A few days ago, I finally watched Kendrick Lamar’s “For Free” video. It’s beautifully shot, slightly insane in a way that’s fresh for Kendrick. But it also made me feel deeply uncomfortable. The video, like the song, embodies America in a demanding, “bad bitch”, Black woman, who puts Kendrick down for not getting her the “Brazilian, wavy, 28-inch” she wants, among other things. She repeatedly insults Kendrick, telling him he “ain’t shit” because he isn’t fulfilling her material needs. She’s supposed to be a metaphor of America’s demands on black people, and so Kendrick essentially spends the rest of the video terrorizing her, getting back at her for centuries of oppression.
That’s exactly what made me feel uncomfortable. The video centers on a black woman’s fear, facing the repeated, if unrealized, threat of violence. This is seen as deserved because she, as America, has made so many unreasonable demands on the black man which he has silently fulfilled, until this moment. (He summarizes this at the end — “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked the cotton that made you rich.”) And yet black women have faced all these demands and more. (As a friend of mine wrote to me, “We were picking cotton too and getting beaten too and getting raped and everything else.”) The embodiment of America in a black woman simply makes no sense. I had a problem with the embodiment of evil in “Lucy” throughout the album, but this put it in sharper relief. In this video, the black woman is somehow the enemy. The centuries of oppression that is American history is somehow the black woman, and terrorizing her is acceptable as if she has not been terrorized for her entire existence.
If Kendrick was really about that life, he would’ve put a white woman in the black woman’s place. Instead of a curvy black woman walking around her house in her lingerie, imagine if it was a white woman, a skinny blond, perhaps, demanding things and getting spooked by Kendrick’s grin through the window? That would’ve been truly radical, something we really haven’t seen before. Oh wait, Kendrick’s too busy playing sidekick in Taylor Swift videos. (In another analysis, For Free is about the demands of the music industry, but he seems to be content giving the crown jewel of that industry two verses and then some.) Instead, he purposefully throws black women under the bus, as has happened many times throughout our history. In executing his metaphor, he reenforces stereotypes of black women as ratchet, demanding, dependent, materialistic jezebels.
In positioning a woman who looks like me as the enemy, worthy of feeling unsafe and terrorized, Kendrick made me feel worse than any Migos or Juicy J video full of strippers bent over ever has. Kendrick’s hotep-adjacent portrayal of race and gender relations is somehow more troubling than the straight up, unvarnished misogyny of his peers. I think it’s because Kendrick positions himself as essentially “better” than other rappers. He admits to the same temptations but doesn’t act on them. Unlike his closest peer, J. Cole, Kendrick doesn’t let us in, really. Even in “U,” the most personal song on To Pimp A Butterfly, he’s being too hard on himself rather than truly exposing his faults. So when he makes political points, like the ones he makes in “For Free,” he doesn’t give us much room to argue with him. As the leading “conscious” rapper of our time (as much as that label is essentially meaningless), there’s plenty of people who are going to take that metaphor and this video at face value, and allow it to play into their own misogynistic tendencies. Not to mention any non-black fans, who probably don’t know too many black women, and who are maybe honestly trying to get a better grasp on race relations — any nuance is likely going to be entirely lost on them.
At a time when those doing the main work of fighting oppression are black women, when black women face so many injustices and pressures that they shoulder as well as they can, we need allies. Kendrick could’ve been one of those allies, if he’d wanted to. Instead, he chooses to advance the idea that black men are the ones who suffer, and that black women are in the way. In his own fight against racism, he leaves us behind.