Bitch where you when I was walkin’?
Now I run the game got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta
Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta
Black man taking no losses
– Kendrick Lamar (2015)
The album To Pimp a Butterfly from the rapper Kendrick Lamar is undoubtedly one of benchmarks in rap history. With rich vocals and instrumentals and socially aware topics, Lamar pulls of an excellent narrative throughout the album. The third track King Kunta evokes a critique on rappers as well as going beyond the visual representation of the black man.
The song provides us with cartoony sound and zany background vocals, and starts off with a rant on fellow rappers. ‘King Kunta’ is a reference to the rebellious slave Kunta Kinte, who was the basis for the 1976 novel and TV series Roots, a story based on fact and fiction. In the story, after failed to escape his plantation for the fourth time, Kunta was given the choice to be castrated or have his right foot cut off. Kunta chose to have his foot cut off, which explains the line of Lamar:
King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him
‘King Kunta’ is used by Lamar to criticise the laziness of contemporary rappers who use ghost-writers. ‘Most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell.’ As Lamar raps. King Kunta is also in a paradoxical sense a dominant king and an oppressed slave. This refers to how Lamar used to be a unknown rapper from Compton, but now that he is a famous ‘king’, everyone wants to ‘cut the leg off him’; to steal his success. Leaving aside Lamar’s critique on other rappers, I would like to experiment with Lamar’s revival of Kunta Kinte. Should we even reproduce the suffering of Kunta Kinte?
The American writer Saidiya Hartman argues in Scenes of Subjection (2007) that it is impossible to get rid of the reproduction of black suffering entirely, but she still problematizes this reproduction by pointing out the nature of its circulation. On the one hand, the representation of black suffering shows the injustice of other people’s pain. On the other hand, this representation can turn the subject into a commodity, making us ‘voyeurs fascinated’ by the terror and suffering (Hartman 2007, 3). The horrific scene of the amputation of Kunta Kinte’s foot in Roots gives this entertainment a certain pleasure-component. When does this pleasure become problematic? According to Hartman, when the pleasure numbs the spectator, losing empathy towards the subject, and turning him into a passive object (Hartman 2007, 4). Overexposure of a reproduction of racial violence leads to a certain ‘casualness’ towards the violent situation. Rather than to contribute to the endless recitations, Hartman wants to focus on the violence and terror found in the mundane and quotidian.
However, Lamar’s representation of Kunta Kinte does not go into detail of the extreme violence of Kunta’s right foot being cut off. The original film and novel Roots shows explicit violence, combined with screaming and suffering. Instead of showing extreme form of racial violence and amputation, Lamar uses the reference of King Kunta to establish himself as a king that looks down on fake rappers that don’t write their own lyrics. Therefore Hartman would say that Lamar’s mundane use of Kunta Kinte is unproblematic, but the original depiction of Kunta Kinte in film Roots is not.
More interestingly, King Kunta expresses an acoustic dimension that moves beyond verbal meaning. As the poet Fred Moten argues in his book In the Break, music has the power to express the unspeakable (2003). Moten challgenges the notion that music and sound, which he refers to as ‘phonic matter’, is always reducible to verbal meaning. (2003, 6). Phonic matter not only goes beyond verbal epxression, but also asserts the identity of the performer.
In this view, we can see why Lamar refers to Kunta Kinte in his rap. I think that Lamar is not afraid to compare himself with an enslaved person. Lamar identifies himself with Kunta Kinte, acknowledging his history of slavery while simultaneously giving power to the slave as a ‘king’. By calling himself King Kunta, Lamar turns the pejorative connotation around slaves into something positive to be proud of. This shows us how music can sometimes be better than films and series. Hartman and Moten reminds us that the ‘phonic matter’ of Lamar’s King Kunta goes beyond the visual presentation of Roots, by strategically not contributing to overexposure, while at the same time reclaiming the identity of the black man. Images may speak a thousand words, but sound has the power to express the unspeakable.
Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Scenes of Subjection. Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, “Introduction”, pp. 3-14.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.