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.