Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album

When Kendrick Lamar released his sophomore album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), I was in the middle of teaching a unit on Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). My freshmen students were grappling with some big ideas and some really complex language. Framing the unit as an “Anti-Oppression” study, we took special efforts to define and explore the kinds of institutional and internalized racism that manifest in the lives of Morrison’s African-American characters, particularly the 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove and her mother, Pauline. We posed questions about oppression and the media – and after looking at the Dick & Jane primers that serve as precursors to each chapter, considered the influence of a “master narrative” that always privileges whiteness.

Set in the 1940s, the Breedlove family lives in poverty. Their only escape is the silver screen, a place where they idolize the glamorous stars of the film industry. Given the historical context of the novel, we can assume these actors are white. On the rare occasion that a person of color was cast in a feature film during this time period, they would surely occupy a subservient role – perhaps a butler or maid. So what happens when the collective voice of society perpetuates whiteness as the standard? What happens when children never see themselves as the superhero? the boss? the damsel in distress? the star? The master narrative tells us that white is good, pure, and clean. Perhaps most destructive of all though, it says white is beautiful.

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Butterflies are beautiful, too – and they are full of color. Butterflies are so beautiful, they can’t be made any more so. They can’t be manipulated, exploited, controlled, or confined. So why does America keep trying to do these same things to people of color? Why does America keep trying to pimp the butterfly? Surely we must know by now, the Civil Rights Movement was a metamorphoses from which we emerged into a colorblind, post-racial springtime, shedding the cocoon of Jim Crow, right?

It’s 2015 and Kendrick Lamar doesn’t think so. His album continues the conversation that Toni Morrison started in 1970. Inspired by the Black Is Beautiful cultural movement of the previous decade, Morrison offers a devastating critique of white supremacy. The Bluest Eye is arguably one of the most powerful novels about racism ever written. It critiques the media’s obsession with stars like Shirley Temple and Greta Garbo, revealing the psycho-social madness that results when a little girl becomes the victim of oppression directed inwards. She prays for blue eyes – her only wish – thinking it will make her beautiful. Why wouldn’t she? Morrison reminds us this message is everywhere, including “shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs,” and that, “all the world had agreed a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured” (Morrison 19).

Pecola Breedlove is the butterfly, still being pimped in 2015, and behind decades of mass incarceration, urban renewal, white flight, and gentrification, she’s now a middle-aged woman, hoping for change, hoping for springtime. Luckily, she has a soundtrack in TPAB.

While it’s problematic to cast Kendrick as a savior for hip hop and black America, it’s equally as dangerous to dismiss him. He offers a new brand of hope for the hip hop generation – one that is rooted in traditions of resistance and struggle. With pain and anger in his voice on “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick describes weeping, “when Trayvon Martin was in the street.” It’s easy to become devastated by the stagnation of race relations in America. But Kendrick is careful to balance the chaos with a clear and purposeful sense of direction – even when shining the light on his own hypocrIMG_1840itical double consciousness. So how do we help our students find hope amidst such chaos and contradiction?

My freshmen students were devastated when Pecola was raped and impregnated by her own father. Many school districts ban the novel for the graphic images depicting this scene. However, I’m willing to feel uncomfortable with my students if it means we can reimagine alternative realities for Pecola.

What would have happened if Pecola listened to Kendrick’s hit single, “i” which celebrates, “I love myself” in a world that tells black people not to? Would the outcome of the story, Pecola’s schizophrenic break with reality, have played out differently if she heard Rapsody’s stand-out verse on “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” where she raps about self-love. I’m not arguing that music could have prevented Pecola’s rape, or that we should assign blame to people who don’t know how to love themselves, but maybe Pecola’s blackness could have taken on new meaning and new beauty if she had influences like Kendrick or Rapsody. Perhaps she could have responded more critically to the cacophony of oppressive voices that enforce the master narrative and lead to internalized oppression for too many people. Morrison writes that the marigolds didn’t grow that spring. Nothing grew. The soil of that land was polluted, corrupted. It’s likely there were no butterflies that year.

When I asked my freshmen students if they saw any hope in the novel, their response was somewhat problematic. Most saw none. And I don’t blame them. The language is beautiful, but the narrative is bleak, dark, and depressing. But it’s what we do with our critical reading of the text that matters. It’s the honest conversations, reflections, and revised understandings that extend our reading onto the world around us. That’s where the promise of hope lives. One of my students, in a commentary response on my class blog, articulated this idea in a powerful way for all of us:

The novel represents hope because it is somebody taking notice and writing about all this oppression and racism. It brings attention to these serious problems and when people are aware, action follows. Even though Pecola’s story ends sadly, more hope is represented in Claudia [the narrator], for she does not totally succumb to the oppression. She pulls apart the [white baby] doll, questioning why it is so beautiful, [and] she has the strength to…pray for Pecola when Pecola is pregnant, planting the marigolds to help, and not judging like the rest of the town.

This is the kind of extended thinking that we want to illicit from our students. As Linda Christensen says, we want to teach for joy and justice, finding the hope in our critical readings and extending those understandings to the world around us. When I think about critical media literacy and Paulo Freire, I think about my students looking twice at an advertisement on their newsfeed – asking themselves questions like these:

  • Who made this image?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is their agenda?
  • Who does this image include? Who does it not include?
  • Who has the power in this image? Who doesn’t?
  • What beliefs, values, or ideologies does this image promote?

Our 21st century students are great consumers. They are saturated with information, media, and layers of subtext. If we don’t ask them to critique different kinds of media, to “read” the world through a critical lens, we aren’t teaching literacy at all. They must become producers of new knowledge and new understandings, new texts and new meanings.

If I pedagogically ignored Kendrick’s album release at a time when my students were reading Toni Morrison alongside articles about Mike Brown, Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter – and considering the disposability of black bodies in an America that constructs a standard of beauty based solely on whiteness – I would have missed an opportunity to engage them in a pivotal conversation about race, hope, and justice. I would have missed an opportunity to speak to their hip-hop sensibilities – their hip-hop ways of being and knowing. I would have missed a chance to develop a set of profound connections to a popular culture text that is part of their lives. So here’s the first thing I did:

As students concluded their reading of the novel, I assigned a “Critical Lens Essay” that asks them to “look deeply at the text, think for yourself, and consider the kinds of oppression that are experienced by the characters in Morrison’s novel.” My initial essay prompt looked like this:

  • What kinds of oppression do black people experience when the collective voice of society tells them they must adhere to white standards of beauty?

After listening to Pimp A Butterfly and noticing connections to the unit in every song, we studied some of the tracks, (which I’ll discuss later) and I created a second, optional prompt to choose from:

  • How is the influence of the “Black Is Beautiful” cultural movement of the 1960s visible in both Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)? Consider how both authors comment on how oppression manifests itself as internalized racism.

More than half my students opted for the second prompt, even though it requires more work. They must quote from both Morrison’s novel and Kendrick’s album as evidence – and discuss that evidence at length, demonstrating how it proves a carefully constructed thesis statement. I made a pedagogical decision to provide the “edited” or “clean” lyrics to a select group of songs on the album and I even posted a link to the “edited” version on iTunes. I know most students have access to the “explicit” version, and I would have no objections if they quote from these versions, but since these students are freshmen, some of whom might have parents that object to profanity, even when it’s being used for a noble, just, and artistic cause, I decided to give them access to a version without profanity. I find it problematic to call an album like this, “dirty.” Often times, with some of my older students, and in my after-school “Hip-Hop Lit” extracurricular class, I use the unedited versions of songs to maintain their artistic integrity – or to highlight their blatant violence, misogyny, or sexism.

The politics of hip hop education are complex. Students are assigned Vonnegut for summer reading, complete with multiple uses of the word “fuck” and a voyeuristic sexual scene that makes many adults uncomfortable, but we allow this, and in fact require it, because Vonnegut is white. He’s been accepted into the literary canon, and thus, his writing is considered “high art.” Hip hop is still the subject of intense, misdirected hatred and discrimination in schools. We aren’t protecting students from vulgarity when we forbid hip hop in the classroom. We are protecting ourselves from our fears about race – while simultaneously robbing our students of authentic opportunities to think critically about the media they consume. Literacy in the 21st century means bringing all different kinds of “text” into the classroom – especially hip hop.IMG_1842

Before I assigned the second writing prompt, we did some close-listening to several songs on TPAB, specifically looking for Kendrick’s commentary on the kinds of oppression we learned about while reading The Bluest Eye. The levels of oppression that we focused on most were “internalized.” and “institutional” (there’s actually a TPAB track entitled “Institutionalized”).

The song with the most visible connections to Morrison’s novel is the track previously mentioned, titled, “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” where female MC Rapsody confesses that like Pecola, she was,”12 years of age, thinkin’ [her] shade too dark” and asks the listener, “when did you stop loving the color of your skin, color of your eyes?” In some ways, she’s speaking directly to the Pecola Breedloves of 2015, the butterflies who have been pimped into hating themselves.

Rhapsody goes on to declare, like Kendrick, “I love myself,” and encourages young black women to, “keep your head up,” because, “light don’t mean you smart, bein’ dark don’t make you stupid.”

Students pointed out that “Complexion” is about loving your skin tone, which reminded them of a video we watched in the beginning of the unit where young woman talked about bleaching her skin to appear more white. Students asked questions about the Zulus and became fascinated with the Zulu resistance to British colonialism, highlighting the counter-narrative that this song offers in response to institutional oppression.

When students listened to “King Kunta,” I showed them a clip from Roots, where 18th century slave, Kunta Kinte, who became a symbol for, “the struggle of all ethnic groups to preserve their cultural heritage,” refuses to adopt the white name of “Toby” – assigned by his white slave-master. I asked students, “why do you think he’s refusing to take the new name?” One student explained that, “Kunta” represents his identity – his African identity – it’s like what makes him who he is – and to give that up, is to give up his identity.”

After we listened to the track titled, “Institutionalized,” one of my students pointed out that her skin was like “an institution” keeping her trapped in a predetermined future, much like a correctional facility, hospital, or ghetto. She pointed to textual evidence in the song that suggests Kendrick is really talking about Compton, his hometown, as an institution, that keeps people trapped inside it, even after they’ve left. This led to a discussion about poverty as an institutional construct, rather than just a personal responsibility.

The last song we analyzed was “u.” Students noticed that Kendrick, or the speaker, seems to be talking to himself in the mirror, or at least to his inner demons, contemplating suicide. I asked them how Kendrick’s demons are similar and different to Pecola Breedlove’s demons. We considered the references to mental illness, stress, suicide, anxiety, and PTSD that surface throughout the album. These same kinds of deep, visceral responses to trauma can be seen in Morrison’s novel, as well.

My students are working on their essays now, pulling evidence from multiple sources, doing research, and looking at the relationship between two classic pieces of literature. One over 40 years old – and the other just 2 weeks young. Perhaps The Bluest Eye is like a parent to TPAB – Morrison ,a living moral ancestor to Kendrick. Educators can learn a lot from this album and its relationship to the young people in our classrooms.

[Note: To view some of the writing produced by students in this unit, read my follow-up post by clicking here]

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422 comments

  1. […] about literature. After seeing the impact his changed teaching method had on the students, Mooney wrote a blog post about his findings. That post caught the attention of Kendrick’s management and they reached […]

  2. Great teachers find ways to make subjects relevant to students. By studying a subject through a lens where students can make connections to something they are interested and invested in, captures their attention and produces deep engagement. Using an album by Kendrick Lamar, who is so relevant in today’s popular culture, to draw similarities to a piece of literature that may seem far from the students’ reach does exactly that. Relevancy is a huge factor in student buy in, sustaining engagement, and drawing connections. You are inspiring!

  3. Matthew Kennedy Stewart · · Reply

    What is life? May we discuss…

  4. kaylawilson22 · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Risky Readers.

  5. THUMBS UP!

  6. […] By implying that the male nominees stood a stronger chance than Minaj, a woman, did, Swift was dangerously simplistic. She creates two unrealistic, binary categories: dominant men and oppressed women. Intersectionality has taught us that this is an inaccurate portrayal of of wider society. It is also an incorrect breakdown of the VMA nominees. One of the men up for the accosted award definitely doesn’t fit into the “dominant men” category. From his first mixtape to his critically acclaimed recent album, Kendrick Lamar has tirelessly rapped about his oppression as an African-American man. He spits about racial profiling, stereotyping and black-on-black crime. Lyrics like “you’re fuckin’ evil. I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey. You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me…” have inspired countless thinkpieces, Twitter discussions, and academic studies of Lamar’s music. […]

  7. Reblogged this on nicirussian and commented:
    Well-written! I love how this entire article came together, almost wished you were my teacher in highschool! 😀

  8. Reblogged this on My ungovernable views on life. and commented:
    “We aren’t protecting students from vulgarity when we forbid hip hop in the classroom. We are protecting ourselves from our fears about race – while simultaneously robbing our students of authentic opportunities to think critically about the media they consume.”

    Most beautiful blog speaking on the relationship of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in that they are continuations of the same story. A necessary story.

    Just beautiful.

  9. Matimba Emmanuel Ngobeni · · Reply

    This is very interesting… It is a well-thought post… Thumbs up!!! #TPAB

  10. […] Mooney described his decision to do so, along with elements of his lesson plan in a blog post: […]

  11. […] Why I Dropped Everything and Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album […]

  12. AllHipHop » Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” Inspires New College Scholarship (VIDEO) · · Reply

    […] visited the North Bergen, New Jersey school after English teacher Brian T. Mooney’s blog about including To Pimp A Butterfly in his lessons went […]

  13. […] It began when English teacher Brian T. Mooney of High Tech High School in North Bergen, N.J., began to pair Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp A Butterfly with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in his lessons. He reported on the experience in his blog, Why I Dropped Everything and Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s Album. […]

  14. […] Brian Mooney decided to use Lamar’s recent studio album as curriculum and share it on his personal blog. Students used lyrics from Lamar’s sophomore album, To Pimp A Butterfly, to draw parallels […]

  15. […] around race, privilege, and oppression alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye came to me. In an explanatory post, he left a note about his “pedagogical decision to provide the “edited” or “clean” […]

  16. Patty Cleary · · Reply

    Thank you so much for this inspiring bit of wisdom Brian Mooney. I have read “The Bluest Eye” several times, (as a student, grad student, and T.A.) and find it more enjoyable each time.I am now teaching it to some women who are coming out of the prison system in California and I hope you wil allow me to use the comparison you draw to Lamar’s “i.”

    The reason I chose this book to read with these women is that, upon my last reading of it, I found it to be a story of hope and promise. The reason I say this is that the book opens with Claudia contemplating she and her sister’s role in the failure of the Marigolds to bloom in 1941. But at the very end of the story (the last paragraph in fact) in a quiet but courageous act of self affirmation she says “..I did not plant the marigolds too deeply…it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town.” To me Claudis’s refusal to accept the blame for the flowers failing to bloom is even more powerful than the trajedy of Pecola and the Breedlove family.

    Thanks again for your insights.

  17. Darique Rodriquez · · Reply

    This is the epitome of an educator. We need to inspire critical thinking in today’s youth because their current level of apathy is jolting. To bridge hip hop to literary classics is an innovative to inspire, educate, analyze and diagnose the social illnesses that imbrue the fabric of our nation.

    What a fantastic article.

  18. Kristin Taylor · · Reply

    I’ve been teaching The Bluest Eye for more than 15 years to various junior and senior classes, and I’ve never been more inspired than by this post. One of my former students actually sent me the link yesterday, and I was thrilled to read your post. I truly believe that Toni Morrison is one of the most important (and skilled) authors, and I can’t imagine teaching American Lit without her. Despite how bleak this novel can be and how emotionally challenging it is for my students, they tell me year after year that it changed them. I didn’t know about this new album but will definitely be using it when I start teaching the book again this year in December. Thank you! And I’m sure you aren’t in need of any other resources (your blog post includes many of the resources I’ve used, also), but if you’d ever like to see some of the other texts, videos and articles I’ve used to accompany it, I’d be happy to share.

  19. I’m a first year English teacher who has been listening to this album every morning as I drive to school (keeps me sane). And every morning I’ve been thinking “man how can I get THIS into my classroom?” You’re story has inspired me! Are there any resources you can share with me that will help implement this lesson for next semester?

  20. […] welcome of the collision of two art forms, Mooney wrote a blog post regarding the lesson. In the post, titled, “Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album,” Mooney […]

  21. […] Kendrick lamar is and decided to make life changing decision fro his inspiration for example this article and also this one, […]

  22. […] Pimp a Butterfly that has not already been said. Since its release, TPAB has become the most dissected album of the year, with numbers of critics, writers, and other music types penning their interpretations and thoughts […]

  23. […] is another album that has reached peak think-piece saturation (and college course saturation) that I think was really great. There’s simply just so much going on across its 16 […]

  24. […] novel, The Bluest Eye (a novel about a young black girl who wants blue eyes). Mooney wrote a blogpost about the lesson, which made it’s way to Lamar, who visited the school for a […]

  25. […] novel, The Bluest Eye (a novel about a young black girl who wants blue eyes). Mooney wrote a blogpost about the lesson, which made its way to Lamar, who visited the school for a […]

  26. Reblogged this on Issues Teaching US History: ASU and commented:
    What a really good read and a great way to engage students in the classroom.

  27. […] Kendrick Lamar to his classroom, which you can read more about here and here, as well as on his blog. And long before, Tomas Alvarez III, a social worker in Oakland, California started one of the […]

  28. […] This is such an inspiring story on the power of pairing traditional education within the context of today’s society and popular culture texts. Read more about Mooney’s lesson in his blog HERE. […]

  29. […] conversation. Lamar has discussed his making of the album in various interviews, and critics, teachers, and journalists alike have studied the album in depth. The album portrays the complex themes of […]

  30. […] came into the industry with talent but without the worldwide recognition that he had. He dedicated this Grammy win to Snoop Dogg and NAS, two artists who have never received this top honor, despite their […]

  31. More Meaningful after a Grammy win yea? http://bit.ly/SnoopDoggGrammy

  32. […] politics of hip hop education are complex,” explains Brian Mooney in his discussion of teaching Kendrick Lamar, […]

  33. Reblogged this on Renewing relationships.

  34. You’re an inspiration. Keep feeding the minds of those kids. More teachers need to realize that it’s okay to break out of the canon and teach our kids something more relatable, and dare i say, modern. It’s sad that not many people think you can explore literature through rap music but what can you do when the system is designed to have us think a certain way.

    Check out my review of TPAB if you can. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it 🙂 …
    https://dilsonmusic.wordpress.com/2015/08/06/to-pimp-a-butterfly-a-track-by-track-review-part-1/

  35. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is Kendrick Lamar’s third album. Great read though.

  36. Hi! I’m a first year High School English teacher in an urban private school in Milwaukee, WI, and The Bluest Eyes is a book I would love to teach next school year. I gained a lot of inspiration from reading this post and was hoping you might have more resources/examples that you would be willing to share as I begin to put my unit together for next year. Thanks for sharing this! I love hearing about creative ways to teach novels and connecting them to the music that the kids are listening to.
    I am also very interested in the Hip Hop literature class you have. This is a class I would love to be able to put together and petition my administration. Would you be able to share any resources/info about your class?

  37. Reblogged this on tmokate.

  38. Wow!!!! Thank you

  39. […] Pimp a Butterfly” and “The Bluest Eye” together and his blog post, “Why I Dropped Everything and Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album” (2015, March 27) caught the attention of Kendrick Lamar, who requested to visit […]

  40. […] album in classrooms. I left class week after week, processed the ideas we discussed, and designed a unit of study that led to a reflective blog post that ultimately drew the attention of Kendrick L… and resulted in his visiting our school, an experience that Dr. Emdin helped orchestrate. On the […]

  41. […] has fought hard to carve out a space for itself in the classroom. Today, some savvy teachers are “dropping everything” to teach rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album, the Hamilton soundtrack is worming its way into American history classrooms and a handful of […]

  42. Kim Dawson · · Reply

    Hi Brian,

    First of all I just want to say I really enjoyed reading your blog post and was thrilled to have accidentally found it! You are very well spoken and truly understand the science behind teaching.

    The way I discovered your post ironically enough was when I was researching Kendrick to watch some of his interviews after teaching a lesson on him at my school this week. A colleague and I proposed a new course to be taught at our high school called Hip Hop Cultures and we are currently in our first semester of teaching it. It’s been a hit! Just this week we used Kendrick’s Grammy performance from this year to show how he incorporated many of the origins of hip hop. We later dissected the songs he performed “Alright” and “Blacker the Berry.” We were so impressed with our students and how well they did with the lesson. I literally just found your blog this morning and the video of Kendrick visiting and plan to show it to my students on Monday.

    Long story short my colleague and I would love the opportunity to speak with you sometime and potentially even collaborate if you’re up to it? You seem to be on the exact same page as us when it comes to teaching and I would love to learn more about your students and approach to using hip hop in the classroom!

    Thank you for your time!

    Kim Dawson

  43. […] Source: Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album […]

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