by Michelle Richards –
“Life a livin’ hell, puddles of blood in the streets
Shooters on top of the building, government aid ain’t relief
Earthquake, the body drop, the ground breaks
The poor run with smoke lungs and Scarface…”
-Kendrick Lamar, “Pray for Me”
Known for using his music to combat injustice, Kendrick Lamar produced the Black Panther Soundtrack, which masterfully takes on issues like governmental discrimination, institutional racism, and the failures of the criminal justice system. With the help of talented artists like Jorja Smith, Future, The Weekend, and SZA, this album re-invokes the long history of Black resistance using a modern lens.
Following in the footsteps of Stan Lee, who created the original Black Panther comic series, Kendrick breaks away from themes of drug and violence that often plague mainstream rap, focusing instead on activism and fighting back against black oppression and injustice.
Unlike previous eras where discrimination was out in the open, oppression today, though persistent, is often covered up by claims of equality and inclusion. In fact, it is covered up so well that if you aren’t paying attention, you might not even notice it. But the artists on this soundtrack see right through the illusion:
“They tryna tell us that we all equal
We gettin’ no justice so it ain’t peaceful yeah
They could bluff you, they could beat you
Paid attorney, we gon’ need it”
These lyrics are from the song “Seasons” by black artists Mozzy, Sjava and Reason. Here and elsewhere in the album, we see efforts to educate. In listening to this soundtrack, one feels the urgency in wanting to see changes to today’s society, but also the acknowledgement that this struggle is not new.
The soundtrack’s commentary on how the criminal justice system treats black youth is one of its most powerful statements. One thing the album does remarkably is shed light on the damage the system has on our communities.
Consider Jorja Smith’s lyrics in “I am“:
“I cried when li’l brotha died…
“Feel like depending on me,
sometimes we ain’t meant to be free”
Similarly, consider Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics in “Pray for Me”:
“Mass destruction and mass corruption
The souls are sufferin’ men”
These lyrics, like the film, come at a crucial moment. Just as Lee’s original comic debuted during the Civil Right Movement – referencing efforts by its namesake, the Black Panther Party – this film and its accompanying soundtrack was no doubt inspired by and will give additional visibility to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is likewise pushing for awareness and reform.
The soundtrack also addresses activism in more indirect ways. Religion, which has been central to the history of Black struggle, comes up often. Several successful social movements have incorporated faith, seeing it as an institution where people are unified and connected. In “Pray for Me,” Kendrick raps:
“It’s all prophecy and if I gotta be sacrificed for the greater good, then that’s what it gotta be”
Activism is on the rise and the Black Panther soundtrack does not shy away from this truth. The Black Panther soundtrack has outdone itself by pursuing new territory and paving the road for activists who want their voices heard. With movements such as Black Lives Matter, and even Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” issues of racism and oppression have been hitting the light more and more often. This genre of music is the definition of protest in the arts. This vivid approach to grappling with these complicated themes make an important contribution to the struggle for social, economic and political reform for African Americans. Kendrick couldn’t have said it any better in his song “Black Panther:” “Are you an activist? What do you stand for?”
Michelle Richards is a senior at John Jay College. She is forward to graduating on May 30, with a Bachelor’s in Law and Society.