Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

'Good Kid' and everyday gun violence

The work of the rapper Kendrick Lamar should enjoy heavy rotation in the White House these days. In this time of Tucson, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., Lamar's major-label debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.d City, gives us a broad reckoning with the meaning of everyday gun violence unfolding far from the tragic spectacle.

Good Kid has earned its share of praise from critics and hip-hop fans, but it perhaps has the most to offer to those shocked into action by the senseless massacres we've endured over the past few years.

This particular moment has shined a light on a gun lobby that argues for maximum firepower and minimum responsibility. If history is any judge, the moment will pass, and most of us will find ourselves again lost in our daily and particular business. When that time comes, there will be others of us who live in places where senseless shootings remain a corrosive constant.

Lamar's album begins in such a place and tells the story of a teenage boy pursuing a girl with a mix of affection and lust. The character's ordinary ambition differs little from that of teenagers who once piled into their parents' cars and turned the drive-in into a bacchanal. But Lamar's lover's lane runs through gang-infested Compton, Calif., and the makeout point is a deathtrap.

Hip-hop originates in communities where such hazards are a given. Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in adhering to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable.

When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. In his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too much for them.

Good Kid is narrative told from behind the mask. Fantasies of rage and lust are present, but fear pervades Lamar's world. He pitches himself not as "Compton's Most Wanted" but as "Compton's Human Sacrifice." He loves the city, even as he acknowledges that the city is trying to kill him. "If Pirus and Crips all got along," he says, "they'd probably gun me down by the end of this song."

On one of the most affecting songs, The Art of Peer Pressure, he engages in a series of criminal escapades. It's reminiscent of NWA's Gangsta, Gangsta, except that Lamar is a boy out to impress his friends. The character's drug use is not so much a choice of pleasure as it is a puerile bid for attention: "Look at me," he raps. "I got the blunt in my mouth."

I must confess my bias. I grew up in Baltimore during a time when the city was in the thrall of crack and Saturday night specials. I've spent most of my life in neighborhoods suffering their disproportionate share of gun violence. In each of these places it was not simply the deaths that have stood out to me, but the way that death corrupted the most ordinary of rituals.

On an average day in middle school, fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety. I feared the block 10 times more than any pop quiz. My favorite show in those days was The Wonder Years. When Kevin Arnold went to visit his lost-found love Winnie Cooper, he simply hopped on his bike. In Baltimore, calling upon our Winnie Coopers meant gathering an entire crew. There was safety in numbers. Alone, we were targets.

The world I lived in, and the preserve of Lamar's album, was created not by mindless nature but by public policy. It is understandable that in the wake of great tragedy we'd want to take a second look at those policies. But in some corners of America great tragedy has bloomed into a world that does not simply raise the ranks of the dead but shrinks the world of the survivors. Good Kid shows us how gun violence extends beyond the actual guns.

Here is an album that people grappling with policy desperately need to hear. It does what art does best in that it bids the monotony of numbers to sing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at the Atlantic.

© 2013 New York Times

Comments
Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Big Sugar remains king in Florida. Just three of the state’s 27 House members voted for an amendment to the farm bill late Thursday that would have started unwinding the needless government supports for sugar that gouge taxpayers. Predictably, the am...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/18/18
Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

Editorial: A sweet note for the Florida Orchestra’s violin program for at-risk kids

This is music to the ears. Members of the Florida Orchestra will introduce at-risk students to the violin this summer at some Hillsborough recreation centers. For free.An $80,000 grant to the University Area Community Development Corp. will pay for s...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

Trump backs off China tariff threat as China pumps money into a Trump family project

In barely six weeks, President Donald Trump has gone from threatening to impose $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods to extending a lifeline to ZTE, a Chinese cell phone company that violated U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran and North K...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Editorial: Activism as seniors helps put Hillsborough graduates on the right path

Lots of teenagers are walking together this week in Hillsborough County, a practice they’ve grown accustomed to during this remarkable school year.We can only hope they keep walking for the rest of their lives.Tens of thousands of them this week are ...
Published: 05/17/18
Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Editorial: Bondi holds drug industry accountable for Florida opioid crisis

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis. In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

Editorial: Johns Hopkins All Children’s should be more open about mistakes

A state investigation raises even more concern about medical errors at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the venerable St. Petersburg institution’s lack of candor to the community. Regulators have determined the hospital broke Florida law by ...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18
Editorial: St. Petersburg recycling worth the effort despite cost issues

Editorial: St. Petersburg recycling worth the effort despite cost issues

St. Petersburg’s 3-year-old recycling program has reached an undesirable tipping point, with operating costs exceeding the income from selling the recyclable materials. The shift is driven by falling commodity prices and new policies in China that cu...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: HUD’s flawed plan to raise rents on poor people

Editorial: HUD’s flawed plan to raise rents on poor people

Housing Secretary Ben Carson has a surefire way to reduce the waiting lists for public housing: Charge more to people who already live there. Hitting a family living in poverty with rent increases of $100 or more a month would force more people onto ...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Editorial: Voters should decide whether legal sports betting comes to Florida

Editorial: Voters should decide whether legal sports betting comes to Florida

It’s a safe bet Florida will get caught up in the frenzy to legalize wagering on sports following the U.S. Supreme Court opinion this week that lifted a federal ban. Struggling horse and dog tracks would love a new line of business, and state l...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/16/18