By Ryan Mitra
Staying 30 minutes away from the Institute can be tedious and feel fairly disadvantageous once you’re in the grinding period of the semester. Having to organize your schedule, often from almost 6 in the morning, is not an ideal situation. Especially if you’re going all the way across the city on a Monday morning for a single 2-hour class, in which the first 10 minutes are always swept away trying to get organized with the hybrid model. However, in my specific experience in Professor Mohamedou’s classes on State Building and War Making in the Developing World and Post 9/11 History, I found the bus rides to and from campus were truly a period of reflecting on what I had read the night before, and what I had learned in class the morning after.
The sheer magnitude and relevance of what the professor was cogently delivering every week felt a bit overwhelming at times. Cue: Dissect Podcasts-Season 1 and 5:Dissecting Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) and DAMN. Cole Cushna guides his listeners through the undertones and hidden messages of Kendrick Lamar’s prolific discography and award-winning albums. Kendrick in his songs often refers to racial realities in the United States, his experiences in Compton, and the injustice deeply entrenched in the American dream. And it is within the novelization of Kendrick’s songs, I found the figurative funnel to channel my learnings of these courses.
A small but significant anecdote within this endeavour of mine is where I drew parallels between what was taught about the immediate Post-WW2 and decolonization years and Kendrick’s song on TPAB titled “For Free”. Three characters are center stage throughout the album; Kendrick as the ‘liberated’ African-American, the woman who represents the lust of the American dream, and Uncle Sam, the alter ego of Lucifer. Lamar in this layered song comments on the false allure of ‘post-racial America and the American ‘dream’. He sings:
Livin’ in captivity raised my cap salary
Celery, tellin’ me green is all I need
Evidently all I seen was spam and raw sardines
Referring to the pre-decided boundaries and thresholds of American society, he critiques how his community was forcefully kept on the fringes under the guise of freedom and had a standard of societal living imposed upon them; a dream which since its inception has been doused in capitalistic virtues and slave labor. But this ‘freedom’ inadvertently brought intellectual autonomy and literacy which structured the fight against political discrimination and socio-economic injustice. These three bars helped me not only contextualize but also visualize the Eurocentric approach to decolonization in different parts of Africa and Asia under the guise of modernization and liberation. Noting the unsustainable model of colonialism post-1945, European States continued to debate self-determination from a European perspective; either by according them more rights under the democratic constitution of their Empires (the Eurafrican approach) or envision them as vacuous political entities that were susceptible to ideologies that had matured in the competition between the powers in the West. These states continued to be economically disenfranchised, resource-drained, and were left the bare minimum of the industrial output; the metaphorical spam and raw sardines.
In one of the readings, the professor clearly states:
Non-Western statehood emerges importantly as a set of historical processes more than structures (contrary to what Nettl argued in 1968). The fact that the state is an entity that always survives the different type of limitations that are imposed upon it – be they legal, societal, normative or otherwise – prompts us to understand the saliency of the state as an essentially continuous quality, one resulting from its temporality and a permanent action of construction and de-construction.
For my reference, I embodied the experience of newly decolonized States in the ‘liberated’ African-American, the Colonizers in ‘Uncle Sam’, and the presupposed structure of Westphalian Statehood as the ‘American Dream’. In his class, I reflected on how I was taught about India’s decolonization in 1947, and how it was always represented as a linear experience of how at the stroke of the midnight hour on 15th August 1947 was magically unshackled from all colonial variables. Speaking about the Eur-African bloc, and the origin of the Vietnam War, the course guided me through how the process of decolonization was not benevolent. Much like the period following the Emancipation Proclamation, a lot of resistance was observed from entities that were at the cusp of losing their authoritarian position.
The colonial ghost in international relations lingers and surfaces just as chronically as the racial ghost in Kendrick’s songs. Generational experiences create transgenerational products. And Kendrick’s dexterity as a poet perfectly helped me visualize the professor’s fundamental message; no being or entity exists in a vacuum, and the pursuit of reclaiming their agency will always cause a rift. This rift is seen as transgressions or blanketed as acts of ‘terrorism’ because they challenge a predesigned ‘destiny/dream’ and framework. A framework built on the backs of people whose agencies were forcefully and relentlessly suffocated, who were told what they should want. As these challenges often turn violent or wicked, as depicted in many of Kendrick’s songs on DAMN, it is because they are often like asphyxiated individuals (dying of thirst), fighting for their right to breathe without being told the ‘correct’ way to inhale. The music video for ‘For Free’ with Kendrick draped in Uncle Sam’s clothing and working in the damp and destitute burner room of the ‘affluent’ house laden with decadent materialism, and even the breathless delivery on the interlude perfectly epitomize this lesson.
In one of his works, the professor poignantly says, “agency and desire to control one’s trajectory are prime movers of the rebellion at the core of (this) violence.” And the ignorant virtues of colonial States are blind to this reality while linearizing their statesmanship to single identity tropes on the lines of religion and/or ethnicity. The recent ignorant views of the French political class towards the Islamic youth tragically rhymes with the conservatives in America. Representative values, be it Hijabs, Burkas, Hip-Hop, or rap music are always targeted as they single out physical attributes of complex socio-cultural backgrounds and the colonial histories associated with them. In “BLOOD.” “DNA.” and “YAH.” Kendrick repeatedly samples and makes references to the absurdly ignorant views of Geraldo Rivera on Fox News regarding hip-hop music and how it has “damaged” African-Americans more than racism in recent years. Highlighting the underlying ignorance and/or amnesia regarding the horrifying legacy of slavery and racism that to date underlines the systemic racism faced by this minority. This also rings true for Muslims and their representative values in occidental societies.
Kendrick is a singer-rapper, Kendrick is a hip-hop artist, and, Kendrick is a poet. In all these forms and all his works, he offers the wide interpretive value that very few artists have managed to offer in their oeuvres. My interpretation of his work in correlation with the academic output of Professor Mohamedou allowed me to understand better that no conflict or ‘transgression’ can simply be what it is supposed to be prima facie. Legacies are built throughout history, and linear demonizing or romanticizing are unfaithful to the lived experiences of generations that existed and continue to exist under the burdens of colonialism, racism, and subjugation. It is imperative to look beyond the material and in situ capitalistic or ‘rogue’ positions of people and States and at the history behind these. Lessons learned from the colonial/racist foundations behind the ’40 acres and a mule’ hold a very valuable place in our histories and our present.
Simply put, Kendrick’s penmanship is beautifully complimentary to Professor Mohamedou’s scholarship. And I’d like to leave you, the reader, with a lyric from DAMN’s “XXX.”:
Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.
“Kendrick Lamar – Øyafestivalen 2013.” by NRK P3 licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0