Kendrick Lamar vs Drake: Beware of the false prophets

Kendrick Lamar’s win over Drake shows the resurgence of an illiberal racial mood in America

May 19, 2024 - 10:10
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Kendrick Lamar vs Drake: Beware of the false prophets

By now, plenty of ink has been spilled over the rap beef heard around the world between Aubrey Graham, the Canadian artist known as Drake, and Kendrick Lamar of Compton, California. 

I have to admit that, after a week of doing my best to keep it at the margins of my consciousness, I was pulled in by Lamar’s flawless victory move in Not Like Us.

Mostly, that was because it tapped into my libidinal California sensitivities as a long-time resident of the Golden State. But also, while the chorus, “They not like us,” rings out in public, from cars that pass by, there’s something unsettling in the rumble of the bass.

The beef’s misogynistic posturing has already been discussed widely. So has the criticism of it as a distraction from Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza since early October. 

But the visceral feelings this particular piece of rhetorical art set to rhythm evoked got me thinking. Is this a distraction or is it a symptom of something deeper going on in society? 

If we look at the framework of the argument Lamar is putting forth about Drake, in our collective declaration of Lamar as the winner, what exactly are the politics that we are co-signing, if any?

For a long time, Lamar has danced around the fringes of black liberationist thought; at his best, he’s channelled the cathartic release of the Black Lives Matter movement or made us question the norms around mental health in ourselves, our families and communities. 

On his latest full-length effort, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, he poetically and movingly challenged toxic self-held ideas around masculinity, sexuality and gender relations. But even with his verbal dexterity in making us question the world we live in, we don’t exactly know what the world he would advocate for would be.

What I am most interested in is how and why the accusations Lamar levelled at Drake resonated so deeply with audiences (beyond the shock value of accusing someone of paedophilia and sex trafficking), and what that says about the current political mood. 

Like much of the world, the US is experiencing a crisis of democratic liberalism. This crisis reached its apex (for now) with the disastrous policies of the Joe Biden administration on Israel’s war against the Palestinians. 

The colonialist character of Israeli aggression reveals the true shape of American democracy as it is “promoted” throughout the rest of the world — material comfort for a protected minority, principally those who are lucky enough to be born within the right borders, and subjugation for the majority.

This subjugation isn’t reserved for those who remain outside the borders of a figurative Athens, either. In the US, African-Americans are the largest, perennially excluded out-group of the economic and political system. 

Often treated as a homogeneous demographic and voting bloc with an outsize influence on the outcome of elections, in recent times this group has been taken for granted as a liberal, “blue” bloc on which the Democratic Party can depend.

However, black people, like any group of voters, are heterogeneous with divergent political aims and social desires. And so, often flying under the radar, has been a tendency, particularly among black men, towards a tailored form of political conservatism that has roots going back to the early stages of black liberationist thought.

This propensity, towards a masculinist strain of black nationalism, arises out of structural exclusion from the capitalist system as well as an individual’s experience with social marginalisation. 

Looking for answers and explanations for their fate, some become attracted to conspiracy theories and a historical revisionism that can uplift and put black manhood at the centre of global history. 

However, while groups such as the Black Israelites, the Nation of Islam and millennial Christian preachers promise a pathway out of oppression, they do so on a road that fails to deliver universal salvation.

Since the rise of Donald Trump, political lobbying groups such as the American Descendants of Slaves foundation have found resonance with some of the rhetoric of white reactionaries and nationalists, making for unexpected political bedfellows. 

Most recently, an anti-migrant sentiment among black residents of northern cities facing an influx of asylum-seekers has been widely publicised by the national press. 

Also making headlines is a perplexing anti-Semitic sentiment — either implicit, from figures such as basketball star Kyrie Irving, or explicit, from those such as Kanye West.

In March, a survey put support for Trump among African-Americans at 17%, twice as much as in 2016. While that is hardly a majority, the more hardline views of black nationalists seem to consistently find a receptive vessel in some of the nation’s most talented public figures, figures who also happen to have an outsize  influence on the mood of the nation.

In the communities where Lamar grew up, these strains of black nationalism run deep. Some of the evidence for this can be found in the history of Los Angeles rap. 

Nipsey Hussle famously courted conspiracy theories and trafficked in black conservative capitalism, going so far as to partner with the Republican Party on redevelopment initiatives in his own LA suburb.

Compton-born and -raised Dr Dre, Lamar’s mentor, and Ice Cube both engaged in their own rap beefs with former NWA partner Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller, a feud that trafficked in homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Taking this context into consideration, how can we read between the lines of what Kendrick raps to understand how people are receiving his dressing-down of Drake?

On the face of it, the charges that Lamar has laid against Drake are clear. He is first a vampiric cultural appropriator; second, a sexual predator with a penchant for underage black women; third, a feminine, bi-racial man, a wannabe who likes to pose as tough masculine black man; and fourth, an insecure, plastic-surgery addicted self-mutilator. 

Drake, in Lamar and his fans’ telling, is thus a symbol of all the social ills wrought on the black community by wealthy, white liberals in all their cultural appropriation, DEI initiatives [American shorthand for diversity, equity and inclusivity], snide late-night talk show jokes, and tokenistic elitism. 

For black nationalists, Drake is the perfect target on which to unleash their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, colourism, misogyny and anti-queer sentiment — all sprinkled on top of a DJ Mustard beat at that.

To me, Drake and many of his cohort of popular black music artists of this century do succinctly represent the now-failed project of North American liberal multiculturalism, which found its apex during the presidency of Barack Obama. 

They soundtracked the joyous revelry of an era of excess, techno-capitalist expansionism and individualistic self-commodification. 

Drake, who grew up upper middle class in Toronto’s suburbs (his parents are separated and he lived with his white mother), flawlessly copied US black regional cultural output from New Orleans to Atlanta to the Bay to embody the empty “rainbow” nationalism of a multiracial democracy. 

The public bumped and grinded to beats from across the Euro-American empire, oblivious to the elderly black residents who were displaced to make way for that nightclub for young professionals or to the bombs raining down on poor Afghans, Syrians, Yemeni, Libyans and Iraqis in their name. 

When Drake linked up with Rihanna, and they ordered us to work, work, work, we put our heads down and did so without question.

So, in conclusion, I’d argue, rather than a frivolous distraction, the celebration of Lamar’s triumph over Drake is really symptomatic of a resurgence of an illiberal mood within America’s racial reckoning. And, most importantly, that mood is not unique to the American context. 

In El Salvador, a right-wing crypto-currency booster has imprisoned a staggering proportion of the population in the interest of law and order. He rails against meddling in his country by “global elites” (an anti-Semitic dog whistle), and is celebrated as an innovative and visionary thinker for doing so. 

In Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea, an anti-France mood has swept military juntas into power, with masses of youths seen celebrating in the street, themselves fuelled by black nationalist online content and state-sponsored propaganda.

Even in Egypt, a race-driven nationalist discourse has reared its ugly head, causing a row over who can claim belonging in a national context.

If anti-colonial or anti-West authoritarianism weren’t on the rise from the Sahel to El Salvador, then I wouldn’t think twice about its latest arrival in mainstream American popular culture. 

In fact, just like the DEI initiatives that have disappeared after the BLM uprising of 2020, I would imagine that it would slowly slink into the background, left once again to percolate in the barbershop. 

But I’m afraid, post the genocide in Gaza, that’s not the world we live in anymore.

If anything, the discomfort that some might have felt with the disproportionate attention paid to the vitriolic beef between two wealthy rap stars, proves that the US is actually unprepared for the future that is slowly creeping up upon it. 

While, personally, as a member of the university-educated left, Macklemore’s recent single is a surprising and refreshing entrant as a potential song of our moment — rapping about stopping the war against Palestinians, critique of the heavy-handedness by the police against protesters (with an NWA shoutout to boot), followed by a declaration that all proceeds from the song would be donated to the UN Relief and Works Agency. 

At the same time, who decided that a liberationist anti-colonial authoritarian mood can’t produce inciteful cultural products as well? 

This article was first published in Africa Is a Country. Boima Tucker is a music producer, DJ, writer and cultural activist. He is the managing editor of Africa Is a Country.

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David Lee Munemo David Lee Munemo is a rising Zimbabwean journalist with a passion for making complex news discoveries accessible to the public. Driven by a belief in the importance of information communication, David's work tackles a variety of news fields, from groundbreaking entertainment research to the latest political news.