Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated album, good kid, m.A.A.d city
, was released on October 22, 2012, nearly eight months after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. It wasn’t as if Kendrick Lamar planned it that way. It’s not a thing you can, or would ever want to, plan. Kendrick was simply going about doing his work, while America was going about doing its own.
But it’s important to note when this album was released because it provides the context for the way the album was received. For months, pictures and stories of Trayvon Martin had circulated every form of media, and everyone was forming an opinion on who this 17-year-old black boy from Miami, who had been shot in the chest on his way home after buying some iced tea and Skittles, was and wasn’t. The truth is that none of us knew Trayvon, but we tried to fill in his story from what we know of the lives of 17-year-old black boys. But what you know is based on what stories you’ve already heard. Some people sketched a violent, weed-smoking menace to society capable of overpowering a man a hundred pounds heavier than him and shooting that man in the chest with a gun Trayvon had never seen or handled. They believed in that story because that is America’s official line on 17-year-old black boys.
We won’t get to know Trayvon’s real story, as George Zimmerman stole his life and therefore his opportunity to tell his tale. That’s what made Kendrick’s good kid
so potent. At a time where we were still mourning the loss of a 17-year-old black life, Kendrick Lamar sketched one for us. And what was so engaging about it was that it wasn’t anything we’d heard before. Kendrick spoke to us, not from the gangsta posturing of many of his rap peers, nor with the righteous proselytizing of the “conscious” counterparts, but from the perspective of a kid simply trying to survive.
His story is a familiar one: a boy trying to have sex with a girl. But on the way there, he has to navigate streets taken over by gangs, police, the influence of his friends, God, alcohol, family, a desire to escape and the talent to make it happen. He’s not a gangbanger, but not immune to the violence. He’s not an activist, but he wants more and better. He’s not a player, but he’s interested in sex. He’s not a preacher, but he’s concerned for his soul. He’s Kendrick Lamar, and he’s just a black kid from Compton who wants to survive. With good kid, m.A.A.d city
, he wrote a new script for our understanding of black male life.
When I first sat down with my agent to discuss the book that would become Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching
, my first, I told her I wanted to model it after good kid, m.A.A.d city
. Partially, I meant that I wanted to copy the album’s narrative structure, which isn’t strictly linear, but has a clear story that we’re meant to follow. But beyond that, what I meant was that I wanted to write a new understanding of black male life. I’ve listened to the gangstas, and will continue to do so. I’ve listened to the veteran activists, and will gladly continue to sit at their feet and learn. I’ve heard the preachers, and the players, and the Kendrick Lamars. What I’ve not heard enough of is an interrogation of black male identity that directly reckons with living in a culture of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, untreated mental illness, and a host of other American problems. This is not to say no one is doing that work, but so often the narrative we fall back on in order to counter the one that turned Trayvon into hoodie-wearing thug is the one where black men are victims of white supremacy. It’s a true story; it’s an incomplete story.
We need more stories that don’t leave out the parts of ourselves that we would rather turn away from. I tried to write that book. I’m hoping there are people who are ready to read it.
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Mychal Denzel Smith
is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and a contributing writer for The Nation
magazine. He has also written for The New York Times
, The Atlantic
, Feministing.com, The Guardian
, The Root
, theGrio, ThinkProgress, and The Huffington Post
, and he has been a featured commentator on NPR, BBC radio, CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera America, HuffPost Live, and a number of other radio and television programs.