Kendrick Lamar and Ethics

Updated: May 22, 2019


It has been debated over the past few centuries whether music should be listened to for enjoyment or for moral development. I believe that music can be listened to for both simultaneously, and there are many examples of this. Classical music has generally been a genre that people associate with moral development, however, there are artists in popular music who bring ethics into their lyrics, and impact their listeners. Bruce Springsteen is an example of an artist from the later generations who inspires moral development through the perspectives he shows in his music; Kendrick Lamar also provides similar perspectives for our generation (Dieser 102; Lynch, “The political theory of Kendrick Lamar”).


According to Rodney Dieser (96), “Scores of Springsteen songs parallel psychological techniques used to increase moral development, such as being exposed to two or more beliefs that are contradictory, social perspective-taking by listening to moral dilemmas, gaining empathy with the distress that another person experiences, hypothetical contemplation, and meta-ethical reflection.” By displaying the situations of people who are commonly misunderstood or stereotyped in society, such as criminals, Springsteen helps listeners understand their point of view and think about the events that lead to their behavior. This is not meant to excuse their behavior, but to be thought provoking. He wants people to at least consider the context (Dieser 97). Dieser asserts that an important aspect of “mature moral development” is the ability to be empathetic and be able to have a social perspective. He believes this will inspire people to be more altruistic. “According to Mark Davis, social perspective-taking means adopting, understanding, or considering another person’s life condition: their thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, desires, preferences, points of view, goals, and intentions, ” (Dieser 102) songs that are written as stories generally have a better grasp on painting these thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, etc. Kendrick Lamar does a great job at doing this particularly for the African-American community.


In some of Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics he incorporates messages of hope for the African-American community in the face of police brutality and other injustices, he also describes their anxieties of young African-Americans growing up in violent urban areas. The pre-hook and hook of the song “Alright” are examples of hope :

  • “ [Pre-Hook:] Wouldn’t you know/ We been hurt, been down before/ N****, when our pride was low/ Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’/ N****, and we hate po-po/ Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/ N****, I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow/ But we gon’ be alright.[Hook:] N****, we gon’ be alright/N****, we gon’ be alright/ We gon’ be alright/ Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright/ N****, we gon’ be alright/ Huh? We gon’ be alright/ N****, we gon’ be alright/ Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright”

This song and it’s music video speak about hope in the aftermath of the police shootings that have happened throughout 2015. Heaven is the concept of hope that is spread throughout the community by the Church, but Kendrick focuses on a more concrete version of hope - one that is grounded in reality, and the events that are happening in our society. He spreads the message, that here and now, we will be alright. Not just after we have already died (Talbert, “Kendrick Lamar’s Theology of Alright”).


In the song “FEAR.” on Kendrick’s latest album “Damn.” he outlines some common fears that young African-Americans have:

  • “I’ll prolly die anonymous/ I’ll prolly die with promises/ I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house/ I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out/ I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’/ I’ll prolly die at these house parties f****** with b******/ I’ll prolly die from witnesses leaving me falsely accused/ I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool/ or maybe die because these smokers/ are more than desperate/ I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges/ Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snapping/ Or maybe die from panic or die from being too lax/ Or die from waiting on it, die ‘cause I’m moving too fast/ I’ll prolly die tryna buy w*** at the apartments/ I’ll prolly die tryna diffuse two homies arguin’/I’ll prolly die ‘cause that’s what you do when you’re 17/ All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things”

This song radiates anxiety and the seamless stream of thoughts of ways one could die that day, that seem entirely plausible. The reference to being 17 years old is significant because that is how old Trayvon Martin was when he was shot and killed. Many elements in that segment are common to “hoods”, “ghettos” and urban areas in general that have a high population of African-Americans. These lyrics are accurate representations of the thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that Dieser stated were important for the development of social perspective-taking and in turn mature moral development of listeners.

The album “To Pimp a Butterfly” incorporates a poem that calls for the unity of the community in order to stand against the injustices that are done against us:

  • “But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one/ A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination/ Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned/ The word was respect/ Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s/ Doesn’t mean that I can’t respect you as a black man/ Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets/ If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/ But I don’t know.”

This poem touches on the argument that people are more concerned about the police killing African-Americans, than the community engaging in killing itself. This is an important message of unity that needs to be spread more often, not to negate the fact that we face injustice, but that we also should respect ourselves the way we want others to respect us. It looks at the idea that unity is our greatest power, and division makes us that much easier to be torn apart and broken down. Thought-provoking messages like this help build moral development.

Given the lyrical creativity Kendrick Lamar was blessed with, he has an immense platform to preach solidarity, and respect for one’s community through his music. Kendrick’s songs are in the realm of popular music, as well as hip-hop/rap, so his fan-base is diverse. Given that he has listeners from different backgrounds, they are subject to this point of view that they might not have heard otherwise. There are plenty of other rappers who talk about similar issues in their music, but I think Kendrick Lamar may be one of the most widely listened to rappers in our generation who incorporates these messages in a way that is still enjoyable to listen to (Lynch, “The political theory of Kendrick Lamar”). It can be argued whether or not it is his ethical responsibility to promote these messages, or make these points of views known, but his decision to do so is great service to his listeners.

The release of the album “To Pimp a Butterfly” was very inspirational to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. With this movement being labeled the “new civil rights movement” by John Haltiwanger from Elite Daily, and “Alight” seemingly becoming the anthem, that places Kendrick Lamar alongside artists such as Sam Cooke, N.W.A, and Marvin Gaye in the tradition of writing protest songs (Haltiwanger, “How Kendrick Lamar is Proof Hip-hop can Influence Society in Big Ways”). The largest praise that can be given to Kendrick Lamar in relation to the music of today is , as mentioned before, though he isn’t the only rapper today who is speaking out against the injustices in America, he has had the largest impact (Haltiwanger, “How Kendrick Lamar is Proof”). His music, which can be violent at times and uses harsh language, tells the truth about reality. His reality, our reality, a combination of perspectives, are used to preach a message that we can do better. We can make America that much better by telling the truth about the situations we are in, no matter how raw and ugly that truth may be.

Tupac Shakur can be seen as a great influence in Kendrick Lamar’s music, as he has been mentioned in interviews and even incorporated into the album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. Tupac preached change for a better world, and a change within our community to unite and bring peace within ourselves which could lead to peaceful relations with the rest of the nation and world. They have both used their platforms to have an impact on young impressionable minds, as well as the minds of older generations. They could have just as easily bought into the commercialism of the music industry today and made mindless music that would sell (Sonny, “Kendrick Lamar is The Change Tupac Wanted to See In the World”).

Tupac Shakur can be seen as a great influence in Kendrick Lamar’s music, as he has been mentioned in interviews and even incorporated into the album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. Tupac preached change for a better world, and a change within our community to unite and bring peace within ourselves which could lead to peaceful relations with the rest of the nation and world. They have both used their platforms to have an impact on young impressionable minds, as well as the minds of older generations. They could have just as easily bought into the commercialism of the music industry today and made mindless music that would sell (Sonny, “Kendrick Lamar is The Change Tupac Wanted to See In the World”). r of our community by expressing our attitudes, emotions, beliefs, and anxieties in the hope that our perspectives will be received by the greater population in order to foster empathy, understanding, and as Dieser would agree - moral development.


Work Cited

  1. Dieser, Rodney. "Springsteen as Developmental Therapist: An Autoethnography." The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies [Online], 1.1 (2014): 96-120. Web. 11 May. 2017

  2. Haltiwanger, John. “How Kendrick Lamar is Proof Hip-Hop can influence Society in Big Ways” Elite Daily, 3 Aug. 2015, http://elitedaily.com/news/politics/kendrick-lamar-hip-hop-black-lives-matter/1156751/

  3. Lynch, Marc. “The political theory of Kendrick Lamar” The Washington Post, 23 Mar. 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/23/the-political-theory-of-kendrick-lamar/?utm_term=.b1aa31b6c588

  4. Sonny, Julian. “Kendrick Lamar is the Change Tupac Wanted to See in the World” Elite Daily, 17 Mar. 2015, http://elitedaily.com/music/kendrick-lamar-is-the-change-tupac-wanted/968648/

  5. Talbert, Stanley T. “Kendrick Lamar’s Theology of Alright” Huffington Post, 11 Aug. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stanley-t-talbert/kendrick-lamars-theology-_b_7956752.html

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