In Search of Duende: Language In His Own Hands: Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry”
Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” (To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015) begins like a child playing a counting rhyme on a toy piano. Jack about to pop from the box. Carousel music in a slasher film.
To grow up black in America, Lamar says later in the song, is to grow into a madman:
And sometimes I get off watchin’ you die in vain
It’s such a shame / they may call me crazy
They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin’
But homie, you made me
The “you” are the inventors of the language Lamar innocently befriended at the schools he was forced to attend by “you,” who called him:
…irrelevant to society
That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me
Curse me till I’m dead
Church me with your fake prophesizing that I’mma be just another slave in my head
Penitentiaries are America’s sickest secrets. Lamar refuses to sign on for prison life:
Been feeling this way since I was 16, came to my senses
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
Lamar’s not 16 anymore. He knows a word is not a thing. He knows he is not a thing. He has grown to carve out a new space for language not rammed and twisted. A language in his own hands. And here is born Kendrick Lamar, artist and poet. Kendrick Lamar, more than rapper:
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
This is more than a confession
Duende is nothing if not a voice just at the edge of seizing, a language always-ever-here-now no longer meaning meaning. Lamar lived like a prisoner in these word structures and limits until he was sixteen. But he’s grown now. He’s grown enough to see a higher truth beyond this meaning this:
This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred
It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification
I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan
The plot too is bigger than Assassin, his Jamaican Patois breaking in with the hooks, bloody and duende:
All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black
Remember this, every race start from the black, just remember dat
Duende is the guts of the earth where the first people became. The people who became before the people who made “black.” Lamar’s body is proof he’s deeper than the word:
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don’t you?
Listen to the song now. Let Kendrick’s voice burrow in you. See him through his voice. Hear him one step away. Let duende guide you to Kendrick in real time: his hot breath in your ear, his hot spit on your skin. His voice about to shatter. Do not let him. Let instead his air become yours every time you listen.
The intro is the only place in “The Blacker the Berry” where language opens up an escape from “black”:
Everything black, want all things black
I don’t need black, want everything black
Don’t need black, our eyes ain’t black
“Black” is nowhere close to Lamar’s “everything black.” His “everything black” comes from a mouth set on using words differently:
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Not only that, “you” tell him what to grieve:
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Like in Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), following a young black woman’s experience of colorism, no one is innocent of taking pleasure in watching the blackest berries be sucked into the pit of the system. A male voice breaks in, a controlled, smooth tube:
The blacker the berry / the sweeter the juice.
The blacker the berry / the bigger I shoot.
“Who’s shooting who?” the voice asks. “Who’s drinking the sweetest, darkest juice?”
In a system where one word does not mean one thing, there are fissures, Lamar answers:
It’s funny how Zula and Xhosa might go to war
Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy
Remind me of those Compton Crip gangs that live next door
Beefin’ with Pirus, only death settle the score
Here in the song Lamar’s voice feels the most real to me. His vocal cords throb. This is the nearest, the most duende. Joining up in that same duende I have in me, too, that everyone has.
In an outro at the end of “Mortal Man,” another track on To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar talks to 2Pac, telling how it feels when his rap has duende:
Lamar: “In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations, lotta people don’t understand how important it is. Sometimes I be like, get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’mma push out, or where it comes from. Trip me out sometimes.
2Pac: “Because the spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”
Lamar’s voice remains always on-point with the beat even as you feel him beyond it. This is duende, this beyond technique. Lamar never thinks about accuracy because he doesn’t need to. Accuracy is outside the point when Lamar summons duende. Accuracy is outside the point when words become what they actually are.