I remember when I first moved to the Bottoms in Inglewood. I was a 12 year old, linky, 5’8” dark skin kid with a Basketball and Yu-Gi-Oh cards.
We had just moved from a crip neighborhood, so naturally, all of my clothes were either neutral or blue, but now, we lived across the street from Bloods. With my height, it was easy for them to think I was an adult.
One day, while walking home, one of the guys across the block stopped me and asked me where I’m from. For my non-LA people, that means, “What [gang] neighborhood do you lay claim too?” I told him I didn’t bang, and he said, “bool (Blood term for ‘cool’) lil homie, stay in the books. This shit ain’t nothing for you.”
I stopped, and I paused. My mom always told me that gang members will try and recruit me, but this guy from Crenshaw Mafia Gangsta Bloods (CMGB WH104P for my in-town folk) told me to focus on school.
I saw this same guy involved in drug transactions, shoot-outs, and beating up other Black people. He worked the block for 14 hours a day to make $40-60. He also used to help my mom with groceries when she was alive. When we would see him and the other guys playing basketball at Monroe middle school, they would tell us to, ”keep schooling and hooping, cuz this gang shit ain’t the way.”
So whats the deal? Why are they gang-banging if they know it’s wrong?
In Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry,” he is narrating the life of a gang-banger. Most of these gangstas have a critique of oppression, in which they generally realize there are larger hegemonic forces that operate in their daily lives. Yet, they are active agents in their own oppression, facilitated by poverty with a for-profit prison industry primed and ready to profit on their own decisions based on a lack of options. It’s an ultimate White, Supremacist, Capitalist, Patriarchal design to perpetuate slave economies. Kendrick articulates this in the song, but people seem to get hung up on his last stanza:
It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war
Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy
Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door
Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
In the last portion of the song, Kendrick is articulating the contradictions I couldn’t understand as a kid. How could this guy tell me to stay in school when he dropped out? How could he help my mom with groceries and call other women bitches? In this song, Kendrick is forcing the hood, mainly the Black poor, to face internalized anti-Blackness.
Far too often, we see white supremacy as a monolithic, one-dimensional ideology that only white people have the potential to embody, and as disconnected from capitalism, patriarchy, or other forms of oppression. It is far more complex and pervasive than that. White supremacy operates within Black communities, as well as on Black communities, forcing them to buy into anti-Blackness in similar, and sometimes more sinister ways than White Americans do. This is how our people question the validity of Black-owned businesses, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black students’ admission to White Colleges, any scholarship done by a Black person, and of a host of other Black ran institutions that are immediately deemed inferior by other Black people. This is the root of colorism in our communities, bleaching creams, and the hatred for anything closer to obsidian on the color spectrum. Anti-Blackness does not just exist in police departments, but it exists in the gang-ridden communities where these gangs that once solely protected their communities now destroy them.
Is the fault of these gangs only on them? No. Can we blame all of White supremacy on gangs? No. Is there a such thing as “Black on Black Crime?” No. Do Black people get killed by other Black people? Yes. Are these killings informed by anti-Blackness? In part, yes. Do these killings ultimately benefit White supremacy? Yes. Will a cease-fire in the hood make cops stop killing us? Absolutely not.
One of the issues within the Civil Rights Movement, and it is still taboo now, is that the Black poor normally get left out of the conversation. The most marginalized Black people, the ones who don’t have the networks that connect them to civil rights organizations, are the names that you don’t hear in the media when they are killed by police. While the Black middle class benefitted from integration (financially at least, but we can argue whether or not it was worth it socio-emotionally later), the Black poor remained in the hood, and as our economy shifted and companies began to exploit labor in developing nations, work began to disappear in a new, tech-based skills based economy. If you mix this in with a lack of trust in other Black folk, White supremacist television telling you that you don’t matter, and a growing underground economy where you can get work selling drugs, what would you do?
By placing Kendrick Lamar’s singles from his upcoming album in conversation, he is attempting to help these communities deal with the state-facilitated anti-Blackness that they face. Much of what he speaks to is unique to L.A., and more specifically Compton, yet, he is not talking directly to the educated class of Black people. He is attempting to help Black impoverished communities deal with their own internalized anti-Blackness through his music, and that is to be commended. While he clearly understands that White supremacy played (and still plays) an essential role in orchestrating the current conditions people in our neighborhoods face, he is putting his time and energy in raising Black, poor consciousness; a task that many do not find relevant.
So while it may be easy to critique Kendrick Lamar and tell him to take a seat in the respectability box, we need to be seriously questioning how we have worked to improve the lives of Black poor folks. The privileged class of educated Black people (myself included), who have had to face White supremacy in its forms as we navigate through these institutions, may not recognize the class-based element in his music. All of our oppressions are linked, and if we don’t recognize this, then we will all continue to live in oppressive conditions. If we give Kendrick Lamar any advice, it should be to connect advocacy for the Black poor and marginalized to the larger Black Lives Matter movement, not dismissive comments about respectability. Sometimes, we have to remember, that we have to help our people recognize that their Black lives matter, and that is a tantamount task that needs it’s own attention.