In charged times, Kendrick Lamar subversive in subtlety
KENDRICK Lamar wrote the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet, in charged times, the rap star found he could be mellow while staying salient. Lamar, whose live schedule has been surprisingly sparse since he triumphed at the Grammy Awards in February, on July 23 headlined the inaugural Panorama NYC Festival, a New York expansion by promoters of Coachella in California.
The hip-hop star has won acclaim for dramatic live performances. At the Grammys, he entered as a prisoner chained to fellow African American men and, earlier at the Black Entertainment Television Awards, rapped atop a vandalised police car.
Yet in a tense summer – marked by a slew of police shootings of African Americans, vigilante killings of cops, mass attacks worldwide and a nastytoned US election – Lamar emphasised the fundamentally peaceful message of “Alright”, his song embraced by the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
“We’re going to celebrate life. We’re going to celebrate our life, we’re going to celebrate the life of the victims that passed these last three weeks all around the world,” Lamar said to applause. In a business where asking the crowd to make noise is one of the biggest cliches, the 29-year-old rapper instead worked his voice down to a whisper before opening “Alright”, a single overhead spotlight following him.
Lamar has confounded expectations for a hip-hop artist, with much of his Grammy-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly more jazz than rap, and he played Panorama with a live band. If Lamar chose not to hammer the crowd with messages, he offered more subtle commentary with an overhead slideshow of cultural figures from Muhammad Ali to Prince to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
As Lamar sang his chill “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, the screen ironically switched to a viral video of Bill O’Reilly, now a popular commentator on right-leaning Fox News, in an earlier role in which he becomes enraged over a teleprompter problem. The Southern California rapper later went to “i”, his ode to self-worth, as the screen switched to a good-humoured Barack Obama – a professed fan of Lamar – dancing with television host Ellen DeGeneres during his first presidential run.
The Panorama NYC Festival on New York’s Randalls Island is the latest in a fast-growing calendar of festivals, which have increasingly become a rite of passage for young North Americans and a lucrative revenue stream for the music industry.
With the presidential campaign in full swing, volunteers registered fans to vote – yet, like Lamar, most artists stayed away from overt political advocacy. One exception was indie rockers Arcade Fire, the headliners on July 22, whose singer Win Butler denounced Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as a racist and vowed the United States would never elect him.
“We have to … stick together,” Butler told the crowd as he shouted, “Black Lives Matter!”
Feminist punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna also shared social commentary as she performed on July 23 with her high-decibel project The Julie Ruin, charging that she was too often invited to appearances as a “token” who is paid less than men.
Darkly introspective indie rockers The National on July 23 played two recently written songs for an enthusiastic crowd as the sun set and the Manhattan skyline lit up behind the stage. One of the tracks, “The Day I Die”, returned to familiar bleak lyrical territory for The National but took on a heavier feel as the guitarists, twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, charged in on a sound that verged on shoegaze. Introducing the more somber “Find a Way”, singer Matt Berninger deadpanned that the song was “even more melodramatic” than “The Day I Die”.
“Can it go further? Yes it can,” said Berninger, singing as ever with his eyes to the ground until he suddenly pressed into the crowd for sweaty bear-hugs. The National, which is recording its first album in three years, brought out a three-piece brass contingent that added power to slower-churning songs such as “I Need My Girl” and “Pink Rabbits”.
Sufjan Stevens put on a visually stirring show, which began rather than ended with him smashing his banjo.
Donning outfits that ranged from a supersized metallic coat to a cloak of balloons, the genre-defying artist glided from acoustic folk to hip-hop beats with a loose theme of entering a volcano.
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Panorama NYC Festival on July 23.