Kendrick Lamar Speaks Out Against the American Prison-Industrial Complex at 58th Grammy Awards

On Monday night, February 15, 2016, long before the last notes were strummed, the night had belonged to superstar rapper Kendrick Lamar at 58th annual Grammy Awards ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Kendrick Lamar, the 28-year-old hip-hop prodigy from Compton, California, entered the Grammys as this year’s most nominated artist, with a total of 11 nominations for his sprawling, platinum-certified third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly, surpassing Eminem as the rapper with the most nominations in a single year, while becoming the second overall musician behind Michael Jackson, who earned 12 nominations and eight wins in 1984. Lamar would go on to receive five trophies throughout the night for that album as well as an endorsement from President Barack Obama.


However, he fell short in the biggest categories, failing to win Song of The Year to Ed Sheeran’s 2014 wedding-friendly blue-eyed soul soft rock ballad “Thinking Out Loud” and Album of The Year to Taylor Swift’s monolithic fifth studio album, the rose-colored twinkling electro-synth dream pop effort 1989. The masses felt Lamar was robbed in both categories and they are right; though as a rule, the Grammys have never fully embraced rap or hip-hop. Neither genre has ever won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year or the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.


At the 2015 Grammy Awards, the rapper would go on to taking home top honors for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance in 2015 for “i,” the lead single from his masterwork, but went home empty-handed a year prior after his widely-lauded sophomore effort good kid, M.A.A.D. City was cast aside in most categories in favor of The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, which came as a fatal blow for hip-hop fans. Expecting to be disappointed, perhaps that’s why the Grammys suffered a drop of 9.4% from last year to the lowest demo Grammy result since 2009, drawing only 24.95 million viewers. That’s terribly because those who didn’t watch that show missed a flash of pop culture glory when the rapper executed a cathartic, jaw-dropping, politically charged, axis-shifting performance for the ages.


A subdued Don Cheadle, the Oscar-nominated actor who will make his directorial debut with an upcoming Miles Davis biopic, introduced the rapper over the roars of psychedelic funk and free jazz saxophone evocative of late-1970s Prime Time era Ornette Coleman. Members of his band, caged inside jail cells, played on as if playing negro spirituals. Paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and his hometown through a meticulously staged medley of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright,” Lamar arrived onto the stage shackled to other young black men in handcuffs walking out as part of a chain gang in a blue prison uniform.


Delivering machine-gun verses while sporting a black eye, the street poet turned town crier dazzled and bewildered in his delivery, trying to unearth and decode the modern day black experience in America, conversations of black identity, racial discord, civil unrest, the age of mass black incarceration and police violence in black communities. When the music segued into a rhythm-heavy boom-bap and settled into a funk groove elevated by bongos and smooth horn blasts, the chains snapped and fell to the floor and the twitching, strung-out jailbirds broke into a dance of freedom and total abandon.


The stage dimmed, black light flooded the proscenium, Day-glo embellishments were seen draped onto the prison uniforms. A cavalcade of Afro-tribal dancers drumming and dancing in jamboree then joined them, and soon after a volcanic pyrotechnic bonfire that created jarring reflections of the Rodney King riots the 12th street riots and attacks inflicted black churches, overcame the stage. At the finale, the rapper took the stage alone with a brand new tune that addressed the murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, speaking out on the unjust legal system and utilized some rather niffy quicksilver fast action camera work with white lighting effects.

Kendrick Lamar

Building to a visceral crescendo, the stage lights went down again to reveal the word “Compton” emblazoned over a gargantuan ivory map of the continent of Africa and Lamar’s haunting silhouette. It encapsulated the zeitgeist, the cultural climate of black bodies and boldly stated this on one of the ‘whitest’ stages in the world and in doing so, it was groundbreaking and thought-provoking and chronicled the majesty of black power.


But earlier in the evening, Kendrick Lamar gave a knowing wink at what was to come: After taking a moment on the podium to give thanks to his parents, his wife Whitney Alford, and his label Top Dawg, Lamar dedicated his win for Best Rap Album to hip-hop artists who were never honored with the music industry’s coveted award, listing legendary rappers Snoop Dogg and Nas as well as their pioneering albums Doggystyle and Illmatic, respectively.


This all on the night that the cast of Broadway’s biggest show, “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Great Americana hit-hop opus, performed the Grammy Awards telecast live from the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It also happened on the very same night that Golden Age rap trailblazers Run-DMC were honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Black Messiah

It also happened on the very same night that neo-soul alchemist D’Angelo, returning to the music scene after a hiatus of nearly 15 years, would go on to win the prize for Best R&B Song for “Really Love” and Best R&B Album for his third LP Black Messiah, more or less a companion piece to Lamar’s own third LP.


This performance, one that chronicles bondage that developed into supposed absconding from white supremacy, that matured into a celebrating liberation, before dovetailing into the dilapidated veracity that plights the psychological, emotional, cerebral and pathological mindsets of people of color was a compass for youth watching to tune into the world around them. It was also a send-up of hip-hop and reminding us what the art form was always about: rebellion in its purest form against the establishment. It is also a salute to publications, such as ours, past and present, an ode to the hip-hop heads and b-boys, a war cry for the soapbox steppers and social justice warriors, who have been manning the front lines, reporting on the heritage, impacting the lifestyle, critiquing the cultural climate and instituting it for generations to come.

For those that don’t do it for profit, but to enlighten and uplift. This is for you.


MARCUS SCOTT is a playwright, songwriter, dramaturge, sketch comic and journalist. His work has appeared in Elle, Out, Passport, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Backstage, Giant, Hello Beautiful, NewsOne, The Urban Daily, Madame Noire, Styleblazer, Clutch, Artvoice, Bleu and Krave, among others. He has interviewed Fefe Dobson, VV Brown, Elle Varner, SWV, Danity Kane, Ryan Leslie, Rose Byrne, James Earl Jones, Annaleigh Ashford, LaMarr Woodley, Mehcad Brooks, Lisa Raye, Shaun Ross, Columbus Short and Boris Kodjoe, among others.

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