Last Friday, rapper Kendrick Lamar released “Damn.”, his highly anticipated fourth studio album. This new work possesses a politically-charged tone similar to his previous album, “To Pimp a Butterfly”, which was a potent vehicle for the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement. It made headlines after Lamar’s powerful and controversial performance at the Grammy’s, where it won five of the eleven awards it was nominated for. In a Rolling Stone article reviewing “Damn.”, the magazine declared that “To Pimp a Butterfly” is an album that “will likely go down as the defining reflection of the America that spawned #BlackLivesMatter, in the same way Pablo Picasso's Guernica stands as the defining reflection of the Spanish Civil War.” However, critics such as Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News host, have been less receptive to the messages embedded in Kendrick Lamar’s art. On the songs “DNA.” and “BLOOD.”, Kendrick sampled some controversial sentiments that Rivera expressed during a Fox News panel in 2015. In this segment Rivera claims, “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” This assertion is clearly audacious and incorrect, but it’s important to further analyze how comments like this are extensions of other historically racist views. Non-Black Duke students should also strive to understand the significance of hip-hop as an art for the Black community and be aware of how they interact with these albums and their messages.
Rivera’s statements represent alarming mindsets that undermine the legitimacy of contemporary and historic struggles of Black people in America. They echo the intentions of similar arguments that seek to disrupt conversations on race, like asking about “Black on Black” crime or asserting that if you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s no reason to fear police. These ignore the animosity between the Black community and law enforcement that stems from a long history of racial profiling and hyper-policing. It’s not only insensitive, but also intellectually negligent to attempt to blame the effects of a four-hundred-year-old system of oppression on rappers.
While Rivera’s opinions are likely not shared by the average Duke student, that doesn’t mean the primarily white undergraduate population is free from critique. Students on the LDOC committee bring Black artists to perform at the end of each year and we blast their music at our parties, but we aren’t always conscious of how we interact with the messages in the songs. Many students would rather consume hip hop at a concert than to critically engage with the messages behind it. While not every rap verse is intended to be enlightened and profound, it is important to understand that some of our favorite hip hop tracks stem from generations of inequality and oppression. Simply having respect for the political and cultural significance of hip hop’s history can help curtail insensitive views such as those expressed by Geraldo Rivera. To progress socially, we must do more than just consume political hip hop passively. This genre of music needs to be seen for what it is: as a nuanced platform for dialogue about racial justice and a testament to Black struggle.