“Over 40 years, we’ve made changes in this country, but did we make a change in the heart of the individual?” – Jalen (9th grade)
Since my last post about teaching Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) in the high school classroom, many people from around the world, including educators and music fans alike, have asked me to share some of my students’ writing. In this post, I will highlight some passages from their writing.
Part I includes writing from student essays comparing To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), by Kendrick Lamar and The Bluest Eye (1970), by Toni Morrison.
Part II includes writing from commentary responses on the class blog, in which students responded to the album cover and first three tracks on TPAB, with a special focus on the track titled “King Kunta.”
It’s important to note the following:
- I used pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of my students.
- All of these students are 9th graders, in their freshman year of high school.
- I selected only the best passages from a handful of essays and commentaries.
- I used brackets to include explanatory words or phrases.
- The only changes I made to the writing was for the sake of readability.
- All language and ideas are original, belong to my students, and are presented in their original form.
- I highlighted, in blue, the passages I found to be especially powerful.
I. Student Essays:
- “Both The Bluest Eye and To Pimp a Butterfly express the African-American struggle to adhere to white standards…” – Jen
- “In the lyrics to “For Sale” Lamar states, “these rappers I came after when they was boring / Lucy gone fill your pockets / Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton / Inside the gigantic mansion…” The lyrics show Kendrick talking to the devil…Both characters [Pecola Breedlove and Kendrick’s persona] are creating little voices in their head because they want to achieve their dreams. Dreams that are both created and crushed by society. They both go through so much that they’re starting to rip apart.” – Jen
- “In the lyrics to “For Sale (Interlude)” [a woman’s voice] states, “I shouldn’t be f******g with you anyway, I need a baller ass, boss ass nigga.” This shows that the lady in the relationship treats the guy as if he was irrelevant because he doesn’t have money. These lines demonstrate the belittling of an African-American man’s character. This couple is a metaphor for how U.S. society treats an African-American male. The condescending woman is supposed to represent American society.” – Jen
- “[B]oth The Bluest Eye (1970) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) exhibit the insanity and chaos African-Americans go through in trying to be a different person…[When] Pecola’s dream of having blue eyes was “granted”, it made her insane instead of pretty.” – Jen
- “To Pimp A Butterfly and The Bluest Eye show the hardships of African Americans in a white superior society…It does not help that news headlines today consists of African Americans getting shot for no reason and a white boy fraternity singing a song about lynching African-Americans.” – Jen
- “[Kendrick writes,] “institutionalized, I keep runnin’ back for a visit” (Lamar). People that are oppressed by the media cannot escape it because the media is all around them. The media sets these impossibly high standards that the average person cannot reach. Institutionalized oppression [in the media] causes people to think lesser of themselves.” – Allison
- “Pecola believes she is ugly because she does not fit the media’s idea of beauty. In Kendrick’s album, he tells us to embrace what we look like and who we are. He tells us to not let others bring us down.” – Allison
- “[On Kendrick’s album, Assassin raps, “I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black… All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black” (Kendrick Lamar)…Even in this day in age, people still believe that the white race is superior. A person may believe that a person of color is worthless just because they do not fit the “appearance standards.” Geraldine [a character in The Bluest Eye] insists that, “Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud.” (Morrison 87) I feel like people still believe that today…” – Allison
- “On To Pimp a Butterfly, Rapsody tells us, “Keep your head up, when did you stop loving thy color of your skin, color of your eyes” (Kendrick Lamar)…The media will always try to get people to change themselves to fit that idea of a “beautiful girl”, but everyone is unique with their appearances and personalities… Institutionalized oppression causes people to believe that they are lesser than what they are. When the person truly believes that they are lesser, they become individually oppressed.” – Allison
- “The definition of beauty is distorted to elevate the white race and prove its superiority.” – Rachel
- “There is no true definition for beauty. [Kendrick writes,] “So I’mma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival / Of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival. / Beauty is what you make it; I used to be so mistaken” (Lamar). Kendrick points out that it’s critical that people realize that the definition of beauty they’ve believed in for so many years is nothing but lies and institutionalized brainwashing. – Rachel
- “Kendrick highlights the importance of internal beauty, regardless of skin color. What one person finds beautiful, others may not; therefore there is no real definition for beauty. It’s simple; beauty is just how you embrace it.” – Rachel
- “The Bluest Eye and To Pimp a Butterfly both examine race, religion, and relationships in different periods of American history. ” – Jalen
- “I found it coincidental that Assassin [a rapper on Kendrick’s album] talks about chains being put on African-American slaves because chains are a form of oppression or being tied down. In The Bluest Eye, Pecola had chains that were [put] upon her because she was being told that she was not [beautiful] – and she was raped, which added more pain and “chains” on her life.” – Jalen
- “In most of Kendrick Lamar’s songs he makes some type of reference to God or a higher being because in African-American culture, [most] prominently during slavery, God was someone who you could put your trust in, that one day he would take you away from this horrible place and bring you into this place of peace and paradise. In The Bluest Eye there are various examples of God…and how different characters perceive it. You had the white image of God, “a nice old white man with long hair, flowing white beard, and little blue eyes that looked sad when people died and mean when they were bad”(106). This shows how white culture and the image of beauty even started to creep into religion and change the image of God.” – Jalen
- “Throughout the whole book we see Pecola battle with society and herself about the image of beauty…In To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick also expounds on the fact that it doesn’t matter what your complexion is and what people think about your skin color. [Rapsody writes,] “ the new James Bond gon’ be black as me / Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea / And it’s all beautiful to me”(Kendrick). [Rapsody] is basically saying she is tired of the usual white man saving the girl and the white superman that is always the good guy that everyone looks up to.” – Jalen
- “The work by Toni Morrison and Kendrick Lamar both help people to see their true beauty. Their work shows that the media is not right and anyone can be beautiful and that beauty is not based on height, weight, skin tone, or the color of your hair or eyes.” – Tania
- “[Morrison writes,] “What made people look at them and say, ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me?” (22). And Kendrick’s [album includes lyrics like], “they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black / Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black / and man a say they put me in a chain / cah’ we black” This means that the same characteristics and “symptoms” of being oppressed because you are black [today], are the same “symptoms” that black people [experienced] during slavery. This shows even people with fame, power, or wealth, that are probably not even being as oppressed as the average person, are still being oppressed…just in different ways” – Charles
II. Student Commentary Responses (on “King Kunta”):
- “This whole [song] directly reflects Kendrick Lamar’s career [like when he says,] “everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta.” That specific lyric reflects the people in Kendrick’s life who were unsupportive of him and wanted to “cut of his dreams”…like what happened to Kunta Kinte.” – Alex
- “Like Kunta Kinte, Kendrick was stuck in a situation where control was the main issue. People in the music industry tried to gain control of Kendrick and his career.” – Kayla
- “Maybe yams are the “inner fruit” inside you that gives you complete power over others…One of my questions throughout “King Kunta” was, “do the oppressed or the oppressor have the Yams?” – Charles
- “[In “King Kunta”] I think he is talking about the people who doubted his future in the music industry. [The slave master] cut Kunta’s leg off so that he couldn’t attempt to escape the plantation anymore, and I think that’s what people in the music industry were trying to do to Kendrick before he had an epiphany and realized he was the only one who could make things happen the way he wanted them to happen. I don’t think he means he is like Kunta in the literal sense, but sort of using Kunta’s experience as a metaphor for what it was like when he first started off in the music industry.” – Julian
- “This album is about resistance. [Kendrick refuses] to give in to the institutionalized oppression. He refuses to become the rapper maybe his company wants him to turn into.“ – Jen
- “[In the clip from Roots], I believe that Kunta did not want to take the name Toby because the name Kunta Kinte was the only piece of identity he had left…He was stating that when Kunta refused to accept the name Toby, he showed that he was not afraid to stand up for his identity. When [Kendrick] says he, “got the whole world talkin,” I think he was saying that when Kunta refused the name, it empowered the other slaves to stand up for their identities.“ – Tania
- “[On the album cover,] I would like to start with the judge who looks dead on the ground. I believe that the judge represents the court and how the court has discriminated against black people. The judge being dead represents the discrimination against rappers ending. Stereotypically, rappers are ghetto and only talk about worthless things. Kendrick’s album proves that rappers are more than just what society expects. All the people celebrating represent the happiness that was spread when the world heard the songs on To Pimp A Butterfly.” – Tania
- “Today in class, we watched a short clip on Kunta Kinte. The clip was on Kunta rejecting the new name that the slave owner gave him. He didn’t want to lose the last thing that he had left, his identity. I see similarities when Kendrick mentions his city. “Stuck a flag in my city, everybody’s screamin’ “Compton””. It’s like he’s claiming his city and saying that he will always stick to his roots because this is where he grew up and found himself.” – Allison
- “[Making someone change their name] is a way of degrading someone, and stripping them of their cultural identity. The song “King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar speaks about this… At the beginning of the song, he says ” I don’t want you monkey mouth m************ sittin’ in my thrown again.” He means that he doesn’t want the same oppression that happened back then to happen again, or better yet, that he won’t let it happen. White people had the “thrown” back then, and now Kendrick is saying that he has the thrown because he is black, yet he has money, which white people back then thought was impossible.“ – Rachel
- “Another connection I see to [the clip from Roots] are the lines “Black man taking no loses,” which I believe means that Kunta didn’t take any losses like when he was being whipped in the video. He wouldn’t say his name was Toby because he was proud of himself and wouldn’t take the loss of having a white name. I think that references to how Kendrick Lamar himself didn’t let anyone come in his way of success.” – Miguel
- “[In the music video for “King Kunta”] I feel like [Kendrick is saying] that my people have been constantly oppressed by the white man and society, but look how we overcame it and are standing here in this powerful video…In the music video we notice him standing on a throne and we also notice that he has relatively large women dancing…I think this is a message to most teenage girls showing them that you don’t need to be skinny to be beautiful.” – Omar