Barring one incident in my life, my Blackness has always been assumed. I’ve never had to explain it or had it questioned. I was born and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, spent my weekends as a teen in Harlem visiting the Schomburg and getting lectured by the likes of Dr. Leonard Jeffries. In college I ran groups named Ujamaa, magazines called The Ankh and scuffed my boots pledging the oldest Black college Fraternity in existence.
Recently, writer, radio host and culture commentator Jay Smooth had to endure the indignity of being told that he was co-opting Blackness because he didn’t look like his interviewer’s definition of Blackness. However, me with my brown skin decorated with keloid scars has never had that problem – at least not in person. I’m about as Black as they come on the outside.
However, years ago during my tenure at The Source magazine a writer of mine reminded me that Blackness is not always assumed. Back then, in a pre-Facebook and Twitter world, the majority of correspondence was done via email, two-way pager or the telephone. I had just done a talking head stint for MTV’s “22 Greatest MCs” broadcast and it was the first time a lot of my peers outside of NY had seen what I looked like. I rocked a bright yellow bubble goose to cover up my Sean John Rugby (“no logos” I was told) and a matching Kangol as I reminded people that Dr. Dre had once rhymed about not smoking weed.
Some time after it aired I was on an edit call with Carlton Wade, a Mississippi scribe who I had relied on for most things popping in the south. He congratulated me on my TV appearance but confessed in his thick southern twang, “Jerr…all this time I thought you was a white dude!” Indeed, my Catholic school education, years doing part time reception and strict West Indian parentage had given me a phone diction that was free of regional flavor or slang. I wouldn’t characterize it as “white” but relative to some of my compatriots it was decidedly nondescript.
Fast-forward several years and again my Blackness practically became part of my job description. I helped launch and run a website called TheUrbanDaily.com, part of the Radio One network, one of the oldest and largest Black-owned media companies in America. Our audience was built on a foundation of BlackPlanet.com members for crying out loud. With the exception of senior management, everyone was of color. Black folk were everywhere. Again, it just didn’t get any Blacker—on the outside.
But after seven years I’m in a whole new environment, running what is now the closest thing to a Black property my parent company could claim—though not describing it as that.
My staff writer Max Weinstein, as gifted as he is inquisitive, turned to me after reading the online debates about Kendrick’s new album To Pimp A Butterfly being “unapologetically black” and asked me, “What does that mean?”
I was admittedly caught off guard because it was the first time in a long time that I was charged with discussing race in the work place with someone who wasn’t Black who genuinely didn’t have a cultural point of reference. To me the answer felt so obvious but explaining to someone else proved as daunting as describing Blackness itself.
Blackness is in a constant state of dispute. The “racial draft” is a cathartic running joke on Twitter as we ostracize and recruit celebrities who don’t seem down for “The Cause.” (Even Kendrick fell victim to this for comments he made in Billboard magazine that seemed out of the respectability politics handbook.) Battle lines have been drawn in the Black community over whether you support or criticize Bill Cosby amidst his rape allegations. An upcoming film, Black Card (a sort of 2015 Drop Squad) posits, “What kind of Black are you?” And there is an increasingly vocal contingent that is eager to cast off the established calling cards of Blackness in favor of a “post-racial” existence, erecting constructs like “new black” to describe their position.
In entertainment specifically Black music has been stripped of much of its social and racial identity and homogenized into this acceptable gruel that can be spoon-fed to the masses. So much so that all it takes is for Kanye West to evoke the semblance of militancy and racial pride to have him elevated to Black Panther status by some, no matter how contradictory his personal politics may be.
Like D’angelo a few months before, Kendrick’s TPAB reminds us that black music was not hatched in a pod. That the music was born out of the struggle of a specific people and to divorce it from its roots has been deliberate, criminal and successful. Kendrick’s latest work is being called “unapologetically black” because blackness is something most modern black musicians have avoided in order to assimilate and profit. Blackness has been distilled into euphemisms like ‘urban’ and ‘street,’ to make corporate interlopers feel comfortable wearing blackness like a cloak that is conveniently removed when it becomes too heavy (or in the case of Robin Thicke, too expensive).
Millennial hip-hop artists with roots in the hubs of Black culture have gone out of their way to instead project their capitalist self-image, their aspirations of class, a culture of the club. Very little of their music speaks of blackness past or present. It doesn’t surprise me at all that A$AP Ferg would make the dubious claim that racism is dead—just days after UVA student Martese Johnson was bloodied by local law enforcement—because there is nothing about his music that says, “I’m Black.” It is part of why To Pimp A Butterfly stands out as such. The album cover itself takes George Clinton’s charge to paint the white house black to heart. The team of young Black men posed atop a prostrate politician stands in stark contrast to the “Fuck Your Ethnicity” claim he used to launch Section.80, but is the logical evolution from “Black Boy Fly” on GKMC.
On the inside To Pimp A Butterfly is littered with Black signifiers both musical and cultural. To crib Killer Mike’s “Rap Music” (who is appropriately name dropped on the album), this is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel. This is sanctified sick, this is player Pentecostal, this is church, front pew, amen, pulpit, what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”
Where Kanye’s “New Slaves” preached down from the mountain tops, “Complexion” literally speaks from the grass roots of the cotton field. “These Walls” is equal parts Prince (who penned Sheena Easton’s libidinous “Sugar Walls”) and LL Cool J (K.Dot demolishes walls where LL crushed said “Pink Cookies”). “Momma” finds him talking to a clone of his younger self with a “nappy afro, gap in his smile and hand-me-down sneaker” over what could be a third-generation J-Dilla instrumental.
To Pimp… is The Throne’s “Murder To Excellence” stretched out over 16 tracks, addressing universal experiences of pain, love, power, sex, money, life and death but from a decidedly Black perspective. The average new age rapper will call himself everything from a God to a King, but rarely a Black man as often as Kendrick has repeatedly throughout his career and this album.
While at SXSW this year I informally polled some of the musicians I met about this album and most weren’t sure how they felt about it yet after several days. Certain elements in its genetic code were undeniable and obvious, but they were still trying to distill the message, the intent and his purpose.
Kendrick projects so much Blackness that thinkers—including myself– are scrambling for ways to describe it and him. Weeks ago we published an essay asking if Kendrick was the millennial Marvin Gaye and I asked one of his collaborators to weigh in when ‘i” was first released.
“He’s something else because he speaks from a perspective…” Denaun Porter says searching for the right words. “I can say it because I sing and it sounds a lot like [Marvin] from where I am, but it’s not all political unrest. It’s a generalization of emotions that people always sit on and don’t share. I’m not afraid to say certain things and I don’t think he’s afraid [either]. He’s a sponge. The kid is a sponge. He’s not a fool. I would say he’s something else. He’s definitely attacking issues that I love to hear about…Some people don’t want to see The Matrix. Kendrick can be considered The Matrix and Drake could be considered Scarface. They are two different things. They’re just two dope artists that fit two different molds. Let them be that. Let’s stop doing the weak comparisons. Marvin Gaye is a good one because he does speak [on issues]…but if you’re gonna say that, do it in a different way…You can’t put that kid in a box.”
Kendrick’s inaccessibility itself is a form of protest. This album is not discrete in any way, shape or form. It will make you uncomfortable even if you like it. Yes, someone in a marketing department could find a way to pimp the uplifting “i” to sell low fat yogurt if Kendrick allows it, but the pacing is unconventional and the overall subject matter would melt the cast of “Love and Hip-Hop” like holy water on a blood sucker. “Distewmuch” is what fans of the more approachable “Poetic Justice” mumble as they run away covering their ears leaving a trail of memes in their wake. It’s Michelle Obama’s side-eye. It’s saying it with your chest. It’s the big piece of chicken. It’s Prince’s jump shot. It’s Kool Moe Dee’s kufis. It’s Dennis Haysbert’s voice. It’s wish mode. It’s the sweat on Jill Scott’s brow. It’s Black with a capital B.
Some have argued that there has been too much said and written about this album and it how it feels born of the citizens of District 11, but I argue that there hasn’t been enough. As Jay Smooth can tell you, there is always someone waiting to separate you from your birthright and for the rest of us tucking in our Blackness has only lead to post traumatic Iggy Disorder and coffee companies making clumsy attempts to discuss race. So here is my two cents of Blackness on the matter.
Sorry, not sorry.