Africa: Kendrick Lamar – the Black Mecca and Hip-Hop Pan-Africanism

Kendrick Lamar recently visited Ghana, promoting his new album and reportedly shooting a documentary. State officials celebrated the visit in the context of Beyond the Return, Ghana’s tourism and repatriation campaign. As Mr. Duckworth swaps his wrecked Audi for the Accra trotro, conscious hip hop’s commitment to Pan-Africanism is deep as ever.

BY: Onai Stanely Mushava

When Nas said, “If Chappelle moved to Ghana to find his peace then I’m rollin’,” Kendrick Lamar felt that. The Compton emcee had, after all, named his spiritual destination a decade earlier on “HiiiPower”, “We was racing with Marcus Garvey on the freeway to Africa till I wrecked my Audi.” From the golden age of Afrika Bambaata and Zulu Nation to Mr Duckworth’s Robben Island songs, the heart that beats under diamond chains and rap designers is an Africa-shaped vacuum.

Kendrick was recently seen in Ghana, promoting his latest album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, and reportedly shooting a documentary. State officials have celebrated the rap legend’s visit, with wife Whitney Alford and pgLang partner Dave Free, in the context of Ghana’s tourism and repatriation campaign, Beyond the Return – A Decade of African Renaissance.

Ghana provides Pan-Africanist leadership again

“The Diaspora Affairs, Office of the President, supported in this experience into Ghana; recognizing the importance of Arts, Culture, Music and the global diaspora engaging,” the department said in a statement, accompanied by a photo of Diaspora Affairs deputy director Dr. Nadia Musah and Kendrick Lamar on Facebook.

“The visit is significant because we want the Global African & Afro Descendant family to recognize Ghana as a ‘gateway’ or ‘the Black Mecca’ where one can reignite their passions, inspirations and connect with people; where one can launch an album, a book, an exhibition, a culinary experience and much much more. To Kendrick Lamar, his beautiful family, his team and friends, and to our Diaspora we say Akwaaba!” reads the statement.

Beyond the Return is the follow-up to the well-received Year of Return, announced in 2019 to encourage the Africa Diaspora to visit, invest and settle in Ghana. President Nana Akufo Addo proclaimed the call on “the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in Jamestown Virginia in 1619.”

The Black Mecca is attracting A-listers of African Heritage, including Cardi B, Dave Chappelle, Idris Elba, Naomi Campbell and Steve Harvey, since 2019. Culture makes up four of the seven pillars of Beyond the Return, hence the interest in Mr. Morale’s recent visit to Nkrumahland.

America’s discriminations fuels Pan-Africanist rap

Sadly, Africa is coming up in mainstream rap as a dream of peace away from the segregation black people suffer in the U.S, continuing the theme of pain in Ghana’s 1619 imagery. Nas and Lauryn Hill’s “Nobody” and Kendrick’s “HiiiPower” both come from a place of displaced black being in America. It is tragically symbolic that Kendrick’s visit to Ghana coincides with the murder of 10 black people by a white American terrorist in Buffalo.

Jidenna’s 2019 album, 85 to Africa, was inspired by his trip to Africa following eviction. “On the morning of June 2nd, I awoke to the sound of frantic knocking,” Jidenna recalls on his album trailer. “I opened the master bedroom door to see four police officers, behind them a couple of rednecks, smirking as they held auction papers. I was being evicted.” His Atlanta landlord had foreclosed without notice.

“Within minutes, everything we’d worked, everything we’d for was scattered on the front lawn. Even with all the success, I was still another nigga displaced. Where could I go? Where my land was my land? Where my home was my home? In desperation and panic, I hopped on the high 85 and went straight to Africa,” narrates the Nigerian-born rapper.

Devotion to the motherland is even more particular in reggae, another influential creation of the Africa diaspora, with endless anthems of redemption and repatriation, from Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” to Raging Fyah’s “Africa.” Nas built on this devotion in 2010, teaming up with Damian Marley to record the great Pan-Africanist album, Distant Relatives.

Pan-Africanism has to be as structural as it is spiritual

And yet in this album, Africa is not the heaven it is in righteous reggae. Nas and Junior Gong even seem to play into the Western image of Africa in “The Land of Promise”, with most of the song fantasising an Africa built by American bricks.

Imagine Ghana like California with Sunset Boulevard

Johannesburg would be Miami

Somalia like New York

With the most pretty light

The nuffest pretty car

Ever New Year the African Times Square lock-off

Imagine Lagos like Las Vegas

The sort of song someone like Baffour Ankomah would not have executive-produced, maybe. Asking Africa to model itself after America, while ignoring the terrorism and structural evils of Uncle Sam cannot be sufficiently futuristic. Except that these are already classic themes in the Queensbridge songbook.

Nas does not show much conviction when he premises this vision on an unexplained miracle, suggesting that anything, including an America-like African utopia, can happen since earth is in its last days. In “Africa Must Wake Up”, Nas and Damian go on to invoke ancient greatness to show us the height from which we have fallen. Nas runs down the notorious stereotypes: slums, diseases, AIDS, destruction of the youths and division within the Diaspora but also wears his Egyptologist gown to tell Africa who she is essentially:

We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys

There were empires in Africa called Kush,

Timbuktu, where every race came to get books

To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans

Yet we are confronted in stereotypes by something we cannot ignore. Stories of a rising Africa are still stories of the middle class. One has to establish their net developmental effect on the continent and its diaspora. For all our grand moves in Zimbabwe, we still refuse rural families and resettled farmers legal title to land and home because power is better served by precarity and patronage. And many young people only know an Africa they can only run away from into death ships, xenophobia and terrorism.

Stories of a rising Africa are still stories of the middle class

Following the Buffalo tragedy, Chance the Rapper called on black people globally to come together and think black being. Pan-Africanism’s message of stronger bonds of solidarity for freedom and progress is more urgent than ever. How do we build on the conversations for a Pan-Africanism that can lift everyday Africa and African Diaspora from state violence, food insecurity, economic inequality, displacement of ordinary people, environmental degradation, war and other evils?

To pimp another butterfly?

In 2014, Kendrick Lamar went to South Africa, hung around the hood and visited Robben Island, so that he could later rap, “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it” and juxtapose Apartheid to the discrimination of black people in the U.S. “How Much a Dollar Cost”, picked by Barack Obama as his song of 2015, came from a Mzansi incident, while “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” celebrated beauty from the Melanisa perspective. According to his biographer, Marcuse J. Moore, “The perspective he’d gain from the Motherland would prove invaluable for himself, the rap community, and the world at large.”

“His time on the continent set the foundation for Butterfly, a record that was as much about South Africa as it was about his own fight to deal with burgeoning fame,” Moore writes in his critical biography, The Butterfly Effect. “‘I felt like I belonged in Africa,’ Kendrick later told the Recording Academy. ‘I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.'”

But homecoming is not all romance for the sixth region of Africa: the diaspora. In South Africa today, xenophobia is on prowl, precarious migrants hounded out and slain, while Operation Dudula profiles African nationals in the country in the country for hostile action. As Cde Julius Malema has said, superior feeling will go from targeting other Africans to targeting other South Africans. In album single, “The Blacker the Berry”, Kendrick compares gang fights in Compton to ethnic conflict in Africa, if only because equally disempowered Africans are fighting for blocks and spaces both sides do not own:

It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war

Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy

Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door

While Kendrick’s South African trip may seem like a regular touring commitment, his biography treats it as a grounding experience on many levels. Lamar was writing and recording on the tour bus and South Africa provided a spiritual landscape that interrupted the flux. The tour also inspired Black Panther soundtrack, with Mzansi artists Yugen Blackrok, Saudi, Babes Wodumo and Sjava joining their American peers for a Pan-African masterpiece.

Blackrok, whose “Oops” verse bodied Kendrick and Vince Staples, tells Lamar’s biographer that the co-sign opened doors for non-conventional South African rappers like her. Black America and South Africa also shared eclectic music histories, spiritual triumphs of the excluded that went on to influence the world. Kendrick’s return to jazz paralleled South African hip hop’s long evolution through older genres, going back through kwaito to mid-century township jazz tangents.

Moore, ambitiously maybe, says Lamar’s time in Mzansi helped shift the course of mainstream black music. “If he hadn’t taken that trip, or opened his eyes to the country’s grand splendor, there’d be no To Pimp a Butterfly.”

“Free and avant-garde jazz might still struggle to attract bigger groups of fans, and sonically challenging art might still be relegated to smaller venues. South Africa set the stage for Kendrick’s greater act. It also allowed him to return to where it all started, this time with a clear head and a full heart,” Moore writes.

The full-throated African instruments promised post-DAMN are only hinted on the opening track of Mr. Morale and the Bigger Steppers. Perhaps West Africa, with its Afrobeats explosion, is the right place to continue the search. It remains to be seen which Pan-African currents will be set off by the prophet’s current sojourn in the Black Mecca.

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