Kendrick Lamar Brings New Literature to the ELA Classroom

Until April of 2017 I was only mildly aware of Kendrick Lamar. I had listened to and enjoyed songs like “Alright” and “Swimming Pools” but had little experience past these songs. After his album D.A.M.N. came out, I began to see several posts regarding the importance of this album, many responses by professors and teachers I knew well and trusted.

I have a distinct memory of mowing my lawn and listening to the second track on Kendrick’s album. Listening intently, I heard him rap the words that changed everything about how I teach (Lamar, 2017),

I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption
Scholars, fathers dead with kids
And I wish I was fed forgiveness

I stopped mowing and hurried into my house, grabbed a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me, and began flipping through the pages. Coates talks adamantly about the black-experience. About how his experiences echoed throughout much of his culture (Coates, 2015, p. 18-21).

Over the following weeks I consumed his music and began seeing connections everywhere. Each album showed a different focus, each telling an intricately detailed story about his experience growing up in Compton, echoing important aspects of what it means to be black in America. (Interestingly enough, and in confirmation I had had for over a year, in Coates’s book We Were Eight Years in Power, released several months after D.A.M.N., he confirmed that he had been listening to much of Kendrick Lamar’s music while writing Between the World and Me.)

Through months of listening, annotating lyrics, drawing comparisons to a variety of additional texts, I knew that I needed to use Kendrick Lamar as a new source of literature in the classroom. I would redefine “literature” for my students in a way that I’ve always felt (and which significant evidence suggests) was more inclusive: literature does not only involve books and stories, but a variety of art-forms; music included. This may seem like an obvious concept to us, as educators, but in my experience, we do not help our students understand this. The closest comparison that I typically see is comparing poetry to song lyrics (an overly used and obvious buy-in strategy to get students to read poetry).

Living in a predominately white area, many students were unfamiliar with Kendrick Lamar’s music. However, most had heard the name. It was important to provide a summary that helped students understand who he is and what he discusses before showing how his music is a serious work of literature. And so, I started with the basics.

The most obvious place to start was in an interview conducted by Rolling Stones Magazine, where, on the cover of the issue was the caption, “Kendrick Lamar, Greatest Rapper Alive.”  I want my students to consider why this might be true. Without any (or very little) prior knowledge, what would make someone the best? Part of this conversation leads to a discussion of his Grammy awards and also on how his album won the Pulitzer Prize, an award only ever presented to artists of classical and/or jazz music. This provides a type of ethos to the discussion that will follow. In order to first redefine literature explicitly, and help (white) students see why a rap artist should be strongly considered within that category, they need to know of the seriousness within his work.

To help create a “seriousness,” we make our way through his album To Pimp a Butterfly. What follows is an in-depth look at the connections that can be made between this album and what we traditionally consider to be literature.

The book, The Blacker the Berry, written by Wallace Thurman highlights the experiences of a young black woman who experiences racism from lighter skinned African-Americans. In the book, however, Thurman praises black-culture while simultaneously criticizing it (1929). Kendrick Lamar takes the title of this book as his own, and in the lyrics, discusses a similar perception but uses a contemporary context to gear his praise and criticism. Rather, his criticism defines a racist tendency when the black experience is discussed. The very last lines of the song read,

then why did we weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street

when gang-bangin’ make me kill a n**** blacker than me? Hypocrite.

It is easy to see these lines as Lamar saying that black people are hypocritical about the police brutality, or visceral racial violence that is enacted upon them when they are violent towards each other (via gang violence, etc.). However, in an article by The Atlantic, the argument is made (and one that I agree with and one that Lamar’s music would also side with) that these final lyrics inform the rest of the song; that much of the black experience is questioned because of the prevalence of whiteness in America. This is a form of white privilege. This is made to show racism even more powerfully as they are placed at the end of the song, as if, despite his own experiences, it is white culture and their beliefs that have the final say. Ultimately, this helps us tie this song to Thurman’s book through how both “characters” understand their own perceptions of their world, and how those perceptions will still be molded by outside influences. Thurman writes, “it was the way of Emma Lou always to create her worlds within her own mind without taking under consideration the fact that other people and other elements, not contained within herself, would also have to aid in their molding.” Kendrick Lamar, like Thurman’s character Emma, understands his identity as being his own, while still influenced by other factors (this is a subject he revisits in his more recent song “ELEMENT”.)

Another obvious, but important, connection students can make is that from the song “King Kunta”. Another from the album To Pimp a Butterfly, the title (and many of the lyrics) make direct references to the character Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley’s novel Roots. The novel features Kunta Kinte, once a prince of Gambia, who is captured and sold into slavery. Kendrick Lamar draws several connections between key events in the novel with his own music. Again, this helps to show students the literary quality of his music, how important text-to-text connections exist within his lyrics in order to create an original work of literature with deep roots (no pun intended).

Kendrick writes, in “King Kunta,”

King Kunta,

            everybody wanna cut their legs off him, Kunta.

            Black man taken no losses.

Within this lyric (and others like it) Kendrick draws several important comparisons. The first is that of the name he has given. Rather than Kunta Kinte, he names him “King Kunta.” Lamar provides his audience a powerful juxtaposition in labeling Kunta a king. And this can (and should) create a direct link between Kunta and Kendrick. Through this label we see a duality within Kendrick Lamar himself: a king, in the sense of his fame and being labeled the king of rap, and a slave (Kunta) through the racism that exists in America. Furthermore, this conversation, helping students see the relationship between the book and song can provide powerful context for our students to grapple with (especially those students in a homogenously white area like the one I teach in).

The second part involves the lines, “everybody wanna cut their legs off him.” Here, we see a direct reference to Kunta Kinte and the book Roots. Kunta, in the book ran away from his slave owner’s plantation several times, eventually leading to him getting his legs cut off. Essentially, they prevent him from rebelling through making it impossible. Kendrick Lamar’s music shows this throughout—a rebellious attitude that is filled with direction. Like Kunta Kinte trying to escape, Lamar feels that the only escape for himself is through truth-telling and highlighting the racism in America that keeps him and other African-Americans in a type of bondage. Even through his fame (and this is shown directly in his following album, D.A.M.N., and an excerpt from Geraldo Rivera; more on this later) he feels that society, specifically white-America is trying to undercut him, to “cut his legs off” as it were.

There are a great many connections that can further be made. Kendrick Lamar mentions yams in King Kunta, a staple in both Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Both books discuss their relationship to the characters culture, one a sign of status and the other one of tradition, respectively. Both are elements that can be found throughout all of Kendrick Lamar’s music as he tries to express his own tradition (the traditions of Compton) throughout his music, and his understanding of his status in juxtaposition with the status of the black experience. That is to say, while Kendrick Lamar has received a high level of fame, he speaks about his experiences and the experiences African-Americans at large. He says, “The best thing I did was go back to the city of Compton, to touch the people who I grew up with and tell them the stories of the people I met around the world.”

In a news segment with Geraldo Rivera, just after a performance of Alright by Kendrick Lamar, Rivera quoted a line from the song before sharing his opinions on racism in America. He said, quoting, “‘And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo so.’” following with saying, “this is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” This undercutting of Kendrick Lamar’s message is the exact type of racism that Kendrick Lamar discusses throughout his music. The perception of the black experience as being negative. In that same song, Lamar writes, “all my life I’ve had to fight,” a quote from another novel, The Color Purple by Alive Walker. Despite the overall positive message in Alright and To Pimp a Butterfly, we see how an attempt to not only spin it to be negative, but blaming artists like Lamar for propagating racist tendencies. In response to Rivera’s comments, Kendrick Lamar says, “how can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred? The overall message is ‘We gonna be alright.’”

Kendrick Lamar uses this clip in his following album D.A.M.N. just after spending time discussing the complicated nature of the black experience. This song comes to full fruition with the release of the music video, featuring Don Cheadle, where he (a “wealthy” detective) and Kendrick Lamar (featured in handcuffs) discuss/rap the lyrics to the first half of the song. They go back and forth highlighting different aspects of their lives but ultimately show that they, while dressed differently, and in different positions of power, understand well what is involved in the black experience. However, directly following this, the quote from Rivera can be heard playing over Lamar’s lyrics. It is hard to not see the similarities in this approach and the use of the word “hypocrite” at the end of The Blacker the Berry. In both instances, Kendrick Lamar is trying to help his audience understand how racism often works. It undercuts. It attempts to delegitimize an experience because it is different than what white America would say is true.

In this way, Kendrick Lamar creates his own literature that highlights the black experience, his time spent in Compton, racism’s strong influence in America, along with a wide variety of other topics. But this wide variety seems to be the point. His music is a form of literature that demands analysis, which is why his music can be effective to use within the classroom.

These analyses benefit students in the classroom. In my senior English classroom, I begin the year with a music analysis unit. Within it, students are asked to find songs or albums that are important to them and critically analyze them. And to model what analysis is, and what it should look like, I make my way through showing how Kendrick Lamar’s music is a form of literature. However, this alone offers other points of discussion to help students see literature differently.

One such discussion is that of language. This takes multiple forms and should be discussed in a variety of ways. We spent time learning the difference between traditional curse words and thick concepts. As Kendrick Lamar uses the “n-word” frequently, it is imperative (especially in the context that I teach in—93% white students) to discuss appropriate use of this work—which is to say, none of my non-black students should use the word in any context, and the others in present company. These rules come from a variety of research and conversations between myself and black educators. Students are also able to engage in conversations about “high-literature” and swearing. They ask and answer the question, “why can we read books like Of Mice and Men which contain a variety of swearwords, but are discouraged from listening to music with the same curse words?” This helps provide the structures and tools that lend themselves to critically thinking.

Students also learn about institutionalized racism, gang violence, and police brutality through reading books like Monster by Walter Dean Myers, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, or Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and comparing them to Kendrick Lamar songs like “good kid,” “The Art of Peer Pressure,” or “XXX,” respectively. These songs create a connection from books they are reading to music they are listening to and they are able to see how music is a powerful and relevant form of literature that should be analyzed, critiqued, and viewed as important texts.


(References upon request.)

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