Black Violence is Black Entertainment
“When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down, my main concern? Promise that you will sing about me, promise that you will sing about me.”
words Don Data
illustrations Garrett Young
Kendrick Lamar wrote those words for his 2012 Aftermath and Top Dawg Entertainment release Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, emotively letting the words flow like a dripping faucet, disjointed and dismal. The track, Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, finds our narrator facing an environment that has two outcomes, jail or ultimately a violent death. The album sets the tone for a visceral story of one young man’s struggle to survive an environment littered with drug fiends, gangs and violence. The narrator throughout the first half of the album travels across the streets of Compton to find a girl name Sherane. Upon his arrival to meet her, he’s stopped by men in her neighborhood who ask, “Where is you from homie?”. Their fists slap the inside of their palms, gesturing that if he gives the wrong answer, our narrator could face an untimely end. These words ring out over and over until we could only imagine that our narrator has given in to the pressure of this neighborhood. He is jumped by the rivaling neighborhood gang members and then proceeds to find his homies. The homies pick up our narrator and create a plan to retaliate with a drive by shooting. By this point in the album all evils come forward and one of the homies loses his brother in the drive by shooting gone awry. The album continues forward jumping between songs of disobedient revelry, to wild west shootouts, and gospel revelations guiding us through prayer. Lamar has, throughout his career, juggled these themes and persuades us to believe that those in these environments can survive, if they continue forward and leave behind the fast life of the streets. But I wonder, what is the life for a young black man in a world that is stacked against him? Is this violence around the corner at any moment? Is art imitating life or are we continuing a poisonous tradition of painting the black community as a violent subset fading away in to the American subconscious?
Within black communities these stories of violence replace fairy tales. These stories dismiss the nature of tragedy in entertainment and art, which at times displays satirical and at other times the more visceral reflections of our nation’s collective shortcomings within black communities. In 1991 John Singleton released his first feature film, Boyz N the Hood, a teen drama set in the dark and abysmal South Central Los Angeles. We find the same fast life and dangers within such a lifestyle in Kendrick’s Good Kid; the parties, the laughs, the romances, all the themes of a teen movie, and yet the reality of this environment hovers over the story like impending doom. In the movie we meet first time actor Dedrick Gobert as the pacifier sucking friend, Dooky, who would go on to work with Singleton in other amazing films such as Poetic Justice and Higher Learning, the latter being release posthumously. Gobert, similar to the characters in Boyz N the Hood and Good Kid M.A.A.D City, grew up in the dystopian Los Angeles of the late 80s - early 90s and like so many others, lost his life to violence in a dispute between rivaling gangs. A simple matter of where one lives, where one lays their head at night, where one calls home, takes the life of so many young black men. Lines drawn by the hands of others to protect those whose dreams were deemed worthy, created separation. A false divide among people whose history and future are intertwined solely on their complexions. These complexions then turned to colors that divided them so much more as to take the lives of one another.
Words were exchanged like The Dozens before him and shots rang out. On his most recent tour for Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples, the Long Beach California Crip MC, has performed on stage alone. No DJ. One mic stand. An array of lights and himself. On this stage facing a sea of white faces and freckles of those not, Vince performs songs throughout his discography. Songs of love and hard truths, songs of gang banging and racism, songs with themes that if you were to ask the audience, may not be too familiar with. “We love our neighborhood, so all my brothers bang the hood… All these white folks chanting when I asked ‘em where my niggas at… I can’t get with that”. The words fill the room accompanied by thunderous drums and a roaring response. I stand there in awe. An entire generation lost to the dangers of a world not created by their own hands but to their own advantages and yet in front of them, a blue rose from the concrete barriers of housing discrimination, school segregation, police brutality and mass incarceration, standing solo on stage, black body with a bulletproof vest, norf norf, bagbak. Are his words falling on deaf ears, or have the masses come to understand that the realities he speaks of are just around the corner for others? “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Growing up in Oklahoma nearly 30 years, growing up with black skin, growing up with black identity, the environments in the works of Singleton, Staples, Lamar and so many others, aren’t so familiar as they are places in my mind, where given the right societal circumstances, could very well become my realities. The manners in which society has progressed and how our eyes have become wider by the means of technology, show us the South Centrals of the world are purposefully constructed to continue violence and destruction within these communities. Will we as a society take to these stories, these artistic representations, as not only dismal settings but as actual communities drowning in a sea of never ending violence? Or will we rise to our feet applauding these stories for our heroes have overcome the hardship of a community lost long ago? I for one believe that the masses care not for the means in which black entertainment comes. We care not for the black lives lost in the songs of our hip hop heroes. We only care for the moment that we can forget our individual lives are numbered to the days we lived but I can, if only for the moment, hold on to the gospel of a black life lived.