If good kid m.A.A.d city is about Kendrick Lamar's experiences growing up in Compton, then To Pimp a Butterfly details what it's been like since he left. It's a tale of managing depression and the overbearing responsibility that's attached to success and prosperity. A kind that is sometimes self-imposed. A kind I can relate to.
Kendrick's second major studio album is laced with stories I can manipulate to resemble my own. That's always been the case with his music (and hip-hop in general), but something very different happens when I listen to To Pimp a Butterfly. Its theme of hometown obligations consistently tugs at my conscience and evokes a feeling no rap album has before. This is especially true for the track "u."
In the sixth track off the album, Kendrick's consciousness takes over and personifies his fears and insecurities. "Where was your presence, where was your support that you pretend?" he raps, "You aint' no brotha, you aint no disciple, you aint no friend. A friend never leave Compton for profit, or leave his best friend, little brother, promised you'd watch 'em." These words test my comfort every time I hear them because despite the fact that I haven't been back home since I left, there's still a presence and support I pretend.
I thought not returning home after college for a non-profit job in Washington D.C. was my way of making my city proud. Growing up, menial, hourly wage jobs were the norm. No one talked about savings accounts and Lotto tickets were the only things we paid for on time. When I had the opportunity to board a plane and move across the country for an organization that provides a company credit card and takes me to restaurants where everyone puts a napkin on their lap, I was quick to jump.
I thought I was leading by example. I thought I was setting the stage. Whatever I thought, this album is helping me realize something different.
I work for a civil rights and racial justice non-profit, so my job description allows me to say I support communities of color across the country challenging systems of oppression -- all while I neglect my own. I go to conferences and denounce private prisons rather than working to shut down the one that operates in the town where I spent my childhood. I research radical feminists and draft essays about sexism on Capitol Hill rather than critiquing and discussing the misogyny on my own block. Instead of supporting youth back home, I devote my time and energy to prepare for speaking engagements at the universities they didn't know they could get into.
In "u," Kendrick's conscious takes the mic and says, "Your sister bakin' a baby inside, just a teenager, where's your patience? What's the influence you speak of? You preached in front of 100,000 but you never reached her." Kendrick makes me wonder what all the accolades or number of LinkedIn connections I collect mean if my own siblings don't own a computer or are stuck in the frame of mind that working retail is where the money is at. Who am I really reaching?
I claim to be an advocate, to be in solidarity with all those oppressed. If I could, I would put it on a snapback. Yet, Kendrick Lamar and all of these contradictions are telling me that I am selfish rather than someone who is intentional about the work I do. As I think of home, I wonder, where is my presence, that support I pretend?
To Pimp a Butterfly forces me to be honest with myself and ask difficult questions. Did I leave home to put my city on the map, or did I leave for profit, for opportunities to post boastful Facebook statuses and lines on a resume?
Kendrick repeats throughout the album, "You were conflicted, misusing your influence." Now he has me convinced I've been misusing mine.
Sean Flores is a program associate for Advancement Project. Advancement Project is a multi-racial civil rights organization. Founded by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers in 1999, Advancement Project was created to develop and inspire community-based solutions based on the same high quality legal analysis and public education campaigns that produced the landmark civil rights victories of earlier eras.
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