“I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more
That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no more”
– Kendrick Lamar, Yah
What does it mean to be existentially dope? “Dope”, is an adjective generally describing something as cool, interesting, and good. The term is often further applied to phenomena interesting in unexpected and/or transgressive ways; dope things are typically demonstrative of new thoughts, ideas, experiences, and expressions. Generally speaking, that which reflects and sparks further creativity, i.e., ingenuity is what makes something worthy of the description “dope”.
Existentialism concerns explorations of the various ways human consciousness experiences, orders, and understands the meaning of its existence. So, what does it mean to refer to something as existentially dope? It means to identify something as exciting creative sensibilities concerning new and/or unexpected possibilities for understanding one’s existence. The only criterion for being existentially dope is reflecting and inviting further reflection about new and/or unexpected interpretations of human existence. Lots of art, especially music, is existentially dope. I’m not a music critic, and this is not an album review; I’m a hip hop artist, and a philosopher of black existentialism … and, from a black existentialist perspective, Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning album, Damn, is existentially dope. Let me explain.
By “existentially dope”, I mean anything that is provocative and/or inspiring of new possibilities for ordering the meaning for one’s experiences; thus, existentially dope hip hop music typically addresses black existential themes, which sometimes include the topic of “black nihilism”. This form of hip hop reflects attempts to make deeply despairing metaphysical crises over antiblack racism visible, if not aesthetically beautiful. If the mood of the reading just got dark, I should warn you, what follows will only get darker, but there may be something in the end that makes the darkness worthwhile; and, then again, maybe not; the point of black existentialism, and the challenge of black nihilism, is to produce values in spite of darkness. The potential for things to suddenly become dark, especially for black people in an antiblack racist society, is captured beautifully in the opening sequence of Damn. Ominous music plays while Kendrick attempts to assist a blind lady find her lost items. Bang! She shoots him, and smoothly explains he has “lost” something … his life. I read that scene as Kendrick attempting to help a blind American Lady Justice find what, from the black perspective, she appears to have lost; and, when her seeming disability is revealed as a willed inability, in that moment, dies Kendrick’s innocence, morality, naivety, and his childhood. The rest of the album is his attempt to work through the black existential terrain of struggling to create newer values in the place of fallen ideals.
In my work, I refer to such struggles as “Black Nihilism”. I’ve written about the inherent philosophical connections between antiblack racism and the existential experiences of black nihilism in other places. In short, “European nihilism”, was an evaluative term used by Nietzsche to criticise modern Western values. Modern philosophy proceeded from the assumption of there being an ultimate, objective, metaphysical basis from which to judge and evaluate all human values. This is the project of Western philosophy beginning with Socrates, culminating with Kant, and exhausted by Schopenhauer, according to Nietzsche. Alongside the optimism of modern European philosophy’s self-avowed cultural and philosophical productions, however, was the pessimism of thinkers like Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer argued against the grain of modernity by pessimistically suggesting the metaphysical universe had no inherent meaning, and that moral asceticism, or resignation of the will altogether, were the only means for making the inherent suffering of human life bearable.
However, for Nietzsche, the failure of Schopenhauer’s pessimism was that it ultimately advocated for a passive form of willing, i.e., valuing, in response to nihilism; it values not valuing. Schopenhauer’s pessimism, in effect, was a failure to value human willing, which amounts to passive valuing, an ironic form of valuing non-valuing. Active values, according to Nietzsche, do not need to affirm universal truths or pessimistically devalue the value of human valuing; rather, what I’ve called, in other places, “strong nihilistic valuing” is understood as a process of affirming the transience, uncertainty, precariousness, and mortality – in a word, nothingness – of human existence.
The term “nihilism”, describes the situation of having to produce newer values in the place of no longer existentially sustaining values; it is a constitutive feature of the human developmental process, and is inevitable in human life from an existential perspective. “Black nihilism” describes the situation of facing the task of having to creatively order and reorder reality beyond the ideality of antiblack racist values. Black nihilism, then, can be understood as a part of the black maturation process, and according to this Philosopher-Artist’s opinion, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn captures existential themes of antiblack racism, black nihilism, and maturity, beautifully, in existentially dope ways.
You know something existentially dope is going to follow whenever a piece of art evokes Franz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth in its title. The plethora of subtle and not so subtle appeals to Afro-Judaic religious motifs flowing throughout the lyrical content of Damn is complex, intriguing, and provocative. The musical production of each track is equally rigorous and sophisticated. His titling of the second track, DNA, (produced by Mike Will Made-It) which sonically bangs with a force rivalling the gunshot heard in the opening montage, alludes to ancient African bloodlines and pre-colonial African orderings of metaphysical reality relayed through consistently intricate rhymes by Kendrick Lamar. The third track, Yah (produced by Anthony Tiffith, Dj Dahi, Beckon, and Sounwave), musically captures the mood of disparate pieces being drawn back together in reconfigured forms. The continuously intermittent pausing and playing of the baseline, underneath smooth and melodious chords, provides perfect backdrop for Kendrick’s ode to Yahweh, or the Hebrew God, as he is calling on, and in some lines calling out, “Yah”.
The twelfth track, Fear, reveals the full philosophical intentions of Damn. The lyrics of this track represent three decades in a tragically detailed black existential hermeneutic, depicting the inner and external turmoil experienced through the processes of black maturation in an antiblack racist society. The impending failures and tragic losses of the subject in each verse is given a teleological meaning that is foreshadowed and affirmed by voice recordings of Kendrick’s cousin, Carl, played before and after the song. Kendrick’s third verse ends with the following lyrics:
“I’m talking Fear. Fear of losing creativity
I’m talking Fear. Fear of missing out on you and me
I’m talking Fear. Fear of losing loyalty for pride
Because my DNA won’t let me evolve in the light of God
I’m talking Fear. Fear that my humbleness is gone
I’m talking Fear. Fear that love ain’t living here no more
I’m talking Fear. Fear that it’s wickedness or weakness
I’m talking Fear. Whatever it is, both is distinctive
I’m talking Fear. What happens on earth stays on earth,
And, I can’t take these feelings with me, So,
Hopefully they disperse within fourteen tracks
Carried out over wax, Searching for resolution until somebody get back …
Fear. Wondering if I’m living through fear or living through rap …
God damn you.
God damn me.
God damn us.
God damn we.
God damn us all.”
The existential and religious themes of Damn are not only provocative, they warrant further elucidation, and we might find support in an unlikely place. Nietzsche was an unabashed lover of existential dopeness; but, under different historical circumstances, he might have been a fan of Kendrick Lamar instead of Richard Wagner. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche revered the lyric poet’s potential to become a philosopher-artist. His descriptions can also be extended to describe creative processes of existentially dope hip hop artists. Nietzsche said, “In the state prior to the act of writing, he [the MC] does not claim to have had before or within him an ordered causality of ideas, but rather a musical mood … A certain musical atmosphere of moods precedes it, and the poetic idea only comes afterwards”. Going even further, Nietzsche’s description of the Apolline lyric poet combining with the Dionysiac music maker perfectly captures the MC and DJ/Producer relationship. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche also said:
“[T]he unification, or indeed the identity of the lyric poet [MC] with the musician [DJ/Producer] … First of all, as a Dionysiac artist, he [DJ/Producer] has been thoroughly united with the primal Oneness, its pain and contradiction, and produces the copy of that primal oneness as music, if we can rightly call music a repetition and recast of the world; but now, under Apolline dream influence, this music is revealed to him [MC] as an allegorical dream-image. That reflection of primal pain in music, free of images and concepts, redeemed by illusion, now creates a second mirror image as a single allegory or example [Hip Hop Music]. The artist [MC and DJ/Producer] has already abandoned his subjectivity in the Dionysiac process, the image that now reveals to him his unity with the heart of the world is a dream scene symbolising the primal contradiction and primal suffering, as well as the primal delight in illusion. The ‘I’ of the lyric poet [MC] therefore sounds from the very depths of being: his ‘subjectivity’ in the sense used by modern aestheticians is a falsehood … The Dionysiac musical enchantment of the sleeping man [DJ/Producer] now sends out sparks of images, lyric poems which, at the peak of their evolution, will bear the name of tragedies…”
Nietzsche may not have known it, but his love and advocacy for nihilistic art would have made him a prime candidate for being a fan of existentially dope hip hop; although, he might have benefitted from a few courses on Africology, Africana Studies, and Black Existentialism to help offset his cultural upbringing.
Existentially dope, nihilistic, hip hop music attempts to value beyond antiblack racist traditions, while typically adopting pessimistic attitudes towards traditional ideals of Western morality and justice. As a result, this kind of music tends to promote values seen as deviant from the perspective of normative traditions. American struggles, for instance, to get subversive black music placed within mainstream popular culture historically involved battles on the part of the artists to feature art reflective of black existential experiences. From early twentieth-century Folk, to Tin-pan alley jazz, Southern, West coast, and Midwest blues, Rock and Roll, Race records, and R&B music of the 1950s and 60s, to the Funk and Disco music of the late 1970s, popular black American music emerged within corporate and political environments wherein the philosophical import of these aesthetic productions were routinely policed and/or denied.
Hip hop music made radical innovations to the techniques of music production by sampling, mixing, re arranging, and extending previous recordings of music into new and innovative “beats”, accompanied by lyricism that often evokes “allegorical dream-imagery” doing to the rigidity of traditional ideals what hip hop beat makers did in relation to older music recording –select, scratch, and remix. The pessimistic creativity of hip hop music originated within the cultural expressions of black and brown adolescent youth in mid and late 1970s New York City; it now makes sense to raise questions about its nihilistic maturity. People born into hip hop culture, or the “hip-hop generationers”, as Bakari Kitwana called them, face the project of maturity within antiblack racist frameworks where possibilities for development can become uniquely underdeveloped. Kendrick’s loss of life and innocence in the opening scene of Damn reflects this circumstance, for example, by him dying for being traditionally moral, i.e., naïve. The need for a new morality, for a new way to order reality, is announced as a problem through Damn’s opening scene depicting the black nihilistic death of Kendrick’s childhood.
Hip hop was created by the children of African-American and Caribbean descended peoples whom inherited a variety of West African and European hybridised musical influences. Corporate institutional factors particularly in media and entertainment played co-opting roles in militating against positive constructions and developments of black youth culture, but simultaneously became a major conduit to the global visibility of the hip hop generation. The hip hop generation is also the first generation of black American people to come into global visibility within a fully avowed post racist, legally post-segregated, American society, making experiences of antiblack racism particularly complex and nauseating for this generation. Damn is one lens through which we can understand Kendrick’s nausea, which I call “black nihilism”, and his attempts at valuing through it. If we read the lyrics of the album as projections of values that simultaneously criticise the givenness of antiblack racist values, while also trying to conceive of alternative metaphysical bases for inverting those values, then Damn is existentially dope in its attempts at radically reordering the meanings of blackness, albeit often dark and despairing in its demands that something exists in the place of the fallen ideals of antiblack racism.
The existential dopeness of Damn resides in its questioning of traditions, especially in the form of Kendrick’s lyrical genius raising explicit black existential concerns, and offering particularly black nihilistic responses. The black nihilism of Damn solidifies its existential dopeness, since black nihilism inherently involves forging newer values in the face of decadent ones, and the sole criteria for existential dopeness is to stimulate newer and/or different possibilities for being. Franz Fanon, for example, reminded us that each generation must discover and fulfil, or betray, its unique historical mission, i.e., its unique way of being. Each generation’s mission is begat through the fluidity of transmissions, achievements, and shortcomings of previous generations. In effect, Fanon urged younger and older generations of black peoples to embrace the project of working together to create newer values beyond antiback racism. Unfortunately, following Cornel West’s (who I respect immensely) well-known analysis of nihilism in black America in Race Matters, black nihilism is often seen as a deplorable lack of values suggesting an existential disease that could be countered by reinvigorating traditional ideals. Nihilism, however, is not a disease that afflicts the existential self in the sense of needing to be avoided or cured. Nihilism is a descriptive term designating processes of realising the decadence of traditional value structures while facing anguish filled projects of continuing to value.
Antiblack racism follows a modernistic program of rendering black existential freedom in determining reality as either non-existent, or as only comprehensible in relation to traditional ideals of European humanity. Black youth in an antiblack racist world are made to face nihilistic challenges of human valuing as children who are not yet fully developed, and predisposed to respond in weak ways against a society enforcing denials of their existential visibility; or, as Kendrick depicts it from within the space of black existential invisibility, “I’m talking Fear. Fear of missing out on you and me.”
Black youth are in effect made to wrestle with the deepest of adult despairs, and crises of devaluations of meaning, as children within social and existential frameworks diametrically opposed to the possibility of their healthily maturing through them. Or, as Kendrick worded it, “I’m talking Fear. Fear that my humbleness is gone; I’m talking Fear. Fear that love ain’t living here no more.” The existential parameters of antiblack racism entail a theoretical proclivity against black children ever truly functioning as children. If creativity, hope, and possibility are the domain of youth, then antiblack racism effectively seeks to eviscerate the existential category of black youth by removing the category of possibility, via self-assertion, from black existential development. Or, as Kendrick succinctly articulated it, “I’m talking Fear. Fear of losing creativity.” The obligation of black existential adulthood, then, is to provide the necessary structures where possibilities for black pessimistic and nihilistic youth are not collapsed into what Lewis Gordon calls a bad faith “Peter Pan-ism”. The hip-hop generation is filled with young adults and adolescents whom are inquiring about what it means to be a black adult within a society that publicly disavows racism while institutionally precluding black existential maturity.
Kitwana wrote, “Sometimes this inquiry comes in the form of a new generation that has peeped the failure of the civil rights and black power movements and hence has abandoned the black cultural tradition of social activism”. Perhaps the hip hop generation is disposed against taking for granted the values of its forebears’ values, by virtue of our lived experiences of blackness, especially those traditional Western politics of respectability and decency. As Kendrick says, “I’m talking Fear. Fear that it’s wickedness or weakness. I’m talking Fear. Whatever it is, both is distinctive.” Perhaps radical strength lies precisely in the hip hop generation’s ability to value beyond tradition. I addressed this topic in an essay entitled Beyond Tradition, in a 2017 American Philosophical Association newsletter. What aesthetic and cultural forms might such a move beyond tradition produce? What kinds of lyric poets would indicate further pessimistic reordering of antiblack racist realities? What kind of music might announce the coming of newer ways of conceiving and recasting the world? Are we in the midst of a cultural shift where the limits of Western idealism are being exhausted?
Popular hip hop music often promotes hedonism, materialism, and capitalism, alongside rejections of antiblack racism that evade questions of black maturity and responsibility through appeals to wealth and/or material acquisition. However, we can consider Kendrick’s Damn as a black nihilistic reflection on the philosophical meaning of black suffering and existential invisibility within antiblack racism, for which he offers a critique that can be accepted or rejected, but which should nonetheless be noted for its existentially dope critical perspective.
Damn, the song Fear, in particular, can be read as engaging existential problems of black maturity, while arguing for a metaphysical teleology that assigns a transcendent value to black suffering. This is pessimistic in that it inverts the quality of antiblack racist ideals by displacing the historical achievements of Western colonialism through locating it as a consequence of spiritual failures on the part of ancient blackness. Kendrick says, “I’m talking Fear. Fear of losing loyalty for pride, because my DNA won’t let me evolve in the light of God.” The achievements of Western colonialism, in other words, are rendered as a side effect of black spiritual failures (a fall from original supremacy), and not as a result of European nihilism. On the other hand, it is black nihilistic because it attempts to generate a value for blackness beyond a pessimistic inversion of whiteness. Damn’s response is ironic, however, in that it announces moving forward and simultaneously limiting the meaning of the future in terms of the past. In other words, the future, on that picture, depends upon black metaphysical ideals combating and replacing white metaphysical ideals.
The black nihilistic response to antiblack racism expressed in Damn should be judged from a consideration of the lived dimensions of nihilism experienced by black youth. One should consider the obstacles to becoming existentially mature and nihilistically strong in antiblack racist societies in the twenty-first century. The track, Fear, for example, from this perspective, is a youthful expression of blackness seeking strength through affirmations of will and possibility, but ultimately set to fail. Damn should be understood as reflective of the tensions and contradictions germane to adult existential life articulated through the lens of a maturing consciousness. In many ways, Kendrick’s Afro-Judaic response to black nihilism in Damn resembles Cornel West’s Christian response in Race Matters; the contradictions between being and nothingness are battles against which adults tend to flee, which Kendrick wrestles with on a public stage. Or, as he said it, “And, I can’t take these feelings with me, So, hopefully they disperse within fourteen tracks, Carried out over wax, Searching for resolution until somebody get back … Fear. Wondering if I’m living through fear or living through rap …”
Damn is an expression of and response to existential contradictions inherent in the predicaments of black youth maturing within antiblack racist societies. “God damn you. God damn me. God damn us. God damn we. God damn us all”. Does that leave you a little deflated? Good. That which is black existentially dope, and black nihilistic, is such precisely because of its ability to deflate false hope in decadent ideals; it challenges one to have the strength and courage to transvalue the entire affair of human valuing. This process may seem bleak, terrifying, and not worth it, but only from a perspective that has managed to find solace within traditional ideals. For black existentialists like myself, however, Kendrick Lamar’s searing pessimism and passionate nihilism, reflected through the profound unification of (Apolline) lyricism and (Dionysiac) music, is a lyric poem, or hip hop, that is music to our ears and can be described as “existentially dope”.