Why Kendrick Lamar's Grammys performance was empowering — not racist

Feb 16, 2016 at 1:40 p.m. ET

If you thought Beyoncé's Super Bowl performance was controversial, I’m sure Kendrick Lamar’s Grammys performance probably had you clutching your pearls. The only way to describe the performance, which began with his band behind bars and he as part of a chain gang and led to Afrocentric drum beats and dancing, is as being unapologetically black.

To be fair, the entire album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is too. It speaks to the American black experience in a way that rap hasn’t in a while.

More:Anti-Beyoncé protesters rally against her Super Bowl performance

If you haven’t listened to the album on repeat like I have, you may not have really heard everything he said. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of his performance (an edited-for-the-Grammys “The Blacker the Berry”):

“… I'm African-American, I'm African

I'm black as the moon, heritage of a small village

Pardon my residence

Came from the bottom of mankind

My hair is nappy, you know that it’s big, my nose is round and wide

You hate me don't you?

You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture …”

There’s obviously more, but the entire song is about his blackness, as was his performance last night. Twitter exploded, with many saying it was the best reason to watch the show.




Even the White House showed him some love.


But, as expected, many people called him —and his performance — racist.



But. Calling him and the performance racist is, well, it's just wrong. Listen to the entire album. It's rap, it's poetry, it's jazz. It's his journey to being a man. It's him calling himself a hypocrite. It's him expressing ambivalence about his blackness. It's a celebration of his heritage. It's a condemnation of his history. In a word, it's pro-black. And contrary to recent thoughts, being pro-black is not the same as being anti-white.

This isn't the first time Lamar has come under fire for his lyrics and imagery. At the BET Awards last summer, he rapped the same lyrics to "Alright" atop a vandalized police car. Take some time out to watch the official video — it's poignant; the imagery moving, the emotion raw. And in the midst of all the violence we've experienced over the past year, it was a message the black community needed to hear: "We gon' be all right." No matter what happens, we'll persevere.

I can already hear the comparisons: What if there was a pro-white performance? What if there was an all-white TV channel/month/whatever? Why is that racist if blacks can do it?

More: Adele takes less than perfect Grammys performance in stride

Well, the news flash here is: There are lots of things that are all-white — we just don't call it that. To many of us, it's just called life. So when an artist embraces his or her blackness in such a bold and unapologetic way as Lamar (and yes, Beyoncé) have done, it feels like the rest of us now have "permission" to be black. To not wear our blackness as something we have to apologize for. As a black woman in a mostly white city, I sometimes find myself toning down my blackness so as not to offend people. Upset about something? I'll keep it to myself so as to not be seen as an angry black woman. Don't use too much slang. Use my professional (aka white) voice on the phone in business dealings. Don't be too black.

So when Beyoncé tells us to slay, and when Lamar tells us he has a big nose, it's not racist; it's life. And as more artists push the boundaries and challenge our views of race in America, I just hope more people come to see it that way.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

Grammys 2016 acceptance speeches slideshow
Image: Kevin Winter/WireImage