The senior cheerleaders on the team I coach were the first ones to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar. They asked if we could put his song “i” into our pep rally mega mix. I listened to the free clip available in the iTunes store and said it sounded good. When the girls brought the mix cd to practice, my heart almost exploded into my chest. There was some language coming out of the speakers in our high school gym that was much too explicit for me to have approved. I labored for hours to censor the swear words out of the mix without distorting the sound too much. I was sweating, but I was successful. All of the students loved the song and the routine.
Now, with this experience in mind, imagine my shock when I saw that Revelant Magazine tweeted a link to an article titled “Kendrick Lamar: All I am is a Vessel, Doing His Work.” Um, there’s no way that this could be the same Kendrick Lamar who was rapping about the the mother “effers” who doubted him. Why would someone who uses that language be calling himself God’s vessel? My mind went back to media debate from a few years ago, started when Kathy Griffin won an Emmy and declared she wanted to thank everybody but God. Huffpost Live discussed this claim and the thanks to God that celebrities give after winning awards, a video in which Gospel music producer John Murray states, “I just want your work to be at least church appropriate. If you can’t necessarily perform your work or at least go to church without feeling like a hooker in church, I think maybe you shouldn’t be thanking God.” I felt like Murray should be sharing this statement with Lamar.
Then, I clicked on to read Relevant’s article. The article was short, only two paragraphs in length, but it linked to a profile of Lamar the New York Times published today. The profile, seemingly purposed to address the spiritual and politic implications of his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, shares the key aspects of his spiritual journey and relationship with God. As it turns out, Lamar considers himself to be “saved,” thanks to a grandmother of one of his teenage friends in Compton, California approached him in a grocery store parking lot following the murder of one of Lamar’s friends and asked if he accepted God. He goes so far as to call the woman an “angel for [he and his friends].”
Just because Lamar considers himself to be save, he maintains his humanity and recognizes that he is more susceptible to sin. This new album was a way for him to explore, reflect, and share the stories of his struggle. Joe Coscarelli, the author of the Times article, writes “[Fame] brought only more opportunities for sin and self-doubt, an internal chaos reflected not only in Mr. Lamar’s intricate stories but also in vigorous jazz- and funk-inflected production that builds on the smoother West Coast sounds of his debut.” Okay, so now, maybe I can see how he would be working as a vessel. He’s sharing his constant struggle to do the right thing. Just because he isn’t what one would consider saintly doesn’t mean that he can’t be working to serve God.
As the picture to left of this picture, which I conveniently found in my Facebook newsfeed when brainstorming for this post (coincidence?), reminds us, a servant of God doesn’t have to be perfect. If God found a purpose for Noah, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, and David, it doesn’t seem so absurd that he might find a purpose for a rap artist who liberally uses the “F” word. Perhaps Lamar is correct, and he can share the stories on his album because it’s part of God’s plan. Lamar is quoted in the Times article as saying, ” I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music…My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.” Lamar doesn’t seem to be too prideful for his own good; in fact, he seems humble and understanding that he is a part of something bigger than himself. He seems like he wants to contribute anything that he can.
Knowing this, I went back and took a closer look at the lyrics from the song, “i.” The intro verse of this song reads, “I done been through a whole lot: trial, tribulation but I know God. The devil wanna put me in a bow tie. Pray that the holy water don’t go dry.” The first sentence demonstrates that all of the difficulties Lamar has gone through but asserts that he has never wavered in his belief that God was with him. The second line that mentions the devil, according to Rap Genius contributors, alludes to funeral attire, as bow ties are often worn by the deceased. Because he hails from such a high crime area, it seemed likely that he would meet a fate similar to the terrible one of his friend. He looks to God though, the “holy water” to protect him and prays.
A majority of the song continues, arguing that as long as you love yourself, you can then love the seemingly dark place that is the rest of the world, as it is “illuminated by the hand of God.”
As I write this, I have the song playing, and my mom is still complaining about Lamar’s language and her inability to understand any words besides the “bad ones.” I, on the other hand, have realized that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, in addition to being religious and working to change the rap industry, Lamar doesn’t drink or smoke. He does say of himself, “From my perspective, I can only give you the good with the bad.”
If we can overlook some of his word choice, we can definitely see the good.