” record, whether or not it’s a great record doesn’t seem to be up for much debate.
Beyond questions of his lyrical and compositional prowess and genre-specific influence, though, Kendrick is just straight-up one of the most important social commentators and cultural interlocutors working today. In its essence, DAMN. is both portrait and celebration of the modern black experience in America. It is variously joyful and angry, and it’s damn sure revolutionary. It begins with a middle finger to reactionary critics. The opening track (“BLOOD.”) samples Fox News criticism of Kendrick’s 2015 BET Awards performance of the song “Alright,” in which Kendrick rapped about police violence while standing atop a police car. That explodes into the following track (“DNA.”), which injects Geraldo Rivera’s idiotic comment that hip-hop “has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” into the middle of a song that lays bare the systematic violences that lay at the heart of this country – violences that incurious pundits like Rivera choose to completely write off. The record proceeds from there: thoughtful, joyful, brash, angry, militant.
My sense from music posts I’ve done here in the past is that a lot of commenters don’t “get” hip-hop. This is fine, of course. Not all art is for all people. But whether you get hip-hop or don’t, or perhaps you don’t get hip-hop but want to, I want to recommend this essay by Hanif Abdurraqib on Kendrick’s song “Alright.” Abdurraqib is one of my favorite writers working right now; this essay appears in his collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which came out late last year and is probably my favorite book I’ve read so far in 2018. “Alright” isn’t on DAMN. (it was on Butterfly), but this is gorgeous and important.
The link between black music and black survival shows up most urgently when the stakes are at their highest. When I say that music is how black people have gotten free, I mean Harriet Tubman echoed songs along the Underground Railroad as a language. I mean the map to black freedom in America was built from music before it was built from anything else. Black music is the shepherd still pointing us toward any needed liberation, giving us a place to set our emotions, a room of our own.
More than any other song on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, “Alright” signaled the arrival of a new song to nestle itself into this new historical movement, led by young black people from all backgrounds: black women, black college students, black queer and trans communities. The black song that sits in the movement has often been a reflection of black people in America, hope rooted in a reliance on faith, but still so often looking over its shoulder, checking for an exit. There are trains or chariots coming to take us away to a better place, a place just for us (“People Get Ready,” “The Gospel Train,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). There is the imagery of water, that which carried black people to this place, and that which will save them from it (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Wade in the Water”).
I’ve always viewed “Alright” as part of the evolution of these songs. It’s a song that clings to the idea of a hope that rests primarily on spirituality, but also a song that meets the people where they are and doesn’t try to take them away. The dynamics of “freedom” have changed, the idea of freedom and escape becoming less physical. When Kendrick Lamar, before the first chorus hits, tells us “I’m fucked up / Homie, you fucked up,” it feels like permission to revel in whatever we must in order to feel alive. The song is a gradual unpacking of the author’s failings, his rage and vices, all held close in the idea of surviving. Where so many songs from the past promised a new and improved paradise on the horizon, “Alright” promises nothing except the fact that there is pain, and there will be more to come. We can push our backs against that door and hold out the darkness until morning, but the night has been so long it feels like it might never end. “Alright” tells us to, instead, revel in the despite of it all. When a smiling, joyful black person says they’re “doing all right,” I imagine it’s because they know “good” may be too close to the sun. I imagine it’s because they’ve seen things burn.
The heaven that Kendrick tells us is touchable might not be real, or I maybe saw heaven this fall, when Yale students marched across their campus in a demonstration against racial insensitivity. It was a seasonably chilly November day, and the well-attended and vocal march was visibly draining some of its participants. To fight for a country to see you as human is an exhausting thing, that exhaustion compounded by the physical exertion of marching, chanting, making your space your own. After the march wound down, someone found a loudspeaker, pressed play on “Alright,” and this imagined cloud of despair pulled itself back. People danced, hugged, rapped along with what parts they knew. I realized then that the magic of “Alright” is the same magic that exists in the body language of the joyful black greeting. It fits so well into these movements because it pulls so many people on the front lines of them to a place of healing. It works as both a rallying cry and a salve. It meets you at eye level and gives you what you need — an escape from the fight, or a push to get back into the fight. It is the warm nod and knowing smile from a black face emerging in a sea of white.
Earlier this month, an activist and poet from my hometown, MarShawn McCarrel, took his own life on the steps of the Ohio statehouse. I found this out when my wife called up to me in the office of our apartment, miles away from Columbus, where I knew MarShawn. Where we spent countless hours joking around at poetry open mics or bullshitting at local action events. I am used to the feeling of knowing the dead, having a touchable relationship with someone who is no longer present. Yet the immediate moments after the news arrives never get any easier to manage. I went to MarShawn’s Facebook page and saw his final message of “My demons won today. I’m sorry.” Right below was a picture of him and his mother, smiling at the NAACP awards. Right below that, a screenshot of a threat that was emailed to him from someone telling him that they wouldn’t rest until he “shut his nigger mouth.”
The truth is, once you understand that there are people who do not want you to exist, that is a difficult card to remove from the table. There is no liberation, no undoing that knowledge. It is the unyielding door, the one that you simply cannot push back against any longer. For many, there are reminders of this every day, every hour. It makes “Alright,” the emotional bar and the song itself, the best there is. It makes existence itself a celebration.
I hadn’t spoken to MarShawn in months, a thing that we feel most guilty about after a person is gone, especially if we are miles away from home, or on a plane to somewhere even farther from home, on the day of a funeral. The last time I saw MarShawn was at a protest. We hadn’t physically seen each other in a while, and we embraced. I slapped his back, perhaps a little too hard, and asked how he was. He told me “I’m all right, you know. I’m still here.”
Maybe all of these heavens are the same — Kendrick Lamar’s heaven, the heaven that all of the trains and chariots took our ancestors to, the heaven on the other side of Harriet Tubman’s river. Maybe all they ask is that we help hold back the darkness for as long as we can, and when we can’t anymore, they’ll save us a room. They’ll make sure “Alright” is playing, and we’ll feel the way it felt hearing it for the first time, in the face of all this wreckage. Full of so much promise, as if all of our pain were a bad dream we just woke up from.