For the second time in a week, an African-American performer has lit up a nationally televised event with a politically charged performance, conveying unapologetic black pride.
Beyonce brought the force of the Black Panthers 50 years into the future with her Super Bowl halftime performance last Sunday, drawing jubilant praise along with accusations of racism and anti-police sentiment.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar arguably went deeper Monday night, staging a theatrical Grammys performance that evoked the chains of slavery and incarceration along with pride of heritage and a fiery condemnation of American injustice.
Lamar, who was the most-nominated artist of the night with 11 nods and five wins, stunned the audience with a kinetic medley of two tracks from his latest album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” along with new lyrics.
Dressed in prison blues, his band caged behind bars, Lamar raised his shackled hands to the mic to rhyme “The Blacker the Berry,” a screed against oppression.
“I’m African-American. I’m African. I’m black as the moon. Heritage of a small village. Pardon my residence. …You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people. Your plan is to terminate my culture.”
Lamar’s fellow prisoners dropped their chains and began a joyous dance in the dark, illuminated by neon paint. He continued his machine gun delivery with “Alright,” a chin-up track built around the refrain: “We gon’ be alright”
“I rap, I’m black, on track and rest assured. My rights, my wrongs are right till I’m right with God.”
With “Alright,” drummers and dancers in African tribal dress joined to close out the performance around a bonfire that seemed to symbolize Lamar’s burning pride and anger all at once.
Before the show, host LL Cool J told The Wrap, “Kendrick Lamar is going to do something very controversial. And that’s what art is about. It’s not about whether you agree or disagree, it’s about it stimulating conversation and provoking people to have conversations about society.”
Lamar had the audience in his thrall and received a standing ovation. The White House, which he has partnered with on a mentorship initiative, tweeted praise:
“Shoutout to Kendrick Lamar and all the artists at the Grammys working to build a brighter future. #MyBrothersKeeper”
Former CNN host Piers Morgan even weighed in: “If you missed the #GRAMMYs, this guy stole the show: pic.twitter.com/gT794xrzU1 @kendricklamar #GreatOuttaCompton”
The Los Angeles Times and USA Today called Lamar’s the only performance that matters.
Some viewers joked on social media that Lamar’s performance was as confusing to white America as Beyonce’s Super Bowl show. SNL’s widely shared spoof of Beyonce changing from white to black before America’s eyes became a jumping off point for jokes and commentary.
The 28-year-old rapper’s hue and cry was received as an authentic representation of what many black people from blighted areas, as well as those who have the means to live elsewhere, still feel: America is not for them.
The performance ended with Lamar in silhouette against a map of the African continent marked by one location: his hometown, Compton, where he received the key to the city on Saturday.
Race and place often inform his lyrics; he’s said regarding high-profile cases of police-involved violence: “I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”
The performance was a culmination of his message and artistic capabilities.
Lamar broke a Spotify record when “To Pimp a Butterfly” was streamed more than 9.6 million times around the world after its surprise release last year.
The album was widely praised for its complex look at the black community, institutional racism and self-actualization. Rolling Stone called it a “masterpiece.”
Taylor Swift beat out Lamar for Album of the Year honors, but with five wins, he improved on his first showing in 2014, when he was nominated for seven Grammys, but won none.
During his acceptance speech for Best Rap Album he shouted out artists who paved the way for him to speak candidly and even divisively on a world stage.
“This is for hip-hop. [This is for] Ice Cube. This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic. This is for Nas. We will live forever!”