Photo of Kendrick Lamar by Philip Cosores
Kendrick Lamar dropped his latest opus, DAMN., today, and one line from one song in particular is garnering a lot of media attention. On the track “YAH”, Lamar calls out Geraldo Rivera for comments he made on FOX News following the rapper’s 2015 performance at the BET Awards. “Fox News wanna use my name for percentage,” raps Lamar. “Somebody tell Geraldo this nigga got ambition.”
The whole “beef” started when Lamar performed “Alright” from atop a cop car at the BET Awards (though Rivera keeps referring to it as the Grammys in his new video). Missing the point of both the song and the presentation, Rivera said at the time, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” Lamar actually samples that very segment on two DAMN. tracks, “BLOOD.” and “DNA.”.
Ever after the album’s release, however, Rivera is standing by his words, as he explained in a new video posted to Facebook. Although he puts Kendrick in the upper echelon of hip-hop alongside Drake and calls the “YAH” lyric “benign,” Rivera still believes that “hip-hop is worse than racism” statement. In his video, he says the repeated use of lyrics that establish an “us against them mentality” between minority youth and police offers is “the worst role-model. It’s the worst example.” Instead, he argues, it would be better for rappers and activists to work around racism, not try to abolish it.
“It’s the most negative possible message,” he continues. “And what’s the point of it? I mean you sell records, I get that. I get that this stuff is popular. but it avoids the central reality, just as Black Lives Matter avoids the central reality.” In Rivera’s opinion, talking about the fact that there is systemic racism is less important than simply working hard to overcome it. In other words, it’s the issues within the community itself that are the problem, not the outside forces that led to those situations in the first place. “I think there is a real issue of police violence,” he clarifies, “but again, I stress, I think it pales in comparison to the ghetto civil war being raged.”
Rivera also attempts to get in front of people calling him out for speaking from an overly privileged perspective, seeing that he’s a Puerto Rican Jewish man with a top-paying journalism job and an Upper West Side apartment. “I know,” he says defiantly. “I’m from Avenue C. I know. See, that’s the difference between me and most of the other correspondents… Nobody’s more street than me. Nobody’s seen more violence — no big time reporter has ever seen more ghetto violence, urban violence than me. I’m Avenue C. I know about it.” You heard him: No one is more street than Geraldo Rivera.
The sad thing is, Rivera has a fine point, but his conclusion is all off. At one point, he brings up Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as an example of the sort of positive message he wants to see in rap music. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with craving and respecting that sort of lyricism, it can’t be used to discredit equally valuable art just because the alternate message makes you uncomfortable. The best example of this foot-in-mouth argumentative strategy is the following statement, in which Rivera essentially says that instead of addressing prejudice, minorities should just work twice as hard to reach the same level of success as the privileged population:
“I know that the real danger to real black men and real brown men now is that their role model will sing about cops being killers and the system being stacked and there’s no chance of advancement and all the rest of it. That’s not the message that has to get out there. The message that has to get out there is that if you work hard you can succeed despite the handicaps that you have. Despite the fact that the system is stacked against you. The world is not fair. The world doesn’t start us all out evenly. The deck is stacked, particularly against racial minorities and poor folks. But for God’s sakes, we have to stop self-inflicting this damage on ourselves… How about finishing high school? How about going to college?”
Throughout the entire clip, Rivera makes his case that a 15-year-old growing up in South Chicago is hurt more by the lyrics someone like Lamar writes about unjustified police killings than by the systemic racism that led to such incidents, despite essentially admitting that such a problem indeed exists. It’s a frustrating head-fake, and you can watch it all via the video — apparently shot through a tub of Vaseline — below.