Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” I couldn’t help agreeing with this writer that the liberation that Kendrick both propels and embodies does not include black women. Nowhere on the record does Kendrick attempt to incorporate the oppression of women into his message or create an alliance between men and women of colour who may interact with societal structures in a similar way. Delving deeper into his catalogue I discovered Section.80, an ode to a generation of crack babies, bastards of the Ronald Reagan era and general fuckups, which confidently includes stories of women from this same milieu. On this album, he intentionally creates a tandem where the tracklist reflects Kendrick’s inclusion of both men and women in his reflection on today’s black millennials.
This enthusiasm to talk about issues that affect women, I met with mixed emotions. Keisha’s Song (Her Pain) was on my top played list, in isolation from the rest of this album, for months before I came across Tammy’s Song (Her Evils) which I listened to with narrowed eyes for a long time before sitting down to write this.
On first listen Tammy’s Song appeared to be a demonization of a woman for showing only a superficial loyalty to the man she claims she rides for whilst being ready to jump into bed with another man should her partner ever betray her (which he does). Worse she finally abandons men altogether instead opting for a same gender relationship. With this understanding, I foolishly almost dismissed the track as even worthy of analysis. However, Kendrick shows far too much empathy for “these vulnerable girls,” and the fact that Tammy and Keisha are such focal characters in the album makes the track as a demonization seem an incomplete analysis. On closer inspection I realised that Kendrick was not rejecting Tammy; he pitied her.
Tammy, a woman who takes knock after knock and finally finds a trouble free relationship, is not celebrated for the qualities she possessed that led her through a journey that seems to have a happy enough ending to me. Instead, her story is represented as an example of a broken society and those who endure it. Ab soul’s take on her story sums up the complete stripping of Tammy’s agency and power as he asks “what if Tammy came across a real man who didn’t play games like children?” My response to which would be, maybe she would’ve ended up in the same happy same-sex relationship that everyone seems to have confused with some kind of inferno on earth?
Kendrick’s apparent commitment to uniting the struggles gave me so much hope, but I couldn’t help but feel, the more I listened to the album, that he still wasn’t quite there. Of all the ‘evils’ that surround a woman’s existence the one you felt most strongly about was a ride or die chick who ends up dating a woman? Really? You think that’s our key, defining issue?
Kendrick’s empathy for the black woman who constantly falls victim to the whims of the men this society has created, forms an important part of his identity on an album that seeks to address the range of ills that the whole generation has experienced. Now, there may well be an element of tragedy in a woman whose life is dominated by failed relationships such that she gives up on finding a true love opting instead for a safe bet. But 1) I don’t think that’s how most women find themselves in relationships with other women, 2) how is this a useful starting point or contribution to understanding the issues that affect women or a black woman’s experience more generally? 3) How can we define these events as reflective of “her evils”, what exactly does Kendrick even mean by this term? Searching for the balance in that thin line between empathy and pity we have to simultaneously consider the structures that restrict Tammy whilst recognising her agency and ability to make independent decisions that best benefit her.
We have to find the balance between holding members of society, and society as a whole, accountable when needs be and stripping women of their agency and power. Women can do things for ourselves by ourselves and we urgently need to move away from the notion a woman who deems that her happiness will not be determined by men or male approval, is too angry/delusional/psychotic. Tammy, as Kendrick’s creation, gives us an insight on the perception of a woman who appears strong, confident with ownership of her own body and who is done with destructive relationships with men. This move is not perceived as empowering, intelligent nor self-loving, it is instead represented as an unfortunate choice made merely out of convenience. Why reject the idea that she is liberated or empowered and view her instead as the victim of whimsical men?
Conversely, I had no real issue with Keisha’s song until I held her story up to Tammy’s. Thinking about agency, power and responsibility, and especially considering Ab Soul’s commentary, the red flags begin to appear. Keisha is a young woman who was abused from the age of 10 before turning to prostitution which eventually seems to lead to her death as she is stabbed to death by her rapist. Ab Soul, reflecting on her fate, asks: what if Keisha was celibate? So whilst Tammy is stripped of her self-determination, Keisha is awarded hers? Perhaps I’m missing something, but the end of prostitution would in no way lead to the end of sexual violence towards women, as prostitutes are not the perpetrators of these crimes. Again, I felt like Kendrick had come so close, but so far to actually adding some positive fuel to the discussion.
After listening to Section.80 so many times I’d lost count, I essentially found I’d come a full circle. Where To Pimp A Butterfly’s black liberation doesn’t mention black women, Section.80’s celebration of the dysfunctional does, but does that mean that it takes any significant steps forward in the representation of women in hip hop? Not really.
Although, Tammy is rebranded from being loud, tough and emotionless, she is still merely represented as collateral damage. Keisha, or Brenda, or Sasha along with the many nameless women who’ve featured in hip hop through the years as useless tragedies make for a decent track, but they are songs which lack in any kind of enlightenment. Honestly, I didn’t need to look as far as the female characters in his work to gauge where Kendrick positions himself in relation to women as tracks like “Hol’ up” say it all. But a song which fantasises about sex with an air hostess (not because he likes her, just because he wants to dominate her and claim ownership to the first class life she represents) and in which he claims “I call a bitch a bitch, a ho a ho, a woman a woman” apparently wasn’t enough for me.
Kendrick Lamar may well be hip hop’s saviour, and maybe even the saviour of a generation of lost black men, but unfortunately, he isn’t mine. Sexism in the music industry isn’t going anywhere and there are so many more subtle ways in which it is embedded in the business, a reflection of the credits alone reveals a glimpse of this. The reality is, I’m not going to stop listening to Section 80, just like I never stopped listening to To Pimp A Butterfly after reading For Harriet’s analysis. The only thing that keeps me sane is knowing that elsewhere on the planet, there are droves of other black women being semi-liberated by Kendrick Lamar with me.