Disclaimer: The following video contains explicit content and material intended for mature audiences aged 18+
This post is not meant to be read as a 140 character tweet. This is a thoughtful response; not just a commentary off reading headlines or skimming the most contentious portions of an article or video. This is the beginning of an important conversation that we cannot be afraid to have. And there’s already a conversation going on among more than 57 million viewers,1 and it’s our choice whether we want to engage those millions or not. So, with the release of Kendrick’s new album today on Good Friday, here’s a spiritual response to Kendrick Lamar’s controversial music video to his single, Humble.
Okay, what has already been said about the video?
Twitter has exploded claiming this to be a diss video or ‘beef’ with rapper Big Sean. One site posted the click-grabbing religious headline: “Kendrick Lamar Portrays Himself as Jesus…’. XXL, the Hip-Hop website, posted “Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” Song Sparks Feminist Backlash. Comments on YouTube and other sites were quick to dismiss Kendrick as a “blasphemer,” “degenerate,” “mocking God” and “misogynist.”2
If we stay with the above commentary alone, the video is quickly dismissed and the conversation ends right here. Thanks for reading.
… What if the conversation was never meant to end after the 3:03 minute music video was over? What if we were to hold up and
Step 1: Put on our Christian-Spirituality-caps3
Step 2: “Contemplatively” watch this provocative music video
Step 3: Engage each other in fruitful dialogue
Could we, as one spiritual writer put it, take a “long, loving look at the real” in this video and encounter something surprising and new?
Let’s Begin with the Long Look …
Most religiously sensitive viewers might have been struck immediately by the ‘scandalous’ representation of the rapper in Papal robes in the opening shot.
Or Kendrick’s placement of himself in Jesus’s center seat in TDE’s rendition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ portrait.
Hastily viewing these gifs in isolation, one might be quick to stop watching, close the YouTube page, and denounce Kendrick as just another rapping egotistical maniac. Just another musician with a “god-complex” whose fans perpetuate his inflated sense of self.
On the other hand, take a look at what Brad Wete over at Billboard has to say:
As the opportunity to exaggerate our best features and highlight only portions of our lives grows thanks to the magic of Instagram filters and Twitter posts, Kendrick Lamar has noticed what apparently many have yet to: The world — his generation, at least — is shifting away from practicing humility and authenticity.
Billboard’s headline aptly reads: “Kendrick Lamar Exposes the Fake to Encourage the Real.”
It’s easy to see the powerful “contradiction” and “tension” between religious imagery and the track’s stereotypical rap braggadocio; he’s juxtaposing traditional notions of humility and their contemporary equivalents.
This is nothing new for Kendrick. Since his early mixtapes and first album, Kendrick has shed light on his own personal spiritual struggles between his internal angels and demons.4 Kendrick processes and negotiates these tensions throughout his contrasting lyrical and visual rhetoric. For Kendrick, the shocking contrast can yield some clarity for his listeners and for himself.
Again, I pause and respectfully ask the question:
Is there something surprisingly refreshing and prophetic about this song and its use of sacral imagery? Well, if there is, we can definitely only see it by staying “long” enough with the video content to understand it.
[Insert Controversial Title Here]: The Real Look…
So let’s go right into Kendrick’s idea of humility — especially as a publicly identifying Christian.5
He’s pretty clear. The chorus repeats, “Sit down…b—- … Be humble.” Yet, the shots consider Lamar doing the exact opposite. He does not conform to his surrounding environments. In the scene with an ocean of bald heads, he is the only one with hair and facing directly at the camera:
Next, he is the only one unmasked with fire atop his head, as his black-outfitted men are head wrapped with kerosene ropes aflame, resembling some dystopic Pentecost.6
Finally, he is the only person dressed in white, as all others dress in black in what appears to be a funeral.
Humility for so long has been erroneously synonymous with conforming. Associating phrases like: “Don’t speak up! You are weak! Hide yourself!” But both Kendrick… and Jesus?… show us otherwise.
W.W.J.D.: The Jesus Look…
Even the “meekest” and “most humble” of them all, Jesus, was not verbally or physically silent in the face of injustice:
He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”7
Jesus even speaks one of the most controversial words of the Gospels: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”8
Back in 2015, BuzzFeed published an article by Reggie Ugwu titled, “The Radical Christianity of Kendrick Lamar.” In it, he makes the case for some of the unconventional methods used by Lamar to reach his audiences:
[Lamar] gives full voice to his internal struggles and those of the people he grew up around, deliberately speaking in the language of transgressors. In the Bible, there is some precedent for this approach. Jesus famously broke from thousands of years of religious dogma by breaking bread with those thought to be morally and spiritually compromised, extending the gifts of God to prostitutes and the unclean. In Mark 2:17… “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
There is no doubt that the savior of all humanity was also a cause of division throughout his salvific mission on earth. Even Jesus’ own family thought he was “out of his mind.”9 The Pharisees and Scribes stated that “He [was] possessed by Beelzebul” and that “By the prince of demons he drives out demons.”10
Similarly, the art of MCing, in its traditional form, was meant to stir and even disturb the hearts and minds of their listeners, to convey raw and gritty truth through rhyme. It’s not tough to see the connection between Jesus’s own disturbing and prophetic rhetoric, and an MC’s ability to denounce the ugly side of reality using the very imagery and rhetoric he despises.
To be “humble” for Lamar is not to fade into the background by conforming to society’s established superficiality and fakeness. To be humble is to be courageously “real” and not afraid to speak the truth in the face of criticism. Again, for many parents, the words or actions in the music video are not a ‘good role model’ for kids who already idolize rappers. Is it a perfect song? No. Are there growing edges to Kendrick’s “woke-ness”? Yes.11
But embracing the complexity of our full humanity sounds more “Jesus-like” than blasphemous to me.
The Definition of Humble: To be Real before God
I once read somewhere that “True humility is seeing yourself the way God sees you. Nothing more. Nothing less.” Thus, if we remain silent out of some inauthentic humility, we are part of the problem; not the solution. Speaking humbly, Jesus sometimes appeared a bit “crazy”, but it got the point across.
Final Food for Thought: Hip-Hop and “Prophetic Beauty”
Real MC’s ignite the fire for conversation beyond the music. It is our role to learn from the conversations and accompany people in learning from the brilliant light this fire can shed on society’s concerns. Thus, if we are quick to judge the fire the rapper ignited rather than addressing what the fire’s light has revealed about society, then we will surely be burned by the rapper’s prophetic fire. In the end, it was never about the fire to begin with, but what the fire pointed to.
Thus, the imagery in this video is not the cause of immorality in society, but simply points to the flagrant symptoms of a much deeper issue … our own lack of humility being one of them.12
We must sit down together and ask ourselves: “What is Kendrick really saying; not just in one image or one line, but in the totality of the song and within the prophetic purpose of Hip-Hop? And even after all this is said and done, maybe Kendrick’s new video is still just an attempt at self-glorification, placing all other rappers in the industry beneath him — “humbling” them. Yet, this is the beauty of art. It takes on a life of its own. A great music video has the potential to be more than what even Kendrick or the creative directors envisioned. Can’t God use even the most ‘disturbing’ Hip-Hop videos to speak prophetically to God’s people? In the words of our very own Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “By virtue of creation, and still more the incarnation, nothing here is profane for those who know how to see.”13
- Since its first release on March 30, 2017 as of 1:24pm PDT on April 13th. It garnered over 500,000 views in just its first 90 minutes of being posted. In fact, according to Complex, “Humble” is the highest debut for a rap song since Eminem’s “Not Afraid” in 2010, which debuted at No. 1. ↩
- Verbatim adjectives from comments published on these websites ↩
- You can put them on backwards for this post. ↩
- We cannot forget Kendrick’s spiritual ethos as expressed in many of his interviews. The rapper spoke these words in an interview with The New York Times Style magazine T on the release of his last album, “To Pimp a Butterfly”:
“We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.” ↩
- Cf. ↩
- John 2:13-22 ↩
- Matt 10:34 ↩
- Mark 3:21 ↩
- Mark 3:22 ↩
- especially with regard to his treatment of women ↩
- This is worthy of a longform essay in and of itself. Stay tuned … ↩
- The Divinisation of Our Activities, p. 66 ↩