Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reading Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as Alt/Dis

Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp a Butterfly made a huge splash when it dropped in March and for good reason. The album is full of deep personal and cultural reflection that are at times catchy and inspiring and at other times so raw and emotional that it's hard to listen to.

In many ways, To Pimp a Butterfly is organized around universal questions of individual vs. collective, nature vs. nurture, and self-reliance vs. communal responsibility. The fact that Lamar harnesses all of these major philosophical themes around the question of being a black man in America comes at a time when major political and racial unrest is dominating headlines. His album alternates between salve and salt for wounds in post-Ferguson America, and the results are powerful.

Tom Barnes, writing for Mic, reflects on the way that the album walks the line between culturalist and structuralist arguments about racism and its impacts. This earns Lamar a spot in a long line of dichotomous perspectives that have been represented in the debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois and between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

Barnes goes on to note that Lamar skillfully avoids falling into the dogmatic perspective of either structuralism or culturalism:
It isn't an either/or for Lamar. It's a struggle, and a question that cannot be reduced to dogmatic responses. This is a dangerous and necessary album. There are no easy answers on it. But this is why it's so important. Hopefully, its controversial depiction will act as a catalyst, provoking more thoughtful discussions.
And thoughtful discussions have indeed arisen.  Micah Singleton calls Lamar America's poet laureate and notes that "Kendrick depicts the struggle of expressing black self-love better than any artist has done in recent memory — the highs and lows, the inner joy, the self-hate, the bravado, the blame." Julian Mitchell calls upon James Baldwin to explain how To Pimp a Butterfly operates:
By experiencing extreme vulnerability, a black man must inescapably confront the inner demons that fuel his self-destruction. As a result, he can run nowhere but within, incapable of blaming the known dynamics of race, nor leveraging the realities of history as an excuse to settle in conformity. The singular point Baldwin sought to make is that for black men to truly experience liberation in society, they must first be removed from that society to liberate themselves.
Mitchell likewise calls upon the American Dream imagery of transformation, a transformation perfectly encapsulated in the album title's allusion to the butterfly that emerges from the caterpillar. That this butterfly is "pimped," sold out, commodified, and packaged speaks to the torn sense of identity inherent in Lamar's success.

By focusing so heavily on these themes of the way individual drive clashes with a sense of collective responsibility, the way that success can feel like a betrayal, the way that self-loathing coexists with self-love, Lamar places himself in a long trajectory of (mostly minority) artists and authors who have explored these themes. Nowhere are these themes so pronounced as within the genre of "alternative discourses," or "alt/dis." In fact, a close comparison of Lamar's work to some of the most prominent examples of the alt/dis genre indicates that he's not just playing with the same themes; his album fits as a representative work of alt/dis itself.

Alternative Discourses

Alternative discourses are typically defined as works that are made up of "mixed" or "braided" discourse forms. They're typically identified by an intertwining of traditional academic discourse conventions with more personal, narrative-based discourse. Representative works in the genre run along a spectrum with some works tending to be more academic than personal and some works more personal than academic, but all works within the genre shared this mixed nature.

Geneva Smitherman's Talkin' and Testifyin', for example, is a primarily academic work that weaves in personal narrative and slang to help illustrate her point that African American Vernacular English is a powerful and legitimate discourse. Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary uses his own personal story of educational struggles stemming from a test mix-up landing him on the remedial track to advocate for policy change. Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory reflects on the pain and isolation he felt as he moved away from his family's cultural practices and into an assimilated version of himself for the sake of academic success.

One key marker of alternative discourses is the way that the authors depict themselves as torn, conflicted, and mired in struggle with their sense of identity. These writers illustrate the process of determining their new sense of self in the face of this conflict to be painful and often isolating. They're left without a clear place to stand, distanced from their families and "home" culture but also never quite fitting in with the mainstream academic culture either.

Gloria Anzaldua and La Facultad

Perhaps no one puts this more powerfully than Gloria Anzaldua does in her work Borderland/La Frontera. Anzaldua reflects on how her identity has left her no stable self in terms of gender, race, or language. The book switches in and out of prose and poetry and Spanish and English, leaving the reader cognitively immersed in the erratic switches that Anzaldua is trying to illustrate within herself. She identifies as a queer mestiza whose white, Mexican, and Indian ancestry represents "the conquerors and the conquered.”

To illustrate her sense of conflicted identity, Anzaldua uses the metaphor of the "Shadow-Beast." She says that she first saw the Shadow-Beast while looking in the mirror, and she identifies it as the part of her that “refuses to take orders from outside authorities,” refuses to assimilate. She feels the pressure from mainstream society to hide this part of herself, to try to erase the remnants of her cultural heritage so that she can fully assimilate. But her attempts are unsuccessful because she's left constantly fearful that the Shadow-Beast will escape, and even when it is properly "caged," she's left waging an internal war that she is supposed to hide from the surface.

The other option, embracing the Shadow-Beast, is equally unappealing to her. She says that she has been tempted to "make [herself] conscious of the Shadow-Beast, stare at the sexual lust and lust for power and destruction we see on its face” and embrace it. While this kind of embrace makes sense in the face of such a violent erasure of part of one's identity, Anzaldua says that it is untenable and leaves those enacting such an embrace frozen in one place, unable to adapt.

Anzaldua ultimately advocates for a kind of toggling back and forth between the two ways of interacting with the Shadow-Beast. In doing so, she transcends the limits of either strategy and enacts what she's deemed la facultad, “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.” It is only through this painful identity struggle that she is able to arrive at this deeper understanding. And that pain requires a constant, lifelong embrace of tension and turmoil. She will constantly be struggling to keep different versions of herself in motion, but that struggle has given her power.

Keith Gilyard and the Sun and Moon

Another alt/dis writer who embraces the notion of la facultad (though he doesn't use that word) is Keith Gilyard. Gilyard's Voices of the Self is a 1991 work of alt/dis that explores his own upbringing as a black boy in an urban environment. He sets the book up so that the readers are forced to toggle between versions of himself. The odd numbered chapters adopt a strictly academic voice that analyze language policy and educational practices in the way typically expected of work coming from someone with a doctorate in English. The even numbered chapters, however, are written in personal narrative form and tell the spiral from a good, rule-abiding child into a juvenile delinquent and heroin addict.

Gilyard positions the start of this downfall with his move to a mostly white school, leaving him with two different identities to uphold: the one he wore for his friends at home and the one he wore for his white peers and teachers. He goes so far as to give himself two different names. He has always gone by his middle name, Keith, but he decides that all white people will have to call him Raymond. He specifically sees this dual identity as a means of survival: “They cannot meet Keith now. I will put someone else together for them and he will be their classmate until further notice. That will be the first step in this particular survival plan”

Gilyard also includes a seemingly out-of-place vignette about seeing the sun and moon share the same sky as a child. He says it “was weird” because he’d always thought that “their relationship was strictly causal. The moon came up because the sun went down or the sun went down because the moon had to come up.” This mirrors the causal relationship he'd maintained between Keith and Raymond. When one appeared, the other disappeared. He became a master at this toggle until, like Anzaldua, he could no longer maintain the juggle, and the tension between the two became too much. It was then that he learned new strategies, ways to move past the rigid dichotomy without entirely losing either sense of self. This is why he's chosen to write his book from both points of view, why the book is called VoiceS of the Self, why he ends by telling us Keith (not Raymond)  was headed to college. He learned a way to keep both versions of self, and it is difficult and painful, but it is better than losing either piece of himself.

Kendrick Lamar's "i" and "u"

Lamar falls right in line with this alt/dis tradition throughout his entire album, but the dual tracks of "i" and "u" are the clearest illustration of his mastery of the genre.

A version of "i" was released before the album, and it was immediately heralded as a powerful proclamation of self-love. Carimah Townes likened it to Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" and called it "a way to find positivity in the harrowing realities that plague black communities."

The opening stanza of "i" has a direct connection to Anzaldua. Lamar sings "in front of a dirty double mirror they found me," indicating that--like Anzladua--he was trapped reflecting on a sense of himself, one that was "doubled." Here the "double mirror," a mirror that allows someone on the other side to see through while the subject is left looking only at his own reflection, serves to point out the difference between how he viewed himself and how others viewed him.

"When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?" He notes that some of those around him, some of those on the other side of the glass, want to see him as a failure and a menace. "I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police." He knows that many look at him, a young black man, and see a criminal, a danger, a threat to order. But he also knows that many looking at him from the other side of that glass see him as a hope for their future: "Illuminated by the hand of God, boy don't seem shy." This is a reference to the fact that Lamar's work has given him a voice that many are hoping he uses to shine light on systemic issues of racism and poverty. There is a lot of pressure on him to be a positive representative of his community. Just as Anzaldua looked in the mirror and found the tension of two conflicting versions of herself, Lamar has seen through the mirror and found that he's being watched closely--both by those who see him as a threat and those who see him as a savior. How will he respond? "One day at a time."

Later in the song, he says that he "went to war last night," but he follows it up by saying that he's been "dealing with depression ever since an adolescent," making it clear that the war is an internal one. Just like the alt/dis writers before him, the state of his own identity is mired in struggle and strife. He notes that he could "never bob and weave from a negative" and that he's always had to take the punches from the cruelty of the world around him. But at the same time, he's "moving at a meteor speed," so the punches aren't enough to throw him off track. He takes the good and the bad and tries to find some sense of self within its tangles. And of that sense of self he makes it clear over and over again in the chorus: "I love myself."

However, all of the positivity of "i" is put into question with the darkness of its companion track, "u." It opens with a rough, staccato insistence that "loving you is complicated," a direct connection to the chorus of "i." Here Lamar blames himself for focusing on his career while his little sister struggled through teenage pregnancy. He questions how he could be a leader when he's abandoned his family and friends. He reasons "a friend never leave Compton for profit." He reflects on speaking only via Facetime with a friend who was in the hospital dying after being shot instead of meeting with him in person because he was away working on his career. He ends with a meditation on suicide, telling himself he "shoulda killed your ass a long time ago" and deciding that he will send a message that money and fame isn't enough: "the world'll know money can't stop a suicidal weakness."

With these two tracks, Lamar is demonstrating the two options that the alt/dis writers have felt. He's looking through the two-way mirror and thinking about the people watching him on the other side. Should he see himself as a hero who is speaking out about the problems that plague his community or as a traitor who has abandoned those he loves most to a life of violence and poverty while he escapes to luxury? Should he see himself as a talent with a prophetic voice whose abilities have given him power or as a part of the problem, using the pain of those around him for profit?

"i" received much more critical acclaim than "u," but Lamar makes it clear you can't take one without the other, the butterfly without the caterpillar, the positive without the negative, the growth without the pain. His album operates to ensure no simple narratives. His path is ragged, painful, and full of internal turmoil, and he reaches no conclusions that erase that dark, suicidal, guilt-ridden piece of himself from existence.

Instead, he will have to do as the alt/dis authors before him have done and learn to live with that piece as well. To Pimp a Butterfly chronicles that personal journey on a backdrop of societal ills. Just like the other works of alt/dis, he touches on policy and politics, but the heart of the story is fiercely individual: he has to live this life, and that means he has to find a way to walk these lines.

Ultimately, his love for himself is true, but it's also complicated, and that puts him in good company with a lineage of alt/dis writers who have been using their own stories for decades to teach us hard lessons about living a conflicted existence.

Image: Dan Tantrum

No comments:

Post a Comment