Using Hip Hop to Be the Change EACH of Us Wants to See

February 12, 2016The Hip Hop artist Kendrick Lamar has been nominated for 11 Grammys, the most of any artist in this year’s 58th Annual Grammy Awards. Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) is a compelling musical journey about healing many of the wounds in the black community and transforming society for the better. The album helps listeners think about changes we would like to see in our lives, and the inner work necessary to realize them. Further, Lamar has not been afraid, on this or prior albums, to address how and where gender intersects with change. He recognizes that the journey to positive change in life is fueled by the universal desire for freedom, joy, and “better.” This path toward “better” involves both person and environment, and it also involves choice. We have to choose “better.”

Lamar’s album exists against the backdrop of many conversations about how women and girls are treated in Hip Hop and mainstream entertainment: in a way that is often misogynistic, exploitive, and oppressive. When discussions of the empowering aspects of Hip Hop emerge, conversations about women still take a back seat to more politicized conversations about the plight of men and boys. Too often, asserting positive and desired change ends up benefitting men and disregarding, oppressing or even exploiting women and members of the LGBTQI community. But new voices like Lamar’s follow in the path of prior voices—leaders in change who take a “lift as we climb” approach. In these instances, solidarity prioritizes the well-being of women—recognizing that all voices must be heard in the journey toward equity and justice.

Leaders in positive change recognize the necessary individual work that must be done alongside collective work. Catalyst’s Inclusive Leadership behaviors (known by the acronym “EACH” for Empowerment, Accountability, Courage and Humility) help us think more boldly about how to plot a path toward “better”—and choosing “better” allows everyone to advance and thrive. This year’s top Grammy nominee and his work are a prime example of a leader bringing these principles to life in his own unique way.  

Empowerment. Music can be a critical tool of empowerment, unifying people with their environment so that they can work toward self- and community-improvement. TPAB is filled with songs exploring intersections of racial, gender, and economic identity; resilience, decision-making, and being at one’s best; solidarity and belonging; and ultimately being an agent of change. Even the subtleties of within-culture tensions around skin tone take center stage on “Complexion.” Rapsody, an artist who is also a woman, joins Lamar on this track with, “12 years of age, thinking my shade too dark; I love myself, I no longer need Cupid. And forcing my dark side like a young George Lucas; light don’t mean you smart, being dark don’t make you stupid.” Rapsody has been clear about bringing humility and honesty to her art and her fierce commitment to inspiring the next generation of girls through Hip Hop.

Courage. It took courage for Lamar to make this album as his sophomore major release. It is explicit about the challenges of racial identity, and the current racial and ethnic climate in the United States. On his standout track “Alright,” Kendrick comes from a place of exasperation and desperation, but finds courage in a sense of collective resilience and a conviction for better. “When you know, we been hurt, been down before. When my pride was low, looking at the world like, ‘where do we go?’ We gon' be alright! Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon' be alright!”

In other words, despite immense challenges, personally and collectively, there is a belief that this too shall pass, and that things can and will get better. In whatever community we value, if we want “better,” we must have the courage to stand for it.

Accountability. Lamar has gone on record to take ownership of the words on his album. For example, when criticized for perceived victim-blaming on his track “The Blacker the Berry” with lines like, “We don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” he had to clarify that “we” represents him pointing a finger at himself. Essentially he is saying, “I have to be as accountable as much as we have to be accountable.” This is important because when it comes to making change, a look inward is often more important than a look outward. In every aspect of our lives—our families, our communities, our workplaces—we have to be accountable for making conditions better for all. We must ask ourselves “What are the ways I can be better and the ways we can be better?”

Humility. Hip Hop is not generally known for its humility; in fact often it is known for the opposite—bravado and braggadocio. However, TPAB and one source of its inspiration, artist D’Angelo’s album The Black Messiah, are not about being better than other people but rather about a strong sense of self, a recognition of one’s importance, and collective pride despite a recognition of powerful real-world challenges. In a time of crisis and urgency where some could feel helpless and hopeless, these songs are an affirmation of the collective self. As D’Angelo states: “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.” This is the essence of humility.

Positive change, whether in the workplace or the community at large, involves choice. As we think more deliberately about what we want for women and girls, we must choose to create conditions in which they can feel empowered. Everyone must act together toward positive change. In these types of spaces, people feel safe enough to be courageous, strong enough to be accountable, and included enough to be humble. Let’s collectively choose better.


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.