228 “That Word is Only a Color”

Brianna Romiglio

We live in a world where immediate gratification is normal, and almost expected. If you need to know the weather for the day or the latest news, it is a couple of finger taps away at any moment for people fortunate enough to own a cell phone. And just as information can be searched quickly, it can also be shared quickly, especially with the aid of social media. We all can see this trend with Facebook and Twitter, and how these apps literally have a share feature embedded in them. A medium that tends to share itself without the help of that share button, however, is music.

In our society, music surrounds us. It is played over radios in cars and stores and is in the background of advertisements we watch. Music is an art form that does not require too much attention while consuming it. Even as a person begins to learn the lyrics, they still may not really be paying attention to all of the words and what they actually mean together. It is easy to just hear a song over the radio and subliminally learn it, but diving deeper into lyrics and researching what they actually mean can give a whole different perspective to a song. I was able to analyze the song “Yah” by Kendrick Lamar to find very powerful lyrics. I knew this song before this assignment, and I too fell victim to being a passive listener, learning lyrics but not really thinking about them and what they mean.

According to Genius.com, the word “Yah” represents “Yahuah”, which is another name for God. Interestingly enough, Lamar states in the lyrics himself that he is “not ‘bout a religion,” yet many of the lyrics throughout various songs of his reference religion. This resistance of religion can also be see in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In her slave narrative, she reveals that although her grandmother conforms to a religion, she cannot do the same. Jacobs may feel this way because under her given circumstances, she feels so disadvantaged compared to others and struggles with faith because of that.

The chorus of this song uses the word yah in a unique context. In the chorus phrase “Buzzin’, radars is buzzin’, Yah, yah, yah, yah,” I believe Yah also represents the sound or signals that this “radar” is making. The radar stands for Lamar’s mind, and the significance of the radar making a “Yah” sound is that it ties his mind to that religion. It is almost as if his “radar” is “buzzin’” with the words of God. The mention of religion brings a universal topic into his song and may make his words receive more empathy because of it.

Later in the song, he raps that “Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed”. Deuteronomy is a religious text, and can be described as a set of laws, directed towards Israelites, left behind by Moses before he died. This text outlines the outcome of the “Curse of Ham,” which describes the son of Ham, Canaan, shamefully seeing his father nude. Because of this, Canaan was “cursed” with darker skin, and was made to be a servant. People abused this story and used it as a tool to justify the enslavement of black people. Many racists even claimed that black people were all descendants of this Canaan and that they were automatically sinful because of this. This line of lyrics in the rap is powerful because it exemplifies how powerless one can feel when even religion says they are inherently sinful because of solely skin color. Religion is something that billions of people can relate to and many people center their lives around, so it is scary that religion is also a tool used to oppress people because of simply the skin they were born with.

For some context, it is important to know that Kendrick Lamar grew up in Compton, California where he was surrounded by gang violence. He often depicts the violence he had to witness in his music, but this song took a different approach. The second line in the song states “I’m diagnosed with real nigga conditions,” and in this case, the word diagnosed can be synonymous with born. Lamar was born into his surroundings, and therefore “diagnosed” with his “real nigga conditions”. In communities where street violence is prevalent, survival is key. The human need for survival can push some to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, hence why Jacobs stays cooped up in a small crawl space for years in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The drive for survival can place oppressed people into uncomfortable situations, and the exposure of violence to young Lamar could have resulted in him carrying his violence with him and continuing it in his adult life. On the contrary, he was able to compile some of his struggles into the art form of music.

The genre of rap opens doors to elaborate storytelling. Unlike traditional songs, more words can be included in rap because of the nature of the genre. I believe that rap has been a phenomenal modern way for oppressed people to reveal their struggles and emotions. It is a popular genre among young people today, and even if listeners don’t necessarily understand all of the words they are rapping, the fact that they are even learning the words brings some truth to the stories the music tells.  Those that eventually deep read the songs and appreciate the lyrics can gain insight to the rapper’s mind and in turn offer their sympathy. Many raps songs are raw and vulnerable and speak of tragedies that I personally could not imagine having to endure myself, and that is why I think musicians within this genre deserve immense respect. This can be compared to the individuals such as Harriet Jacobs, the author of The Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl. Lamar and Jacobs both tell of first-hand true accounts of their struggles and the mediums they use extract sympathy from the audience. The slave narrative is a more intense story because of the fact that Jacobs literally had no rights or control over her body. The genre of rap, however, includes many songs and first-hand accounts of individuals still experiencing the backlashes of the long standing racism in America. Music is something that most people listen to nowadays, and therefore writing music about these issues of racism in America is a safe way to ensure that people will hear and spread your messages. A long-standing truth about literature is that nothing can be as powerful as a first-hand, true account.

The medium in which a first-hand account is presented can alter the effect it has on the consumer. In this specific instance, there are many ways in which a book and a song tell a story in a different way. Books take more focus and are more interactive on the end of the consumer. In order to reach the end of the book, one must pay attention and know what happened at the beginning. In contrast, one can passively consume a song as briefly mentioned above. This could be problematic in the sense that one may not understand the full message of a song in one listen, but we typically listen to songs more than once, so this could help combat the lack of lyrical understanding. Another key difference between these mediums is the purpose of them and what they are used for. It is obvious that both Lamar and Jacobs wanted to tell an honest story from their past and reveal things about themselves. A book’s purpose is to be read, but a song can be consumed in many different ways and in many different environments. Lamar’s songs about his serious struggles could be played over the speakers of a party or in the background of a department store. This method of consumption for music is different than making the conscious decision to sit and read a slave narrative. But maybe that is the key – music is a tool to inform the general population and those that won’t read these narratives of the racial oppression that still exists in the present.

The most powerful lyrics in this rap is the line  “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’, that word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’”. This relates to the trend of black people being defined as a solid group of alike people and therefore all of them share the same stereotypes. In the words of Lamar “it ain’t facts no mo,” and color should not define a person’s personality. There is more to an individual than looks, and black “is only a color,” yet it is still a word that can be used to separate people. As artists like Lamar emerge onto the rap scene, hopefully their songs will be heard and understood. As time moves forward, I think that music will be a universal tool used to understand and relate to others. In a world full of humans, music could be the key to moving towards a more accepting society, just as slave narratives hoped to open the minds of those around them.




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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Brianna Romiglio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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