Today’s student essay is another treat – like some of the other essays I’m sharing, it discusses the ways that certain contemporary figures appear to fulfill some of the same roles as the biblical prophets. Our author is Eddie Mataele, who is studying for a Bachelor of Arts here at the University of Auckland, majoring in Sociology with a minor in Pacific Studies. Eddie hails from Tonga, and currently lives in the Mangere district of Auckland. Once he completes his degree, he hopes to put it to good use working in the social and public sectors. Eddie took our Bible and Popular Culture course to meet his General Education requirements, and enjoyed the creative freedom offered by the assignments.
So, for all Kendrick Lamar fans out there (and everyone else too), sit back and enjoy the prophetic potential of this most fascinating musician.
Wickedness or Weakness? The Prophetic Role of Kendrick Duckworth Lamar
Music can be used as a refuge from the cruel and haunting realities of life. On the other hand, it can also be a powerful platform for an artist to describe and express these realities into a stimulating, euphoric, and somewhat controversial masterpiece. Kendrick (Duckworth) Lamar (born June 17, 1987) is an African-American rapper, songwriter, and recipient of seven Grammy awards; whose music has conveyed his innocence, triumphs, trauma, and tragedies while growing up in the notoriously dangerous streets of Compton, Los Angeles. The dominant themes found in majority of his music catalogue is his critique of oppressive social structures, violence of gang culture, and his connection with God (Graham, 2017). Kendrick Lamar produced music that defends the rights of disenfranchised communities in USA and uplifts the voices of troubled youths, while openly conveying his personal experience with God, fame, wealth, poverty, violence, pride, fear, and more (Faraji, 2016). Similarly, ancient prophets found in the Bible also share these features.
According to Marcus J. Borg (2001), prophets are an ally of social justice, challenge the status-quo, empowers oppressed people, and protects the hope of a brighter future. The clear difference between ancient prophets outlined in the Bible and Kendrick Lamar is the cultural context/setting they are situated in. However, Kendrick shares similar biblical prophetic behaviour with ancient prophets such as Jeremiah, in that both figures openly voices their condemnation against the injustices caused by those in power (Fischer, 2015). Subsequently, this essay will aim to deliver a comprehensive analysis which supports the belief that Kendrick Lamar is a biblical prophet.
A key element of a biblical prophet outlined by Borg (2001) is their passion for social justice and serving the interests of the oppressed and disenfranchised communities. Specifically, Borg mentions the concept of “prophetic energizing”, which revolves around a prophet communicating with the oppressed, utilizing language that promotes hope , defends their identity, and rejoices in creating a brighter future (Borg, 2001). The prophet Isaiah declared messages of prophetic energizing to encourage Jewish people to believe in justice, hope, and God when they were exiled from Jerusalem and Judah by Babylonians in 586 BCE by using uplifting language:
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”
(Isaiah 55: 12)
These are some other aspects of the biblical prophets (and biblical texts more widely) which resonate with the music and impact of Kendrick Lamar, albeit in a darker and more aggressive manner. This is illustrated in his album “To Pimp A Butterfly” where he addresses issues suffered mainly by African-Americans. In “alright”, Kendrick aggressively attacks white supremacy and police brutality while simultaneously glorifying the importance of developing strength from these struggles and express his faith in God. In short, he encourages his audience to find hope in the struggles they face, as it gives meaning to their inner-strength:
“Hard times like, God! / Bad trips like, Yeah! / Nazareth, I’m f**ked up/ Homie, you f**ked up/ But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”
The song also highlights the frustration and pain Black people in America are accustomed to because of the injustices committed by the police disproportionately killing unarmed African-Americans:
“Wouldn’t you know/ We been hurt, been down before/ N*gg*, when our pride was low/ Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go? / N*gg*, and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/ N*gg*, I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees getting’ weak, and my gun might blow/ But we gon’ be alright”
Kendrick creatively describes the historical and relentless pain of being Black in America as severely debilitating. However, he counters it by claiming it will not erase the hope of self-empowerment and fighting for social justice which he expresses by continuously shouting “we gon’ be alright”. The impact of this song and its powerful lyrics has transcended music and entered the domain of social and political activism. Black Lives Matter activists draw strength and solidarity by chanting the lyrics “we gon’ be alright” during their peaceful protests against police brutality. Kendrick’s live performance of the song angered highly conservative and narrow-minded FOX News presenters who argued that a music genre (Hip Hop/Rap) has created more damage than racism among young African-Americans (Media Matters, 2015). Kendrick was thus effective in challenging the status-quo upheld by dominant systems of power, which regularly silence dissident voices of the oppressed (Faraji, 2016). Ultimately, the song “alright” was one of many in this album which advocated for social justice and served as a source from which African-Americans could draw strength, hope and unity.
Marcus Borg (2001) also suggested that biblical prophets are representatives of God or individuals who know God. This is not implying that biblical prophets are divine individuals, but rather indicates that prophets are individuals who believe in God’s teachings and deliver these teachings in a distinctive and influential manner (Borg, 2001). These too are features of a biblical prophet personified by Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album “DAMN.” comprehensively expresses his fears about his potential to be led to damnation (condemned by God to eternally suffer in Hell); to overcome this fear, he must first acknowledge it (Yoh, 2017). This is highlighted in the lyrics of his song “FEAR”:
“I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride/ ‘cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness”
Moreover, Kendrick references the commandments and statues written in the book of Deuteronomy 28, and delivered to the Israelites by the prototypical prophet Moses. Through these references, Kendrick ponders whether his previous acts of disobedience stemmed from his own wickedness or inner weakness (Yoh, 2017). From living in a gang-infested city ripe with violence and drugs, family members who were pimps and gang bangers, to suffering deep mental and spiritual stress due to his riches and fame, Kendrick’s world was filled with madness and chaos.
These experiences could drive a person towards a path of destruction. Kendrick likens his own suffering in this chaotic world to the curse bestowed upon Israelites, outlined in Deuteronomy 28. This suggests he believes it is in his (self-proclaimed Israelite) DNA to flourish in temptation and sin (Yoh, 2017). However, he overcomes the fears of succumbing to a destructive future by acknowledging his fears and trusting God’s wisdom. His greatest fear is that he could lose all his financial, social, and spiritual riches due to basking in earthly pleasures and not fearing God (Yoh, 2017). Less focus is placed on the joy of God and more emphasis is awarded to the fear of God. Consequently, he implies that people should fear God because the blessings bestowed upon them can also be swiftly removed from their lives by God.
The story of Job shares a few similarities with the story told by Kendrick Lamar. Job was a wealthy family man who was a staunchly obedient follower of God’s teachings but suffered unbelievable cruelty in the face of servitude, because God wanted to discredit Satan’s claim that Job is good only because God rewards him (Crook, 1959). Thus, Job was subjected to unbelievable suffering and pain. However, Job found meaning instead of despair in those dark moments. He gained humility, a refined perspective of God’s grace and a deep fear of God. At the end, God rewarded Job by restoring double of what he lost, which promotes the critical message that fearing God and trusting his wisdom will result in righteousness and salvation (Crook, 1959). Thus, Kendrick recognises the blessings he enjoys now were delivered by God and he fears that God can also take it all away because of his inner-weakness/wickedness.
In conclusion, Kendrick Lamar confronts his fears in order to overcome it and through this process he develops a deeper connection to God. In saying this, he also promotes the message of giving hope to yourself in times of tragedy and injustice, as it will develop greater inner-strength and self-empowerment. His music provoked intense solidarity among African-Americans protesting cruel injustices imposed on their community which reflects a core element of a biblical prophet suggested by Borg (2001). Moreover, he utilises his influence and power as a famous artist to convey his experiences with God and the influence it has had on him. Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling in his music empowers the narratives of the oppressed, fights systemic injustice, and expresses his deep belief and fear of God. Thus, he aligns with these aspects of a biblical prophet emphasised by Marcus Borg (2001).
Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the prophets again. In M. J. Borg (Ed.), Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally (pp. 111-144). San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Crook, M. B. (1959). The Cruel God: Job’s search for the meaning of suffering. Boston: Beacon Press.
Faraji, S. (2016). Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance points to a simple truth: #Black lives matter when Africa matters . Africology: The journal of pan African studies, 3-6.
Fischer, G. (2015). Is there a Shalom, or not? Jeremiah, a prophet for South Africa. Old Testament Essays, 351-370.
Graham, N. (2017). What slaves we are: narrative, trauma, and power in Kendrick Lamar’s roots. Transition, 123-132.
Lamar, K. (2015). Kendrick Lamar Alright. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY
Media Matters. (2015). Fox’s Geraldo Rivera: “Hip-Hop Has Done More Damage To Young African-Americans Than Racism In Recent Years”. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.mediamatters.org/video/2015/06/29/foxs-geraldo-rivera-hip-hop-has-done-more-damag/204195
Piffin, B. (2015). Police harassment leads to crowd singing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUC_DOhfzwQ
Yoh. (2017). ‘DAMN.’ Decoded: Kendrick Lamar’s Album is About Breaking the Curse of Disobedience. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from http://djbooth.net/news/entry/2017-04-14-kendrick-lamar-damn-decoded
References from the Bible are taken from the New Internationl Version