A Visit From Kendrick Lamar — Best Day Of School Ever?

Jun 13, 2015
Originally published on June 15, 2015 9:46 am

At around midday Monday at High Tech High School in North Bergen, N.J., about 40 students are crammed into a small classroom, anxiously waiting for Kendrick Lamar to walk into the room.

He glides in with crisp white kicks, a grey long-sleeve shirt, and hair twisting every which way. The 27-year-old rapper has a broad smile on his face. He seems almost as excited as the students, who just might be having their best day of school ... ever.

Lamar is on top of the rap game at the moment. His latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, came out earlier this year and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's albums chart. It's a complex, multilayered piece of work that wrestles with themes around blackness and beauty.

That's why Brian Mooney decided to use To Pimp a Butterfly with his freshman English students as they studied Toni Morrison's novel, The Bluest Eye. The book is about a young black girl who yearns to have blue eyes.

"I was listening and I was like, wow, there are just so many themes that are the same," Mooney says. He's also a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, working with a program exploring the use of hip-hop in education.

"The main character that my students spoke about, Pecola Breedlove, she's experiencing internalized oppression," Mooney explains. "And so Kendrick is speaking to that same concept with the song 'Complexion.' He's speaking to that same idea of pushing back against the dominant narrative that there's this mythological norm that is considered good and beautiful and valuable."

The lesson caught on with his students. They wrote essays, poetry and rap lyrics inspired by the book and album. Around Mooney's classroom, posters of Morrison quotes and Lamar's lyrics are paired with images of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Mooney was encouraged, so he wrote a blog post about the lesson.

"It just took off, and it went across the Internet, and Kendrick Lamar got it and read it," Mooney says. "His manager reached out to me and said, 'I want to come visit your school.' So we made it happen."

Lamar, in a brief interview in the school's theater, says Mooney's blog post was fascinating. "I was intrigued how somebody can — other than myself — can articulate and break down the concepts of To Pimp A Butterfly, almost better than I can," he said.

The artist says he didn't just come here to perform, or just to mentor the students.

"Something even — for me — even bigger than mentoring is really listening," he says. "And when I do that, we have a little bit bigger connection than me being Kendrick Lamar and you being a student. It's almost like we're friends, you know? Because a friend listens and we learn off each others' experiences."

Throughout the day, Lamar listens. At a school-wide assembly students present the work they've done with Mooney. Ben Vock, Joan Tubungbanua and Sade Ford read their poetry and essays. Vock reads a poem about his own prejudices.

Lamar says he likes it.

"You know, the hardest thing for not only an artist but for anybody to do is look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge their own flaws and fears and imperfections. And put them out for people to relate to it," he tells the senior. "I can relate to you as well, you dig what I'm sayin'?"

After the readings, a group of students perform a dance number to a mashup of Lamar's songs.

Then it's his turn. Lamar grabs the mic and dives into "Alright," one of the tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly.

"It was very exciting" Sade Ford, a senior, says after the show. "And this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kendrick Lamar's on top of the rap game at the moment. His latest album, "To Pimp A Butterfly," came out earlier this year to critical acclaim and success on the charts. The album deals with the themes of blackness and beauty, which is why one teacher in New Jersey decided to use it in a course on Toni Morrison's novel "The Bluest Eye" about a young black girl who yearns to have blue eyes. Kendrick Lamar caught wind of the lesson and this week, he paid the school a visit. NPR's Sami Yenigun was there.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: It's around midday at High Tech High School, just outside of Jersey City, and the 40-some-odd kids crammed into this classroom are psyched.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

YENIGUN: Gliding into the room in crisp white kicks, a gray long-sleeve and hair twisting every which way, the 27-year-old rapper has a broad smile on his face. He seems almost as excited as the students, who might be having the best day of school ever.

KENDRICK LAMAR: So what's up?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

YENIGUN: Lamar's here because of English teacher Brian Mooney. Mooney says the album came out right in the middle of his course on Toni Morrison's novel. He asked his students to link the themes in each.

BRIAN MOONEY: The main character that my students spoke about, Pecola Breedlove, she's experiencing internalized oppression.

YENIGUN: In the audiobook, Morrison reads the part where Pecola fantasizes she does have blue eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE BLUEST EYE")

TONI MORRISON: (Reading) They're just prejudiced, that's all. Yes, they sure are prejudiced just because I got blue eyes - bluer than theirs.

YENIGUN: And so Kendrick is speaking to that same concept with the song "Complexion."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPLEXION")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Beauty is what you make it. I used to be so mistaken by different shades of faces, then Whit told me a woman is woman, love the creation. It all came from God then you was my confirmation, I came to where you reside and looked around to see more sights for sore eyes. Let the Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times with complexion.

MOONEY: He's speaking to that same idea of, you know, pushing back against the dominant narrative that, like, there is this mythological norm that is, you know, considered good and beautiful and valuable.

YENIGUN: The lesson caught on with his kids. They wrote essays, poetry and rap lyrics inspired by the book and album. Around Mooney's classroom, posters of Morrison quotes and Lamar's lyrics are paired with images of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Mooney was encouraged, so he wrote a blog post about the course.

MOONEY: It just took off and it went across the Internet and Kendrick Lamar got it and read it. And his manager reached out to me and said, I want to come visit your school.

LAMAR: I was intrigued how somebody can - other than myself - can articulate and break down the concepts of "To Pimp A Butterfly" almost better than I can (laughter).

YENIGUN: Sitting in the school's theater, Kendrick Lamar says he's impressed with Mooney's post. And he wants to make clear he didn't just come to perform and he didn't come to mentor the students.

LAMAR: Something even - for me even bigger than mentoring is really listening. And when I do that, we have a little bit bigger connection than me being Kendrick Lamar and you being the student. It's almost like we're friends, you know, 'cause a friend listens and we learn off each other experiences.

YENIGUN: Throughout the course of the day, Lamar listens to what these teenagers have to say, and he freestyles with him in the classroom.

LAMAR: (Rapping) Pass the mic, pass the mic, like the red hat. I know that you can rap 'cause you gave me the slap. This is...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Rapping) Yeah, this is, this is the newest. I don't even know. Yeah, we make good music.

YENIGUN: Then at a school-wide assembly in the field house, students present their work.

SADE FORD: (Reading) Nothing but an illusion, like the color of my skin is a tribute to my smartness. Like, my mind is just a brick wall..

JOAN TUBUNGBANUA: (Reading) When she went insane, she began to be paranoid because she thought there were eyes that were bluer than hers and in Kendrick's song, "For Sale?"...

BEN VOCK: (Reading) With the same fear that rests on the back of my neck, rests in the hands of the slave master's whip, that same fear rests in the hands of the public.

YENIGUN: Ben Vock, Joan Tubungbanua and Sade Ford read their poetry and essays, and as they finish, Lamar gives them feedback.

LAMAR: That's dope (laughter). Man, y'all - all of y'all are just crazy.

YENIGUN: He praises Vock who wrote a poem about his own prejudices.

LAMAR: You know, the hardest thing for - not only an artist but for anybody to do is look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge, you know, their own flaws and fears and imperfections and put them out there in the open for people to relate to it. I can relate to you as well, you know what I'm saying?

YENIGUN: After the students read their work, a group of them perform a dance number to a mashup of Lamar's songs. Then it's his turn.

LAMAR: (Rapping) We going to be all right. Be all right. We going to be all right. Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We going to be all right. And when I wake up, I recognize you're looking at me for the pay cut. Behind my side we looking at you from the face down, what mac-11 even boom with the bass down, scheming.

YENIGUN: At the end of the day, student Sade Ford says Lamar made an impact.

FORD: It was very exciting, and this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I'm very happy to have participated in it.

YENIGUN: And as Kendrick Lamar leaves High Tech High, he promises he'll be back. Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.