Social conscience does not play an important role in rap music videos. The visuals seen in most rap videos are not usually metaphorically thought out and very rarely do they encompass or delve into societal and personal issues. Kendrick Lamar differentiates himself from the usual rapper, where he takes on the role of being a storyteller for black culture, as he takes a piece of history and makes it brand new. He gives audiences influential and complex visuals as a portrayal of the paradoxical clichés placed upon black communities in America. Lamar’s video for “ELEMENT” tackles the pain, violence, and beauty in his community and culture. His use of visuals comes together to tear down the preconceptions of what it means to be a black individual in America, where life and death is always on the line. “ELEMENT” takes inspiration from Gordon Parks, a photographer and photojournalist who worked closely with the civil rights movement, by bringing his pictures of poverty, racism and social wrongs to life, then collaborates his work with inspiration from his director, Jonas Lindstroem. By combing their works, he delievers his own vision and collaborative aesthetic to expand viewer’s knowledge of black culture from his own experiences. He exhibits hardships, loss, profiling and racism. Thus, Lamar platform to bring awareness to his own upbringing and success, as well as how history repeats itself.
Lamar’s Collaborative Aesthetic in “ELEMENT”
Lamar uses the music video for ELEMENT to expand his listener’s knowledge of the lyrical meaning as he gives viewers a new perspective through his collaborative aesthetic. The portrayal of the video marks its significance as Lamar combines director Jonas Lindstroem’s previous works and Gordon Parks’ photographs. Lamar frameworks Lindstroem’s own work and aspects of his short film “Truth or Dare” as a mirror of inspiration. Lindstroem’s short film “Truth or Dare” is described as various vignettes of images and performances. Lindstroem states that the short film is “an elevated version of the content found on mobile phones,” and as “depicting situations that can serve as reference points for a specific place in time.” (Kelley) Lindstroem takes ordinary every day makes and creates impact on them by producing them as moving visuals. He experiments with suicide, emotional pain, conflicts and corruption through various voices in his visuals. Like Lamar, Lindstroem uses his platform to influence society in a more political way since most often than not society seems to disregard and distance themselves from the the atrocity and inhumanity that surrounds them. He wants his viewers to realize that they are turning a blind eye to major issues within this enviroment. Lamar takes this tactic of Lindstroem’s work by showing an overpowering amount of violence in the music video, as well as his own life, growing up in Compton. Both Lindstroem and Lamar use images as references as they reflect on struggles faced in different environments. For Lamar, he takes the violence and negative factors of his life to show the difficulties that he has endured throughout his life. Together these two bring awareness artistically through a political scope. By losing grasp of the constraints placed on the usual rap music videos, Lamar sees it as his duty to make political change through his music and powerful imagery.
By far the most intriguing visuals from Lamar’s video are the reflective imagery of Gordon Park’s works which he transcribes into his video as moving images. The first visual used in the video is a reprise of Park’s photograph of Ethel Muhammad Sharrieff, an Islamic African-American who enabled women to be part of the Nation of Islam, an African American and religious movement founded in 1930. She noticed how women were not given much of a voice in their society. Thus, Sharrieff worked to have women’s freedom of expression and equality met in the organization. (Bush) Lamar’s portrays this image almost the exact same, however the focus is on seven different black women, whereas Park’s main focus was just Sharrieff, as the other women in his photograph are blurred. The image is shown twice in the “ELEMENT” video. At first, we see the seven women with their heads bowed down, not a slight idea of what they look like. As the song progresses, near the end, the image is presented again, where the women raise their heads and open their eyes. The way that Lamar delivers this image acts a mirror to the way Sharrieff had to silent herself in the Islamic community. Women were relegated a lifestyle produced by men where they were not allowed to pursue their own lifestyle. The Nation of Islam presented this idea that women had to stay modest in their appearance, and were to be the caretakers of the home, their children and their husband. Sharrieff allowed women to still remain righteous, but have a voice and step out of the roles that the Nation of Islam handed to them. Kendrick takes this and turns it into a spiritual aspect pertaing to the fact that there is still peace alive in his violent based community. For Lamar, he sees women as the peacemakers of his community, as well as the only ones who deliver guidance upon him. As he shows these images, he raps the words, “all my grandmas dead so ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.” (Lamar) The image acts signifies the religious symbolism in his lyrics, he represents how religion plays a crucial part in his survival within his community and for himself. Not only does Sharrieff represent strength and hope, but so do the women in the video.
The second image inspired from Park is an “Untitled” photograph taken in 1956, where two black male children are pointing guns, as the white male child smiles directly in the camera. For the “ELEMENT” moving image, one black male child is aiming the gun at passerby’s while the other stands there with an angered expression upon his face, presenting a tough aura. What differs in the video for this image though is the fact that Lamar uses a little white girl who seems to be evidently younger than the other two boys. The significance of the girl’s role is the fact that she does not seem to understand what is going on; it displays the innocence and gentleness that white children carried in comparison to the black youth. It brings to light how African-American youth were taught to look out for themselves, and the misconception that violence stems from a young age due to the stereotypes of growing up in an environment prone to brutality. This also coincides with another unknown image of Parks’ from 1963 of a group of older black men training to fight in sync, which Lamar twists into his own by having a group of men shadowboxing. This reflects the same pattern of having to constantly look out for yourself as a black individual in America, and how they must stick together to create a united front. However, these violent images are never gruesome on Lamar or Parks’ ends, they work to show how fear is always at the hands of a black individual in America. It streamlines this notion that having to watch your back is a constant state of mind, which is exactly what Lamar is trying to delegate from using accurate visuals that correspond to his lyrics.
The last image Lamar uses is almost identical to Parks’ original photograph “Boy With June Bug” (1963), where a young boy is seen laying on the grass with a bug on his forehead. Lamar uses a little girl rather than a boy, relating to the fact, again, that women stood as a symbol of peace. Lamar manages to demonstrate that along with all of the violence and pain that his community faces, there is still peace and beauty. This image takes away from all of the dark imagery presented in “ELEMENT,” allowing viewers to see another side of the community since Lamar also wants to show viewers that there is contentness in his community. It is evident that when it comes to beauty and peace in black culture, Lamar displays the minimum. By using this image by Parks’, it is clear that the only way to escape the constant stream of violence is to bury yourself where no one can find you. Here, the child is able to surround herself with the beauty of nature rather than the confines of her neighbourhood. Lamar also distracts the idea that all children are made out to become a product of their environment. There are those who take the pain and cruelty as an act of motivation or creativity to make a brighter future for themselves, similar to Lamar. This image comes together to show how Lamar take the harsh elements of his past and makes art from it through his lyrics.
A Further Look into “ELEMENT”
Not only does Parks’ inspiration play an important role when it comes to the music video, but so do the many other visuals Lamar incorporates in the video. As you delve in deeper to the music video, there is a present theme of Lamar’s duty as a black artist to himself versus his purpose of being a black artist to his community. (Parham) Within Lamar’s community, the video evidently demonstrates individuals who do not have much opportunities and are stuck in the slumps of their upbringing. We are shown fathers teaching their young sons how to throw punches and fight. It represents how being able to survive means being tough at a ripe age. Not only are children being taught violence and how to protect themselves, but they are witnessing various situations that no child should be faced with. At the very beginning of the video, a group of children are just watching a house burn down representing the many shackles individuals were faced with while they were treated with housing inequality, along with non-access to wealth, depleted mental health resources and poor educational opportunities. (Parham) The means of seeking these resources becomes extremely important in “ELEMENT”, as a young boy sees someone committing suicide as they jump off a building. The community in the video has a lack of substantial services which exhibits how black culture tends to be left to suffer due to the loss of care and support shown to them by outsiders and America as a whole. Lamar puts his stance on this by showcasing the interior struggle within individuals of his community.
Along with this, images of young youth being arrested is flashed immediately after a group of teenagers are just shown hanging out. There is constant imagery of gangs running around their community, as if it is a future that most of black male youth are prone to. Lamar also involves himself with the gangs in the music video as a way to depict the fact that his father was associated with the notorious Ganger Disciples gang in Compton. (Biography) Although Lamar was never part of a gang, he took the harm that gangs caused in his community, as well as his family and turned to writing music to escape from what many of peers were brought into. With the visuals of gangs, Lamar incorporates how dangerous the streets were in Compton, where numerous scenes depict people get attacked or bleeding for just walking down the street or being outside in the dark. Lamar fuels the damage caused within his community as a means of creative expression enabling him to speak for black communities as a whole who are stigmatized by the American mass media. Lamar shows viewers how many people are drowning in his community as they are overlooked. Lamar becomes a reliable storyteller because he focuses on the many issues that America seems to ignore that he witnessed first hand in Compton. Lamar demonstrates how under all of the negative and vicious views of black culture, that they are people suffering and trying to find peace in their struggle.
When it comes to conveying his stance on black culture, Lamar makes it political because he sees his position in the industry as being one that can create a new direction for how black individuals are viewed. Lamar takes the usual rap path of being one paved of glorifying violence, and opposes it. Throughout the “ELEMENT” video, viewers are faced with contradicting visuals. The video holds an aesthetic of the back and forth, almost as a vision of life and death. This aesthetic can be summed up as we see: “two black wrists chained together with handcuffs, then the scene transitions to a shot of a group of black women standing shoulder to shoulder with their heads bowed. A quiet, intimate moment of a man and a woman in bed switches to a shot of a full street brawl, followed by a frame of four white convicts in behind bars.” (Barnes) Lamar makes it seem as though living in Compton constantly gives individuals the opportunity to decide if they’re going to live or die. (Barnes) Being in communities like this, there is only one way out and it is through the choices that an individual makes. The visuals do this to show viewers that the way their life plays out depends on them, and they aren’t conformed or defined by the place they grew up in. Lamar creates this idea that in order to survive and be successful, the only person you can depend on is yourself. Lamar places focus on himself, as he shows himself up in the clouds to show how rose above all of the violence in his community. Looking into details, there is blood on Lamar’s white t-shirt as a representation of suffering, and agony he went through in Compton. It is clear that his upbringing always be a part of him, but instead of dwelling on it, he turns it into an art form as he becomes a storyteller for his community. His collaborative aesthetic overall in the video allows him to display the beauty in the chaos of his past life.
For many, “ELEMENT” may come off as the typical rap video, since Lamar dedicates a huge portion of his video to the violence and the damage of his community. However, the collaboration of Parks’ works brings cultural and historical significance to the progress that black individuals in America have made for themselves. This further coincides with how Lamar made it out of the lowest of lows to make a name for himself, and stirred away from the pigeonhole black males were casted off to. Lamar’s aesthetic of collaborating Parks’ and Lindstroem work comes together as a gateway of demonstrating Lamar’s stance and depiction of black culture as a whole, and where the violence stems from. Instead of pertaining to boundaries of rap music videos, Lamar steps out of the box to bring light on the fact that the brutality and profiling has an affect on individuals from a very young age, and they may grow pass it, but it forever remains apart of their identity. Thus, Lamar uses violence as a major element in his music video to show the underlying struggle of both himself and his community.
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