Stop Calling it CultureMay 12, 2022
Song: The Heart Part 5 by Kendrick Lamar
Prompt: Describe its historical context, its impact, and its lasting significance
In this essay, we analyze the audiovisual experience of The Heart Part 5 by Kendrick Lamar to describe its historical context, its impact, and its lasting significance. So, we recommend listening to and watching the video to fully appreciate this essay’s contents.
- Song: The Heart Part 5 by Kendrick Lamar
- Lyrics: The Heart Part 5 by Kendrick Lamar
- Music Video: The Heart Part 5 by Kendrick Lamar
- Music Video: OTHERSIDE by Beyoncé
- Lyrics: OTHERSIDE by Beyoncé
- Song: I Want You by Marvin Gaye
“As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective, and my perspective may differ from yours” – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
Intro, First Verse, and First Chorus
In the beginning, we see a minimalistic black screen with the text “I am. All of us. - oklama” etched in white. Then, we hear a clean, sparkling sound – although, towards the end, nothing feels clean. Still, you’re encouraged to guard Black culture against violence and minstrelsy. Kendrick stands to his left in front of a maroon background, but he’s not making eye contact. Instead, he’s looking off into the distance and appears to be longing for something. The song’s first line, “As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective, and my perspective may differ from yours,” reminds me of an essay I shared last September. It’s entitled Sabrina Whittaker’s Postmodern Perspective, and in it, I share my perspective on how Black bodies can find new ways to navigate capitalist systems in the United States. I recommend it if you’ve ever wondered how philosophy affects business.
We know hurt people hurt people, but what could a healed African American population accomplish? In The Heart Part 5, Kendrick criticizes the iconic ghetto and discusses the consequences of forgetting the humanity and brilliance of those who go before us. The primary takeaway is that we, Black bodies, must stop forgetting our history because those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Instead of enduring another tragedy, Black bodies struggling to find a place in the United States should listen to and watch interviews depicting Black bodies of yesteryear; read historical essays documenting our ancestors’ experiences; commit to practicing art in new and unexpected ways to take control of our future and risk personal gain to discover new outcomes for the Black community. As we know from the billions of humans that came before us, death is non-negotiable. So sooner or later, Black bodies must accept that the alternative to understanding the history and structure of systems they participate in is not a relaxed life, it's suffering.
We both know where this essay is going, so it should be said that Black music does not exist as an act of resistance; however, it facilitates a line of communication between African Americans otherwise denied respect, opportunities, and human rights. So, through music, Black bodies find community and understanding because shared assumptions held by other Americans can disguise messages between Black bodies in songs. The history of double-meaning and resistance in African American musical heritage is long and beautiful. It is seen again here through Kendrick’s use of Deep Fake technology to transform himself into various well-known Black bodies.
“Our foundation was trained to accept whatever follows – dehumanized; insensitive - scrutinize the way we live for you and I” – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
The beat samples Marvin Gaye’s 1976 masterpiece “I Want You,” a noteworthy flex considering the Gaye family’s reputation for charging their worth. In the original song, Marvin’s tone is heartbreaking as he sings, “I want you, but I want you to want me too.” He adds, “one-way love is just a fantasy… [and that] to share is precious, pure, and fair”. This tone carries over to The Heart Part 5 and helps the listener understand the song’s intent. We know to expect heightened emotions and unrequited love in the coming verses. Still, nothing visible to the listener or from “I Want You” prepares us for Kendrick’s chosen method of expression as he commands, “look what I done for you… look what I done for you.”
Second Verse, Second Chorus, Interlude
Following the first verse and chorus, Kendrick transforms by becoming O.J. and uttering, “I said I do this for my culture, to let y’all know what a nigga look like in a bulletproof Rover”, an allusion to his infamous 1994 police chase down I-405 through Los Angeles. Just as quickly, Kanye criticizes the socioeconomic conditions of the Black community, asserting, “niggas goin’ to work and sellin’ work, late for work - workin’ late, prayin’ for work, but […] on paperwork - that’s the culture, point the finger, promote ya.” Next, Jussie Smollett claims he wants to represent for us, despite recently sacrificing Black and LGBTQ bodies in pursuit of personal gain.
“I want to represent for us” – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
Jussie pauses and maintains eye contact following these words; our ears wait on a “but” that doesn’t come. Finally, Will Smith closes out the second verse with a cautionary tale of miscommunication and belongingness set “in a land where hurt people hurt more people.” Will looks us in the eyes before shifting his gaze and confessing he wants the hood to look at what he's done for them. "Look what I done for you" - With every line, we are introduced to a brand-new victim, and in each scenario, the well-being of Black bodies, their aspirations, and their zeal for life is attacked.
“I want the hood… look what I done for you” – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
Third Verse, Final Chorus, Conclusion
If the concept of "the iconic ghetto" is unfamiliar to you, you'd benefit from reading The White Space & The Iconic Ghetto, a response essay that explores each concept through a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air clip. To aid in our analysis of The Heart Part 5, we will share an excerpt here:
The iconic ghetto is the idea that Black people originate from an all-encompassing ghetto where the residents are dangerous, disgruntled savages capable of little more than disruption. Within the United States, the iconic ghetto serves to perpetuate narratives historically pushed through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows used both Black and White Americans to reinforce the idea that Black people were only acceptable if they played a forgiving, docile role but suggested that everyone else be regarded as crude, morally corrupt, and violent. White Americans enjoyed and participated in these shows because they reinforced the social benefit of White cultural values and explained the economic lowliness of Black Americans. Ironically, Black Americans participated because the shows presented opportunities to advance socially and economically. Similarly, today, Black people must choose when and how often to participate in a system that is destructive and occasionally fatal to their culture and sense of self. - Sabrina Whittaker, The White Space & The Iconic Ghetto
Kendrick asserts, “take the drums out" during the interlude, and it becomes so. We lose the song’s heartbeat and are left gasping for breath; labored breathing dominates successive beats until the beat is reborn with Congo drums, and new life overtakes the song. Kendrick makes eye contact and speaks directly to his audience. For a moment, Kobe reflects on his life and accomplishments before Kendrick returns.
Should I feel resentful I didn’t see my full potential? Should I feel regret about the good that I was into? – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
Nipsey Hussle enters to deliver a reprise from the mournful tone as he forgives the killer that sped up his demise and shares a hopeful message with his family and friends. He and Kendrick share a body for the remainder of the song, and it becomes difficult to determine whose perspective is being shared towards the end of the piece. This could be attributed to their shared love of Compton, but also the transition may symbolize the wearable nature of frameworks for thinking (i.e., perspectives).
The memories recollect just because y’all celebrate me with respect. The unity we protect is above all.” – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
The unclear conclusion marries perfectly with the message of the song to deliver a symphony of perspectives that extend across space and time to offer insights into the experiences of Black bodies. It is relieving to hear Nipsey say he's in heaven, although we know its Kendrick rapping because it feels reassuring. In this moment, I’m reminded of lyrics from OTHERSIDE by Beyoncé where she sings “you’re my reason to believe in another life” and the execution of prominent Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli defense forces looking to “apprehend terrorist suspects”. She was not hostile or a casualty of crossfire. Instead, she took a bullet to the head in front of her coworkers as she wore her PRESS vest clearly. Like Nipsey, she was murdered for speaking uncomfortable truths.
Unfortunately, it is not unusual for people to be murdered in cold blood for speaking the truth. This isn’t a pity party, however, because her legacy does not end with her death. Juxtaposed against blood and corpses', I saw her community celebrating and carrying her as she did the weight of sharing true accounts of human stories. Her marathon will continue, as will that of Black bodies in the United States. Although the initial news of her death caused a shockwave of tears, I stopped crying when I drew the connection to Nipsey’s struggle and noted that when emotions are high, we must choose silence or the risk of death. So, if I must, I choose death – because in a land where hurt people hurt more people – FUCK CALLING IT CULTURE.
“Analyze, risk your life, take the charge” – Kendrick Lamar, The Heart Part 5
Gil Scott-Heron said the revolution would not be televised – but here we are finding new and unexpected ways to document love as an act of rebellion against individualism practiced by a desensitized population at the expense of dehumanized minority ethnic groups. In creating and sharing The Heart Part 5, Kendrick Lamar has released a piece comparable to Billie Holliday’s 1959 rendition of Strange Fruit. It is a message to be heard and felt by Black bodies seeking respite from the capitalist systems they exist within for generations to come, and I know I have done my part by sharing my thoughts on a positive example of Black placemaking for the benefit of Black bodies I’ll never meet. I hope their hearts sing as they listen knowing Black artistic expression is a gift.
- Billie Holiday - "Strange Fruit" Live 1959