Music as Committed Writing: Exploring Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly
Sartre posited this argument in a tumultuous time: the middle of the twentieth century. Not long after the publication of What is Literature?, the colonies of Sartre’s native land France would start their struggles for independence. Sarte himself was involved with these issues as a writer with strong anti-racist and anti-colonial sentiment (Sartre, 1963, p.xliv). His writing led to engagement of his readers, for instance, activists in the SNCC as a part of the Black Power movement in the United States (Carmichael, min. 2:03, 1966).
Since then, many new forms of artistic expression have emerged and have changed the way we access art, as well as how we process media in general. These changes enable us to explore different artistic mediums through which we can engage with the world. To that end, I propose a critique of Sartre’s ideas on committed art. I will do this by comparing Sartre’s arguments on music and poetry with Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). I argue that the album is a committed work in both its form and content and therefore that Sartre’s definition of committed literature should be extended to say that music can be politically committed.
Sartre’s Argument: Why Music Is Not Committed
Sartre argues against music because notes cannot carry meaning in the way that words do. Unlike words, notes are not made up of “signs” (1950, p. 25). Signs refer to concepts outside of themselves and thereby convey a certain meaning or idea (Sartre, 1950, p. 31). Committed art should ignite a spark in the reader and stimulate political thoughts. Prose can do this because it is made up of signs (Sartre, 1950, p. 28). Prose is “utilitarian” (Sartre, 1950, p. 34) and “employed in discourse; its substance is by nature significative – that is, the words are first of all not objects but designations for objects” (p.35). Music is non-committed and non-political because it does not reference to anything outside itself in the way that words in prose do. In terms of notes and melody, Sartre (1950) posits that the meaning of a melody “is nothing outside the melody itself” (p.27), whereas prose can articulate abstract ideas in multiple different ways. He also declares poetry cannot be considered committed because it focuses on the beauty and the sound of words and not on their meaning (Sartre, 1950, p. 29). The example Sartre provides is how a poet would put together the words “horse” and “butter” as “horses of butter” (Sartre, 1950, p. 29), which does not mean anything. It does not describe the world, nor does it utilize language to transfer a meaning related to the social and political context (p. 29). A poetic phrase such as “horses of butter” could never incite commitment from a reader because there is nothing to commit to, there is nothing for the audience to build on. Hence, even lyrical music and by extension hip-hop cannot be committed. Sartre’s view is that “one does not paint meanings, one does not put meanings into music” (p. 28). However, I will propose a work of music that does refer to political notions outside of itself and that thus can be “employed in discourse” (Sartre, 1950, p. 35).
Lyrical Music and Hip-Hop Can Be Political
Sartre writes that a poetic attitude hollows out a work, and that its meaning becomes obsolete when the focus is on the aesthetic (Sartre, 1950, p. 26). I argue that the beauty of a work does not have to overshadow the significance the words hold. In Kendrick Lamar’s album, the lyrics of To Pimp A Butterfly are colorful and aesthetically pleasing, for instance in terms of rhythm and rhyme. Yet the lyrics also talk about racial issues in The United States and refer to concepts exterior to the work.
The album covers a variety of topics, from institutional racism in the ghetto of West-Compton, Los Angeles to the history of slavery of Black people and their current fetishization in mainstream American culture (Wesley’s Theory, track 01, Lamar, 2015). The album opens with Wesley’s Theory: Lamar narrates how he spends his money selfishly and excessively now that he is famous and has escaped the poverty of the ghetto. He spends money on cars, parties, luxury products and guns, self-fulfilling the stereotype of Black people being excessively materialistic and consumerist, working themselves into debt (Wesley’s Theory, min. 1:46-2:11, 2015). This is then followed by the hook: “We should’ve never gave niggas money” (Wesley’s Theory, min 2:11, Lamar, 2015). In For Free? Lamar more directly attacks the existing system of inequality, saying: “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich” (For Free?, track 02, min. 2:03, Lamar, 2015), referring to The United States’ history of enslaving Black people. Lamar also references the #BlackLivesMatter movement and police brutality, for instance in Alright: “Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’ / Nigga, and we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’” (2015). The album is saturated with similar references to the issues concerning the Black struggle in the United States in songs such as Institutionalized, Hood Politics and The Blacker the Berry. Though not always explicitly, the lyrics do refer to issues outside of the work, issues that hold meanings in the real world. The shootings of Black youth in the streets of the United States is not a metaphor. It cannot be interpreted in a myriad of ways or stand for many different meanings. As Sartre would say, Kendrick Lamar’s work is made up of “signs” as well (Sartre, 1950, p. 35). When Kendrick Lamar brings this up, he is pointing to a concrete issue. Different people can interpret these meanings differently, as they hold different values regarding, for example, race. But still, the work is not hollow in the manner Sartre describes music and poetry to be.
Form as Political
The form of a work can also create political engagement and it can carry a particular meaning. In the case of To Pimp a Butterfly, choosing to incorporate traditionally Black aspects into the music such as hip-hop, jazz, and funk redirects the message to a specific audience who should be able to understand it. The album “[draws] upon and [affirms] Black musical history” (Rocha, 2017, p.1) in its choice of music and samples. It thus already carries meaning just by being what it is: an album with a backdrop of Black musical tradition. Sartre himself stresses the importance of an audience for a work to exist and for it to be committed (1950, p.58, p. 65). In a piece of music or an album, the first thing the audience is confronted with when listening to it is its form: the melody, the instruments used and the genre to which it belongs. In the case of To Pimp a Butterfly, many of the formal aspects are drawn from Black culture and will predominantly be understood by those who carry this cultural history with them. The form of the work is therefore also political, because as it creates political engagement, it also establishes for whom this discourse is most accessible. It takes a side.
Creating New Meaning Through Interaction
When investigating the politics of music, Goehr (1994) states:
To understand music in all its dimensions, theorists thus argue, it no longer suffices to analyze the form and content of musical works in isolation; we must investigate as well the institutional context in which the composition, performance, and reception, the production, exchange, and distribution of works take place – the context in which the works assume their full meanings (p. 101).
To Pimp a Butterfly is a hip-hop album. Hip-hop is a genre created by African-American youth and originated during house parties in 1970s New York. The work is not just listened to in a concert room, it is actually sung at protests and rapped by kids in the street (Coscarelli, 2017; Harris, 2015; King, 2016). To Pimp A Butterfly is not only performed by the author Kendrick Lamar, but the work is reinterpreted by different people on the streets around the world (Coscarelli, 2017). Additionally, social media, streaming and pirating have affected the way in which the work is distributed and exchanged, and have made the album widely accessible. If Sartre writes that meaning arises in that space between audience and writer, then this work illustrates that in practice beautifully. To Pimp a Butterfly is reborn again every time someone takes it up, for instance when a video of people chanting to chorus to Alright is posted on Twitter or when it plays at the reception of a #BlackLivesMatter conference (King, 2016). The textual meaning of a song can be about Kendrick Lamar’s personal struggles growing up in the ghetto or about Compton, about struggling with addiction and depression due to institutionalized racism, yet when the work is taken up by an audience as it has been, during protests and manifestations, an additional layer of meaning is added to it.
Sartre argues this is essential for a work to be committed, because if an author simply prescribes a set meaning, this is not engagement (1950, p. 55). Instead, the author should create a certain distance, so the audience still has the freedom to form their own respective emotions in relation to the work. To Pimp a Butterfly allows for this freedom, because although Lamar raps about his own experiences, he does this with a certain distance, talking through a caricature character of himself (Rocha, 2017). To Pimp a Butterfly is a committed work because it does not provide solutions that Kendrick Lamar wants to see. Instead it starts a discourse, by bringing up issues but not fully resolving them. The struggles outlined throughout the album can be used as a reference and a framework, so that others can recognize and contextualize their own struggle. To Pimp A Butterfly provides its audience with the tools to engage with this struggle.
Besides Sartre’s ideas on political writing, there are other similar approaches to political art. Rancière (2010, p.142 ) states that critical art is art that creates ‘dissensus’. Dissensus is a conflict between the intended meaning of a work and the way it is interpreted by the audience. While normally these two aspects should align, political art creates a discrepancy between the meaning and the understanding. Art does this by re-configuring what is held as common sense, for instance by making people who are normally objects into subjects (Dyer, 1997, p.10). Dissensus creates a sense of strangeness, and this strangeness creates a break from the status quo, and thereby, a space in which new meaning can arise. Critical and political art can only exist when there is dissensus (Ranciere, 2010, p.143). The opposite of dissensus is consensus, a state in which everyone agrees with each other. However, consensus can never really exist (Mouffe, 2009, p. 3). Society is built on antagonism, because every group or person defines itself in relation to others. There is always a “we” in relation to a “they” (Mouffe, 2009, p. 2). Every group has different ideals and desires that can never all be realized at the same time. Instead, the idea of consensus is actually the complete domination of one group, so there is no longer conflict or discourse in society, simply because one or more groups do not have a say (Mouffe, 2009, p. 3). Critical art creates dissensus, it establishes a conflict that is necessary for democracy and change. To Pimp a Butterfly creates a misalignment between the intended meaning of the work and the reality the audience is living in, while also highlighting the dissensus existing in society.
The border drawn in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is the border between the hegemony of white culture over Black people in the United States. “White people create the dominant images of the world and don’t quite see that they thus construct the world in their own image” (Dyer, 1997, p.9). I believe that by writing a hip-hop album from the perspective of a Black person with a Black audience in mind, Lamar contests this hegemony. In my opinion he successfully shows that white people do not necessarily have to be the only actors in society, but that Black people live their own fully-formed lives, instead of being objects on the periphery of white existence. By highlighting the Black experience, Lamar shows that Black lives indeed matter, and deserve as much exploration and representation as white lives have had. Accordingly, changing the dominant discourse in the media means changing the representation of people in society. Since representation is the main way we learn about reality, changing representation means changing reality (Dyer, 1997; Goehr, 1994).
Kendrick Lamar concludes the album with a poem that is laced through the entire work in fragments and then consolidated in the final song of the album, Mortal Man (2015). Here is an excerpt:
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man.
Sartre (1950) said: “And if I am given this world with its injustices, it is not so that I may contemplate them coldly, but that I may animate them with my indignation, that I may disclose them and create them with their nature as injustices, that is, as abuses to be suppressed” (p. 66). Lamar is attempting the same thing: engaging his audience, urging them to take a position against the injustices Black communities face.
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