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.