LOS ANGELES, California — Since Kendrick Lamar recently crossed over from the underground to the mainstream rap scene, he has been touted by legions of fans as the savior of hip-hop with a lyrical emphasis. Lamar’s rapid-fire and dramatic delivery often weaves rich narratives illustrating contemporary social issues, particularly those pertaining to his hometown of Compton, California.
On his breakout single, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Lamar warns his listeners of the dangers of alcoholism by casting it as a societal ill with cultural roots: “Now I done grew up round some people living their lives in bottles. Granddaddy had the golden flask—back stroke every day in Chicago. Some people like the way it feels; some people want to kill their sorrows. Some people want to fit in with the popular; that was my problem.”
In “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain),” from his first studio album, “Section .80,” the rapper spins a harrowing tale revolving around a fictional heroine and prostitute: “She give all to her daddy but she don’t know her father—that’s ironic. See a block away from Lueders park, I seen the El Camino parked. In her heart she hate it there, but in her mind she made it where nothing really matters so she hit the back seat. Rosa Parks never a factor when she making ends meet.”
Both tracks illuminate the cyclical nature of social problems, fueled by psychological turmoil that eventually settles into apathy. Like substance abuse and working in the sex industry, individuals who find themselves stuck in the cycle of poverty may feel helpless to overcome their circumstances and find a new lease on life. While there exists a popular stigma against such destitute populations, this prejudice is largely founded on common misconceptions. Specifically, the public often assumes that these individuals consciously choose to relegate themselves to the margins of society. In actuality, the obstacles they must face in changing the course of their lives are embedded in systemic inequality and injustice.
With such immense emotional investment in the characters about which he rhymes, it follows that Lamar would also take action in addressing the issues they face. In late 2011, the rapper—alongside label-mate, ScHoolboy Q—who was featured in XXL Magazine’s 2013 freshman class of on the verge rappers, DJ Lantern, and Azad Right—performed at a charity concert in downtown Los Angeles.
Proceeds from ticket sales went toward Project RISHI, a nonprofit that seeks to identify and address health and economic problems in rural Indian villages. The organization, moreover, holds the belief that in order to help people break out of poverty, one must first assist them in gaining access to basic goods and services—including healthcare, clean water, sewage, education, emotional support, and energy, etc.
Kendrick Lamar and Project RISHI spark the hope that with the mutually reinforcing powers of word and action, the public may gradually relinquish its antiquated beliefs and come to understand that the cycle of poverty is far from insurmountable.
– Melrose Huang