by Elan Lakes, Staff Contributor
“The Blacker the Berry” exemplifies a colossal sense of dignity for one’s own Blackness. This song is from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), an album that is the epitome of what is considered “woke” or “conscious” rap music. Still, it is more than just that. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that preaches self love and acceptance while also shedding light upon the plight of Black people in the United States. This track not only emphasizes Black Excellence, but it also viciously attacks the systems and institutions in place that don’t allow Black people to thrive the way they rightfully should be able to in a truly just society.
Kendrick Lamar is well known for his “conscious” music, but this song in particular (released during Black History Month in 2015) resonates with me in a distinctive manner. Kendrick is deft and masterful at including relevant historical and cultural references in his music. “The Blacker the Berry” is the thirteenth track on TPAB; the thirteenth amendment prohibits slavery (unless you’re imprisoned) and essentially determined that all enslaved Blacks at that time were to be freed. Throughout the song Kendrick raps about the lack of true freedom that Black Americans have, and how easily that freedom can be taken away in this country. The title itself is another reference to an important piece of Black history. “The Blacker the Berry,” written by Wallace Thurman is an excellent and influential piece of literature from the Harlem Renaissance Era, a time of great cultural significance to Black people. Thurman’s book describes a young Black woman’s experiences with colorism and how she learns to love and cherish her dark skin. Kendrick’s brief allusion to the Black Panthers, a militant group that fought for Black liberation, provides reasoning for his more aggressive and vigorous tone. Also in this verse, Kendrick references Marcus Garvey, an avowed Pan-Africanist, activist, and author. Garvey stood for pride in being Black and pride in having African roots; Kendrick does the very same thing in “The Blacker the Berry.”
In “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick is sure to effectively establish a transparent “Us and Them” distinction. There is an explicit antagonization present in his usage and repetition of the word “you.” The “you” he attacks so aggressively is representative of the rampant systemic racism that is the American societal system. In every verse, Kendrick repeats the line, “You hate me don’t you?” to really drive home that he is characterizing this “you” as the sworn enemy of Black people. He goes on to angrily and forcefully drag “you” for being deceitful, attempting to destroy Black culture, ruining the public image of the Black person, and sabotaging Black communities to the point where they destroy themselves. He’s saying, “Why are You surprised? You made us this way.” Kendrick also writes about the desire he has to see “you” lit ablaze and done away with, along with all the problems “you” create.
While Kendrick speaks volumes about the transgressions of “you,” he still places a great emphasis on what “he” has done. With the repetition of the line “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” at the beginning of every verse, Kendrick provides a subtle reminder that “he” has played a part in the plight of the Black individual. He allows himself to be the embodiment of the Black community in order to express his “hypocritical” feelings toward Blacks killing other Blacks. Kendrick basically asks: “How can we be angry at others for killing us when we do it to ourselves?” He answers his question before he even outright poses it; it is not surprising that Blacks are killing each other when our society has created the perfect environments to do just that.
The simplistic, yet powerful kick-drum and snare line present throughout most of the song creates a head-bopping feel. It makes you experience Kendrick’s language down to your very core. It’s the type of beat that makes you want to start “a fire in the street” and bask in its charmingly destructive glory. This is the song you would listen to while you watch the societal imbalances existing in this country go up in flames and crumble down dramatically. The instrumental outro is calming with its jazzy piano, lighter drum riff, and soft vocals. It provides resolution to the more chaotic feel that is felt in most of the song. It’s the near-silent crackle of the embers of a dying, once powerful, flame. How satisfying!