“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question… How does it feel to be a problem?”— W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
In 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of sociological essays that soon became a staple in classic American literature. While he notably discussed issues of race from first-hand experience, the book is most known for outlining Du Bois’ theory of “double-consciousness.” In his book, he spoke about internalized oppression, anticipating prejudice and stereotypes, and being judged merely by the color of his skin despite his intelligence and accomplishments. “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois wrote, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings…”
Dr. Du Bois knew this feeling all too well. As the first Black American to earn a doctorate from Harvard (1895), he would later go on to become a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), using his platform to challenge various institutions and regimes across the world. While he was far from the first to have these experiences, his thoughts, words and actions would go on to inspire the likes of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Maya Angelou. Over a century later, his studies have maintained relevance through contemporary figures such as Barack Obama, Beyoncé Knowles, and Kendrick Lamar. As much as I would like to discuss the double-consciousness of our Commander-in-Chief, I will instead focus on Knowles and Lamar.
“The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”
The day before she joined Coldplay and Bruno Mars on stage at Super Bowl 50, R&B and pop sensation Beyoncé decided to debut a new song/video called “Formation.” “My daddy Alabama,” she raps, “Momma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” The video featured the singer in a flooded New Orleans asserting herself atop a floating police car. There were also shots of a young boy dancing in front of riot police, a wall with the words “Stop shooting us” painted in black, and various homages to Black, Creole or New Orleans culture. All of Beyoncé’s backup dancers were Black, with models and actors posing in different types of fashion from the past and present. The only white actors in the entire video were the riot police. When she performed the song at the Super Bowl the next day she paid homage to the late Michael Jackson while her dancers dressed in Black Panther gear live on CBS.
Reactions were polarizing, to say the least. New battle lines seemed to be drawn (or old ones, depending on who you ask), thought pieces and rebuttals were written and rewritten to dissect the meaning behind the lyrics and the video, and various pop music covers began to emerge with more “family-friendly” lyrics. Many simply did not understand what was going on. There was a mixture of confusion, outrage, and disapproval that Beyoncé — a black woman from Houston — would support Black Lives Matter in any way, shape, or form. The reactions were so incredible they inspired an apocalyptic Saturday Night Live sketch “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” It seemed that people truly did forget that Beyoncé was Black. Despite the vast majority of her discography being filled with Black culture, Black vernacular, Black artists (seriously, she married Jay-Z, people!), and her starring in Black movies.
Beyoncé’s image is one that straddles the double-consciousness described by Du Bois: The world viewed her in one capacity while she viewed herself in another. For most of her career, her music was accepted by the masses and she eventually became one of the most powerful people on the planet. Now that she had everyone’s attention, she decided to braid her hair, dress in all black and “return to her roots” as she used CBS, Pepsi and the Super Bowl stage to remind the world just how Black she was. It seemed that the world wanted to dictate how she could and could not express herself, but she wasn’t havin’ that. She and Bruno Mars concluded their joint performance with a dance battle between their groups (Mars was dressed in b-boy gear, similar to the boy who danced in the video). Barely a week later, CBS showcased protest from another black star, this time coming “straight outta Compton.”
“The Blacker the Berry”
Despite not being awarded the coveted Album of the Year for his 2015 LP, To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar took home five of the eleven Grammy Awards for which he was nominated. Similar to his 2014 Grammys collaboration with Imagine Dragons, Lamar once again left the stage with all eyes on him. This year, Lamar and his dancers marched onto a prison-themed set in chains and handcuffs. He approached the microphone, wrapped his chains around the stand and kicked off an edited version of “The Blacker the Berry” as his band played from behind bars. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” Lamar rapped, repeating himself before fully engaging with the lyrics of his track. Dark, booming, and unapologetic, “Berry” was a song of unbridled passion:
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m Black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, [you know that “it’s”] big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me don’t you?
As the song moved into the refrain, Lamar and his dancers slowly began to break their chains and dance on stage as the beat shifted, the lights dimmed and their costumes glowed in blacklight with African tribal paint. After breaking their chains, Lamar and company transitioned to an African themed set, with tribal dancers, large drums and a live bonfire as they chanted the hook for “Alright,” the award-winning song adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement. After celebrating their newfound freedom, Lamar closed the set with an untitled tribute to Trayvon Martin, Rodney King, and other Black men and women beaten or killed throughout history whose perpetrators never received punishment. “Justice ain’t free!” he exclaimed repeatedly, as a map of Africa labelled with the word “Compton” illuminated the backdrop behind him.
Lamar’s lyrics and performance reflect Du Bois’ life and theory. While omitted from the performance, the following lyrics define Lamar’s inner conflict: “…why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gang banging made me kill a n — a blacker than me?/Hypocrite!” Venting frustrations toward both himself and his country, Lamar is both defiant and self-reflective. He bemoans that growing up in Compton “made [him] a killer.” Lamar’s words embody the modern-day struggles of Black people living in America regardless of social status, but they also embody Du Bois’ writing on double-consciousness. Viewing himself through the “eyes of others” he questions his feelings over Martin when he has committed Black on Black crime, a common retort in race-related discussions involving Black victims. The imagery of breaking chains and traveling to Africa pays homage to the Pan-African movement which Du Bois supported throughout his life, encouraging Black solidarity across the world.
Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have taken vocal stances, using their music and platforms to bring further attention to issues of importance. Dr. Du Bois lived a life of constant struggle with identity. Sometimes the world wanted to assign one to him based on his skin, his achievements, or both, when he simply wanted to be respected or treated as a human being. This same sentiment has been echoed by various civil rights activists both before and after him — including the Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter. In this sense, they have undoubtedly taken the torch from Dr. Du Bois and continue to carry on his legacy.