DAMN: An Exploration of Black Identity and Colonized Faith
By Vanessa Taylor
“The Lord will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart….you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you.” Deuteronomy 28:29.
It is often assumed that discussions about religion are centered around God’s existence. But, for Black people, theological thought has been defined by our circumstances. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN is an exploration of Christian faith posing the question that’s shaped Black theological identity for generations: in a world defined by Black suffering, what is the role of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God?
Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
Are we gonna live or die?
Bēkon opens the album by introducing the two themes that will become key components in this discussion: wickedness and weakness. On BLOOD, Kendrick tells the story of a blind woman who shoots him as he attempts to help her. Kendrick appears to be unsurprised by the gunshot that meets him in the end making it seem as though he expected it. The track’s outro takes us back to Alright on To Pimp A Butterfly which became the unofficial protest anthem.
“Lamar stated his views on police brutality with that line in the song, quote: "And we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo' sho'…"
The song samples a Fox News broadcast wherein reporters misquote and criticize the song. The outro reminds us that album is centered in the Black experience and like To Pimp A Butterfly it isn't intended for a white audience, it reminds us that this album is centered in the Black experience before we get too far in.
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
I was born like this, since one like this
Kendrick unleashes his signature intensity on the album's next track. DNA expands on Bekon’s introduction to highlight the most important juxtaposition within DAMN: damnation by personal sin and damnation by birth. Personal sin is explored through the presence of the 7 Deadly Sins, notably through the partner tracks PRIDE vs HUMBLE and LUST vs LOVE. In DNA, Kendrick wrestles with doing good work to please God while failing because of faults that are encrypted in his make-up. To some, blaming genetics as the cause for your damnation is nothing more than a scapegoat, but again: this is an album centered in Blackness.
On YAH, Kendrick brings the discussion to full light when he says, “And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed.” The lyrics are referring to the Curse of Ham, sanctioned by Noah in the Book of Genesis, with resulting consequences outlined in the Book of Deuteronomy. Ham is believed to be the father of all Black people, with Egypt being referred to as the “Land of Ham”. Genesis 9:20-9:27 tells of Ham finding his father, Noah, naked and drunk outside. Rather than averting his gaze and covering his father, Ham tells his brothers, who then came to cover Noah. When Noah wakes, and hears of what Ham has done, he doesn’t respond by cursing Ham. Instead, he says, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” The number of sons Noah has is debated (because of contradictions within texts), but one interpretations says Ham is the fourth son. Canaan was named in the curse as the fourth son of Ham, but it is still ultimately Ham who is believed to have sinned and Ham’s descendants who must continue to answer for that sin.
It was this curse that was used to justify atrocities committed against Black people, including chattel slavery. Ham became a personification of Black people’s so-called ‘natural inclination towards rebellion.’ This ‘natural inclination’ became a central justification for white paternalism and the overarching excuse for the subjugation of Black bodies. On Fear, the lyrics “Cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the ‘light of God” are not a reiterated excuse, but Kendrick coming to terms with the common understanding of damnation having no meaning for Black people.
Towards DAMN’s end, we hear his cousin Carl Duckworth’s voicemail, where he re-centers the album using a frankness that family always has when calling you out.
But you have to understand this, man, that we are a cursed people. Deuteronomy 28:28 says, ‘The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.’
Deuteronomy and the Curse of Ham reverberate throughout the album. The effects of the curse can be found sprinkled through every track, but the theme of blindness stands apart. It is a blind woman Kendrick approached to assist, committing an act of service as God says we should; it is a victim of the curse who recognized another and it was the curse that pardoned Kendrick from God’s protection. The final track DUCKWORTH samples the very first track BLOOD making it appear that the album is meant to be understood as a cycle or a process. DAMN explores the ways in which we have been forced to wrestle with faith. What does damnation mean when you are cast out of God’s light because of who you are? What does it mean to be saved in a faith that claims Yeshua died for our sins, while the Curse of Ham continues to be invoked as a justification for Black subjugation?
Perhaps the closest Lamar comes to knowing the answers to these questions is on the GOD:
This what God feel like, huh, yeah
Laughin' to the bank like, "A-ha!", huh, yeah
Flex on swole like, "A-ha!", huh, yeah
You feel some type of way, then a-ha!
GOD, captures a moment for Kendrick Lamar where he is jubilant with hopes of dominating the rap game and accumulating wealth, it captures a bitter acceptance that wealth might elevate one of us–– temporarily alleviating our pain, but modern medicine cannot end an ancient curse.
“See, family, that’s why you feel like you feel like you got a chip on your shoulder,” Carl says, finishing his voicemail with a reminder to Kendrick Lamar that resonates with the rest of us, “Until you finally get the memo, you will always feel that way.”
Vanessa Taylor (they/them, she/her) is a community organizer and freelancer (workshops, facilitations, etc) from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They are a co-founder of the Black Liberation Project, a grassroots collective of Black youth. Their writing primarily focuses on looking at religion, womanhood, and Muslim identity using a throughly Black lens.