a long read
“We often undermine how easy it is for us to become the people that we dislike.”
In 2017, Kendrick Lamar released an album called “DAMN” and within no time it became a hit sensation. The full extent of Kendrick’s talent and team drove his art up the billboard charts and into every hip-hop conversation. The album came out when I was in high school and I still remember the immense hype around two songs in particular: Humble and DNA. Today’s blog will center around the latter, DNA.
If you have never heard of this song before, a quick disclaimer that the song is explicit. If you do give it a listen and the genre or lyrics detracts from experiencing and understanding the song, then reading the lyrics will do. In the pursuit of new perspectives, it is important to keep an open mind. Brilliant ideas can originate from anywhere and their validity or value is not determined by it’s vulgarity. Alright, let’s unwrap Kendrick’s lyrics!
Too often we forget that songs, like any other art form, by nature convey or express a thought. Behind every song there is a message or at the very least a sentiment that connects the body of listeners with the creator of the song. People I know who have listened to DNA praise the soundtrack, the rhyme or even the testament Kendrick gives to the minority struggle. My reason for appreciating this song is because I was captivated by the message. The message being the implications of how Kendrick defines DNA.
From the very beginning of the song Kendrick begins listing adjectives that, in his opinion, come from or constitute DNA. It begins with positive words like “loyalty”, “royalty”, “joy” and “peace”. Then suddenly it goes darker with associations like “war”, “poison” and “pain”. In a song brimming with energy, I thought Kendrick would take the opportunity to boast on his own DNA, his own genius and the work ethic that set him apart from his contemporaries. Instead, he chooses to paint both sides of the coin, presenting the good and the bad.
I think Kendrick is taking a step back and looking at humanity as a whole. As soon as he does this, he gives himself the difficult task of defining something that is at the same time unique and a common denominator to every single human being. The difficulty comes in drawing the line between humanity as a group and as individuals. For example, you can say DNA is peace but the statement cannot apply to humanity as a whole. It goes without saying that plenty of people at this moment are not exercising or experiencing peace. Try for yourself and see the difficulty in assigning a universal hashtag. Kendrick realized this is an impossible task and chose to start big instead of small, by defining DNA as everything a human being can be.
The Bigger Picture
I think this approach makes the most sense on paper, however this idea presents other issues of its own. Saying that the human DNA contains everything means the weak and poor have “power” and “riches”, while the kind and pure have a part of them that is “evil” or “rotten”. How can this be?
Let’s try and address this apparent contradiction by jumping over to the science side of things. Looking at the human DNA sequence we see that it is a long list of instructions on how to build and operate us. The fascinating thing is that there are a lot of unused instructions that are still part of our DNA. For example, one may have the capacity to have darker hair but instead they have light hair, or another may have a faster metabolism where a slower was also possible. This is the same way your DNA and mine can contain so much more than what we are right now.
Now I’m going to stir the pot a bit, what does Kendrick Lamar’s definition of DNA actually mean to you and me? Think back to that school bully, it means that we have more in common than we’d like to admit with that individual. It means that across political and ethnic lines there may be people more like us than within our usual crowds. It means that there is a part of ourselves that we fear because it goes against everything else that we are. Ask yourself what one situation made different would have placed you on a completely different road in life. How much is really in our control? The truth is that we all have the best and worst of humanity inside each of us, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we earnestly work to realize the best within ourselves.
Looking at each other through this lense makes us slower to judge. A good case study of this mindset is the reform around drugs and addictions. For decades an ugly and dangerous narrative has been built around drug addicts that ultimately suggested jail time as the best solution to the drug crisis. However, individuals closest to the people affected by the problem took the initiative to see the problem from the angle of the drug users. Through genuine effort and many documented encounters, they came to the realization that the drug problem was not a criminal crisis but a health crisis. This new way of thinking put less emphasis on incarceration and more on aides and resources to help individuals navigate their mental and physical health challenges. Additional resources were also allocated to help other parts of theirs lives in an effect to bring them out of a vulnerable demographic more likely to fall into dangerous habits.
We are all human first no matter how much we try and stereotype and dismiss each other. Before we judge or condemn and when appropriate, it is helpful to attempt understanding how others reached their conclusions. What reality are they surrounded by and which DNA strands seem to be active. This helps us think about how to better relate with others, and more often than not, leads us to see a better solution. This is the key behind navigating an increasing hostile world that rewards impulsive decisions over thoughtful actions.