By Julian Mitchell
James Baldwin, one of the most prolific writers and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, suggested a very specific process for escaping the crippling confines of hatred and oppression as a man of color in America. Deriving from the philosophy of existential alienation, Baldwin’s practice of Black Existentialism prescribed that black men displace themselves from their native environment, dwelling within uncomfortable solitude to forcefully strip themselves of their learned identity and develop a true definition of who they are. This process reshapes individual perspective in a way that allows black men to return to their native environment with a clear vision for how they can empower fellow black men in their communities.
Existential alienation is a philosophy emphasizing that a man is responsible for his own actions and possesses the freedom to choose both his development and destiny. It is the process of claiming control over your life. Thus, detaching from your predetermined identity provokes the transformative questions required to achieve enlightenment and discover purpose. By experiencing extreme vulnerability, a black man must inescapably confront the inner demons that fuel his self-destruction. As a result, he can run nowhere but within, incapable of blaming the known dynamics of race, nor leveraging the realities of history as an excuse to settle in conformity. The singular point Baldwin sought to make is that for black men to truly experience liberation in society, they must first be removed from that society to liberate themselves.
All good things come to those who stay true. You only have five years in this country before America takes the heart and soul out of a black man. You only have that time to fight back.
— 2 PAC (Mortal Man)
As a remarkably progressive period for black music, art and culture — the Harlem Renaissance produced many iconic pioneers who provided America with an insurgence of soul, style and personality. Genres like Blues, Jazz, Swing and Beat music presented a soothing soundtrack for stories of intense struggle to defeat oppression. Out of anguish, poetry arose as a thriving art form used to gracefully express the complexity, confusion and combativeness of the times. In a racially-charged period, the people of Harlem never relinquished their joy. Rather, they took pride in creating an entirely new culture of their own. It is that spirit of creativity, community and resilience, intertwined with a sheer hunger for wisdom and prosperity that still underlines the beauty of blackness today.
Channeling the revolutionary essence of the Harlem Renaisance, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a gripping, soul-driven melodrama that masterfully depicts the story of a courageous young man fighting through the painful process of liberating himself. Maneuvering through songs, Kendrick shatters America’s expectations to walk in his own definition of power as a free-thinking individual. With piercing lyrics laid over an assortment of funk beats, bellowing horns, heavy drums, scattering keys, entrancing saxophones and angelic harmonies — To Pimp a Butterfly captures the conflicting emotions of a king chosen to lead a generation, who’s become soberingly aware of the treacherous adversities that stand in his way. The 16-track album is Kendrick’s catharsis, skillfully unleashing the explicit fury buried beneath the surface of the street-bred scholar who has outrun the grips of failure, but remains held captive by depression and the exhaustive effort to evade nihilism. Kendrick consistently attacks racially-charged topics, expanding the conversation to boldly challenge our perceptions of belief, religion, purpose, manhood and maturity.
While a diversity of subjects are explored, an overarching theme throughout the album is deconstructing the corrupt and contradicting concept of the American Dream. As a people, and as a culture, we celebrate achievement — but what are we really celebrating? When we believe we’ve made it — where have we made it to? As race is socially constructed in this country, so are its core values of worth and success. The common notion of the American Dream favors the privileged, formally excluding the poor, while eluding to wealth. The engrained idea of the American Dream took precedence in a time when black people weren’t a priority to society, unless used as workers or assets to assist in acquiring the dream.
This American Dream dominates culture today. It is a misleading dream rooted in riches, recognition and status. For the disadvantaged, scrapping for significance with their backs against the wall — there’s nothing to lose in the chase to taste the dream. Consequently, this chase further feeds into the cycle of poverty, imprisonment and the gradual death of a powerful people. To Pimp a Butterfly discussed the death of potential at the hands of a trap, disguised as a dream, that can’t be escaped until we go through the painfully honest process of freeing our minds.
You can’t conquer the system if you’re trapped in it. You can’t overthrow the system while you’re locked up, poor or sucked into the streets. You can’t overpower the system if you’re silenced or marginalized. It is like Kendrick’s metaphor in describing the caterpillar, you are trapped in confinement, until you make the fearless effort to claim your freedom, because the butterfly does not know it is beautiful until after it has gone through the natural evolution of becoming one.
The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that raise it. Although the butterfly and the caterpillar are completely different, they are, in fact, one in the same. He sees how much the world shuns him and praises the butterfly. The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness and the beauty that lives inside the caterpillar.
— Kendrick Lamar (Mortal Man)
Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant body of work proves that freedom and the true American Dream is to be enlightened and self-aware. It is only at that point that a person becomes an individual, developing a new respect, appreciation and perspective on the society they live in. Dreams are more than amassing wealth, achieving success, or assimilating into a prototype. Dreams reflect our deepest and most authentic desires. We won’t change the world until we become unwaveringly and unapologetically ourselves — until we find our voice, our fight and our calling. That is living the dream. Yet, as Kendrick says, a dream is only a dream if you chase after it.