“I am. All of us.” (“I am. All of us.”in English in the text). At the opening of the clip of his new title, The Heart Part 5prelude to his fifth album, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, released Friday, May 13, Kendrick Lamar takes on a role he knows by heart: that of representative of the black community in the United States. Thanks to the technique of deepfakehe takes in this video the appearance of former American football player OJ Simpson, actor Will Smith, deceased basketball player Kobe Bryant, or rappers Kanye West and Nipsey Hussle, murdered in March 2020 in Los Angeles .
In this piece, the rapper evokes racism, poverty, violence, the place of blacks in society… Themes that have fueled his music since the beginning of his career. Because Kendrick Lamar is an artist engaged in his texts, but he is also committed in his actions for his city and his community.
Like the members of the legendary gangsta rap group NWA, his comrade The Game or the tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born in Compton, on the outskirts of Los Angeles (California). In his book Kendrick Lamar, from Compton to the White House, Nicolas Rogès explains that the rapper has been able to stay away from the demons of the American ghettos. And this even if“he knew members of the Pirus gang, a branch of the Bloods, including Show Gudda, his mentor. Very early on, the latter wanted to protect him, preventing him from taking part in all their activities. His friends told him: ‘Look what you can do with a microphone, you have bigger things to accomplish’. In this, he is a ‘good kid’ in a ‘mad city'”summarizes the author with franceinfo.
Good Kid, MAAD City, this is precisely the title of his second album, released in 2012, in which the rapper plunges the listener into his personal story and the daily life of a young black American. The album opens the doors of glory to him with titles like Bitch, don’t kill my vibe Where Money Trees. But despite the success, he remains very attached to his hometown. He even received the keys from the hands of the mayor, Aja Brown, during a ceremony in February 2016.
— Aja Brown (@AjaLBrown) January 14, 2016
Kendrick Lamar not only rehabilitates the image of the city with his music, he participates concretely in making the life of the inhabitants better, especially that of young people. In 2015, the rapper and his label, TDE, organized a concert and distributed toys to children for Christmas, as reported by MTV (in English). They also finance screenings of the film Black Panther for a thousand kids in Watts, a famous neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, as reported by TMZ (in English) in 2018. “He also organizes distributions of school supplies and supports the local music scene, but he remains very discreet about his actions”says Nicolas Rogès.
“In California, Kendrick Lamar is respected for who he is, what he does.continues the author. The friends they work with come from there, it’s important for him to put them forward and show the city in its best light. He’s the king over there.” Denis Rouvre, the French photographer who made the cover of his third album, To Pimp a Butterflytells franceinfo a symbolic anecdote of the weight of the rapper in his hometown: “One Sunday at 6 a.m. I was setting up with my gear when the police arrived. They told me I didn’t have the permits. When they realized I was with Kendrick Lamar, all the problems went away.”
Denis Rouvre is one of the few people outside Kendrick Lamar’s clan to have collaborated with him. The artist’s political dimension did not immediately jump out at him. “I only understood when the record was released, listening to it, that it was a very political cover. Kendrick Lamar wanted to talk about his community, the situation of African-Americans in the United States”observes the photographer.
Contacted by the rapper’s team, he discovers a happy mess when he arrives in Los Angeles: “Full rap, alcohol, firecrackers…”, he laughs seven years later. He also meets a young rapper who only drinks on very rare occasions, “very accessible, welcoming, present to work”.
“He’s a sweet person compared to his much more exuberant music or band.”Denis Rouvre, photographer
Denis Rouvre complies with the conditions set by the rapper and his team. “He just wanted a photographer who could lead a group, the idea was already ripe. I had to bring my aesthetic and stage the image with the dollars, the vodka, the trampled white judge. That’s my New York agent who interprets him.”
He faces a dissipated group. “I had a little trouble keeping control, but I didn’t feel like being the bosshe says. II had to manage to channel the energy to capture an image, a moment that they like. Kendrick Lamar only wanted to be a character in the middle. I wanted to take him out of the group, he wanted to blend inhe analyzes. VSIt was his way of paying homage to his neighborhood and his friends.”
To Pimp a Butterfly is a tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird (Took no mockingbird in French version), the novel by Harper Lee in which a black man is accused of a crime he did not commit. This third opus, imbued with jazz and a very political discourse, drives the point home: conquered critics, a public won over to its cause and five Grammys to top it all off, with hits like King Kunta Where I.
With this disc, Kendrick Lamar enters another dimension. “He is the symbol of a period when rap is finally considered as a legitimate form of expression, for its texts and for its social resonance.believes Elsa Grassy, lecturer in civilization of the United States at the University of Strasbourg.
“Rappers are recognized as authors, not just for the groove or the flow, but also for the meaning of the lyrics, their political and social weight. Kendrick Lamar ticks all the boxes.”Elsa Grassy, specialist in American civilization
The new rap star is even received by Barack Obama at the White House. A decisive encounter between “two black men, cultured but from backgrounds where we are fully aware of the glass ceiling that weighs on us”remembers the rapper in Vice. This meeting gave rise to a video in which he recalls the importance of having a mentor and declares that he wants to assume his role as an example for young people: “I too want to be a mentor for the youngest and pass on the wisdom I have received. If I help him become better, it will be proof of my influence with this youth.”
In addition to the former president of the United States, Kendrick Lamar was also marked by Malcom X. The reading as a teenager of The Autobiography of Malcolm X contributed to his career as an artist. “It was the first knowledge that allowed me to build my approach to music. I started with a simple idea, the desire to cultivate myself and constantly improve myself, as Malcolm did”he explains to Vice.
Today, Kendrick Lamar is unanimous. In hip-hop, in entertainment – he was chosen by Disney to craft the soundtrack for the Marvel movie Black Panther in 2018, the first blockbuster with a black superhero highlighting African culture – and even within the intellectual milieu. In 2018, the rapper received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his fourth album, DAMN.becoming the first artist, excluding classical and jazz music, to win this award.
“He’s a bit like the Bob Dylan of rap for the recognition he got from institutions.”Elsa Grassy, specialist in American civilization
The pop icon won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. “He and Kendrick Lamar entered pantheons that were forbidden to them”she adds. “If I was a bit provocative, I’d say we don’t care a bit, Nuance Nicolas Rogès. It’s made up for years of snobbery and it’s like giving Kendrick Lamar the right to talk about it because it’s been validated by literary and intellectual bodies.” The rapper said nothing else when receiving his award in April 2018. “This is one of those things that should have happened a long time ago (…). To see that hip hop getting the recognition it deserves as a true art form isn’t just great for me, but also for hip-hop in general.“
This legitimacy places him on the front line at the time of the riots which broke out in 2020 across the Atlantic, after the death of George Floyd, killed by a police officer. If Kendrick Lamar does not speak out publicly, he manifest. But it’s mostly through one of his songs, OK, taken from To Pimp a Butterfly, which serves as an anthem to the demonstrators, that it is the most present. “It was the protesters who gave it this magnitude, details Elsa Grassy. It is based on a clip that already communicated a political message, because we see for example the muscular arrest of an African-American by the police. ‘Alright’ is proof that music can still serve as a support for the political action of a community.”
“I would say it’s one of my best songs, because it gives these kids a voice by giving them the idea that they can be a game changer, analysis Kendrick Lamar in Vice. They go out, they take action and make big speeches, even if it stays within their communities and does not go beyond their circles of friends. They want to make a difference.”
Carrying the expectations and hopes of a community on his shoulders, Kendrick Lamar got used to it. He is fully aware of it. “I have to give to the world. I believe that I have the responsibility [d’apprendre] of my mistakes and [faire partager] my knowledge and wisdom. I don’t take it as a job or a hobby, it’s really about what I have to offer the world”he advances, still in Vice. “This responsibility is very heavy to bear, but he exorcises it in music”considers Nicolas Rogès.
“Kendrick Lamar wonders: will he have done enough for his community?”Nicolas Rogès, journalist
In his fifth album, he should not scroll. The pseudonym “Oklama” under which he launched the album and which appears at the opening of the clip of The Heart Part 5 attests to it. “You could say it’s just a fusion of ‘Official’ ‘Kendrick’ and ‘LAMAr’. But where’s the ‘r’?”, theorizes Elsa Grassy. She offers another lead: “In the Choctaw language, spoken in Oklahoma and Mississippi, ‘okla’ means ‘people’ and ‘ma’ is added to words used to address a person or a group. ‘Oklama’ is therefore a way to address his community (‘listen, my people’). If he wanted to escape his role as a spokesperson, he wouldn’t present himself like that.”