The fruit of oppression
A strange and bitter crop
By Milan Cater
The Blacker the Berry was released by Kendrick Lamar as a single in February 2015, featuring Jamaican singer Assassin. It was released during Black History month, the month of annual observance of important figures and events in the history of the African diaspora in the US and Canada. The song opens up a dialogue between African Americans and Lamar ('me'), and the white American population ('you'). This forms part of the broader discussion that Lamar engages in about black identity, black rights, racial inequality and police brutality in the USA in his album To Pimp A Butterfly. The album is both unapologetic and distinctly angry. Unapologetic in that the narrative of it is overtly blunt and directly establishes a 'me' and addresses a 'you'; and angry in that every song clearly shows that Lamar is, for want of a better phrase, pissed off.
Lamar makes his intent thoroughly clear in this album, and in The Blacker the Berry in particular. Its release is an effort by Lamar to engage in the larger conversation about racism against African Americans. This has been the focus of many American artists in response to the killing of black males such as Trayvon Martin (mentioned in the lyrics), which sparked the ongoing "Black Lives Matter" socio-political movement in 2013. Lamar embraces blackness as a racial stereotype imposed on African Americans by the privileged white Americans; he embraces blackness as a culture through a resistance to what society has made black people ("[you made me] a killer"). Through his success, Lamar proves that black people can overcome obstacles such as prejudice, structural inequality, and modern day racial discrimination. This highly political song inform the larger contemporary discourse about black and white identity in the USA and the crippling effect of American slavery's legacy on social and structural inequality in the USA. It also blatantly addresses the institutionalised 'Othering' of African-Americans in today's society.
Lamar uses his lyrics in The Blacker the Berry to explore the hardships and struggles that come with being an African-American. His lyrics paint a picture of what it means to be black by exploring the imposed stereotypes of blackness, aesthetically and socially. The lyrics are an act of socio-political resistance in that Lamar discredits these negatives stereotypes and shifts the balance of power from 'you' to 'me' by embracing his own blackness and his African American heritage. As such, he emancipates himself from the image that the 'Other' has created for him. Lamar compares the blackness of his skin to things that have been deemed culturally 'black' such as certain names, physical attributes, even certain foods. "I'm black as" shows Lamar dismissing the stereotype, proudly declaring and displaying his blackness rather than allowing it to 'Other' him.
The theme of returning to African roots and heritage runs also through Lamar's lyrics. He proudly and pointedly drops the "American" from the ethnic label "African-American", consequently reinforcing the fact that African Americans are seen as separate from the white population of Americans. He embraces it as his identity, and therefore makes the Americans the "other". He also highlights the importance of Black History Month for the African-American community ("like it's his Bday") and hints at the Pan-Africanism ideology spearheaded by Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey, which speaks to a return of descendants of slaves to their home countries.
Lamar even associates himself with the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary far left political group founded in the 1960's that was actively anti-fascist, anti-racist and pro-black nationalism. The black nationalist sentiments and emphasis on a collective identity in he Blacker the Berry echo the rise of black nationalism and the polarisation of national identity in the USA between black and white Americans. Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac features similar lyrics to the main chorus of The Blacker the Berry, and in Tupac's single from 1993 makes an even more explicit reference to being proud of black skin and black identity, ("the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, the darker the flesh, the deeper the roots"). Tupac specifically speaks to black women being put down as sexualised objects by white men in an empowering tone, a new identity discourse that Lamar echoes more than two decades later.
Lamar constructs a black nationalist identity by defying the repercussions of the white definition of blackness. He resists the fate of being black. The Blacker the Berry becomes a protest song against white Americans trying to shape black identity. Several lyrics in the song establish this divide between black identity as defined by white America and black identity as defined by black America. Lyrics like "They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin'/ But homie you made me" and "You made me a killer" directly illustrate the role of white American society in the formation of a negative black identity. It also implies that the poverty, unemployment and involvement of black Americans in crime and violence is a direct result of this "Othering". Lamar reacts to this by refusing to allow whites to "vandalise [his] perception" and refusing to accept this imposed identity any longer.
Lamar shows how long this discourse has been taking place by referring back to the Belgian colonial scientific expedition in the Congo in the early 1990's. On this trip, spearheaded by King Leopold II, Africans were compared to monkeys, and this language formed part of a larger colonial discourse carried out through social, scientific and cultural facets. It created an African identity which did not only "Other" the Congo but also strengthened Belgian nationalism. Lamar illustrates how this discourse has continued in contemporary America, and he claims that this is part of a "plan to terminate [his] culture" and "sabotage [his] community, making a killin'". Lines like "I'm irrelevant to society/that's what you're telling me" and "All them say we doomed from the start, cah' we black" convey the idea that failure is now seen as an inevitable part of being a black American. Lamar seeks to dispel this association with black identity by showcasing the success that black Americans have achieved. "How can I tell you I'm making a killin" is a double entendre, where Lamar relates to both versions of the black identity, the killer and the success story.
The title of the song and the lyrics of the chorus "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" is a metaphor that sees the black community as the fruit of the tree of slavery, oppression, inequality and discrimination. Lamar refers to 'generational hatred', illustrating that what African-Americans experience now is a product of generations of suffering. This metaphor has been used in other music too. One well-recognised example is Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, which uses this image to create a harrowing image of lynched blacks hanging from trees like fruit. The metaphor creates an act of 'naturalising' the condition the black community. Blood On the Leaves by Kanye West (2013) also samples Holiday's Strange Fruit in a song about being a successful black man against the odds. The fruit of oppression is what black people experience today, and Lamar sees to defy this fate and embrace black resistance.
Kendrick Lamar is a powerful figure, and a musicians capable of reaching thousands of people, of any colour, with his music. He has mobilised that power to express the plight of the African American communities that he can hear crying out. His intentions with this particular song are highly socio-political. However, he doesn't necessarily blame white Americans for the troubles of modern day African Americans. He twice refers to himself as a 'hypocrite' and a murderer himself, pointing towards his own reality of identifying with both the black killer and black success. He presents black identity as two sides of the same coin, and plays a role in both deconstructing and reconstructing black identity in the USA.