A Butterfly Reads History

After Kendrick Lamar’s appear­ance at the BET awards in June, Fox News pun­dits were fully pre­pared to incite moral panic. It seems all too fit­ting that in a year lead­ing to another Bush/Clinton elec­tion, ide­alogues on the right should once again make rap music their tar­get, as they did in the wake of the Rod­ney King beat­ing in the 1990s. Lamar per­formed “Alright,” the lat­est sin­gle from To Pimp a But­ter­fly, perched atop a police car—for the Fox panel, this ironic engage­ment with police bru­tal­ity was dan­ger­ously imper­ti­nent. “Hip-hop,” said Ger­aldo Rivera, “has done more dam­age to young African-Amer­i­cans than racism.”

In fact, while Rivera and his col­leagues aim to cul­ti­vate a col­lec­tive for­get­ting of his­tory, rap­pers like Kendrick Lamar have long sought to doc­u­ment and pre­serve it. One such doc­u­ment is “King Kunta,” the cen­ter­piece of To Pimp a But­ter­fly. The song is named for Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka African who was abducted and impris­oned as an Amer­i­can slave in the 19th cen­tury, best-known through an account of his life by his descen­dent Alex Haley, in the novel and TV minis­eries Roots. In Haley’s telling, Kinte repeat­edly escapes the plan­ta­tion on which he is impris­oned and is cap­tured each time, finally los­ing his right foot to the bru­tal­ity of the slave­mas­ters. He is made to choose between ampu­ta­tion or cas­tra­tion, forced to com­mit to his impris­on­ment and humil­i­a­tion.

To Pimp a But­ter­fly stands alongside Roots as a direct chal­lenge to the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive of the Amer­i­can past, in which slave­mas­ters like Thomas Jef­fer­son are the mak­ers of his­tory and the Kunta Kin­tes on their plan­ta­tions remain unnamed, immo­bile. Lamar res­ur­rects Kinte to pose a defi­ant ques­tion to his­to­ri­ans: “Bitch, where you when I was walkin’?”

The line func­tions on mul­ti­ple lev­els: Lamar is issu­ing a chal­lenge to his rivals in con­tem­po­rary rap, while the voice of Kunta Kinte chal­lenges the telling of his story that strips his agency and ren­ders him merely a vic­tim. He raises the same ques­tion Brecht asked in his poem, “A Worker Reads His­tory.”

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Baby­lon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glit­ter­ing with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chi­nese wall was fin­ished
Where did the masons go? Impe­rial Rome
Is full of arcs of tri­umph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Cae­sars tri­umph? Byzan­tium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the leg­end
The night the seas rushed in,
The drown­ing men still bel­lowed for their slaves.

Lamar’s ver­sion of the ques­tion responds to the his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal hier­ar­chy that sub­or­di­nates invis­i­ble slaves to sto­ried kings by turn­ing the slave him­self into a king: “King Kunta, every­body wanna cut the legs off him/Kunta, black man tak­ing no losses.” Later in To Pimp a But­ter­fly he notes the near homophony of “nigga” and “negus,” a word denot­ing Ethiopian roy­alty. “The his­tory books over­look the word and hide it,” he charges. This jux­ta­po­si­tion, invert­ing the abjec­tion of his­tor­i­cal racist degra­da­tion with a metonymi­cally linked, tran­scen­dent self-glo­ri­fi­ca­tion, has become famil­iar in African Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music of late, fol­low­ing Kanye West’s Yeezus and D’Angelo’s Black Mes­siah, but it has a long his­tory in the rhetoric of rap.

Though Lamar has made no secret of his con­nec­tions to Chris­tian­ity, hip-hop’s mes­sianic self-sub­jec­tiviza­tion has been deeply shaped by Islam. The word­play that char­ac­ter­izes mod­ern rap’s lan­guage draws exten­sively from the alpha­betol­ogy and numerol­ogy of the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Per­centers, a sect that emerged from the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. Its core belief is sum­ma­rized by anthro­pol­o­gist Ted Swe­den­burg: “God/Allah, for Five Per­centers, is not the Divin­ity as con­ven­tion­ally defined by the monothe­is­tic faiths. God is the black man.” Canon­i­cal fig­ures like Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan are fol­low­ers, and recur­ring phrases like “word is bond,” “drop­ping sci­ence,” or the appel­la­tion of one’s self or oth­ers as “God” have their ori­gins in Five Per­center street preach­ing.

The Nation of Gods and Earths ampli­fied a his­tor­i­cal metaphor that was already cen­tral to Nation of Islam doc­trine. It was another story famously tran­scribed by Alex Haley, this time in The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Mal­colm X. Eli­jah Muhammad’s demonology, “Yacub’s His­tory,” offers a cre­ation myth for the exis­tence of white peo­ple. Accord­ing to Muham­mad, the first humans were black, and they founded Mecca. The soci­ety thrived on sci­en­tific pro­gress, and pro­duced sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions through genetic engi­neer­ing. One mav­er­ick sci­en­tist cre­ated the tribe of Shabazz, who are said to be the begin­ning of the blood­line even­tu­ally car­ried on by African Amer­i­cans.

Another sci­en­tist, Dr. Yacub, resented the author­ity of Allah, which led him to cre­ate “a bleached-out white race of dev­ils,” leav­ing instruc­tions for sys­tem­atic infan­ti­cide of black and brown babies and the geno­cide of liv­ing peo­ple of color. His arti­fi­cial race amended this pro­gram by manip­u­lat­ing tribal fac­tions of black peo­ple into wars against each other, secur­ing the white dev­ils’ dom­i­na­tion of the planet. But the story, as Mal­colm X related it to Haley, has an opti­mistic con­clu­sion:

But finally the orig­i­nal black peo­ple rec­og­nized that their sud­den trou­bles stemmed from this devil white race that Mr. Yacub had made. They rounded them up, put them in chains. […] It was writ­ten that after Yacub’s bleached white race had ruled the world for six thou­sand years—down to our time—the black orig­i­nal race would give birth to one whose wis­dom, knowl­edge, and power would be infinite.

Even with the enlight­ened skep­ti­cism Mal­colm X had acquired by the time he told Haley the story, he empha­sizes its res­o­nance for African-Amer­i­cans liv­ing in a “vac­uum” of recorded his­tory. If you sub­tract its racial essen­tial­ism, the story has a cer­tain fig­u­ra­tive accu­racy, offer­ing an expla­na­tion for the real his­tory of colo­nial­ism, slav­ery, sci­en­tific racism, and seg­re­ga­tion. But the last­ing appeal of “Yacub’s His­tory” has also been in its con­clud­ing look for­ward.

George Clin­ton intro­duced a revi­sion of the myth on Parliament’s 1976 album Moth­er­ship Con­nec­tion, with black aliens land­ing on Earth in a space­ship, mak­ing their pres­ence known by dee­jay­ing on inner city radio. On the album’s title track, Clin­ton announces, “we have come to reclaim the pyra­mids.” This is not merely a con­nec­tion between Egyp­tian civ­i­liza­tion, a clas­sic sig­ni­fier of Negri­tude, and alien tech­nol­ogy. It alludes to a myth­i­cal his­tory that is expanded on in 1977’s Clones of Dr. Funken­stein.

Funk upon a time, in the days of the Funka­puss, the con­cept of spe­cially-designed Afro­nauts, capa­ble of funka­tiz­ing galax­ies, was first laid on man-child, but was later repos­sessed and placed among the secrets of the pyra­mids, until a more pos­i­tive atti­tude towards this most sacred phe­nom­e­non, Clone Funk, could be acquired. There in these ter­res­trial projects it would wait, along with its coin­hab­i­tants of kings and pharaohs, like sleep­ing beau­ties with a kiss that would release them to mul­ti­ply in the image of the cho­sen one: Dr Funken­stein.

The story unfolds in greater detail across sub­se­quent Par­lia­ment albums, cul­mi­nat­ing in the return of the clones to earth. Clin­ton revises the Yacub nar­ra­tive, sub­sti­tut­ing the more ambigu­ous cat­e­gory of “funk” for racial iden­tity, and adding a utopian alter­nate his­tory: instead of liv­ing under slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion, African-Amer­i­cans relo­cated to outer space (and under­wa­ter, as elab­o­rated in Motor Booty Affair), wait­ing until the time was right for a mes­sianic return to Earth to awaken the dor­mant forces of musi­cal sacra­ment.

Moth­er­ship Con­nec­tion” artic­u­lates a his­tor­i­cal con­tin­uum not only in its tex­tual con­tent but in its musi­cal form as well, fus­ing a futur­is­tic elec­tronic tex­ture of advanced rhythm and har­mony with a pas­tiche of the Negro spir­i­tual “Swing Low, Sweet Char­iot.” In his study of slav­ery and black music Blues Peo­ple, Amiri Baraka traces the spiritual’s origin to a Cen­tral African rit­ual song, cit­ing an older text in which a trav­eler to Rhode­sia reported hear­ing a melody nearly iden­ti­cal to “Swing Low, Sweet Char­iot.”

That song told a famil­iar story: local cus­toms decreed that upon the end of his life, a dying chief would be placed into a canoe to be sent down­stream toward Vic­to­ria Falls. There, the mists at the waterfall’s ter­mi­nal point would lift him into a char­iot from heaven that would carry him through the skies. The famil­iar spir­i­tual seems to be a trans­la­tion of both the song and the mes­sianic leg­end, car­ried over the Atlantic by folk­loric trans­mis­sion into the Eng­lish lan­guage and Chris­tian the­ol­ogy. Cen­turies later, funk turned the char­iot from heaven into a space­ship from another planet.

The tra­jec­tory of funk into hip-hop is well-doc­u­mented. The instru­men­tal breaks of funk 12- inches pro­vided a land­scape for the evo­lu­tion of rap’s ver­bal flow, and a con­cep­tual foun­da­tion for its prac­ti­tion­ers. Its influ­ence reached a peak with G-Funk, an early nineties West Coast sub­genre that adopted its sonic touch­stones through both sam­pling and stu­dio recre­ations. Dr. Dre’s 1993 G-Funk sin­gle “Let Me Ride” was a third revi­sion of “Swing Low, Sweet Char­iot,” the cho­rus now in ref­er­ence to Dre’s ‘64 Impala, cruis­ing through the streets of Comp­ton. Dre’s G-Funk would soon inau­gu­rate the career of Tupac Shakur, the tragic hero of gangsta rap whose ghost haunts Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly’s final track, “Mor­tal Man.”

Given the cen­tral­ity of funk to the tra­di­tion Lamar emerges from, it’s no acci­dent that the first voice heard on To Pimp a Butterfly’s open­ing track, “Wesley’s The­ory,” is not Lamar, but George Clin­ton. The instru­men­tal was pro­duced by Fly­ing Lotus, who casu­ally remarked to Lamar that he could imag­ine Clinton’s voice atop it, a fan­tasy even­tu­ally real­ized. “Wesley’s The­ory” sets the stage for the dis­tinc­tive sound of the album, with call-and-response chants, sing-song hooks, jazz tonal­i­ties, cor­po­real tim­bres, and other musi­cal hall­marks of Par­lia­mentesque funk that have not been explored so thor­oughly in hip-hop since the G-Funk era. Thun­der­cat con­tributes live bass in the mutant style of Bootsy Collins, while Bilal’s fre­quent singing spots evoke George Clinton’s doped-up dic­tion.

Clin­ton him­self sings, shouts, and cracks wise, sound­ing as ever like a street preacher on the radio, or a DJ deliv­er­ing a ser­mon. He announces the album’s theme with his trade­mark ver­bosity:

When the four cor­ners of this cocoon col­lide
You’ll slip through the cracks hop­ing that you’ll sur­vive
Gather your wind, take a deep look inside
Are you really who they idol­ize?
To pimp a but­ter­fly

To Pimp a But­ter­fly finds Lamar grap­pling with con­flicts of the self, or selves: a pub­lic self, an eth­nic self, an emo­tional self, an intel­lec­tual self. The album’s title, a lament for the reduc­tion of self demanded by the stric­tures of suc­cess and sur­vival under cap­i­tal­ism, is openly a ref­er­ence to Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mock­ing­bird, a work that once stood in for lib­eral con­sen­sus on race in America—a con­sen­sus now chal­lenged by the pub­li­ca­tion of its first draft, Go Set a Watch­man. Yet the title is also unmis­tak­ably redo­lent of Clinton’s nam­ing of a sim­i­lar con­cept in Parliament’s Funken­t­elechy Vs. the Placebo Syn­drome: “the pimp­ing of the plea­sure prin­ci­ple.”

“I’m the biggest hyp­ocrite of 2015,” Lamar says, three times, on “The Blacker the Berry.” The song’s depic­tion of racial self-hatred has made him a nexus of con­tro­versy. Yet it is sub­ject to an imma­nent inter­ro­ga­tion by the seem­ingly uncom­pli­cated aspi­ra­tions to self-love on “i,” which could either prove or refute Lamar’s admis­sion of hypocrisy. The con­tra­dic­tory mess of iden­ti­ties Lamar tan­gles with is made man­i­fest in his voice, which fre­quently departs from his nat­u­ral flow.

It’s another aspect of Lamar’s vision that is rem­i­nis­cent of George Clin­ton, but whereas Clin­ton manip­u­lated his voice tech­no­log­i­cally, pro­duc­ing cyborgs that son­i­cally enacted the Par­lia­ment mythos, Lamar’s cast of char­ac­ters per­form real­ist the­ater. The drunk rant­ing through the neck of a bot­tle in “u,” the androg­y­nous poet car­ry­ing out an extended phal­lic metaphor on “For Free,” the wide-eyed teenager of “Insti­tu­tion­al­ized,” the fem­i­nine devil-on-the-shoul­der of “For Sale (Inter­lude).” It’s a breadth that invites com­par­ison to the drama­tis per­sonae of Richard Pryor’s com­edy, which ren­dered the per­son­al­i­ties of peo­ple from Pryor’s inner-city Chicago neigh­bor­hood as arche­typal char­ac­ters. Like Pryor, Lamar uses these voices in ways that speak beyond a sin­gle self, while artic­u­lat­ing his own sub­jec­tiv­ity.

Prince Paul had taken the nar­ra­tive poten­tial of rap to its fur­thest pos­si­ble extent in 1999’s A Prince Among Thieves, but the form has appeared across rap music’s his­tory. Noto­ri­ous B.I.G.’s “Gimme the Loot” finds the rap­per play­ing both parts of an ill-fated pair of armed rob­bers. As the less dom­i­nant char­ac­ter lis­tens to instruc­tions from his coun­ter­part, he inter­jects: “Nigga, you ain’t got to explain shit/I’ve been rob­bing moth­er­fuck­ers since the slave ships.” Here the mag­ni­tude of the crime of slav­ery is pre­sented not to dimin­ish the lesser crime of rob­bery or assault, but to jus­tify it. It’s a stark depic­tion of the his­tor­i­cally repro­duced anomie that gangsta rap takes as its major subject—the same prob­lem that tor­tures Lamar on “The Blacker the Berry.”

Gangsta rap always tied the trans­gres­sive crim­i­nal­ity it sup­pos­edly glo­ri­fied to the legacy of racism. “They put up my pic­ture with silence/’Cause my iden­tity by itself causes vio­lence,” as Eazy-E rapped on “Fuck the Police.” But both Big­gie and his West Coast rival Tupac fol­lowed the first wave of gangsta rap with an affec­tive shift, pre­sent­ing pro­tag­o­nists both lux­u­ri­at­ing in the wealth won by crim­i­nal enter­prise and con­stantly con­sid­er­ing sui­cide. “My every move is a cal­cu­lated step/To bring me closer to embrace an early death,” as Tupac rapped on “So Many Tears,” from his mas­ter­piece of self-doubt, Me Against the World. As a more dis­tant inher­i­tor, Lamar cap­tures the dual­ity of Big­gie and Tupac’s gangsta tragedy far bet­ter than Biggie’s pro­tégé Jay-Z.

Decades later, D’Angelo titled his 2014 album Black Mes­siah, delib­er­ately ironiz­ing the indi­vid­u­al­ism implied by phrase. As he said in a state­ment accom­pa­ny­ing the album’s release, “we should all aspire to be a Black Mes­siah,” con­nect­ing it to the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, and Occupy Wall Street. “Black Mes­siah is not one man,” he con­cludes. “It’s a feel­ing that, col­lec­tively, we are all that leader.”

If D’Angelo’s vision pro­vides a cul­tural expres­sion of the same impulse reflected in con­tem­po­rary lead­er­less move­ments against police bru­tal­ity, the gangsta tragedy Lamar inherited from his pre­de­ces­sors is descrip­tive, a tran­scrip­tion of his obser­va­tions of poverty and vio­lence. Per­haps appro­pri­ately, D’Angelo’s rock-inflected Black Mes­siah is musi­cally rem­i­nis­cent of Funkadelic, Parliament’s darker, weirder alter ego. Yet the affec­tive charge is inverted: while D’Angelo looks for­ward to a bet­ter pos­si­ble world, Lamar pro­vides a real­ist doc­u­men­ta­tion of con­tem­po­rary life.

Brecht con­cludes “A Worker Reads His­tory” on an ambigu­ous note: “So many par­tic­u­lars. So Many ques­tions.” Just as Lamar poses ques­tions, he records par­tic­u­lars. The fragility that tem­pers Lamar’s bravado, like that of Big­gie and Tupac, reminds us that ours is not the world envi­sioned in funk utopi­anism. Like Joyce’s Dublin or Faulkner’s Mis­sis­sippi, Lamar’s Comp­ton is a micro­cosm of Amer­i­can soci­ety that resists a Great Man ide­ol­ogy, even as it grap­ples with its con­se­quences. While Adorno claimed that to write poetry after Auschwitz was bar­baric, hip-hop claims that it is nec­es­sary to write poetry after the bar­barism of slav­ery. Its his­tory, and its his­tor­i­cal con­se­quences, must be recorded.

Parts of a poem recur through­out To Pimp a But­ter­fly:

I remem­ber you was con­flicted
Mis­us­ing your influ­ence
Some­times I did the same
Abus­ing my power, full of resent­ment
Resent­ment that turned into a deep depres­sion
Found myself scream­ing in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct

“Mor­tal Man” finally makes clear that the lines are part of an imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tion with Tupac, whose responses are taken from a 1994 inter­view. Tupac is full of insur­rec­tionary rhetoric, angrily decry­ing the deval­u­a­tion of black lives under eco­nomic inequal­ity and police bru­tal­ity. His words are prophetic of both our own time and of his own fate:

In this coun­try a black man only have like five years we can exhibit max­i­mum strength, and that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong or while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. ‘Cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this coun­try. And you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me you can look around, you don’t see no loud­mouth 30-year-old moth­er­fuck­ers.

Tupac never reached the age of 30, his years of strength run­ning out at 25. To Pimp a But­ter­fly plays out the pre­ma­ture loss of his voice in its final moments: after Lamar explains the cen­tral metaphor of the album’s title, Tupac’s voice fades and Lamar is left in silence, call­ing out to no one.

Author of the article

is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.