What’s happening in America right now is heartbreaking, but I’m so happy to see so many people come together in support of the #BlackLivesMatter initiative and fight back against the racist system. All of you who are taking part in this protest, whether your posting about it in social media, going to rallies or donating to support groups, I’m so proud of all of you for finally standing up. I’m neither an American or a black person, but this is issue is beyond all race and culture – it is about our fight for humanity.
But still, since I’m not an American and the protests and their ramifications are still in a very premature state – I’m not willing to write about it explicitly yet. So here’s me instead telling you about a series that perfectly encapsulates the problems America is facing today as a whole – HBO’s Watchmen.
Damon Lindelof’s series that is a continuation of Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel ‘Watchmen’, uses the template of the graphic novel and uses it to showcase the struggles of Black America, and with other timely issues . With story lines that deal with racism in America, White Supremacy and heinous crimes against Black people over centuries in America – Watchmen is really a timely classic for our times that you need to see. Let me tell you why.
(NOTE: While reading the original graphic novel helps since this is a continuation of that story, the show is good enough to stand on its own and you can watch it anyway. By the way, who hasn’t read Watchmen? It is considered to be the greatest comic book of all time. Go read Watchmen!)
Tulsa Race Massacre
Right away, the opening of Watchmen’s pilot sheds light on one the darkest days in American history, which will surely send chills down your spine. The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and yet it cannot be found in school textbooks and anyone barely knows about it. This Monday, we marked the 99th anniversary of the incident and yes, we’ve come a long way since 1921, but watching the incidents of violence against the people of the black community that are prevalent even today, I am just left wondering if we have made any progress at all.
Origin of Hooded Justice
Watchmen begins with a young boy witnessing his parents die in the horrible Tulsa Race Massacre, and brilliantly sets up the origin story of Hooded Justice in one of the show’s best twists. It is revealed that Abar’s grandfather (the old dude who killed the police commissioner) is actually Hooded Justice, showcasing how vigilantism lies in their blood.
In episode 6, which is one of best scripted episodes of television I have seen, the tragic backstory of Hooded Justice is revealed as Abar consumes her grandfather’s nostalgia. The show makes changes to original mythology of Hooded Justice’s origins, and adds so much more depth to it. The show explores his tough times growing up alone and taking care of the baby he found on the day of the massacre, then how he fought in the war of USA even tough he was always treated unfair by his superiors and not given the honor he deserves and then how he eventually got a job as a police officer like he always wanted, but that was only for namesake – he still didn’t have any power over the whites who owned him. In fact he almost gets beaten to death by his peers, while his is face covered in mask and then hanged from a tree with a rope, for trying to arrest a rich white asshole.
But the policemen don’t kill him, they just let him go with a warning – Don’t get your nose into white folk’s business. As he walks back to his house with a rope hanging from his neck, tortured and humiliated by his fellow officers like a dog, he sees a few mob men attacking a lonely couple. He puts his mask on and fights the bad guys – and thus Hooded Justice is born that night. To be honest, I have always thought that the Hooded Justice costume looked dumb, but what they did with it here is mind-blowing, and I gotta commend them for that. But he doesn’t wear a mask to be a superhero – he wears his mask to hide his racial identity because he feels society isn’t ready for it. He wears white makeup around his eyes so that nobody realizes that they are being saved by a black man and even after he joins the superhero team Minutemen, his racial identity remains unknown, and as far as the world knows – all the superheroes from history were White. Talk about whitewashing history.
Regina King as the Series Lead
While the Watchmen graphic novel was revolutionary for it’s time, there were noticeably no black or characters of color and minority in the whole story. Also the only female character in the story was the one who was least developed in the story (and raped I might add). Damon Lindelof made it very clear that his intentions were to diversify Watchmen’s rich world and tell the story with modern sensibilities. Casting Regina King as the lead was a big part of that, and she absolutely nails the role. She’s a bad ass as the vigilante who works for the police and we all knew she was great performer, so the acting is top-notch. Watchmen went from being a book with no black characters to a show with a woman of color as the lead.
The Police in Watchmen’s World
The way the police are portrayed in Watchmen is very important to analyse considering the recent events regarding George Floyd’s death. Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe where the government is run by far-left politicians. So in this world, rather than the police exploiting the minorities, here we have the police being attacked by the racist white terrorists who feel they are being suppressed for not being able to use their ‘white privileges’ anymore. Thus, the police wear masks to hide their identities and they are just another part of the vigilante system in Tulsa. Also, an early scene in the show establishes how the police aren’t allowed to use guns anymore, unless a threat is verified, so that the department can reduce incidents of cop killings. We definitely need a check like that in our real world.
White Supremacists in Rorschach Masks
The white Supremacists form a cult in Watchmen’s world, who wear Rorschach masks in memory of their beloved misguided hero who believed in ‘Justice even in the face of Armageddon’. And what justice are they fighting for – loss of their white privilege or the humiliation in treating a black person equally?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Dr. Manhattan
Another revolutionary casting from the series came as a big surprise, as it was revealed Abar’s husband, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, was secretly Dr. Manhattan in hiding. Apart from a black actor portraying a famous character from comics who is traditionally white, this change is immensely powerful for what they decide to do with Dr. Manhattan’s story line here. Yahya is amazing in the role, and plays Dr. Manhattan so good that he steals every scene he’s in. And like the original, Dr, Manhattan raises many questions of love, faith, destiny and time in the series that are worth analyzing and giving a deep thought to.
Politics, Vigilantism, Philosophies and Watchmen
Watchmen has a long history of dealing with politics and asking philosophical questions – it is what made Alan Moore’s original graphic novel so famous. The graphic novel broke down the superhero genre and really analysed what it meant to be a superhero, and HBO’s adaptation continues this tradition. There’s so much to dig into and analyse in Watchmen, that if I were to discuss them all, I would need to write at least ten more posts on the show. So, in case you haven’t seen the show yet and are at the safety of your home – it is the perfect time for you to binge Watchmen on HBO. You’ll have a great time while subsequently get educated on some timely topics, and at the end you will be left with some heavy questions to ponder upon for hours.
Before TPAB, Kendrick Lamar was the new kid on the block. Everybody had heard of him and almost everybody knew he had the potential to do something big. But he wasn’t a star yet. His previous album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was a critical darling and quite a big hit considering his humble beginnings, but it just wasn’t enough to get him into the mainstream rap scene. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great album and even made Kendrick famous. Heck, it was the fame he earned from his first two albums, that lead to him creating TPAB. Having trouble to deal with this newfound fame, money and cultural identity, Kendrick went to South Africa looking for inspiration. The influence of his trip on the direction of the album can be easily felt.
It’s been only five years since Kendrick released To Pimp a Butterfly (15 April, 2015), but it’s already considered to be a classic by many. And rightfully so, TPAB is one of those albums that cements your name among the legends forever. Kendrick was no more the new upcoming talent in the hip hop scene, he was one of the masters of the genre. A commercial and critical success upon it’s release, It went on to earn Lamar 11 grammy nominations, and a grammy for best rap album of the year (It lost Album of the year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 funnily). A lot of magazines called it the best album of 2015 and The Independent named it the “Album of the decade”. In short, it was huge.
Kendrick explores a lot of themes on TPAB, all of which I can’t even comprehend. It talks about subjects ranging from black history to celebrity worship. If we were to discuss all of those themes, all the literary references and musical innovations , we’ll be stuck here all day. Instead I’m gonna talk about each track individually, discuss about what I think they’re about and what they mean to me and at the end I give you my final thoughts. Sounds cool? Aight.
“No one teaches poor black males how to manage money or celebrity, so if they do achieve success, the powers that be can take it from right under them”. Kendrick Lamar has given pretty clear explanation about what’s this song is about. He makes a direct reference in the song about Wesley Snipe’s arrest at the age of 35, on the charges of tax evasion.
“But remember, you ain’t pass economics in school And everything you buy, taxes will deny I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five”
This is one of my favorite tracks in the album. Right from the opening you know you are in for a treat. The instrumentation is beautiful and the sampling by Kendrick is exceptional. I also love the features on this track. From George Clinton to Steven Ellison, all bring their A-game.
I also like to read this song as reference to Chaos Theory o The Butterfly Effect considering the things Kendrick talks about later in the album. It states that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can cause a cyclone in the other end. Kendrick compares himself to the butterfly a lot, and his little songs that can have huge meaning or effect on people at the completely other end of the globe.
“But remember, anybody can get it The hard part is keepin’ it, motherfucker”
2. For Free? (Interlude)
When I first heard heard this song I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t decide if was genius or a disaster. But once I listened to it for the second time I knew it was genius. I mean the jazz instrumentation is itself sensational but combined with Kendrick’s fast flowing sarcastic lyrics – it is a masterpiece.
“This dick ain’t free You lookin’ at me like it ain’t a receipt like I never made ends meet Eating your leftovers and raw meat This dick ain’t free”
Kendrick takes a dig here at the materialistic nature of modern rappers, how they always go around flexing girls and cars. He also talks about the struggles he had to face suddenly once he became rich and famous, and how suddenly girls wanted to sleep with him now. Kendrick makes a statement about this dirty side of fame and most modern musicians seem to have accepted. The song also talks about all the dirty things money makes people do and how it affects family values and nature in Ameica.
“Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton and made you rich Now my dick ain’t free.”
3. King Kunta
“The yam is the power that be (that be, that be, that be, that be, that be) You can smell it when I’m walkin’ down the street”
Let’s start this one with some background information. Kunta Kinte is a fictional character from the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Kinte got his right foot cut off because of his attempts to escape his plantation. The way Kendrick uses yams to represent power and discrimination with the song is genius.
If we take a look at the song, you can see that Kendrick is using an easy rhyme scheme to bring the message across in a very simplistic way so everyone can understand it. He calls out the people that weren’t interested in him before he got famous and he also raps about how everyone wants a piece of his leg (reference to Kunta), that means everyone wants a piece of his money, fame or success.
“I was gonna kill a couple rappers, but they did it to themselves Everybody’s suicidal, they ain’t even need my help This shit is elementary, I’ll probably go to jail”
“What money got to do with it When I don’t know the full definition of a rap image?”
Kendrick’s past is still a part of him even though he made it out of the hood. He talks about everyone being Institutionalized and put into stereotypes. The Intro talks about What Kendrick understood of a rap image – money, hoes, clothes, and celebrity – was just part of what it means to be successful. What he didn’t understand is that one can obtain these things, but it doesn’t mean you’re entirely free from your past or societal limitations put on a person of color. You can be famous but still poor of spirit or mind. Verse 2 shows how money influences people’s actions and behavior towards other people by an example of one of Kendrick’s friends.
Institutionalized is also a metaphor foe how the music industry changed Kendrick as a person and what he thinks of it.
“And once upon a time in a city so divine Called West Side Compton, there stood a little nigga He was five foot something, God bless the kid Took his homie to the show and this is what they said”
5. These Walls
“I remember you was conflicted Misusing your influence Sometimes, I did the same”
The title has 3 different meanings. The walls of a woman, the walls of his mind and the walls of a prison cell. The song narrates Kendrick having sex with a married woman whose husband is in prison for killing one of Kendrick’s friends. Lamar views this as an act of revenge for his dead friend but he also has a bad conscience about using his power to seduce someone like mention in the song “For Free?”.
“If these walls could talk I can feel your reign when it cries Gold lives inside of you”
“Mood swings is frequent, nigga I know depression is restin’ on your heart for two reasons, nigga I know you and a couple block boys ain’t been speakin’, nigga”
So this is a very dark and personal song for Kendrick Lamar. He faces internal battles such as insecurities, self-hatred, selfishness and let-downs. He talks to himself and blames himself for things he has done or not done in the past. He also questions himself and questions who he really is.
Kendrick deals with depression and suicidal thoughts during the song, especially towards the end of it. The lyrics here are extremely beautiful and heartbreaking. You may not have faced the same situations as him but you feel Kendrick’s pain through this track.
“I cry myself to sleep Bitch, everything is your fault Faults breakin’ to pieces, earthquakes on every weekend Because you shook as soon as you knew confinement was needed”
“Alls my life I has to fight, nigga Alls my life I Hard times like, yah!”
Alright is the most successful single of TPAB. It probably even has one of the most catchiest hooks of the album (Nigga we gonna be alright). But that’s doesn’t mean the song isn’t deep. The first line itself is a direct reference from the famous 1982 novel “The color purple” which tells the tale of Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation.
‘Alright’ is like a response to ‘u’. He tells himself that he’ll be alright and he’ll get through it with God’s help. The song has an optimistic message and verse 2 introduces Lucy (Lucifer)
“And we hate po-po Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga I’m at the preacher’s door”
8. For Sale (Interlude)
“The evils of Lucy was all around me So I went runnin’ for answers Until I came home”
The 2nd Interlude of this album is about Kendrick dealing with Lucy’s temptations. She sells him all these ideas that she will fulfill all of his dreams and promises, but he knows that it is all a lie.
He also decides to spread his message through his songs instead of selling out like many other artists, which boy he does. But Kendrick doesn’t only share his ideas he makes sure the music supporting those ideas is great.
“met a little boy that resembled my features Nappy afro, gap in his smile Hand me down sneakers bounced through the crowd”
Momma refers to Africa, because that’s where he comes from, that’s where his roots are. He also went on a trip to South Africa in 2014. Lamar talks about growing as a person and fighting off Lucy’s temptations. The trip to Africa changed his view and perspective on a lot of things and he realized that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did.
“The mind of a literate writer but I did it in fact You admitted it once I submitted it wrapped in plastic Remember scribblin’ scratchin’ dilligent sentences backwards”
10. Hood Politics
“I don’t give a fuck about no politics in rap, my nigga (my nigga) My lil’ homie Stunna Deuce ain’t never comin’ back, my nigga (my nigga)”
Kendrick’s voice is at a higher pitch on this track to signify his younger self when the hood was all he knew. He tells himself just to spit lyrics for his homies and not to worry about politics at the start of the first verse. Kendrick celebrates the hood life in this song and at the same time criticises it’s shortcomings. He analyses he’s transtion to the man that he is today, and you can even sense a longing for the hood life in him.
“But that didn’t stop survivors guilt Going back and forth, trying to convince myself the stripes I earned Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city I was entering a new one.”
11. How much does a dollar cost?
“How much a dollar really cost? The question is detrimental, paralyzin’ my thoughts Parasites in my stomach keep me with a gut feeling, y’all”
In this track Kendrick runs into a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa who asks him for a dollar. Kendrick thinks that he wants the money to buy some crack as he looks like a crack addict. He starts to feel guilty about his selfishness. Later on, the homeless man claims to be God and a dollar has cost Kendrick his place in heaven.He curses Kendrick on his lack of generosity. Kendrick asks for forgiveness and is now free of Lucy and Uncle Sam.
Here Kendrick expresses his visual confusion about what to do with all the money he has earned He doesn’t want to give it away to the poor, because once he was one of them, and if he can make it even they can. Money will make them lazy and they won’t work. We wants to help them with the money he’s earned but not give it to them.
“He looked at me and said, “Your potential is bittersweet” I looked at him and said, “Every nickel is mines to keep”
12 Complexion (A Zulu love)
”Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the mornin’ sun Give a fuck about your complexion, I know what the Germans done”
Through this song, Kendrick talks about discrimination based on color. And not just discrimination among black and white, but within the people of color. Complexion is about educating society on Color-ism and telling everyone that every color is beautiful to him and that dark skin and light skin is equal.
“Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing”
13. The blacker the berry
“Everything black, I don’t want black (they want us to bow) I want everything black, I ain’t need black (down to our knees)”
This track borrows it’s name from The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life, a novel by American author Wallace Thurman, associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The novel tells the story of Emma Lou Morgan, a young black woman with dark skin.
This song deals with racialized self-hatred and racism in general. It also deals with internal problems the black community faces. Kendrick raps with an aggressive voice throughout the song and is angry about the destruction of black lives.
“You hate my people, I can tell ’cause it’s threats when I see you I can tell ’cause your ways deceitful Know I can tell because you’re in love with that Desert Eagle Thinkin’ maliciously, he get a chain then you gone bleed him”
14.You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)
“And the world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you But you think it’s all love And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done”
This track might be a reference to 2Pacs ‘Lie To Kick It’, I’m not sure about it. The intro introduces Kendricks mother as the initial voice. The song is about being yourself and not lying to fit in somewhere and it’s also about stereotyping people.
“Tell me before we off ya, put you deep in the coffin Been allergic to talkin’, been a virgin to bullshit And sell a dream in the auction, tell me just who your boss is”
“I done been through a whole lot Trial, tribulation, but I know God Satan wanna put me in a bow tie”
‘i’ is the complete turnaround to ‘u’. Though TPAB revolves around negative temptations and self-doubt, this song offers redemption. He found himself and is able to love himself now. This is also contrast to ‘u’ where he hated himself and couldn’t imagine loving himself. Kendrick also explains how the media wants to keep everyone down by spreading negativity. He is proud to be black and shows this by the word ‘Negus’ which means royalty in Ethiopian.
“And I love myself (The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs) I love myself (But it can do what it want whenever it want, I don’t mind) I love myself (He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide) I love myself (One day at a time, sun gon’ shine)”
16. Mortal Man
‘Mortal Man’ is probably the most ambitious track in hip hop history. The track can be divided into three sections. The first half of it he name-checks different leaders such as Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X. This part was clearly inspired from his trip to South Africa, where he visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell.
He describes his early self (and many others like him) as a caterpillar forced consume anything and everything in order to survive. He then realised the only way he can make it out of the streets (the cocoon) was to pimp his music, talent and beauty out to the record labels and privileged society. This metaphor was used throughout the whole album and is also the title of the album. It’s also interesting that the former name of the album was Tu Pimp A Caterpillar (2Pac).
Kendrick got the audio recordings of 2Pac’s interview in Germany when he was doing an interview himself. Kendrick was fascinated because the answers that 2Pac was giving were still relevant for today. I gotta tell you as soon as I heard Pac’s voice I got emotional. Here I was listening to one of my favorite artist talk to his idol, a legend who’s now a dead man. So let’s get to the interview with Pac. They discuss the black culture, racism, fame and image. Kendrick feels like 2Pacs spirit lives through him and the poem that continues throughout the whole album at the end of songs comes to an end as Kendrick reads out the poem to Tupac perfectly circling out the whole album. At the end when Kendrick calls out “Pac.. Pac… Pac…”, not gonna lie, I totally cried.
“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it In order to protect itself from this mad city While consuming its environment The caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him But praises the butterfly The butterfly represents the talent The thoughtfulness and the beauty within the caterpillar But having a harsh outlook on life The caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak And figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits Already surrounded by this mad city The caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon Which institutionalizes him He can no longer see past his own thoughts He’s trapped When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take root, such as Going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city The result? Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations That the caterpillar never considered Ending the internal struggle Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different They are one and the same”
I think this poem perfectly sums up the theme of To pimp a butterfly. Kendrick fully transforms into the butterfly at the end. He might have a longing towards his humble early life, but what he has is much more valuable. Sure the artist life is full of problems and mental insecurities. But as an artist he can now do things he never could earlier. He can speak to people around the globe, he can shed light on issues no one else would, he has the power to uplift the conditions of those like him and he the opportunity influence a whole new generation with his rap. But the fact that he’s a big man now, a butterfly, doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his roots or where he came from – The caterpillar still lives somewhere inside the butterfly.