Kendrick Lamar vs. Geraldo Rivera: the role of hip-hop on African-American culture

By Tom Watling

In June 2015, Kendrick Lamar performed ‘Alright’ atop a vandalised police car at the BET Awards. The pre-hook entails the following lines: “Nigga and we hate PoPo/Wanna kill us dead in the street Fo Sho.” The following day, during a Fox news segment, Geraldo Rivera, an American Civil Rights Attorney, made the following comments regarding Lamar’s performance:

This is why I say that Hip-Hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.

In his recently released album, DAMN, Lamar sampled the comment as well as the following lines, in his song YAH: “Fox news wanna use my name for percentage”/ “Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got some ambition.” A wealth of consequent media attention prompted a twenty-minute response from Rivera this April, whereupon he offered his reasons for why he still stands by his accusations. Despite applauding the talent of Lamar, he continued to defend his idea that Lamar was a poor example to young African-Americans – I would like to show why this opinion is misguided.

Rivera’s central line of thought argues that the anti-police rhetoric of Kendrick Lamar instigates an “Us Against Them” mentality, claiming that “it’s being used to really set young people … against the officers who are sworn to protect them.” Even though he acknowledges police brutality as a “real issue,” it’s obvious from his argument that he is merely paying lip-service to the problem. Why? Well, because Rivera confuses the direction of causality, seeing this rhetoric as an instigation of the “Us Against Them” mentality when, in fact, it is a reaction to the pre-existing mentality resulting from prior police discrimination.

Rivera’s misunderstanding of the direction of causality is further problematised by the effect and extent, on society, that he attributes to both issues of police brutality and the anti-police rhetoric. What I mean by this is that he argues that the negative influence of the anti-police rhetoric is far greater than that of the police brutality, which is fundamentally backwards. This belief also artificially cocoons Rivera’s argument because the remaining points of his argument are contingent on this idea being true. Once this point is disproved, his argument begins to crumble but it is much more difficult to criticise his consequent arguments if this point is not addressed first.

Rivera, speaking of South Chicago, then goes on to argue that the quantitative extent of police brutality “pales in comparison to the ghetto civil war being waged.” This is not untrue, but is in no way sufficient in devaluing the anti-police rhetoric of Hip-Hop. It also represents one of the most common and misused views of the alt-right with regards to black-on-black violence.

A 2013 FBI report, the latest of its kind, commented that 90% of black murder victims are murdered by other black people, which is a telling statistic if held up in a vacuum. However, that same report showed that 83% of white murder victims are murdered by other white people. Further, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that, between 2008 and 2012, ““Poor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).”  These statistics demonstrate two points: violent crime, in particular murder, is a socioeconomic problem – not a racial one – and the view that black-on-black violence is an extraordinary issue is inaccurate. So, not only is it ridiculous for Rivera to use black-on-black violence to discredit vocalising the problem of police brutality, but it is also vacuous to even suggest its severity outright. Rivera’s argument lacks any context, which is why his comparison is redundant.

This leads me to ask what I view to be a far more relevant but complex question: does this type of rhetoric reinforce the pre-existing problem of the “Us Against Them” mentality?

Rivera quotes lines from Marvin Gaye’s song ‘What’s Going On,’ using lines such as “You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some love in here today,” to demonstrate the type of rhetoric that should be promoted by influential black musicians instead of the current anti-police one. This is, once again, argued without context and adopts a view predicated on a static timeline of African-American reaction.

‘What’s Going On’ was released in 1971, during the civil rights movement and after the peace movement. Also, police brutality and white aggression were widely covered by the media. Peaceful protest was the most beneficial reaction, hence why Martin Luther King Jr. had adopted this technique for several years before his assassination in 1968. If you take Selma 1965 as an example of this, where thousands of people, predominantly African-American, peacefully marched on Selma in the face of severe police brutality and hundreds of cameras and media, it is clear why appeasement was necessary to nationally highlight the immorality of violent racism.

Rivera also briefly mentions ‘Fuck Tha Police,’ a track released twenty years later and in stark contrast to the rhetoric of Marvin Gaye, with lines such as “Ice Cube will swarm/On any motherfucka in a blue uniform.” Does this reinforce the mentality? Yes. But, was it a necessary reaction? Yes.

After several civil rights bills in the sixties and seventies, ending de facto segregation and lawful discrimination for the most part, the media interest in minority rights was all but gone. However, the problem of police brutality within impoverished, predominantly African-American ghetto cities was still prominent. Although it had improved over time, it was still particularly severe. In turn, the anti-police rhetoric, exemplified at its most potent in this track and era, was necessarily shocking and aggressive. With no media to cover the injustice of police brutality, peaceful protest would have been to no avail. Rivera does not consider the context in which this track was released, hence why his view of the timeline of African-American is static and he feels right in suggesting the “Marvin Gaye” rhetoric as superior.

If we then consider Lamar and the era in which he operates, it is, yet again, different. Police brutality is growing more absent, but still exists, and – although still insufficient – media coverage of these atrocities has improved. Hence, the “Marvin Gaye” message is more applicable now than in the 1990s, but remains ill-fitting because there is still not enough coverage of police brutality, and many people remain unaware. In turn, the reaction has to be different, wherein it must inform and, in turn, shock the listener but be more placatory and inciteful than previous rhetoric. It must be a medium between the two previously employed messages.

In my opinion, if you look through Lamar’s discography, he fits the bill perfectly. To name but a few examples, ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ talks about the reasons behind black crime in ghetto cities, ‘Institutionalised’ talks about the problems of institutionalisation and ‘How Much A Dollar Really Cost’ was praised by Obama as one of the most important tracks of 2015. Most notably, Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly was archived in the Harvard Library last year for its cultural significance, along with three other prominent albums.

Finally, and most importantly, I would argue that the level of incite that Lamar, amongst others such as Joey BADA$$ and J. Cole, has introduced to Hip-Hop has provided an unprecedented and potent opportunity to instigate debate. It is this debate, which can now be used to reach all manners of people through the continued globalisation of media, that may be able to fix the institutional problems facilitating police brutality. Above all, this is why I think Rivera’s comments are not only misguided, but dangerously wrong.

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