“The Blacker the Berry” Paints Vivid Picture of American History

The roots of racism in America can be traced back to the 1500s, when the first enslaved people were brought along the Middle Passage from West Africa to the Caribbean Islands and what would become the southeastern United States. The institution of slavery lasted for more than three centuries in the Western Hemisphere, with the importation of enslaved people to this area of the globe ending in 1808 and the practice of enslaving people ending shortly after the American Civil War. But racism in America, extreme prejudice taken against African-American people, has existed up until today, even through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Movement era.

Given this context, when an artist writes a song about institutionalized racism in America, it is difficult for it not to sound cliche or dissolve into the basic moral of “everyone is human and should be treated equally.” But Kendrick Lamar’s The Blacker the Berry creates raw images of America’s institutionalized racism from both sides that make the song last in the listener’s mind as poetry.

The song begins with an interlude that seems to be from the perspective of a white slaveowner. At the end of each line, the perspective switches to that of a black person being sold into slavery.

Everything black, I don’t want black (they want us to bow) / I want everything black, I ain’t need black (down to our knees) / Some white, some black, I ain’t mean black (and pray to the God) / I want everything black (we don’t believe)

The Blacker the Berry, Interlude

Each line of the first stanza begins with a white slaveowner who wants to purchase an enslaved person — he “want(s) black” but at the same time does not — and ends with the perspective of a black person thinking the thoughts the slaveowner doesn’t want them to think. The black person knows the manipulation and unfair labor they are about to endure, but cannot speak up to the white slaveowner, who makes all the choices and holds all the power. The idea of songwriting from the perspectives of the oppressor and the oppressed, rather than from a modern-day perspective, is what makes this song vivid poetry.

Lamar’s lyrics shift through time into the first verse, when the black man is a free, independent person who thinks what he wants to think and says what he wants to say. In this verse, he seems to being prosecuted for a crime illustrated in the bridge (“six in the morn / fire in the street”).

I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / Once I finish this witnesses will convey just what I mean / Been feelin’ this way since I was sixteen, came to my senses / You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it

The Blacker the Berry, Verse 1

Back in the present, Lamar portrays the speaker as someone who is angry at the treatment of black people throughout history. He seems to be predicting what the white man is about to say (“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015”). He responds by telling the white man that he has come to his senses since his youth. This heated exchange conveyed through the mind of the oppressed illustrates modern-day racial stereotypes without directly saying them.

Every song is a poem, as long as it does not preach morals by giving the listener direct thoughts from the lyricist’s mind. A song is what you make of it, but you can only make something of it if it forces you to think about the lyricist’s emotions and motive for writing the song.

This is what “The Blacker the Berry” does, and this is what makes track 13 of “To Pimp a Butterfly” pure poetry. Switching back and forth between past and present, Lamar forces the listener not to hyperfocus on present-day racial prejudice (as songs like Lil Baby’s The Bigger Picture do), but to think about the centuries-long institution that made this racial prejudice come to be.

Continuing to switch back and forth between past (“Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black / And man a say they put me inna chains, cah’ we black”) and present (“You hate me, don’t you? … Muscle cars like pull ups, show you what these big wheels ’bout”), Lamar calls out white people on their generational oppression of black people, pointing to the success black men such as him have today.

Before the outro, Lamar raps his final verse with defiance, establishing pride in his culture and racism as a generational issue.

The plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred / It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification / I’m African-American, I’m African / I’m Black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan”

The Blacker the Berry, Verse 3

In Lamar’s last verse, he creates a call to action for the future, implementing all tenses into an issue that has defined American history.

2 thoughts on ““The Blacker the Berry” Paints Vivid Picture of American History

  1. Sofia W

    I really like the points you made and I especially liked the way you tracked the changes over time. I also thought the way you tracked the shifts in perspective of black and white.


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