Alright: Radical Explorations of Identity in Black Music/Three Phases

In the handful of tumultuous years since the murder of Trayvon Martin sparked the Black Lives Matter hashtag, and the subsequent police killings of Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many other Black women and men, prompted large-scale protests all over the nation, those who are paying attention have no doubt witnessed a concurrent, and perhaps predictable flowering of Black political and philosophical thought, social activism, and most visibly, art in the public sphere. Despite the feverish proclamations tinged with queer-antagonism that are leveled by self-proclaimed old-school hip-hop cognoscenti concerning the death of hip-hop at the hands of a half dozen “mumble rappers”, Black music, literature and art have in fact been in the grip of a sustained, and qualitative renaissance, made all the more visible, powerful, and unapologetic by the Black community’s newly-realized buying power (relatively speaking), the speed with which information is filtered down into the public consciousness via the internet, and a refreshing willingness among many Black millennials to be the squeaky wheel in matters of representation.

Certainly, the  emergence of the internet as a dominant force for social change and cultural exchange has played a large part in the generation of this new Black cultural renaissance. Prefiguring the present outward artistic explosion, the releases of timely works like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates much-discussed essay for the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, and his  critically-lauded Between the World and Me, seemed to beat a sober drum in time with the horrific and alarming events unfolding relentlessly on our computer screens, and in our city streets; as the new movement for civil rights grew in visibility, the key points of these works and many others were widely disseminated through memes, essays, and paraphrased in 140 characters, exposing the masses to at least the tip of the iceberg of Black scholarly thought, and awakening a new generation to the realities of what it really means to exist as a black human being in a “post-racial America”. With these underpinnings, the increasingly volatile social and cultural climate, and our nation’s ongoing struggles with individual identity and the identity of “the other”, it is perhaps no surprise that the very meaning of identity seems to be exactly what the cutting edge of Black artists are attempting to wrestle with. While this is by no means a new subject in Black music, there is a new breed of artists simmering at the vanguard of pop who have discovered fresh ways to parse Black American identity, and more broadly, what it means to be human in the “atrocity exhibition” that is the 21st Century, with a level of profundity, nuance, and 3 dimensionality previously non-existent in popular music, and that could have only emerged in an era as in need of it as this one.

While it is true that Black and Brown musical and artistic innovations have in many ways formed the dark lattice upon which much of America’s mainstream culture of entertainment has been built (see the demonization of Jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, and graffiti, and their later appropriation, decontextualized dissemination and white-washing, and subsequent cultural ubiquity), one could argue that only in the modern era have Black artists and projects which centralize Blackness had the freedom to be as bold and “Black” as some of the art we’re beginning to see, while enjoying access to large platforms of transmission to mainstream audiences. If for example, Netflix’s Luke Cage had come out ten years ago (which is hard enough to imagine), it is doubtful that its show runners would have been given the artistic latitude to normalize urban Black American culture to the extent that the show has succeeded in doing so, let alone feature a predominantly Black cast and creative team. And can anyone imagine a work of art as unflinching as Kendrick Lamar’s video for “Alright” being released in the Civil Rights Era?

Kendrick Lamar performing The Blacker the Berry from TPAB at the 2015 Grammys. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

James Baldwin once wrote that it was impossible for any black person who was reasonably conscious to not be in a rage most of the time, and this truth has long been reflected in the music of disaffected Black youth, with varying degrees of sensitivity. In his 2015 magnum opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, rap phenom Kendrick Lamar’s rage is palpable, and through sonic tears, he succeeds in painting a complex picture of Black cultural identity that is by turns harrowing, conflicted, and hopeful. In Butterfly, Black psychosis, pathology and paradox, the void and spiritual rebirth are just reflections in the mirror. Kendrick’s experiences in Compton and the music industry and his kaleidoscopic  imagination and curiosity breathe life into this dreamy dystopia, and his ungodly knack for sculpting and embodying a diverse cast of fully fleshed out characters (which may all be one person after all),  combine to provide an aural glimpse of the psycho-spiritual battlefield between the intangible and the material, the surface and depths, inhabiting the distance between the fragmented individual, and the self-realized whole.   

Kendrick isn’t the first “conscious” rapper, and he won’t be the last, but in his work, the meticulous way in which his lyrics are crafted, frequently succeeding in tackling the inscrutable with aplomb, and his resurrection of Jazz as a relevant art form for the mainstream, (under the aegis of virtuoso bassist and musical director Thundercat) he has  in some ways become a poster boy for new life, color, and technical proficiency in Black popular music. 

Danny Brown. Photograph: Timothy Saccenti

Few would describe wildly talented and charismatic Detroit word-smith Danny Brown as a “conscious” or “positive” rapper. But in his latest offering, Atrocity Exhibition, Danny allows his anger and confusion to slowly bubble to the surface as he travels woozily through a gauntlet of drugged-out sonic landscapes, that veer on a hairpin from Wu-Tang-esque boom-bap horror-rap, to nitrous-y existential  disassociation,  devolving into the herky-jerky menace of Captain Beefheart and solipsistic freak-existential despair ala Marilyn Manson. The album explores, in a thoroughly maniacal fashion, the fine line between utter doom and the utterly mundane (Brown’s idea of “utterly mundane” is probably a bit different than yours), and the logistics of inhabiting the dark cracks and dissonances between our inner and outer lives; it seems to pose the question, “If someone were trapped in their head, and was desperately searching for a way out, what would that sound like?”

In both Atrocity Exhibition and TPAB, our protagonists seem to be attempting to reconcile the multitudes that are living within each of us with the often constricting and life-negating expectations and demands of physicality and the outer social arena. The arrangements, instrumentation, range of emotion, and remarkable depth of musical reference on both albums speak eloquently to the fragmented realities that so many live inside of. In both albums, but especially in Danny’s, much of this confusion-turned-anger is directed inward, illuminating one of the intrinsic hallmarks of modern Black male pathology.

Tellingly, Solange Knowles’ A Seat At the Table also addresses questions of anger and identity, but unlike TPAB’s almost gleeful fatalism, and Atrocity Exhibition’s dark near-nihilism, Solange seems to find solace and strength in her personal history, the absolute honesty of vulnerability, and hope in community; her faith in her own unimpeachable humanity is refracted through her music, to powerful effect. If Kendrick is speaking to us from the dark corners of the room, barely outside of the line of fire, and Danny is inextricably stuck in a repetitive hell (possibly of his own making) then Solange is a different entity entirely; she sounds as if she has come through all of those dark places already, and now sits above the fray in flowing robes, wiser for her trials, and possessed of superhuman compassion for those who she’s left behind. Where the fragmented protagonists of Atrocity Exhibition and TPAB seem to be trapped in sticky social and psychological limbos, Solange’s heroine is unequivocally rooted, successfully reconciling her history and that of her family, with her roles as entertainer, artist, mother, sister, and Black woman; just like a tree that’s planted by the water.The result is an un-fragmented persona, transfigured by experience and acceptance into a being much greater than the sum of its parts, perhaps hearkening back on some symbolic plane to Kendrick’s proverbial butterfly.

Solange. Photo courtesy of The Fader

In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and in light of the wide-spread realization that the cultural chasm in our country is wider than we may have thought, Black music connoisseurs seem more willing than ever to support Black artists and musicians who are speaking honestly, artfully, and without restraint, but not without an exacting thoughtfulness, TO US, about the issues facing Black communities and individuals. For their part, the emerging upper echelon of Black recording artists exemplified in Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Solange, Georgia Ann Muldrow and Flying Lotus, to name just a few of the industry’s promising  young creators, seem to be rising to this unspoken challenge and vocation en masse, exploring regions of identity, psychology, and experience which we may be only now coming to realize have always existed unnamed; soul explorers, with contempt for Toni Morrison’s “white gaze”, assailing the constructs of collective and individual identity, each shining their individual musical lights through that ancient dark crystal to illuminate a range of Black experience, and human experience, that is resonant and whole, and necessarily, more deeply representative of the reality of now than anything that has come before.


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