Beware of false prophets

Is the beef between Kendrick Lamar and Drake really devoid of politics?

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Glastonbury Festival, 2022. Image credit Joseph Okpako for WireImage, posted under Fair Use.

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 Duckworth 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 Kendrick’s flawless victory move in “Not Like Us.” Mostly, 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 the relentless bombing of Gaza since early October by Israel. But, the visceral feelings that this particular piece of rhetorical art set to rhythm evoked, got me thinking: Is this really a distraction or a symptom of something deeper going on in society? If we look at the frame of the argument Kendrick Lamar is putting forth about Drake, in our collective declaration of Kendrick as the winner, what exactly are the politics that we are co-signing, if any?

For a long time, Kendrick Lamar has danced around the fringes of black liberationist thought; at his best, he’s channeled the cathartic release of the Black Lives Matter movement or made us question the norms around mental health within ourselves, our families, and communities. On his latest full-length effort Mr. Morale and 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 Kendrick’s accusations towards Drake resonated so deeply with audiences (beyond the shock value of accusing someone of pedophilia and sex trafficking), and what that says about the current political mood. Like much of the world, the United States is currently experiencing a crisis of democratic liberalism. This crisis has so far reached its apex with the disastrous policies of the Joe Biden administration in regard to Israel’s war against 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 only reserved for those who remain outside of the borders of a figurative Athens, either. In the US, African-Americans are the largest, perennially excluded, out-group of the American economic and political system. Often treated as a homogeneous demographic and voting bloc with an outsized 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 amongst black men, towards a tailored form of political conservatism that has roots 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 marginalization. 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 center 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 ADOS Foundation (American Descendants of Slavery) have found resonance with some of the rhetoric of white reactionaries and nationalists, making for unexpected political bedfellows. Most recently, an anti-migrant sentiment amongst black residents of northern cities facing an influx of asylum seekers has been widely publicized by the national press. Also making headlines is a perplexing antisemitic sentiment—either implicit from figures such as basketball star Kyrie Irving, or explicit from people like Kanye West. In March, a survey put support for Donald Trump amongst African-Americans at 17 percent, twice as much as in 2016. While that is hardly a majority, the more hard line 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 outsized influence on the mood of the nation.

In the communities where Kendrick 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 South LA neighborhood. Compton-born and raised Dr. Dre, Kendrick 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 antisemitism.

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 Kendrick has laid against Drake are clear: He is firstly, a vampiric cultural appropriator; secondly, a sexual predator with a penchant for underage black women; third, a feminine, biracial man, a wannabe who likes to pose as tough masculine black man; and, fourth, an insecure, plastic surgery addicted, body self-mutilator. Drake, in Kendrick and his fans’ telling, is thus a symbol for 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, colorism, misogyny, and anti-queer sentiment—all sprinkled on top of a 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 United States 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 Kendrick’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, rails against meddling in his country by “global elites” (an antisemitic 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 youth seen celebrating in the street, themselves fueled by black nationalist online content and state-sponsored propaganda. And even in Egypt, a race-driven nationalist discourse has reared its 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 to 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 may have felt with the disproportionate attention paid to the vitriolic beef between two wealthy rap stars, proves that the United States 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 shout out to boot), followed by a declaration that all proceeds to the song would be donated to UNRWA. At the same time, who decided that a liberationist anti-colonial authoritarian mood can’t produce incite-ful cultural products as well? (see also: Mdou Moctar’s brilliant recent effort, Funeral For Justice.) I know which one will be rumbling the streets of my city this summer, anyway.

Further Reading