What it means to be “Alright”
Our feet are parallel. Our eyes are locked in a confrontational stare. We’re close enough to swing, to connect, to black each other’s eyes. The late Sergio Leone, master of the Spaghetti Western duel#, would appreciate this face-off’s unease. As the tension mounts and our heartbeats accelerate, my nemesis speaks first.
“You always think you’re the smartest fuckin’ person in the room,” he sneers. “You haven’t accomplished half of what you said you would. You haven’t accomplished shit. You’re a failure.”
“Fuck you,” I reply. But his words cut deep.
As an opponent, he’s the perfect match: he knows exactly what buttons to push. He knows my vulnerabilities.
He knows because we’re the same person.
Depression manifests itself differently in everyone. For me, it was an ongoing war against the face I saw in the mirror. Sure, I silently resented other people for being happy, but never more than I resented myself.
I’d never admit this, though — I was too busy hiding behind a poker face’s rigid upper lip.
It was a brutal, full-time job I never thought I’d be able to quit – until the first time I heard the following: “I can feel your vibe and recognize that you’re ashamed of me/ Yes, I hate you too.” Taken from Kendrick Lamar’s dizzying “u,” it’s the moment he finally buckles under the weight of his conscience and spirals into full-on breakdown.
Nearly a calendar year has passed since he released To Pimp a Butterfly. Since then, this psychological anvil has been so overanalyzed that even the discourse has snowballed into oversaturation. Something that can’t be discussed enough, however, is one of its more ambient themes: mental health.
Even after 11 months, listening to To Pimp a Butterfly is a therapeutic exercise. In 79 ambitious minutes, Kendrick condensed a lot of the debilitating malaise those like me had buried for years, elevating himself beyond the realm of favorite or most important artist of the moment and becoming an unexpected proponent for young black men coping with life’s rigors.
“What possible reason could you have to be depressed?”
On the surface, it’s a reasonable question. I’m “young,” I write for several reputable publications, and I have a promising, almost limitless future on the horizon. These are all things to be “happy” about. But running concurrent to the achievements was a stream of existential dilemmas. Career obsession, the disintegration of a long-term relationship, and a sprint to attain certain things before 30 were the numerators; the taxing, occasionally infuriating task of being black in America the denominator.
My career was the biggest concern. After four years of getting paid to write, I had grown frustrated that I wasn’t being celebrated on some preposterous level constructed in my mind. Success and failure became the extremes that defined life. Worse, I thought it was my fault, so the resulting quest for an intangible ideal consumed me. No matter how good I appeared to be doing or how “happy” I seemed, I was always fighting against my harshest critic: myself.
But rather than relax or seek help, I pushed myself harder to avoid dealing with the real problem.
The topic of mental health remains somewhat taboo within the black community. It goes unnoticed, unspoken of, and untreated — especially among men. Mental health issues are viewed as weakness, and when systemic and overt racism already leave black men navigating life in figurative full plate armour just to protect against everything thrown at us on a daily basis, there’s no time or space for weakness of any kind.
Growing up with society, friends, and even family telling us to be tough guys 24/7 forces us to entomb all traces of vulnerability.
That repression is part of why suicide is the third leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 24 and why rates among black boys have doubled over the past 20 years. Coaches tell us that “pain is weakness leaving the body.” We’re taught to never back down from confrontation#, but rather than facing and conquering that emotional pain, we become casualties of it. Suppression is confused with fortitude.
I figured I’d sound petulant complaining about not living up to the aggrandized standard I’d set for myself. In my mind, no one wanted to hear my bitching about very unique First World Problems. But I also didn’t want to be burdensome, far too proud to be viewed as the person in need. Preoccupied with trying to be Atlas and uncomfortable sharing the weight on my shoulders, I kept everything submerged.
There’s a stereotypical image of someone struggling with their mental health, and everyone wants to believe that it’s different from the reflection in the mirror. It’s someone unfamiliar. But Kendrick Lamar — someone basically the same age as me; someone I relate to — shattered that with To Pimp a Butterfly when he took on the onerous task of being honest with himself.
Many of To Pimp a Butterfly’s motifs (depression; shame; isolation; frustration with a world that apparently still views blacks as fractions of human beings) were the same things anchoring me down, and his piercing articulation of each served as hard evidence that someone like me was experiencing them too.
Even in its somewhat evolved state, hip-hop reinforces the hypermasculinity that prevents black men from getting help. Of all the ways To Pimp a Butterfly went left, Kendrick liberating his struggle with mental health from Pandora’s Box is the most meaningful. With the rest of the world busy showering him with praise for good kid, m.A.A.d city, culture shock became a traumatic product of his newfound fame:
One of his biggest issues was self-esteem — accepting that he deserved to be where he was. And some of that came from his discomfort around white people.
‘I’m going to be 100 percent real with you,’ Lamar says. ‘In all my days of schooling, from preschool all the way up to 12th grade, there was not one white person in my class. Literally zero.’ Before he started touring, he had barely left Compton; when he finally did, the culture shock threw him.
‘Imagine only discovering that when you’re 25,’ Lamar says. ‘You’re around people you don’t know how to communicate with. You don’t speak the same lingo. It brings confusion and insecurity. Questioning how did I get here, what am I doing? That was a cycle I had to break quick. But at the same time, you’re excited, because you’re in a different environment. The world keeps going outside the neighborhood.’
Distress and art are regular bedfellows, so Kendrick turned his nadirs into powerfully relatable music.
“Momma,” in particular, spoke to my mind and soul, eviscerating the toxic ambition that left me in frustrated pursuit of unrealistic goals.
The final verse features Kendrick encountering a child who reminds of him of himself doing the same for him:
But never mind you’re here right now don’t you mistake it
It’s just a new trip, take a glimpse at your family ancestor
Make a new list, of everything you thought was progress
And that was bullshit, I mean your life is full of turmoil
Spoiled by fantasies of who you are, I feel bad for you
I can attempt to enlighten you without frightenin’ you
If you resist, I’ll back off quick, go catch a flight or two
But if you pick destiny over rest in peace then be an advocate
Tell your homies, especially, to come back home
The epiphany strikes on the very first listen: many symbols of progress are illusory.
Kendrick’s aforementioned “fantasies” of who we want to be are delusive; harmful, even. Everything that I thought I knew or wanted was warped to the point of ridiculousness, and all the crippling machismo impressed upon my psyche was bullshit#. I knew I needed to change my perspective, and, most importantly, knew I needed help to do it. Seeking that help became my new focus.
I take credit for my decision to see a therapist, because the onus of your mental health rests in your hands. But without Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp a Butterfly, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Had he not made this album the conduit for his own internal dissension, I’d still be chasing after fool’s gold to no avail, furious for coming up empty-handed, and at odds with myself because of it. My soul, no longer on ice, is at rest. And perhaps the foremost revelation is that I can share the benefits of therapy with others.
Advocacy — using your experiences for a greater good — is the conclusion to “Momma”’s Prodigal Son narrative, and I advise everyone (black men and women, especially) to make their mental health a priority. Kendrick appears to be doing it; I’m doing it, and so can anyone.
I know I probably should’ve written about this last year for the sake of the Internet and cycled content#, but I wouldn’t have been able to then. I had to live with To Pimp a Butterfly and Kendrick’s words for months to reach a place where the person in the mirror is an ally instead of an adversary.
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