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Kendrick Lamar: Gen Z's Suburban Plato

Kendrick Lamar, Hip hop's esteemed Pulitzer Prize winning rapper, is well known for his profound music and raw honesty, often giving insight into his disturbing and violent upbringing in the streets of Compton. With songs like 'HUMBLE', 'DNA' and 'Poetic Justice', this thirteen time Grammy winning lyrical genius has been screaming complex philosophical concepts to his fans for years, not unlike those of Plato. Like Plato, Kendrick is constantly questioning society, often expressing political criticism in his music. But what could an eighty year old, ancient Greek philosopher possibly have in common with a 21st century rapper?

Plato's philosophy of Platonism is fairly abstract, insinuating that the world around us is built on timeless objective entities. In short, Plato seems to dismiss a concept of reality, suggesting that reality is how we look at life rather than a particular truth. Reality is relied on philosophical thought rather than its interpretation through senses. This idea is known as Plato's Theory of Forms. The same idea is applied to the concept of goodness, with Plato stating that there is no 'perfect example' of goodness but it is instead a form that should be understood.

Many of Kendrick's songs convey similar idea. In his song Mortal Man, he questions "If the industry cut me off, if the government wanted me dead, plant s***t in my car, would you judge me a drug kid or see me as K. Lamar?". In his song 'Poetic Justice' he raps, "If i told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?", challenging the concept of whether we should rely on our senses to comprehend reality. Is reality more ambiguous than we think?

Plato's famous 'Allegory of the Cave' attempts to address this very notion. He gives the example of three human beings, trapped in a cave since birth, only able to see the distorted shadows of life made by a fire on the cave walls. One person eventually escapes and, nearly blinded by daylight, discovers an entirely different reality of life. Excited, he rushes back to the cave to share his experiences, but is met with disbelief and disdain. The other cavemen are unable to accept another version of their dim, distorted reality in the cave.

This sort of tunnel vision perception of reality is adapted to form an 'Allegory of the Hood' in Kendrick's 2015 album, 'To Pimp a Butterfly'. The critically acclaimed album is seen as an eminent philosophical message, speaking against blaxploitation*, systemic racism, and issues in his neighborhood of Compton. He uses the metamorphosis of butterflies as a metaphor to describe the Black community in deprived neighborhoods as 'caterpillars' with the potential to develop into 'butterflies'. However, the stereotypes of crime and violence fostered by the media continue to subdue them, trapping them in their 'cocoon' and preventing them from leaving the cave to experience an alternate reality of life. Thus, these 'caterpillars' are bound by their stereotypes, forced to become what media and society expects them to be, and so the vicious cycle continues.

Plato and Kendrick both raise eerily similar questions that remain relevant almost 600 years later, truly highlighting the surprising prominence philosophy has not only in mainstream pop culture, but daily lives too. So, the next time you find Plato boring, feel free to stream any of Kendrick's ingenious albums for a modern insight on philosophy!

Images and Inspiration:

'A little History of Philosophy', Nigel Warburton

*the exploitation of black people, especially with regard to stereotyped roles in films.

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