Washington D.C. hasn’t seen many nights like this.
As Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, there was a palpable sense of triumph: for the audience, the lucky few able to experience a one-off reinterpretation of To Pimp A Butterfly, his critically-acclaimed 2015 sophomore release arranged to feature the National Symphony Orchestra; for hip-hop, the quasi-ubiquitous “urban” art form getting its due recognition at the pinnacle of American art; and for Kendrick Lamar himself, the young Compton emcee widely regarded by many as the greatest rapper alive. The air was electric with anticipation for what was surely to be one of the most exciting rap performances the city had ever seen. And, thankfully, the evening exceeded expectations.
It’s difficult to capture just how powerful this performance was, for many reasons. Kendrick, who was occupying rarified air even before releasing this album earlier this year, put on a show of virtuosic proportions. Sharp and focused, he rapped every syllable and lyric with evident conviction, his body movements betraying the degree of feeling as much as his voice and facial expressions. He paused on a few occasions to address the audience, visibly moved each time. To Pimp A Butterfly addresses heavy and important themes, grappling with blackness, survivor’s guilt, artistic integrity, and responsibility – the magnitude of performing this album on this stage was not lost on Kendrick.
The National Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Steven Reineke, added an element of flair and gravitas most poignantly felt on the quieter, more introspective songs off To Pimp A Butterfly. Strings, horns, and even classical guitar gave tracks like “Institutionalized” and “How Much A Dollar Cost” further emotional resonance and depth, driving the message home in a gorgeous manner. Of course, bangers like “i”, “King Kunta”, and “The Blacker The Berry” all benefited by having a veritable wall of sound propelling them ahead – not that they needed much help, with the audience rapturously singing along to every word.
A great deal of credit must go to the Kennedy Center for continuing to embrace hip-hop as an art form worthy of exaltation, even if like on many other things in D.C., old white people are way late to the game. Granted, hip-hop itself is relatively young, clocking in just north of three decades, yet it seems absurd that Kendrick Lamar is only the second rapper to take the stage with the NSO. Hip-hop’s absence (until recently) from the table of high-brow art is staggering considering the number of culturally significant works and talented performers in the medium, particularly when compared to jazz and the blues, the two other kinds of Original American Music.
While rap retains its connection to the streets and daily struggle due to its autobiographical nature, the other two have been sandblasted and declawed so as to effectively pose no threat to anyone, and are thus generally “safe” to celebrate. Tuesday night’s full house should be the clearest signal yet that this country is more than ready to give smart, engaging art its just desserts and accolades – no matter the origin. My suggestion for the next one? Lauryn Hill (a man can dream).
For the audience of approximately 2400, it was an opportunity to engage on an intimate level with one of the leading voices of our generation. While people were a bit subdued at the beginning – seats will knock the wind out of anyone’s sails – inhibitions and timidity had fully evaporated by the time Kendrick sang the chorus from “Wesley’s Theory” for the second time.
While organizers endured some criticism because almost all of the tickets were sold to Kennedy Center Members during the pre-sale, fears that this would box out minorities and people of color from the audience were unfounded. It was a packed house with people from all walks of life, and the most people there were more than just casual Kendrick fans. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this performance brought in a pretty penny at the gate, but it’s understandable considering the size of the production; after all, to paraphrase K.Dot himself: this orchestra ain’t free.
Finally, a special mention must go to The Mellow Tones, who gave a rousing performance to start things off. This incredibly talented jazz vocal group is composed of students from D.C.’s own Duke Ellington School of he Arts, and they performed a five-song set that brought a few audience members to tears (ahem). The Ellington School is D.C.’s only public high school to offer a dual curriculum in professional arts training, and I really wish we had more places like it – I’ve now seen a couple of incredible performances by their student/artists. Our city needs to continue developing and giving support to the arts at the grassroots level.
As the last notes of the encore clung to the heavily curtained walls of the Kennedy Center, hip-hop has never enjoyed a brighter moment in this country’s cultural milieu. Through everything that happens, rap will remain this country’s conscience and confessional, the mirror to many people’s daily existence. As Kendrick himself would say: “We Gon’ Be Alright.”
All photos by Yassine El Mansouri, courtesy of the Kennedy Center