March 7, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |

The racism of America... the mass incarceration of Black people... and a celebration of the Black freedom struggle including echoes of the Black Panther Party, all burst on the stage.

In 2016, the U.S. awards ceremonies, watched by hundreds of millions internationally, were not the usual boring, putrid ramming of mainstream U.S. cultural spectacle and values down the throats of the world, but a sign of the times.

All who want to see the horrors that plague humanity ended; all who want a radically different and far better world; all who are working for a real revolution, pay attention: This matters, recognize and seize the time!

2016 Super Bowl and Grammy Awards
Black Panthers & Prison Blues:
Grasp the Moment... Seize the Time for REAL Emancipation

From a reader:

The struggle over the humanity of Black people in America—up against centuries of oppression and degradation, and right now, up against a slow genocide—is getting fought out everywhere we turn. January and February, two major Black artists disrupted the air with performances that put this running sore in front of the world.

At Super Bowl 50, the most viewed TV event in the U.S., Beyoncé performed an excerpt of her new song, “Formation.” In her performance, she was wearing bandoliers, and her 50 backup dancers were wearing costumes that echoed the black berets, Afros, and raised fists of the Black Panther Party. At one point, they lined up in an X formation (a seeming reference to Malcolm X).

At the 2016 Grammy Awards, the music business’ celebration and coronation of mainstream American pop music viewed by almost 30 million people, Kendrick Lamar performed excerpts from three songs in a chilling yet beautiful dramatization of the hidden lives of the millions behind bars in America. He came out in prison blues, marching in a chain gang with his musicians in cages onstage performing part of “The Blacker the Berry.” Then he transitioned into a furiously jubilant celebration with bonfires and African dancers performing “Alright” and then transitioned into an angry and angst-filled new piece, as yet untitled.

The organized forces of fascism and white supremacy freaked out. Former New York City Mayor and all-the-time fascist pig Rudy Giuliani said Beyoncé’s performance was “used as a platform to attack police officers...” The Executive Director of the National Sheriffs’ Association said her performance was “inciting bad behavior.” A number of police associations have called for protests and now there’s a wave of boycotts being called of Beyoncé (police saying they won’t do security for her tour). These attacks and threats from the police and fascist forces are serious—trying to use the force of the state to keep people silent in the face of genocide... trying to scare prominent figures away from using their platform to speak out against the crimes happening to Black people, or even just from asserting the humanity of Black people.

Especially in the face of this kind of shit, artists—and anyone else who speaks out and stands up against police terror and mass incarceration—need to be defended. This system has a long history of terrorizing prominent voices who use their platform to speak out against oppression, and when this happens, it needs to be taken seriously and taken on loudly.

At the same time, and coming from a stand of emancipating ALL humanity, there are things that have to be criticized in both these performances. Beyoncé’s performance and the song give some voice for Black people to feel pride in who they are, refuting racist stereotypes of beauty. She and her dancers evoked the struggle for freedom waged by Black people in the 1960s. The problem, and it is a big problem, is that she wraps this up in an incredibly poisonous package—a celebration of, and wanting to be a top dog in, this dog-eat-dog system that continues to destroy and murder Black and oppressed people here and around the world. A system that has and can only have white supremacy built into its structures.

In her Super Bowl performance of her new song, “Formation,” Beyoncé rhymes: “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” This is nothing but a bourgeois aspiration—the outlook of a ruling class of a capitalist system whose golden rule is profit at the expense of crushing anything, any people, anyone that stands in the way of pursuit of this.

Instead of expressing a hope, dream, vision of ending exploitation, Beyoncé expresses her desire to get in on it, to get her share of and be part of the American empire, which can only mean destroying lives and crushing spirits. The U.S. is an empire that runs, and can only survive by running, roughshod over the people of the world.

The full version of the song ends, “The best revenge is your paper” (that is, your money). That paper is wealth stolen from the people here and around the world and enforced with unspeakable brutality. Celebrating a major exploiter like Celebrating a major exploiter like Bill Gates is to uphold the horrific exploitation of sweatshops, workers being poisoned by the devices they are working on, and a system he's part of that profits from child labor... this is where Bill Gates’ wealth came from and could only come from. Let’s not forget when President Obama and the Navy Seals murdered the reactionary fundamentalist Osama Bin Laden that Beyoncé rushed to record and release her version of “I’m Proud to Be an American,” a song of ignorant patriotism now bull-horned every day by Donald Trump. What Beyoncé was doing with this song was aimed at rallying the most oppressed people to cheer and be a part of the U.S. military killing machine, and at the same time, at least objectively, letting the people who rule America know that she wannabe one of them. For her to turn around now and protest the treatment of Black people is not so much hypocrisy as it is a reflection of the class position of the Black bourgeoisie, held down by capitalism but with no higher aspiration as a class than to itself become a new bourgeois-capitalist class. In this day and age, that can only mean becoming junior partners to U.S. imperialism. Revolutionaries can and should unite with and defend people who take up this outlook when they resist oppression, but this bourgeois outlook cannot lead the struggle—that is, if it is to get to revolution to emancipate all humanity.

Let’s return to this line on “the best revenge is your paper.” Wanting revenge can only end up on the terms of the system as it is—making the goal of the struggle your ability to fuck over someone instead of being the one fucked over. And, again, “your paper” comes dripping with the blood of those who this system viciously exploits. While it’s understandable to hate the way people are forced to live under this system so much that you want to lash out, acting for revenge just means that you want to hurt someone else because it makes you feel good or enables you to get ahead. If you try to defeat the enemy by becoming them, they win. In effect, you end up using the struggle of the people, their aspirations and desires to be rid of all this, to get your piece... this is dangerous and has no place in the struggle for emancipation. It permeates way too much of Beyoncé’s work, and actually cuts against and undermines what is righteous about her performance. It does real harm.

Prison Blues and Chain Gangs

Kendrick Lamar at the GrammysKendrick Lamar at the Grammys. (AP photo)

Kendrick Lamar delivered a stunning visceral performance at the Grammys. He laid bare a pressing reality and gave a deep feeling for the brutality brought down on Black people by this system. Look at the video: the clanging of chains... the soulful and sorrowful sax... he indicts the white supremacist hatred for Black people and argues: “You can trap our bodies but you can’t lock up our minds.” In his new song, he spoke to the pain of Trayvon Martin’s murder: “On February 26 I lost my life too.” February 26 is the day George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon.

Kendrick Lamar wrestles with big questions and often throws everything that’s going on into the pot. Musically his combination and choices are wild and unexpected, and often masterful. At the same time, his lyrics and views on many things are contradictory and sometimes just posing contradictions (including ugly ones) seems to be what he is doing. His celebrated album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is art at a high level and as such we do not hold him to every line, every song, literally. There are different characters and different personas in his work. His work is also developing. But there are negatives within all this which need to be looked at, interrogated, and broken with.*

His Grammy performance reflected the pain and defiance, the criminalization and degradation, anger, and alienation brought down on Black people by this system and how that plays out in the lives of the people. Every verse of "The Blacker the Berry" starts with “I’m a hypocrite”: Check what he says:

I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015
Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean
I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society
That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me
Curse me till I’m dead
Church me with your fake prophesizing that I’mma be just another slave in my head
Institutionalized manipulation and lies
Reciprocation of freedom only live in your eyes.

The song concludes:

So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging
make me kill a nigga blacker than me?

Some have said that "The Blacker the Berry" could be read to place blame at the feet of Black people for the violence among the people—violence whose root cause is the no-win situation that this system puts people in, especially the youth. It also could be understood as a reflection on how the system does often compel people to do horrific things and then blame themselves for it—internalizing their oppression. Either way, the masses of people need a way out—and that can only be through struggling: in the realms of art and ideas, in fighting back against the power, and ultimately in an actual revolution, which is the only way to put an end to a system that is nothing but a killing machine.

We don’t know if Kendrick Lamar was forced to take out a line from his Grammy performance of “Alright,” or if he did so himself, but we missed the sharp line in the song’s chorus: “and we hate popo, want to kill us dead in the streets fo sho.” This omission stands out all the more because, while there are different images that Kendrick evokes as to why we gonna be alright, the first verse concludes:But if God got us we then gon’ be alright,” which is an illusion/delusion at best, and at worst leaves people blind to understand the source of the problem we face and the road forward to the solution.

The work Kendrick Lamar performed at the Grammys is also marred by strains of the outlook of revenge, and this theme runs through some of his other work as well. While it may feel radical to want your get-back, it will not get us free. We have to fight... but our sights have to be way beyond revenge, they have to be towards actual emancipation, towards ending not just the oppression you face, or just becoming new oppressors, but towards ending all oppression once and for all.

Both Beyoncé and Kendrick are also painfully wrong on another essential truth: There will be no real emancipation that doesn't embody the view that women—half of humanity—are full human beings. Not sex objects or play things... breaking free from every aspect of patriarchal domination and degradation: whether it be turning oneself into an object or saturating your music in the word "bitch" as Beyoncé does, or viewing women as a sexual vice and temptation with no humanity, as Kendrick does.

Raising these criticisms is not to downplay the positive elements in Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick, from his inventive music to the subject and theme of his writing, is a seeker. To say or imply that he has cast his lot with the system would be very wrong. But he must seek deeper... to the root causes of the problem, and the real solution. This is not too much to ask from those who would give voice to the people’s humanity... indeed, nothing less is required.


* This article does not deal with the entirety of Kendrick Lamar's work or the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly. Its focus is on the performance and songs he movingly performed at the 2016 Grammy's. [back]


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