Freeing the Black Butterfly: Overwhelming Blackness and Kendrick Lamar

by Ashley Elizabeth

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. […] If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” -Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Overwhelming Blackness. After hearing that quote come out of Melissa Harris Perry’s mouth in reference to Hip-hop messiah Kendrick Lamar’s recently released To Pimp a Butterfly, I was hot. What white publication had the audacity to label this objet d’art as such? How dare they stifle the flame of black self-expression with such a dismissive description, especially in such turbulent times where the phrase #blacklivesmatter has become a nationwide mantra?

But a quick google search told me it wasn’t written by an out of touch, old, complainy white guy, but in fact, the opposite. A black girl like me. Huh. So why would someone with the black female perspective call anything “too black”? Perhaps, because we’re encased in a society that is so overwhelmingly white that it is the standard, the default. We have been in this default whiteness since before King Kunta set foot on this soil. And we’ve yet to collectively come out from under the shadow of this caustic cloud.
How many double-stuffed double-consciousness moments do we have on a daily basis? How much time is spent making default whiteness comfortable so we can enjoy a minute amount of that same comfort? How much time do we give to the inner monologue? The cautionary “Don’t turn that hip-hop up too loud or they might get scared.” Or “don’t wear that hoodie at night.” The familiar discomfort behind “I’m the only black person here” or “I can’t eat this delightfully refreshing watermelon in front of them”. The belly full of dread behind “Don’t let it be a black person”, in response to the televised description of a violent crime. It’s little things and it’s big things, but it’s all an “other” thing, and it’s exhaust-ing.

Since they are the standard, white people don’t have to go navigating their daily lives with this ongoing thought process. They are from birth afforded the opportunity to view themselves as individuals with different personalities and sets of circumstances and not be judged by one member of the group’s actions. We continue the fight for this same right. The right to just be. Be human and black and free. And the beautifully conflicted Kendrick Lamar achieves this sentiment in To Pimp a Butterfly. In this eighty minute extensive quest that NPR calls an aspirational “Great American Novel”, Kendrick manages to tackle numerous topics like black pride, self-hate, self-love, survivor’s guilt, and the perils of fame and fortune. And blackness permeates the album.

Appropriately, we witness a transformation in Butterfly. A journey towards enlightenment. With the simple yet powerful statement of a single “I love myself,” Kendrick lets us know that this black man from Compton, with a history of depression and a head full of whatever the hell it wants to do, is comfortable in his skin. It seems he is the millennial generation’s embodiment of Langston’s hope for the Negro artist: free to express his black individuality and humanity without need of approval. True to and free within himself, Kendrick is unafraid to show his beauty and his ugliness. Butterfly shows no signs of the double-consciousness veil—there is no sense of his catering to a default white audience (like some black artists do, consciously or not.) Do we really need an aside every time a black term or cultural artifact is mentioned in a contemporary black novel? Like ‘”Girl, go in there and trim that kitchen,’ referring to the tightly curled hair that grows at the nape of the neck”. Come on. They can google it and you’ve now lost your voice. There is none of that in Butterfly. One non-black person, commenting on the “Overwhelming Blackness” article, said listening to the album felt voyeuristic, like being let in on a secret.

So, then, is Butterfly with its strong racial themes and unapologetic tone too much? It is undoubtedly an intense album and not something you pop in to zone-out to on your morning commute. But to use the term “overwhelming” is dangerous. It connotes that somehow there is a comfortable level of blackness that is acceptable to both blacks and whites. What then, is the Goldilocks golden mean of blackness in America? How much is just right? Drake? Light shade. Surely it isn’t an album cover full of shirtless, unapologetic neguses, standing atop a dead white judge pouring 40s libations and holding a seemingly white infant…all while in front of the white house? Yet Kendrick shows that this brazen, bold display, too, sings America. In his “aspirational Great American Novel” Kendrick finds himself amongst masterful storytellers like Steinbeck and Faulkner, Ellison and Morrison. Proving this negus is as American as apple pie. And watermelon.
Ashley Elizabeth is a musician, educator, and writer from Tucson, AZ.

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