When Kendrick Lamar appeared, perched atop a cop car, and shouted, “all my life I had to fight” he carried us to a place hip-hop does not often go. Four have entered this space in my lifetime: Andre3000, Lauryn, Kanye, and 2Pac. That is my list; it is unalterable.
Artists, at certain moments, are able to step inside the pain, aspirations and frustrations of black folk. They speak to us with words we felt, and longed to hear, but could not articulate. After Charleston I was tired, wearied from begging people to acknowledge the palpably obvious. I could not speak on, watch, or read about any more black suffering.
Then Kendrick Lamar told me it was going to be alright. This was not a general word; he did not say that all people are going to be alright. He was braver than that. He said that black people suffering, because we are black in America, have been here before and God has helped us. We will be alright. Some saw a different message, one of hate, in that performance; they are wrong. Courage is the ability to name deep and abiding racism as a defining sin of our time. It is to use provocative language that generates emails, that offends, that causes the offering plate and membership to drop if need be for the sake of the speaking truthfully. His was not a lament for black suffering that left the cause of that suffering untouched. As long as all one does is mourn, there will be continual trickle of tears and an unending deluge of black pain.
It distresses me to no end to know that many feel that they have to go outside the church to hear injustice confronted with vigor when the scriptures and the Christian tradition provide us with ample resources to do the same. This what I heard in hip-hop: a protest against the injustice that defines the lives of so many. Not just anger, but joy, dancing and laughter: music as a form of resistance.
Is it a surprise that the hope found there is only partial and hinting? If we want to hear better, we should articulate a full gospel that encompasses the total message of the scriptures. The Prophets and the Psalms are inspired too; they might contain a relevant word for our times. Therefore, I will not apologize for hip-hop’s shortcomings and allow others to use that as an excuse to deny the beauty that resides there. When a man is drowning, he will grab whatever rope is available to him.
Of course Kendrick does not have all the answers. He is not Jesus and his limitations are the limitations of all human endeavors. There is always something incomplete, slightly off kilter. This is because art at its best points us towards what is often barely audible: the whispers of a hope that have their origins in the creator. The irony, embedded deep within us by God himself, is that when despair and violence are at its height, God’s whisper becomes a shout– a hallelujah! And we remember that we are not afraid. Put differently, great art points beyond its own shortcomings and makes us long for a beauty that transcends human expression. That search can lead us, or at least led me, to God. There I heard the song that I could affirm without reservation.