On Thursday, March 24th, the department of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas sponsored Make it Funky V: Reflections on Kendrick Lamar. The program, held at the Lawrence Arts Center, attracted many from the KU and Lawrence community. The purpose of the Make it Funky series is to explore connections between music, black writing and black culture.
The program began with Dr. Tony Bolden, who created Make it Funky in 2010, discussing the concept of “funk.” Funk, he says, is that which music conjures within us, it makes us want to move and break the constraints upon our body. What began as “funk,” a term borrowed from James Brown, evolved into “krunk” in the early 2000s, and currently “turned up” has replaced “funk” in our current generation of music listeners. Despite the various names, the underlying idea remains the same. Each of these terms occupies a particular time period in which music is being used to contest societal constraints on the body.
The keynote speaker, Sequoia Maner of the University of Texas at Austin, and a summer scholar at HBW’s “Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement” at the University of Kansas, discussed funk by analyzing the radicalism of Kendrick Lamar’s music. The hyper literary nature of Lamar’s music, she argued, allows Lamar to encompass and address political, societal, and historical concerns, undermining the singularity of other artists. Lamar, she said, does not consider himself a rapper, but a writer. He uses his music specifically as a vehicle to push for change. Lamar uses an autobiographical narrative in his music: he tells a story in a way that uniquely switches the power dynamics from white to black.
Maner argued that Lamar’s shifts of power dynamics is done in 3 ways: his lyricism, the imagery, such his album covers, and his live performances. In the song “The Blacker the Berry,” he states, “I’m African-American, I’m African/I’m black as the moon…My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide…your plan is to terminate my culture/You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” On the cover of his newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, black men, many shirtless, hold bottles of liquor and wads of cash on the Whitehouse lawn, with the Whitehouse looming in the background. During his recent Grammy performance, Lamar is shackled, but then breaks free of his shackles. Lights illuminate the clothing, which reveal African tribal marks on their clothing and bodies. The men dance, now free, embracing the funk.
Panelists Ayesha Hardison, Nicole Hodges-Persley, and Jameela Jones prompted questions by the audience, including themes of feminism, regional influences, and music as testimony in Lamar’s work.
A live music performance by Storm gave us all a taste of the funk.
Through its ability to create social change, music has had a significant impact on black culture. The Make it Funky series examines these historical, social, and political trends, allowing us to use music as a tool to critique the system and to continue to push for change. We look forward to seeing what new insights Make it Funky brings to the table next year.
[By Matthew Broussard]