Music and Vibrations: The Only Hope We Have Left?
In the final track of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar conducts his famous posthumous interview with Tupac Shakur, a dialogue that still gives me chills every time I listen to it. A conversation of mythical proportions ensues, Kendrick asking Tupac, his hip-hop idol, for his opinion on some ideas Kendrick has been contemplating. After Kendrick asks Tupac what he meant when he said, “The ground is gonna open up and swallow the evil,” Tupac responds that he thinks a literal violent uprising is on the horizon, very similar to the uprising led by Virginia slave Nat Turner in 1831.
Kendrick seems reluctant to agree, offering a theory of his own— perhaps black people should strive to change the system of oppression from the inside out, using their struggles to their advantage rather than succumbing to them. At the end of this interview, Kendrick reads a poem purportedly written by a good friend of his, which says at the end:
Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.
Even earlier than this, Kendrick said, “In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations, lotta people don’t understand how important it is.” In other words, music is powerful and can have extremely transformative power across the board, perhaps more transformative power than violent revolts and uprisings.
If To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar can be seen as a wakeup call to self-discovery and empowerment, Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper can be seen as an answer to that call. Just like Kendrick Lamar, Chance is heavily concerned with social justice via inciting positive change in Chicago, a mission he takes even more seriously after becoming a father last year (“Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play”). Chance even seems to take this mission as a direct command from God Himself (“Jesus’ black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy / Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family”). Chance sees that problems such as violence exist, but more importantly he sees that something needs to be done about them— and it seems that he believes if any change is going to happen, it’s going to start with people like himself and the people growing up in these areas.
In 2014 Chance made headlines when he and several other Chicago rappers joined his father, Ken Williams-Bennett, in promoting the social media campaign #SaveChicago on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The campaign sought to encourage Chicagoans to lay down their weapons and turn their backs on violence by encouraging people to flock to street corners on Friday night carrying banners and posters with the message “#SaveChicago” marked on them. While there is no definitive evidence giving this campaign the credit, the city of Chicago went a full 42 hours without any shootings the weekend of May 23, 2014. This issue hits close to home for Chance, as he grew up in Chatham, a neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago that ranks 12th among Chicago’s 77 community areas for violent crime, according to the Chicago Tribune.
While Chance, too, admires people before him such as Nat Turner who attempted to bring freedom years ago in Southampton County, Virginia (“Hosanna Santa invoked and woke up slaves from Southampton to Chatham Manor”), Chance opts to take a peaceful rather than a violent course of action, using his experiences growing up to transform into a butterfly, attempting to shed a new light on the caterpillar’s circumstances. Nat Turner lived in a time when black people in America were subject to a very clearly defined, extremely violent system of slavery, responding violently according to the operations of that system. Similarly, Chance wants to bring freedom to a system of violence and oppression as Nat Turner did, though Chance doesn’t come with a sword but with a song (“I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom / Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom”). Instead of trying to establish himself as a king on Earth, Chance seems more interested in seeing the Kingdom on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
But Chance doesn’t allow himself to be prideful about the progress he’s made or the righteous cause he’s fighting for. Rather, he claims to practice humility in everything he does musically (“They never seen a rapper practice modesty / I never practice, I only perform”). This isn’t to say that he doesn’t recognize the gravity of the position he’s come into, acknowledging that as a leader he must be held to a higher standard if real change is ever going to take place (“The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be”). This is a standard Chance tries his best to live up to (at the end of the day he is still only human), making public statements on social media and through his music about his commitment to being a good father and his stance against violent crime in Chicago.
Music is powerful. Art of all forms, including music, has strong transformative power capable of transcending one’s current hardships and past struggles, enabling one to dissect and respond to problems in previously unimagined ways. Tupac Shakur knew this in the 1990s. Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper know this today, some twenty years later. Just like Kendrick, Chance realizes the importance of turning struggles on their head, overcoming them through art and sharing that with other people to inspire healing. It would seem Chance has done just that with Coloring Book, rising above his past growing up in the South Side of Chicago while refusing to desert those who grew up around him and those who are living there today. Promising to use his experiences to spark effective change, Chance sings the album’s final hook in “Blessings (Reprise):”
I made it through, made it through, made it through
And everything I gave to you, I gave to you, I gave to you
You got it, you got it, you got it, it's coming
So are you ready?