Meaghan McDonough ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
From Beyonce at Superbowl 50 to Kanye West on SNL, the early half of February has been filled with proud black performances by iconic artists. But none have been so unrelenting as Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the 58th Grammy Awards. Following his win for rap album of the year—the first ever for a Los Angeles rap artist—Lamar gave a simple speech thanking God, his family, and those who helped him create his groundbreaking album To Pimp A Butterfly. He smiled, he waved, and he politely bowed out even as he earned a standing ovation that was rightly deserved this year. And so that was thought to be the end of it: a humble goodbye from an artist audiences could only hope would go on to win Album of the Year against the unstoppable pop machine that is Taylor Swift and her album, 1989.
That was, of course, until his performance later in the evening, which quite literally set the Grammy Awards aflame.
Earlier this week, host LL Cool J gave a teaser of Lamar’s “very controversial” performance, but even this fair warning couldn’t even give a hint of the relentless, unflinchingly black performance Lamar actually gave.
The performance opens with a saxophone providing a somber, bluesy tune as the camera pans up to show Lamar and company shuffling on stage in chains. The chain gang, dressed in prison blues, is surrounded by Lamar’s band, who are all locked in prison cells. As Lamar reaches his mic, he wraps the chains over and around the mic, trapping it in the same way that he is trapped by racial oppression. From there, he raps the first verse of “Blacker the Berry” off To Pimp A Butterfly, which is an exploration of what it means to be black in America today. Lyrics such as, “You hate me don’t you? / You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture,” combined with the images of black men in chains, in jail, relentlessly reminds viewers of the strife that the black community has faced and continues to face every single day. From mass incarceration to the appropriation of black culture—“you vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me”— each lyric and image provided by the performance assures the audience that Lamar “know[s] that you feel it.” He suggests that the audience is complicit in the oppression of black culture, which is a powerful statement to make to a room full of people from an industry built on the appropriation of black music and the exploitation of black artists.
But Lamar doesn’t stop there.
Transitioning into “Alright,” the 7th track of To Pimp A Butterfly and the song featured in Lamar’s award winning music video, Lamar frees himself from his chains, drops a Biggie Small reference with: “As we proceed to give you what you need,” and begins moving across the stage to the sound of dizzying horns and hand drums. He stumbles into a tribal scene turned red by light and pyrotechnics; a bonfire fills an alcove upstage. Around him, women and men in African tribal wear dance and play drums as he sings, “Tell the world I know it’s too late / The hoes, the girls think I gone crazy / Try and fight my vices all day,” and the flames behind him rise higher and higher. A quick cut to audience shows white faces turned red both from the glow of light and from being confused by a performance they cannot relate to, that discounts them, that doesn’t care what they need or want. The tension of Lamar’s performance rises as he raps on insistently: “Nigga, we gon’ be alright / Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.”
Stunning choreography—tribal, balletic, dance hall, and hip-hop moves easily build off one another, giving a taste of African dance history for Black History Month—and Lamar’s energy drives the performance to its climax, where he raps lyrics to an untitled song. As applause from the audience follow him out of the tribal scene, the lighting cools and suddenly he is alone with his mic at the center of the stage, rapping, “Twenty twelve was taken from the world to see / Set us back another four hundred years / This is modern day slavery.” Lights flash in his face to reveal a purple bruise painted just outside his left eye, the cameras cutting in quick, successive rotation to get Lamar from multiple angles as he reminds the audience of the cost of their white collar—“threw your briefcase all on the couch”—lives. The cost, as he references in the song, is the life of Trayvon Martin and other black people like him, who struggle every day but are forgotten about by the very people who sit in the seats before him, on the other side of their TV screens at home.
The performance races to an end with Lamar spitting lyrics so fast that they’re indecipherable, especially considering the cheers from the audience, which crescendos. It closes out with the lights suddenly cutting out to reveal a glowing, white image of the African continent with ‘Compton’ written in black lettering, Lamar standing shadowed in the glow. The lights come up to reveal the audience giving a standing ovation, some black artists holding their fists in the air: the universal sign for black power.
Even though Kendrick Lamar went on to lose Album of the Year to Taylor Swift and 1989, his performance won the night. For fifty-eight Grammy Awards, only twelve black artists have been granted the honor of Album of the Year at the Grammy’s. Even though Kendrick Lamar doesn’t stand among them for To Pimp A Butterfly, he honored them with both the album and his revolutionary performance against racism. A performance which he presented to a room full of people maintaining the very industry that has left its roots—black music, black culture, blackness itself—to wither. This surely won’t be the last thing we hear from Lamar, or the last time we hear it. Taylor Swift can be content with her trophy, title, and a consolatory hug for her good friend Lamar, but the Kendrick Lamar she and everyone know and love is far from done. Kendrick Lamar is going to keep his head up high, keep fighting racism every step of his career, and, as he assures us in his song, he’s “gon’ be alright.”