One thing is very certain this February: this has been the blackest Black History Month ever. I've never seen so many people interested in what's happening in black culture. It seems that, for once, black culture has become American culture. Yes, there are still those midday 30-second blurbs about Harriet Tubman and Langston Hughes airing during soap opera commercial breaks. But this BHM seems to be more focused on robust dialogue about race in America and said country's dark history concerning black people. It has been less about revisiting history and more about creating it and dealing with the present. At the forefront of this movement are three musical artists who couldn't be more different. Each artist occupies a different space in the public eye, and each one has critics talking for many different reasons.
Unless you live under a rock, you've seen the "Formation" video, heard the song, or at least seen a parody or meme going after some of the song's very quotable lyrics. A couple weeks back on a seemingly normal Saturday, Beyoncé surprise released the most political statement she's ever made. The Internet went wild. The Beyhive went into an uncontrollable tizzy with reaction videos and screenshots. The conservative right accused her of promoting an anti-police message. And many white fans were left scratching their heads as the song's strong black power message was not all-inclusive. Then she took her new fire single to the Super Bowl halftime show, the world's biggest stage. Her dancers donned Black Panther-inspired outfits. They all stood in an X formation in an ode to Malcolm X. And Queen B's outfit, with its gold X, paid homage to the late great King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The conservative firestorm that followed was outrageous. It was as though Beyoncé had pretended to shoot an officer on stage. There was a laughable hysteria over a performance that was nothing close to controversial.
On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar delivered the most outright political performance I've seen on television this decade. His album, "To Pimp A Butterfly", was nominated for 11 Grammy awards and served as an unflinching and honest depiction of black life in America in 2015. His Grammy performance spoke to the contradiction and the struggle detailed on the album. He took the stage dressed in prison garb as part of a chain gang. He rapped furiously in front of a stories-high bonfire while dancers paid tribute to African movement and culture. The final image displayed was a blank map of Africa with "Compton" written across it. This performance was hands down the best performance of the night with the strongest message. And it faced absolutely nothing but positive reviews. No backlash from the conservative right. No accusations of pushing a violent agenda. No controversy whatsoever.
One man who is not a stranger to controversy is Kanye West. He practically courts it. He is a hugely divisive public figure. On one hand, he is extremely talented, delivering some of the most well-received and visionary rap music of the last 20 years. He has transcended popular culture and stood among the greats, which is something many rappers will never have the opportunity to do. He is a household name. But these days, it's for all the wrong reasons. He's publicly supported Bill Cosby, in turn victim-shaming Cosby's accusers. He's taken responsibility for making Taylor Swift famous, which by many accounts is delusional. He was involved in an all too personal Twitter beef with Wiz Khalifa and ex-girlfriend Amber Rose. His latest album was an exclusive Tidal release that could not be purchased anywhere, and in turn, has been illegally downloaded over 500,000 times. Which must be a detriment to his bank account considering the lost sales opportunity and his $53 million in debt. He is in the process of openly asking billionaires for money to fund his business initiatives. And now, as if that wasn't enough, the audio of his apparent meltdown from last weekend's SNL episode has leaked. And makes him seem like even more of an asshole than originally perceived. How is that even possible?
So here we have 3 completely different artists. We have one of the most famous women in the world who is using her platform to bring race into the national spotlight. We have one of the most talented rookie rappers in the game using his talent from day one to teach America about sides of black culture they never see on the news. And we have a mega-successful rapper who is using his platform to fight for the recognition he feels he deserves but isn't getting. 3 talents. 3 methods. 1 same objective. To bring the black struggle to the forefront of public consciousness.
With Beyoncé, it seems that the general public has been comfortable keeping her in a box. As one of the most, if not the most, dynamic performers of our generation, she is widely accepted as long as she keeps making catchy songs and dancing her ass off. She puts on a good show that occasionally fights for feminism but is largely for entertainment value. Now that she's stepped outside of her box to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement and express pride in her blackness, she's controversial. By contrast, Kendrick is outright saying all that is implied in Beyoncé's wardrobe selections and video imagery. What she is alluding to, he is speaking about in detail. But his performance and music in general aren't considered controversial because this has been his platform from the beginning. He's being written off as just a talented rapper. The world of hip hop is his box, and the topic of blackness is oft-discussed in hip hop. Bringing his message to the Grammys allowed him to step outside of his box and bring his message to the 25 million people who watched the telecast. But he was quickly reminded that America is not ready for the struggle to be shared nationally as he swept the rap categories only and missed out on every major category he was nominated in.
While one artist alludes to the struggle and another speaks directly about, Kanye seems to be living it. He's a hugely successful artist that can't seem to shake the shackles of being black in America and being from Chicago, a city that's home to one of the most violent neighborhoods in America. He forgoes humility for extreme bravado. He doesn't want to insinuate or allude or even get super political. He wants to infiltrate the fashion world. He wants to be revered as the Pablo Picasso of the modern era. He's so concerned about what people think about him that everything about him is conflicted. From the erratic release and pacing of The Life Of Pablo to his Twitter rants, he dips in and out of sporadic genius and moments of absolute insanity. In trying to celebrate black wealth and excess, he has become to black people what Donald Trump has become to the GOP. A mockery of everything we stand for. His struggle feels simultaneously superficial, disconnected, and understandable.
But we need all 3. We need an artist like Beyoncé who can wow the crowd, reach the top of the industry, and then use her influence to shed light on important issues in a way that's true to her artistry and fanbase. We need an artist like Kendrick who isn't afraid to share the raw details of the black experience and allow his talent to propel him to a national stage. We need Kanye to remind us that there's a wrong way to lead the conversation and help black people progress. While it's okay to step outside of the box that people have placed them in, humility is still necessary. Respect is required. Just as a great opinion piece is nothing without a unique perspective and thorough research, a great artist's message means nothing without purpose.
As we move forward, it will be interesting to see how the last 30 days in pop culture will shape and influence what's to come in the rest of 2016. Will the Formation album be a full-length statement on the state of race relations in America? Will Kendrick continue to bring his rage, passion, and message to the masses with more outstanding work? Will Kanye strip away all the lampooning and focus on finding his purpose? Regardless of the outcome, as a black American, I feel proud that these artists are part of the national conversation. And I'm proud that some artists are getting political. I've always felt strongly that popular artists need to use their influence to lead conversations on public national issues. In an era where singles and albums seemingly disappear in minutes, music is being made right now that will have implications for years to come. And that's exactly what all of America needs.