Artist as Cultural Shaman, Kendrick Lamar
The hip hop artist drops a profound new statement
This is a newsletter about a significant cultural moment, where one of the world's leading artists makes a profound and brave contribution to the conversation around collective and individual trauma, transformation, personal growth and vulnerability.
The artist is the hip hop performer Kendrick Lamar. His latest release, Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, tackles his own personal demons in a way that feels so deep and universal that it is acting like something of a shamanic process of collective trauma healing, judging from the reaction of many of his fans.
What follows after my introduction is an essay that was submitted to us by a new writer, James O'Connell, unpacking the deeper layers of Kendrick's confessional masterpiece.
As a short brief for those who are unfamilar with his work, Kendrick's breakthrough piece was a deep exploration of life in the inner city 'Good Kid Maad City', where he took on multiple voices and perspectives from the ghetto and fully inhabited different characters, while overlaying a deeply religious perspective about the spiritual void that was fuelling much of the conflict and trauma.
He brought a depth and lyricism to hiphop that was almost unprecendented, the album had the texture and depth of a novel. His next album, To Pimp a Butterfly tackled the history of the black experience in the US and was a huge mainstream hit. His artistry was later recognised when he became the first hiphop performer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
This latest album, 'Mr Morale', was several years in the making, during which time Kendrick suffered serious creative block and a intense confrontation with his personal demons, as he says at the start of the album, "I've been going through something". On its release a few weeks ago I posted the following on my Facebook wall:
"The most personal stories are always the most universal, and judging from the YouTube comments, is already shaping up to be something like a shamanic group therapy process, helping his listeners confront their own demons.
Great artists capture the zeitgeist and shape it at the same time in a self-reinforcing feedback loop - so this seems one of the most hopeful developments, in a time of trauma and growing chaos. The themes are all about the individual struggle and the collective trauma of the black experience, and how the coping strategies of conspicuous wealth/power/drugs/violence are a way to mask the pain. When a great artist like Kendrick can access his own pain and vulnerability in such a public way, that it seems to connect and catalyse a release of collective trauma. Most prominently in the album highlight 'Mother I Sober'.
What follows is the written piece from James, who feels similarly about the album.
Kendrick Lamar and Responsibility
What’s the responsibility of a Pulitzer Prize-winning hip-hop artist who has transcended the confines of his genre of music and been praised as the voice of a generation?
What’s the responsibility of someone who has focused so much effort on uplifting the black and broader hip hop community that his own personal life became untenable?
The album Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers (MMTBS) is Kendrick Lamar’s complex answer to these questions.
This piece is not a musical critique of Lamar’s recent work, nor a commentary on the controversial subjects it raises. Rather, it is an attempt to map the significance of his overall message in MMTBS and what it could mean for listeners who deeply value his intentions. It is also an opportunity to reflect on what we expect from our idols and whether these expectations are healthy, hypocritical, damaging or all of the above.
My focus, in this piece, is on responsibility, an artist’s responsibility to their audience, the audience’s responsibility to the artist and our responsibility to ourselves. Unravelling some of the trauma, masculinity issues and shadow exposed in MMTBS, this piece hopes to contribute towards the reader’s understanding of Mr. Lamar’s journey of individuation.
I believe using the ‘shadow’, a Nietzschean term adopted by psychiatrist Carl Jung, provides us with a helpful lens through which we can view Lamar’s thematic explorations in this album. The ‘shadow’ is used to describe the aspects of our personality that we choose to reject or repress and parts of ourselves that we think society won’t like, so we push them away from the conscious mind into the unconscious1. The reality is that all of us possess qualities that society has deemed undesirable. It is a sad paradox that becoming familiar with these darker aspects of our personalities and accepting them is probably the most effective means of preventing our ‘dark side’ from hurting others and ourselves. It is sad because as a collective we steer clear of such internal work, often from a fear of judgment and ostricisation from the people closest to us and society at large. Step in Kendrick Lamar, an artist who has received almost universal praise up until this point. His previous 4 full-length projects are widely considered classics in the hip hop canon, he is the only hip hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize, to put it succinctly, before May 13 of this year, when he released his brand-new LP, you would be hard pressed to find a bad word spoken about the 34-year-old Compton native.
In the initial seconds of MMTBS, we hear a woman’s voice utter “Tell them, tell them the truth”. This sets the tone for the theme of truth telling for the entirety of the project. Kendrick appears more determined than ever to express thoughts, emotions and actions that he had kept hidden from the public and maybe even himself (as can happen with the aptly named ‘shadow’). This very much appears to be the case for Kendrick here. The song Die Hard perfectly summarizes this message:
my truth too complicated to hide now.
Can I open up?
Is it safe or not?
I’m afraid a little,
You relate or not?
Tony Robbins famously says, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change”. The build-up of unexpressed truths has become too much for Kendrick. Concealing significant aspects of his life from the public who viewed him so highly provoked deep uneasiness within him. He needed to expose his deeply flawed nature however, in these lines we are reminded of the critical ingredient of feeling safe in the ‘opening up’ process. Our overarching culture rarely encourages or facilitates an opportunity for us to confess our unpleasant or unpalatable thoughts and urges which can result in a whole host of mental disturbances. We cannot begin to consider sharing uncomfortable truths within us if we are not confident that this can be heard and held in a compassionate, respectful manner. When Kendrick questions the safety of exposing his truth, he is highlighting the judgmental nature of our society and what that judgemental nature might be doing to us all on a personal level. This liminal space between feeling the desperate need to express ourselves authentically while fearing the potential backlash of this expression is profoundly relatable. The author and spiritual teacher, A.H. Almaas has commented, “Only when compassion is present, will people allow themselves to see the truth”. I think Kendrick is probing us to ask ourselves; “are we letting people in our lives see their truth?” and, “are we being allowed to see our own truth?”
This is a line of questioning that has arisen often in the work of Rebel Wisdom. Compassion for ourselves and others can function as an antidote to the lack of self-reflection which frequently manifests in black and white thinking and reaffirming biases. Too often, we choose not to reveal a truth because we fear it will not be held with compassion. This connection between truth telling/self-inquiry and compassion/felt safety is unavoidable and Kendrick wants to make this clear for us.
Listening to the album, you can feel that the weight of being the touted artist who many people turned to for insight on the cultural ‘moment’, became unbearable for Kendrick. This expectation smothered him. He had to be honest with himself on record and invite listeners into a position they probably hadn’t been in before, questioning his morale and cultural radar. This terrified Kendrick, debating whether it was safe to share a new level of vulnerability and candidness. It seems he held a faith that this unmasking would alleviate his mental distress, and this pushed him to release this piece of work. On a level of broader, artistic responsibility, it feels that his trust that people will also relate to this wrestling with the ‘shadow’ provided him with the courage to supersede his fears and share them with the public. Almost every person on this earth knows that fear that Kendrick expresses here, the fear of not knowing how people will respond to our opening up. The compassion Kendrick feels along with his deepening connection to himself guided him to risking his public image in the name of truth telling and responsibility. This sentiment is accentuated by the closing verse of Die Hard with an emphatic commitment to the ‘opening up’ he needs to do regardless of the consequences - “ain’t no saving face this time”.
MMTBS offers a new perspective, focused on root causes and healing over isolation and shame, compassion over judgement. It proposes a future where instead of totally ostricising people for their immoral and damaging acts, we can encourage responsibility and accountability in that person as well as a process of transformation whereby the core issues of this harmful behaviour are addressed. A future where, as a culture we can talk more openly about our shadow making it easier to accept the shadow in others. Such a genuine and honest concept can of course be exploited by bad actors not interested in healing, but I think Kendrick knows this is a collective issue and all he can do (and all we can do) is to come forward with his intention of raw honesty in hope others will resonate. In this way, we can encourage accountability and responsibility for ourselves and others.
In his masterpiece “Fear” from the 2017 Damn LP, Kendrick unpacks some of his biggest fears which include being judged and losing ‘it all’. This 7-minute epic is a vulnerable listing of the most troubling fear-based thoughts going through his mind. One chief reason why his latest release is such a breakthrough in my eyes resides in the obvious headway he has made concerning the fears mentioned above. Five years later, MMTBS delves into specifics about his infidelity, the fact he is in therapy, his relationship with his transgender family members, his struggle with masculinity as well as the sexual abuse and trauma that he and his family have suffered inter-generationally. He even leaves a question mark around his Covid vaccine status (imagine the voice of a generation not getting the vaccine!). To raise these topics in a hip hop album is a sure-fire way to trigger judgement and lose fans and commercial success. But as he says himself in Mr. Morale, “I’m sacrificing myself to start the healing”.
Alongside referring to his family trauma, I think this line can be understood in the wider context of hip hop - both the listeners and producers of this genre. Kendrick Lamar is using this body of work to reveal his moral transgressions and vulnerabilities, to express how hard it is to acknowledge why we do what we do and address it, as well as encouraging anyone listening to join him; “I got daddy issues, that’s on me.... let’s give the women a break, grown men with daddy issues” raps Kendrick on Father Time. I don’t need to tell anyone about the problematic relationship between hip hop and women. Women have been consistently sexualised and undermined in many of the commercially successful hip hop videos and songs from the 90’s to now. Kendrick freely admits that he has been a part of this issue – “Objectified so many bi****s, I killed their confidence”.
Hearing the most respected and popular contemporary hip hop artist addressing this topic in such a manner is inspiring. Taking responsibility is certainly not a cultural norm at the moment and it appears that Kendrick feels sense of responsibility to call out his previous indiscretions while also asking his male listeners to self-reflect too. Knowing that merely acknowledging these mistakes is not enough, in this instance he is calling on men collectively to “give the women a break”. He asks us to work internally on the root causes of our personal problems which we often take out on women (physically, verbally, emotionally, sexually). It’s not enough to just acknowledge it or apologise for poor behaviour retrospectively. We must endeavour to do the necessary self-enquiry to help women feel safer, more confident, and less objectified.
One of the most profound lines in Father Time and the entire record is:
I got daddy issues, that’s on me
Lookin’ for a ‘love you’
Rarely emphasising for my relief
For a hip hop artist, in fact, for any man to admit that as a child and adolescent they desperately wanted and needed to hear ‘I love you’ from their father is huge. In my opinion, it has the potential to be a massive step forward in promoting a healthy masculinity. Kendrick is reflecting and realising the impact that his relationship with his father had on his development and his subsequent viewing and treatment of women. I’m certain there’s a large percentage of fans that can deeply relate to this; with many of our wayward actions being a response to, or in search of the felt love we didn’t receive growing up. I am confident that this song alone can spur countless men to pick beneath the surface of their difficulties with intimacy, love and masculinity. Many men in my life have rarely or never heard those three special words from their father and it is only a natural response to subsequently seek that love and validation elsewhere. It can be argued that that a lot of what is considered to be ‘toxic masculinity’ has its beginnings here. Only with awareness can we initiate this heavy, yet incredibly fruitful analysis. However, a large percentage of men are seldom, if ever, exposed to such a framing, which is why MMTBS can be so impactful. Kendrick Lamar is revealing a perspective on masculinity that many of his listeners would not have heard otherwise, or at least not taken seriously. Kendrick is using his stature and reach to promote a fresh take on what masculinity can be for his fans.
Saviorisation meets Individuation
In several moments throughout MMTBS, we feel Kendrick’s struggle to maintain the act of being who he had thought he had to be. This is perhaps most heavily expressed in Crown where he repeats “heavy is the head that chose to wear the crown”. The wording of this is crucial as he adds the element of choice to the famous Shakespeare line. Kendrick is taking some responsibility. He openly acknowledges his own role in the ‘saviourisation’ of his music and image. He reflects on how he saw the media and fans place him on a particular pedestal and how he consciously consented to it. Looking back, he accepts that his ego quite liked being treated as the chosen one, which could be strongly connected to his father issues mentioned above and his ensuing quest for external validation and love.
The song ‘Saviour’ feels like an itch that needed to be scratched for years as he very bluntly states:
The cat is out of the bag, I am not your saviour
I find it just as difficult to love thy neighbour
Like any of us, he has difficulties loving himself and those around him and he makes it clear on this track specifically that he needs the support and compassion that anybody needs to keep their head above water. Kendrick is hammering down the point throughout this song that he can’t be the one to always help us. Extracting from this, he goes to discuss the fact that nobody can save us. This message is further unpacked in the album closer Mirror, where he states, “Faith in one man is a ship sinking”. Here, we have an emphatic reaffirmation of the thematic thrust of this album which is that we all have an element of agency in our healing. And this healing is multidimensional, first requiring a sense of safety, and requiring us to acknowledge and express vulnerabilities, to take responsibility for our past actions, and to exercise agency in what can be done in the present and future. These ingredients provide robust architecture for our ship to flourish. Each aspect is interconnected and thus needs consistent attendance. The more we outsource this process to an idol of ours, or a man in the sky, the more we increase the likelihood of our own ship sinking. In trying to save others, Kendrick nearly sank his own ship and foresees the future sinking that might happen for his adoring fans if they continue to place too much weight on his actions and words in their own development. Being an idol created an increasing distance between Kendrick and his truth. With this album, he sets the intention to become closer to himself, committing to attending to and maintaining the architecture of his own ship -becoming who he is rather than who he feels he must be. This is neatly tied to Jung’s concept of individuation, which can be described as a journey “to express and experience the Self in ways which are often prohibited by the compromises made in the service of social acceptance.”1 This switch reflects a belief that the only way Kendrick can save his own world is to let go of the idea of saving other’s. This is wonderfully articulated in the closing bridge:
I realised true love is not saving face
But unconditional, when will you let me go?
Sorry I didn’t save the world my friend,
I was too busy tryin’ to build mine again
I am aware that one can also interpret these lines as justifying his shying away from the responsibility that his level of popularity can entail. I find myself asking; “Can anyone hold that responsibility and expectation?” And if so, is it authentic? Is it healthy?
From listening to MMTBS, one cannot deny the connection between Kendrick’s mental health and the pressures of stardom, the conditional love that public figures often receive in our culture. A feeling that we will support you, as long as you fulfil certain criteria. Kendrick evidently couldn’t keep this up, he tried to save face, and the world, and experienced the personal and public impossibility of this objective. He now relinquished this challenge in favour of saving himself, healing himself and his family. I know I’ve struggled with external expectations and have, at times lost sight of the most important things in my life amid this struggle.
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Being True to Oneself
I hear in this collection of songs a deep realisation within Kendrick that the greatest consolation one can take from their life is that they were themselves, truly. All the women, money, fame did nothing to soothe the inner turmoil Kendrick felt inside and he has taken the brave decision to address his inner turmoil, and to risk his public image. I think this is a beautiful sentiment that we could emulate. Regardless of the external result, we can take solace in the fact that we have been honest, with ourselves and our loved ones. It seems that over the years Kendrick Lamar has been meditating on his responsibility to truly express himself in his music and what relationship this has to his responsibility as the “most popular and influential artist in modern music”, in the words of fellow superstar, Lorde. At what point does Kendrick’s obligation to inspire the world impede on his duty to himself and his family?
This album is an unadulterated admission of fallibility, which many fans might find hard to digest. Kendrick could well be using this piece of work to demonstrate his responsibility to testing his audience in ways they haven’t been tested before. Do we want Kendrick to heal, which might mean unleashing his shadow and our collective shadow through his music or do we want him to guide us, reinforce our own opinion on the cultural moment? Can he do both simultaneously? I would argue that he cannot. I would argue at a certain point, our need to be ourselves and our need to serve the collective, collide. MMTBS may well be Kendrick Lamar’s collision. There is a famous quote from Marianne Williamson in which she says:
“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
In an interesting flip, as Kendrick sheds light on his darkness, he gives us permission to do the same. We owe it to ourselves.
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Outstanding. Thanks for this 🙏
In awe of your ability to express yourself so powerfully through words!