Kendrick Lamar won the biggest award at Monday’s Grammy Awards . He won an ideological battle for civil rights and the soul of hip-hop with his politically charged performance.
In front of 24.9 million viewers, Lamar addressed mass incarceration, black pride and police violence in a fiery six minute performance. Lamar opened the performance inside a prison complex, where he was chained together with his backup dancers and stepped up to the mic to blast off the first verse of “The Blacker the Berry.” The set transitioned as Lamar and his dancers took off their chains and then were transported to Africa where he spat “Alright” in front of a massive fire. Lamar ended with an unreleased song and closed with an image of Compton marked on the continent of Africa.
The performance of his unreleased track known as “Untitled 3” was the most powerful moment of his set. Lamar approached the mic by himself with the stage light on him. Lamar explained the death of Trayvon Martin with lines such as “Twenty-twelve was taken from the world to see/set us back another four-hundred years/this is modern day slavery.” The song was delivered in a rapid flow, expressing Lamar’s anger against Zimmerman and his calls for justice by any means necessary.
“The reason why I’m by your house
You threw your briefcase all on the couch
I plan on creeping through your damn door and blowing out
Every piece of your brain
‘Til your spine drip to your arm
Cut off the engine then sped off in a Wraithhy I’m by your house”
Lamar even referenced his 2011 hit “HiiiPower,” one of Lamar’s first politically charged tracks where he spits about the legacy of influential civil rights leaders from Marcus Garvey to Huey Newton. It is a song about fighting the system and standing up for civil rights, beliefs that Lamar certainly showcased at his performance on Monday.
Despite having the best performance of the night, Lamar did not win Album of the Year for To Pimp a Butterfly or Song of the Year for “Alright.” Although many hip-hop fans are upset that Lamar did not win these accolades, hip-hop fans should know that an award is not necessary for an album to be praised. Just look at Nas’s Illmatic, an album that has no formal accolades but is considered one of the best rap albums of all time and is even studied at universities.
Yes, more black talent has should be recognized at the Grammy’s, especially when all of popular American music is made first by African-American artists. But the bigger award is to have an album make an impact on society. To Pimp a Butterfly made that impact with songs like “Alright” being chanted at civil rights protests throughout the country. Lamar has also reshaped the genre with new artists like Anderson Paak taking a similar approach as Kendrick by mixing rap with jazz and funk. Taylor Swift on the other hand became part of a cancerous New York City PR campaign that involved her song “Welcome to New York.”
The authority of the Grammy’s is what Lamar’s performance goes against. He knows that most of the show is fluff and that the awards mean nothing. Besides, his albums have been ranked number one on numerous Best Music of the Year lists by major music review publications. He doesn’t need the Grammy’s to increase the prestige he already has. So instead Kendrick used it as a platform to spread his message of civil rights and black pride to a music industry that still undermines black art.
In his acceptance speech for Best Rap Album, Lamar tells us that his award is for all hip-hop, especially for the albums never recognized by the academy.
“This for hip-hop. This for Snoop Dogg Doggystyle, this for Illmatic, this for Nas. We will live forever; believe that. Aight!”