Drake and Kendrick Lamar’s beef woke up America, but why?

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Recently, rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar have had the hip hop world in a chokehold with their very public, very personal diss tracks. These aren’t just your run of the mill, regular offensive lyrics; these rappers have taken an extra step to attack each other’s families, characters, alleged sexual abuse and physical abuse and even render death threats on beat.

Shockingly though, these lyrics have not been the main talking points of most social media disagreements. What could be more confrontational than attacking a person’s character and their family? The answer to that is one that has been and continues to serve as a divider amongst our community, and that question is “Who is Black and who has access to cultural Blackness?”

In Lamar’s song, “Not Like Us,” he breaks down Drake’s proximity to Blackness by naming each of his connections in the city of Atlanta and how he uses those connections to gain access to a culture he doesn’t understand. He famously ends the line with, “You’re not a colleague, you’re a … colonizer,” to describe what he sees as Drake taking from “the culture.” This line, among many, upset Drake fans and Kdot (Lamar) fans alike and conversations have emerged over cultural gatekeeping and the idea of Blackness.

To be honest, this conversation is as old as time, but will remain relevant in a racialized American society. Let me speak first as an academic so we can get a few things out of the way. Yes, race is a social construct. This piece is not arguing the construction of race, but I do want us as people to get passed this statement that oversimplifies the nuance of why race was created as a social construct and is unique in the American context. Because our racialized caste system is vital to capitalism, it will always be a part of our lives and a topic of conversation among racialized groups. So, when asking the question of, “Who is Black enough?”, it would depend on how you define Blackness.

In America, the definition of Blackness has changed and expanded over time, mostly as a means to exclude people from whiteness and the privileges of citizenship within this country. Although Drake is biracial, by old American standards and the one-drop rule, he would still be considered Black. What has people upset isn’t about societal Blackness, but cultural Blackness. They are not the same.

As our society grows, it is becoming less Black and more brown, causing some Black people to experience a sense of loss as they watch cultural Blackness be borrowed, stolen and used as racial currency by individuals and groups who do not actually share those same lived experiences. The problem with cultural Blackness is that it is so mainstream that it now belongs to everyone, which is problematic.

As the descendants of enslaved people, many of us who are generational African Americans have little to no knowledge of our history, our roots, traditions and music. Therefore, “gatekeeping” is the only tool we have to keep people out and preserve what’s inside. We deserve to be proud of our cultural Blackness and to display it whether that be through hip hop or other forms of art and scholarship.

I understand many people of mixed identities who consider themselves people of color may not agree with the notion of gatekeeping, but even amongst a larger group, there are intragroup dynamics and traditions that deserve to be upheld, whether that be through language or family traditions.

It’s possible to be a part of multiple groups and for multiple things to be true. Let me make it clearer for you. As a Black woman, I am a part of many affinity groups: Black, female, mother, etc. I also recognize, though, that as a Black woman, I am a woman of color, and me being a woman of color doesn’t gain me entry into the Latina women’s group, because that is not a group I can identify with. Understand?

Way too often, people expect entry to groups in which they can’t identify, without making any genuine connections with people in those groups. Many want access to the community without first having any meaningful interpersonal relationships with members of that group or community.

If you find yourself triggered after listening to “Not Like Us,” I’d like for you to get curious about what exactly triggered you. Some may find that they are projecting their own lived experiences onto an artist whose only goal was to bury this man lyrically. Others may feel like Drake represents a larger group of people who haven’t been socially accepted. (Let’s face it, Drake has plenty of fans and is accepted everywhere they accept Visa.)

I empathize with those who do “feel some kind of way,” but let’s not forget this is a rap beef, not a college course. Therefore, if Lamar has you thinking about racial identities, acceptance, racial currency and colonization … then, he’s won for that reason alone. The dope beat and lyrical genius just make it that much sweeter.

So, the next time you hear the song, “Not Like Us,” and trust me, you will most likely be hearing it all summer (and into the fall too!), appreciate the lyrical genius and musical aptitude of the artist who just added another beautiful artifact to the culture, an artifact that is tucked safely behind the gates, close enough for everyone to see and hear but too heavy for people to steal.

Tristal Watson is passionate about education, policy and community-building. She is currently a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.