It’s been almost a full three days since Kendrick Lamar unleashed holy blackness on the Grammy stage, performing “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and a verse from an untitled song that didn’t make the final cut of his Grammy-winning album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It was a powerful, defiant statement about the state of black America, one that, if we must rate “wokeness,” was on par with or even a step beyond Beyoncé’s widely viewed and much criticized Super Bowl performance.
In the following days, the articles about Lamar’s performance have been many, but as writer LaSha notes over at Salon, he has been widely praised. Despite the near-identical themes of their performances, the constructive critiques and think pieces for Lamar are nowhere near the number—nor are they written with the same vitriol—dedicated to Beyoncé’s video, song and performance of “Formation.” LaSha blames sexism.
“Since his and Beyoncé’s performances carried nearly identical messages, this morning, I awaited the think pieces analyzing the Compton-bred lyricist’s exploitation of black resistance on music’s biggest televised stage,” LaSha writes. “I have yet to see one among the dozens praising him.”
She adds, “I suppose waiting for the critiques of Kendrick’s performance was pure cynicism. Experience taught me long ago that black women and black men are held to different and unequal standards in all things, even by each other.”
In fairness, there is absolutely some sexism at play. LaSha rightfully assesses that Beyoncé’s attire of a leotard and tights during her Super Bowl performance is unfairly used to discredit her message. She points out, “Black men, after all, whether in Levi’s or Kente cloth, can still declare their allegiance to blackness no matter how they’re dressed.”
And she notes that although both Lamar and Beyoncé infuse their black-empowerment messages with lines about sex, no one has raised a brow about Lamar doing so, despite perceiving those same ideas as a strike, so to speak, against Beyoncé. That men face no penalty for expressing sexual desire, while women are shamed, is blatant sexism.
So yes, there is sexism at play in the different responses to Lamar’s and Beyoncé’s performances.
While it may be part of the reason that think pieces condemning Lamar are in short supply, sexism is not the core reason as LaSha asserts. There are other major factors to take into consideration that explain the lack of overanalysis about Lamar’s performance and the abundance of such about Beyoncé.
For starters, Beyoncé is a much bigger star than Lamar. She’s naturally going to garner more interest and more clickbait articles. She has a much longer musical history, one mostly devoid of explicit political statements about black pride or power. And although she’s never shied away from being black (even the L’Oreal commercial, in which she added French and Creole to her ethnic identity, also mentioned African American), she hasn’t come up with anything that’s even a roundabout way of saying, essentially, that Black Lives Matter the way she does in “Formation.”
Beyoncé’s new stance is, well, new. It’s why nonblack people are freaking out, as encapsulated in a hilarious Saturday Night Live segment, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”
I don’t agree with the accusation that Beyoncé is “exploiting black resistance,” but I do understand the conspiracy theory behind it. It’s kinda cool to be “woke” right now, and Beyoncé has pulled a 180 at just the right time. Is she conscious or is her messaging convenient, just a constructed way to reinvent and engage black consumers? It’s a valid question.
There are also valid reasons—not sexism—that the same is not asked about Lamar.
His first major-label release was in 2012. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was about growing up in Compton, Calif., one young black man’s stories used to make a larger statement about growing up black and male in America. His second album, To Pimp a Butterfly, used similar themes with a wider scope. Perhaps the best-known song from that release before the Grammys was “Alright,” which was unofficially adopted as the theme song for Black Lives Matter.
Lamar taking to the Grammy stage shuffling in chains, then performing in front of a bonfire with African dancers and then flashing an outline of Africa with “Compton” stamped in the middle, isn’t a vast departure from what listeners of his music, or viewers of other awards shows, expect from Lamar. At last year’s BET Awards, I sat in the audience watching him perform “Alright” while he stood on top of a battered cop car as a giant, tattered American flag waved in the background. It was a great performance.
His Grammy show was even better, a defining moment, but it wasn’t Lamar making a departure; it was Lamar at his best doing what he’s been doing all along, this time before a mainstream audience. It’s hard to question someone about being exploitative who has a history—even if short—of doing the same thing in improved ways.
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