Time to Pick the Bar off the Floor

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A day ago, the TDE force we know to be Kendrick Lamar dropped his new single, Humble, along with a vibrant visual directed by Dave Meyers. Amongst the hype of Kendrick’s new project, Black Twitter also made time to spark up a debate about his references to women’s stretch marks, photoshop, and natural beauty. In the single, Kendrick expresses that he is tired of all of the photoshop and that he’s more interested in seeing women’s natural stretch marks, cellulite, and natural hair. Some heralded him for what they believe to be him uplifting women. Others argued that he was policing women’s agency and that his attempt to “uplift” women was very male-centric.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am an avid fan of Kendrick Lamar and the rest of Black Hippy. I have been following Top Dawg Entertainment’s journey for a long time. Kendrick Lamar’s music has helped me cope and get through some tough times. Although I admire his music, that does not mean I think he’s above criticism. I acknowledge that he’s a dope artist but I also recognize that he is in fact human and humans come with flaws and complexity. I acknowledge that Kendrick Lamar may have somewhat of a conscious understanding of race but like most cishet Black men, when it comes to women–Black women in particular, he still has some growing to do.

Kendrick, like most male rappers, continuously says misogynistic things in his music. He habitually refers to women as bitches and hoes when he doesn’t care for how they present themselves:

“…Too many bitches got rabies. And I hate a ho-poppin’ woman, stank pussy-poppin’ woman, you fuckin fool, don’t know bout you but my dick need 70 years on it..”

He’s also guilty of compartmentalizing women. I expressed the harm in doing so in this article and my sex positive e-book:

“I call a bitch, a bitch. A hoe, hoe. A woman, a woman.”

As most men, Kendrick Lamar’s regard for women is complex. It’s not black and white. Men usually have conditional respect for women that is based upon shallow notions that are informed by sexism. Yes, he may have times where it seems as if he is trying to uplift Black women but most of the time those attempts have fallen short. In his track No Make-Up (Her Vice), although it seems endearing, I’m not impressed with perpetuating this narrative that women who wear make-up are doing so because they’re insecure about their appearance. Even if a woman is insecure and guises that through make-up, that says more about how society pressures women to look a certain way and that should be addressed if you’re really trying to break the surface here.

There are also times where Kendrick comes off as intrusive and patronizing towards women. His track Tammy’s Song (Her Evils) basically mocks women in bad relationships and soups up female queerness to a last resort when relationships with men aren’t working. I also learned from a follower that he exploited a woman’s story about being sexually assaulted and killed in his track Keisha’s Song. He went against the wishes of her family and exposed her story. You can read so here. If this was not about centering himself and what he wants, wouldn’t he have respect for the victim’s privacy, integrity, and her family?

In his For Free? interlude on his album, To Pimp a Butterfly, he uses a “gold-digging” Black woman to symbolize white supremacist capitalism. Not only did that perpetuate an anti-black misogynistic trope, it also ignores how capitalism harms Black women as well. Exposing the capitalistic attitude of America at the expense of Black women is not the move if you’re supposedly about uplifting Black women. 

In this new single and visual, Humble, Kendrick expressed that he wanted to see women in their natural state. To be honest, I was left unimpressed. I wasn’t bothered by it per se but it definitely did not resonate with me. To me, it was just something to shrug at. He said he wants to see “afro hair like Richard Pryor” but when the video model crosses the split screen, her hair is simply loose curls. Huh? And what happens when the cellulite and stretch marks aren’t on the backside of a woman but on her belly? Is that still acceptable?

A lot of times, men claim they prefer a woman’s natural state over make-up and such but men also notoriously make fun of women’s natural bodies. They call women with small breasts “boys.” They mock a woman’s acne when they see her without make-up. They also repulse at a woman’s body hair. Most of the time the “I want the natural” remark men make only refers to women they deem as attractive. That’s self-serving and shows that it’s not really about wanting women to feel comfortable in their natural state but about filtering out which women they truly find attractive without make-up, weave, and so on.

People make a valid point and say that “Well, it’s just one song. It was 10 seconds. What do you expect the man to do? Rap a dissertation?” True but Kendrick also has an expansive discography where he has had ample time to grow and use his platform to amplify the voices of Black women. Instead he tends to take the mic and centers himself. People are also like, “Well, he’s saying he doesn’t want to see photoshop bodies but instead see women naturally. Isn’t that empowering for women? Isn’t that good?”

Here’s the thing though, women’s empowerment is not about what Kendrick wants. In fact it’s not at all about what men want. It’s about what women want for themselves and people respecting that. So if a woman wants to use photoshop on her photos, that’s fine. If she doesn’t, that’s fine as well. If a woman loves a good sew-in, gel set, and make-up, that’s cool. If a woman likes to be bare-faced, that’s fine as well. The issue is photoshop and modified bodies being the standard for women but if a woman wants to take that route, she has that right. It just should not be an obligation for all women. Women’s empowerment–feminism–is not about centering the male gaze. It is about centering a woman’s agency.

In those few moments of Humble, Kendrick’s remarks that rejected photoshop and so on were self-serving. It was about what he wanted to see. It was about what he finds attractive. A woman feeling “empowered” by his remarks seemed to be secondary and within the context of the song–people “humbling” themselves–it seems as if he might be implying that women who use photoshop are morally bankrupt. I don’t apologize for not being moved by that. It’s incredibly sad that all a man has to say is that he likes stretch marks and people lose their minds and put him on this pedestal. It shows how little we expect of men.

Men are praised for doing the bare minimum and quite frankly, I’m tired of that. It’s time to raise the bar. It’s time that men’s efforts to “empower” women don’t stop at telling us we’re beautiful without make-up. In retrospect, that’s a shallow way to uplift women. By shifting the narrative from “Women must look like this,” to “No, actually I want women to look like this,” it shows that you are still placing a great value of a woman’s worth on the way she looks. “Women’s empowerment” is not just about telling women they look pretty as is. It’s also about actively creating safe, affirming spaces for women. By shifting the narrative from, “Men find this unrealistic mold of a woman attractive,” to “Well, actually, now men find this realistic mold of a woman attractive,” still centers men and still objectifies and pushes women to the margins. How in the world does centering men empower women?

As a female fan of Kendrick Lamar, I want to see him evolve and grow in his gender politics.  He has his moments where he sometimes “gets it:” featuring dark skin models in his videos, featuring female rappers such as Rapsody on his tracks, and praising all shades of Blackness on his track Complexion. This shows that he is capable of doing better and I am not wrong for expecting better. I want Kendrick and other Black men to move past centering a woman’s appearance and what they deem attractive in their attempts to uplift Black women and move to a place where they fully value and respect Black women. It is time to amplify the voices of Black women. It is time to use your platform as a Black man to bring attention to things that actually matter such as numbers of Black girls going missing. It is not enough to find Black women attractive.

It is time to pick the bar off the floor.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Very well said. The kindergarten effort is shameful, but we have been babying black men since slavery in an attempt to restore their masculinity. It’s way past time to move beyond that and create accountability for black men falling into patriarchy’s clutches.

  2. Jc says:

    Marielle,

    Kendrick brings light here to a point of view most men do not allow themselves to entertain– when it comes to physical features of women. Many reasons why praising unaltered beauty lacks today but here we see otherwise. Plus that practice is being exercised on a massive scale by the will of one who has grown such as Kendrick Lamar. His own choice, voice. Something he may have lacked in his reality that he saw made him a better person, so he shares with the world. Although it is aroubd the corber, we are not (in time) yet where attention no longer goes to women’s physical features. We are breaking away from the remains of a predominantly patriarchal world. Can you see this as a sign of transition between this time we are in and the times we are moving to, away from this patriarchal moment?

    PS. Beautify written article. Pleasure reading 🙏👐☄
    Best
    JC

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