Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammys has been widely described as “fiery”—a nice way to say there were pyrotechnics both of the actual and emotional sort. But there was more than fire, too. The set was obviously political; it was obviously powerful. What exactly did it say?
Lamar arrived bound to other mock-inmates, slouchily walking with a hint of rhythm: every few beats, a twitch. This was clearly an image for the age of mass black incarceration. From the jail cells, jazz players noodled softly, queasily. Lamar put his chained hands over the mic and said “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” the first words of “Blacker the Berry.” The rhythm section suddenly stabbed in—bam, bam—and Lamar flinched before launching into another line.
When it was released last winter, “Blacker the Berry” sparked controversy because Lamar’s narrator berated himself for mourning Trayvon Martin while also participating in violence against black people. Some critics saw the narrative as an example of respectability politics, the ideology that lectures black people and blames their behavior for intractable, historically rooted problems. Others saw it as an artful dissection of how an oppressive society can divide a persons’s loyalties and create self-loathing. At the Grammys, Lamar didn’t let the song’s full logic develop. He only performed the first verse, the one where the narrator is in full righteous-fury mode, drawing power from his heritage to confront white America: “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture. You’re fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.”