In Kendrick Lamar’s 'Element,' Peace and Violence Coexist

Kendrick Lamar's new video illustrates a nuanced portrait of black life, survival and what it means to be hard.

*This piece does not condone violence*

Two dark skinned women, one rocking a kinky puff and the other with long braids accented by baby breaths, walk down the street, arms locked, a bouquet of blue balloons flowing in between them, as they belt from the top of their lungs:

“If I gotta slap a pussy ass nigga, imma make it look sexy!”

Those women are my friend and I, and this was only two days ago, on the posh, boujie streets of SoHo. I imagine folks were intrigued, others confused. Some may have even taken it personally. This image of us is violently delicate: such a strong juxtaposition of gentleness and aggression and randomness that it is as jarring as it is charming. Dark skinned women, who are taught not to be too loud, too forward with our existence, are even more threatening once we realize the full potential of our power. Throw in the fact that we belted an aggressive rap song is enough to disgust some. The balloons add poetic measure: we float, we sway, to the beat of the wind.

Kendrick Lamar’s “Element” music video implies similar complexities: it is bloody, it is hard, it is violent. Yet, it displays violence in an alluring, elegant form, which contrasts with the stereotypical ideas around violence and hip-hop: that it is terrifying, that it is intrinsic in black people, that it is sewn into our DNA. In “Element”, violence exists alongside beauty, wonder, curiosity and power, illustrating a nuanced portrait of black life, survival and what it means to be hard.

To be clear, I never thought I’d be so moved by a portrayal of violence since viewing “Element”. Primary school taught me that violence is never the answer, but growing up black and awkward in Brooklyn taught me that sometimes you have to fight, to prove or stand up for yourself - or, at least act like you’re ready to fight if the moment arises. The worst thing you could be called is “pussy”, which, in this case, means weak, but actual pussy is far from that. Lamar has expressed in several songs, especially tracks on DAMN., that this dynamic—being hard, being down, standing up to bullies, other rappers, the streets or a whooping from his momma—is something he is too familiar with, and willing to challenge—by refuting it, or giving into it.

“Element” is the realization of these dynamics and the self realization of his role in it. The lyrics are blissful and confident, as if aggression is a taste to savor—who brags about making fighting look sexy? In the visuals, violence doesn’t look sexy, but it is celebratory, soft and cinematic. There are three images in particular that reinterpret the musings of Gordon Parks, a stunning photographer: “Untitled, Alabama”, where three children pose, the one in the middle waving a gun; “Black Muslims”, a black and white portrait of black muslim women standing strong; and “Boy With June Bug”, a serene moment in nature, where a black child unites with an insect.

The choice to reincarnate these images seem precise: each represent a moment in blackness that is complicated in America. I couldn’t help but think of Tamir Rice when seeing the boy with the gun, because in our society, that moment could lead to a black child’s death. Conversely, that image reminded me of how prevalent guns are in our culture, even at a young age, and how harmful that can be. The muslim women are powerful and stoic, yet, our nation still has toxic views about muslim people and women of color, and worse, those who are both. However, the child lying peacefully in the grass is hopeful: it reminded me of the secrets we share with nature, the serene relationship that can both heal and humble us.

Besides these magical moments, we see the intense ones. A man punches another, a stream of blood follows. A family watches their home burn to the ground. A boy showers in glistening white rain, so striking it looks like diamonds are blessing his body. A woman silently moves away from her lover. White men behind bars gaze into our eyes. A man teaches a small boy how to fight, only to be found bloody and battered in a later scene. Who did this to him?

All the while, Kendrick raps in a white, blood-stained tee; a narrator of this tale whose hands are unclean in this story.

Violence, it seems, can be found in several places, both usual and unlikely. It can be in the hood, as the news loves to remind us, or in the bedroom—rejection can feel like an attack. It is the calmness of formation, of black people equipping themselves with education, exercise or self love. It is in a boy watching a person fall off a building: trauma, violence of the mind. It is the submission and humiliation of being bitch slapped across the face.

It is the threat, but it is the action. It is in beauty so spellbinding, you are paralyzed by your own infatuation.

News Brief

Sampha, Sade, Kendrick Lamar & SZA Have Been Shortlisted for the Oscars' Best Original Song Category

Here are the tracks that these amazing artists are receiving the well-deserved nod for.

As Oscar Sunday approaches on February 24, 2019, the Academy has been announcing the nominations and shortlists of who will be in the running to take home the golden statue.

The latest category to keep an eye out for is 'Best Original Song.' Sampha, Sade and Kendrick Lamar's collab with SZA have made the shortlist, The Fader reports. We'll have to wait until January to get the scoop on the final nomination.

Dive into the tracks that these amazing artists are receiving the shortlist nod for.

Keep reading... Show less

Seun Kuti, Bombino, Fatoumata Diawara, Soweto Gospel Choir & More Earn 2019 Grammy Nominations

And, yes, they're still calling it "world" music.

The 2019 Grammy nominations have been announced, and some of our African favorite artists have made the cut—though they've, once, again, mostly been constrained to the vague and reductive category of "world" music.

This year, four out of the five nominees for the category are of African descent, including Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80 for Black Times, Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara for her album Fento, Niger-born Tuareg musician Bombino for the album Deran, and the Soweto Choir, who performed at OkayAfrica and Global Citizen's Next 100 Summit in Johannesburg just last week, earned a nomination for their album Freedom.

We're rooting for all of these musicians, but it's be nice if they weren't all lumped into one category, considering they all have very different sounds. We also hoped that with the massive cultural impact of afrobeats, that one of the genre's big names would have made the cut. It's clear that the Grammys remain behind on fully recognizing the talent coming from the continent.

Keep reading... Show less
Keith Roper/Flickr Creative Commons

Kais Saied is Set to Become Tunisia's Next President

While official results have not been published, the retired academic reportedly secured 76 percent of the votes according to the exit polls.

Last week, Tunisia held its legislative elections, according to reports by Aljazeera. The Ennahda Movement obtained 52 seats in the 217-member parliament while the Karoui's Heart of Tunisia party came second, with 38 seats. While the presidential elections were only scheduled to take place in November, they were pushed forward after the country's first democratically-elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, passed away in July. Two independent candidates, media mogul Nabil Karoui and retired law professor Kais Saied, have been facing off in the presidential runoff. However, recent exit polls suggest that Saied secured between 72 and 77 percent of the vote.

Keep reading... Show less
Illustration by Simone Martin-Newberry

A 15-Year-Old Nigerian Student Lends Her Voice to the Fight Against Boko Haram With Graphic Novel

Aisha Mustapha's graphic novel about her experiences under Boko Haram was published today for International Day of the Girl.

Aisha Mustapha, is a 15-year-old student from Nigeria, using her voice to tell her own story. The young writer recently penned a graphic novel about her experience fleeing Boko Haram, locating her family and trying to further her education. It's a heavy subject, obviously, but with her graphic novel, she offers a voice for young people directly affected by the crisis in Northern Nigeria.

The book was published today to mark the International Day of the Girl, a day established by the United Nations in 2011 to "highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights."

Aisha's talent for storytelling has previously been highlighted in Assembly, a by-girls-for-girls publication by the Malala Fund that brought Aisha's graphic novel to life, premiering it today in conjunction with International Day of the GIrl. Tess Thomas, Assembly's editor, elaborated on the purpose of the publication saying, "We believe in the power of girls' voices to generate change. Our publication provides girls with a platform so their opinions and experiences can inform decisions about their futures."

Aisha's words were illustrated by artist Simone Martin-Newberry, who had this to say about the process of creating the visuals for the graphic novel: "I was very moved by Aisha's story, and really wanted to treat it sensitively and do it justice with my illustrations. My aim was to capture the real emotions and actions of the story, but also keep my artwork bright and colorful and full of pattern, to help reflect Aisha's amazing youthful spirit."

Check out some excerpts from the piece below and head here to read it in full.
Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox