By: Bailey Rose and Diya Malhotra
The song “DNA.” by Kendrick Lamar was released on April 18, 2017 and can be found on the album “DAMN.”.
The music video opens with a scene where Kendrick Lamar is being interrogated by a black police officer played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle initially ridicules Lamar and doesn’t show him respect. Shortly after, accusations against Lamar start playing in the background and Cheadle starts the polygraph. The polygraph detects lies in the accusations and Cheadle literally feels the pain in them. After this scene, he realizes the struggles Lamar faces as a rapper in society. The viewer is also able to observe the connection between the two when they both start rapping the same lyrics. The rest of the song is a contradiction to society’s views on hip-hop culture and its influence. Lamar strategically includes the excerpt from a white Fox News reporter, “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” (Rivero). He contradicts this claim through the music video. This reveals an irony in itself because he is using the means that people have pointed fingers at him for in order to prove them wrong. In essence, through the music video and song, Lamar is trying to contradict society’s views on hip-hop culture and negate the stereotypes associated with it by using symbolic visuals and contradictory lyrics.
Historical and Cultural Context
In a year where police brutality against African Americans was the spotlight of news, the song DNA. made an impactful statement about racism and stereotypes in America. 2017 was marked by 1,146 people killed by police, of which 25% were black “despite being only 13% of the population” (“Police Violence”).
Kendrick Lamar’s songs discuss such topics and provide a moral support for African Americans who may be affected by such brutality. For example, in the song DNA., Lamar uses the lyrics: “I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption, scholars, fathers dead with kids, and I wish I was fed forgiveness, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, soldier’s DNA” (Lamar). In these lyrics, Lamar makes a direct statement about the brutality he has experienced from growing up immersed in street violence. The topic of Afterlives of Slavery is depicted in this song because it shows how the racism and stereotypes still exist today and continue to negatively impact African Americans.
Police brutality is definitely not a new issue as “blacks continue to be a marginalized group coupled with a long negative history amid law enforcement” (Brooks et al.). During the slavery era, slave patrols were created to find and return runaway slaves to their owners, create an organized terror to prevent slave revolts, and to keep discipline (Brooks et al.). After the Civil War, such patrolling still existed in the form of Jim Crow Laws, which denied freed slaves’ their rights and ability to participate in the political system (Brooks et al.). Examples of these laws included segregation in schools and public transportation. African Americans like Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. fought for these rights during the Civil Rights Movement.
However, remnants of such laws are still seen today and reveal just how much racism has become a part of society since the slavery era. For example, in 2014, an 18 year old African American, Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer, which led to concerns about racism in America (“What Happened”). More recently, The Black Lives Matter movement gained huge momentum in 2017. Black Lives Matter was created in 2013 and serves to respond to violence against African Americans by law enforcement (“About”). Movements like these show the impact racism and police brutality continue to have on society today, nearly two centuries after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Additionally, in a society where hip hop culture tends to be looked down upon for its ideologies and characteristics, Kendrick Lamar uses the song to prove this stereotype wrong. Respectability politics, which is the set of beliefs holding that conformity to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect amember of a marginalized or minority group from prejudices and systemic injustices (“respectability politics”), has become a part of our society and has led to the many prejudices associated with hip-hop culture as well as the African American community. Kendrick Lamar speaks against respectability politics and believes that instead of conforming to societal standards and rejecting characteristics of black culture, they should challenge the mainstream and bring voices to the marginalized groups and their cultures.
In conclusion, through the song, Kendrick Lamar points out the police brutality against African Americans and shows his “soldier’s DNA” as a result of the street violence he has observed (Lamar). The song speaks strongly on the violence that the African American community continues to witness today, which emphasizes the topic of Afterlives of Slavery. This violence and police brutality witnessed by the African American community breeds animosity and also depicts the negativity of respectability politics in society. Hence, Kendrick Lamar uses the song to comment on the social atmosphere and highlight the relations between the violence experienced by him and his ancestors.
Themes and Style
The style that Kendrick Lamar uses in DNA. includes short, quick lines and phrases that make the song seem aggressive and antagonistic. The style of the sound in DNA. changes midway through the song to something that simulates chaos. The combination of Kendrick Lamar’s rapping style and the soundtrack seems as if Kendrick Lamar is battling the beat (Carmichael). The overall style of the song causes the listener to feel the tension and injustice Kendrick Lamar has been forced to deal with for his participation in hip-hop music and his embracing of African American culture.
The main themes in Kendrick Lamar’s DNA. focus on how the past continues to impact the present and how racism and prejudices against African Americans and their culture exist today due to the animosity caused by continued police brutality and the existence of respectability politics and racial stereotyping. In the song, Lamar is making multiple connections between the past and present and therefore, himself and his ancestors. By referencing his “DNA”, Kendrick Lamar is emphasizing the traits that his ancestors have passed down through generations to him. For example, Lamar raps, “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA”, “I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA”, “I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA”, and “soldier’s DNA” (Lamar). Kendrick Lamar is drawing similarities between the characteristics his ancestors developed to survive slavery and those his generation has had to develop to survive society today. The lyrics emphasize Lamar’s heritage and compares what Kendrick Lamar and other African Americans experience today growing up immersed in street violence and racism and what his ancestors dealt with. By emphasizing the connection between the past and present, Kendrick Lamar is demonstrating that African Americans today can still relate to African Americans during the antebellum era, which supports the claim that the after effects of slavery still exist in society today.
Also, Lamar addresses the prejudices and racism against African Americans and their culture today. The first half of the music video focuses on the animosity between the police force and those who embrace black culture. In the video, Kendrick Lamar is being interrogated by an unnecessarily aggressive black police officer, and Lamar raps “See you’s a, you’s a, you’s a bitch… Problem is, that sucker shit inside your DNA… Backbone don’t exist, born outside a jellyfish, I gauge” at the police officer in response to his taunting (KendrickLamarVEVO). The animosity and suspicion that police brutality breeds has created a larger divide between two different social groups, those who embrace black culture and those who embrace respectability politics. By having the first half of the music video be an interrogation by a police officer, Kendrick Lamar is indirectly commenting on how significant police brutality is in changing how America views black culture and respectability politics.
Kendrick Lamar embraces black culture and subtly condemns respectability politics by having the power switch from the police officer to Kendrick Lamar after the two rap the same lyrics, “I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption, scholars, fathers dead with kids, and I wish I was fed forgiveness. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, soldier’s DNA” (Lamar). These lyrics allow the realization that Kendrick Lamar and the police officer are more similar than first thought and depletes the police officer’s conviction that Kendrick Lamar is a part of an inferior group because he is a rapper. In society today, the animosity from police brutality and the existence of respectability politics is an apparent example of how the racist ideologies from the antebellum era continue to linger today.
Furthermore, Kendrick Lamar addresses the existence of racism and prejudices against a specific aspect of black culture, hip-hop music. The song includes the expert from a white Fox News reporter, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” (Lamar). By including this excerpt, Kendrick Lamar directly displays the existence of respectability politics because a member of a majority group is blaming an aspect of black culture (hip-hop music) for the damage done by racism rather than blaming the racist ideologies of society. The lyrics of the song contradict the claim that hip-hop is negatively influencing society, conveying that prejudices and stereotypes oppose reality. When asked about this excerpt, Kendrick Lamar responded, “Hip-hop is not the problem. Our reality is the problem of the situation” (Leight, Lee, and Reeves). Lamar is suggesting that America needs to stop leaning on racist ideologies, stereotypes, and respectability politics and start seeing the reality of the situation for African Americans in society today.
Since the song was released relatively recently, there are a noticeable lack of academic responses to DNA. or even the album DAMN. However, there are responses to the song from magazines, reviews, and articles. All the responses seem to agree that Kendrick Lamar has succeeded in conveying his purpose for the album DAMN., but some tend to criticize his musical decisions or the medium he uses to present his purpose. Since the song is part of the collective album, the responses to the album can be applied to the song.
In an article from Rolling Stone, Christopher R. Weingarten describes Kendrick Lamar as “someone here to help people find the things they have lost -quite often, it seems, a sense of humanity itself” (Weingarten). The article emphasizes how Kendrick Lamar uses DAMN. to do more than just address a problem but attempts to enact a change in society. The article praises Lamar for attempting to reduce the abundance of racism and prejudices today or find society’s lost humanity. Furthermore, in Independent, Christopher Hooton agrees that Kendrick Lamar should be praised for his hard-hitting songs on DAMN. In particular, Hooton describes DNA. as being where “Kendrick is at his most fierce and defiant ever here and it’s the type of line to be shouted from a rooftop while thumping your chest” (Hooton). This interpretation implies that Lamar is embracing his culture and taking pride in hip-hop music. This pride shows that Lamar stands against respectability politics and resists the temptation to conform to societal standards of how African Americans should act to avoid prejudices, which includes rejecting hip-hop. The two articles argue that Kendrick Lamar is using the album DAMN. to protest the continued existence of stereotypes and support the acceptance of black culture.
In comparison, Aziz B. Yakub and R.J.E. praise Kendrick Lamar’s ideas behind DAMN. but condemn his execution. In an article from The Harvard Crimson, Yakub describes DAMN. as having “drops of genius hidden under such a wealth of unpleasant and misguided musical decisions that it becomes a masochistic battle to appreciate any trace of lyrical brilliance” (Yakub). Yakub characterizes Lamar’s lyrics as brilliant, implying that what they convey is highly praised. However, the musical decisions of the song is condemned, which causes the meaning of the song to be difficult to focus on or take seriously. In an article from The Economist, R.J.E. describes Kendrick Lamar as having a “sense of history widely celebrated as a counterweight to hip-hop’s creeping sterility” (R.J.E.). R.J.E. also praises Lamar for his objective to keep embracing and taking pride in hip-hop music rather than letting it become acceptable based on the standards of respectability politics. However, R.J.E. goes on to describe DAMN. as a “discordant batch of raw materials… [that] never blend into a cohesive whole” (R.J.E.). The negative response to the medium Kendrick Lamar used narrows the reach of the song and lessens his power to advocate for the support of black empowerment and condemnation of respectability politics, prejudices, and racism.
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Kendrick Lamar, DNA., DAMN., afterlives of slavery, respectability politics, Hip-Hop, Black Lives Matter Movement, racism, stereotypes, police brutality