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Q-Tip Takes On Role At Kennedy Center To "Institutionalize Hip-Hop"

The smooth voice from A Tribe Called Quest seeks to bolster the culture and art of hip-hop in new artistic director position for the Kennedy Center

GRAMMYs/Oct 10, 2017 - 05:13 am

Hip-hop culture has emerged as perhaps the most prolific, disruptive and important movement of the last 50 years. Now, the Kennedy Center has recognized this by naming A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip as the first-ever artistic director for hip-hop culture.

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"I think it's a great opportunity for this country in a lot of different ways," Q-Tip told NPR. "It would be great to see the Mormon family from Utah running into a family from Harlem, African-American family, and they both are looking at something or sharing something about hip-hop whether it be like a Tupac display or a Grandmaster Flash DJ mix, and they see that they have something in common. The church of the arts, it's a great idea."

Q-Tip performed recently for a special one-night only show with Jason Moran to usher in the hip-hop era at the Kennedy Center. With Tip now in the creative driver's seat, there's no limit to how the arts organization can honor hip-hop music and culture.

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A black-and-white photo of pioneering rap group Run-DMC
Run-DMC

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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'Run-DMC' At 40: The Debut Album That Paved The Way For Hip-Hop's Future

Forty years ago, Run-DMC released their groundbreaking self-titled album, which would undeniably change the course of hip-hop. Here's how three guys from Queens, New York, defined what it meant to be "old school" with a record that remains influential.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:49 pm

"You don't know that people are going to 40 years later call you up and say, ‘Can you talk about this record from 40 years ago?’"

That was Cory Robbins, former president of Profile Records, reaction to speaking to Grammy.com about one of the first albums his then-fledgling label released. Run-DMC’s self-titled debut made its way into the world four decades ago this week on March 27, 1984 and established the group, in Robbins’ words, "the Beatles of hip-hop." 

Rarely in music, or anything else, is there a clear demarcation between old and new. Styles change gradually, and artistic movements usually get contextualized, and often even named, after they’ve already passed from the scene. But Run-DMC the album, and the singles that led up to it, were a definitive breaking point. Rap before it instantly, and eternally, became “old school.” And three guys from Hollis, Queens — Joseph "Run" Simmons, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels — helped turn a burgeoning genre on its head.

What exactly was different about Run-DMC? Some of the answers can be glimpsed by a look at the record’s opening song. "Hard Times" is a cover of a Kurtis Blow track from his 1980 debut album. The connection makes sense. Kurtis and Run’s older brother Russell Simmons met in college, and Russell quickly became the rapper’s manager. That led to Run working as Kurtis’ DJ. Larry Smith, who produced Run-DMC, even played on Kurtis’ original version of the song.

But despite those tie-ins, the two takes on "Hard Times" are night and day. Kurtis Blow’s is exactly what rap music was in its earliest recorded form: a full band playing something familiar (in this case, a James Brown-esque groove, bridge and percussion breakdown inclusive.)

What Run-DMC does with it is entirely different. The song is stripped down to its bare essence. There’s a drum machine, a sole repeated keyboard stab, vocals, and… well, that’s about it. No solos, no guitar, no band at all. Run and DMC are trading off lines in an aggressive near-shout. It’s simple and ruthlessly effective, a throwback to the then-fading culture of live park jams. But it was so starkly different from other rap recordings of the time, which were pretty much all in the style of Blow’s record, that it felt new and vital.

"Production-wise, Sugar Hill [the record label that released many key early rap singles] built themselves on the model of Motown, which is to say, they had their own production studios and they had a house band and they recorded on the premises," explains Bill Adler, who handled PR for Run-DMC and other key rap acts at the time.

"They made magnificent records, but that’s not how rap was performed in parks," he continues. "It’s not how it was performed live by the kids who were actually making the music."

Run-DMC’s musical aesthetic was, in some ways, a lucky accident. Larry Smith, the musician who produced the album, had worked with a band previously. In fact, the reason two of the songs on the album bear the subtitle "Krush Groove" is because the drum patterns are taken from his band Orange Krush’s song “Action.”

Read more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1970s: Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang & More

But by the time sessions for Run-DMC came around, the money had run out and, despite his desire to have the music done by a full band, Smith was forced to go without them and rely on a drum machine. 

His artistic partner on the production side was Russell Simmons. Simmons, who has been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault dating back decades, was back in 1983-4 the person providing the creative vision to match Smith’s musical knowledge.

Orange Krush’s drummer Trevor Gale remembered the dynamic like this (as quoted in Geoff Edgers’ Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever): “Larry was the guy who said, 'Play four bars, stop on the fifth bar, come back in on the fourth beat of the fifth bar.' Russell was the guy that was there that said, ‘I don’t like how that feels. Make it sound like mashed potato with gravy on it.’”

Explore The Artists Who Changed Hip-Hop

It wasn’t just the music that set Run-DMC apart from its predecessors. Their look was also starkly different, and that influenced everything about the group, including the way their audience viewed them.

Most of the first generation of recorded rappers were, Bill Adler remembers, influenced visually by either Michael Jackson or George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Run-DMC was different.

"Their fashion sense was very street oriented," Adler explains. "And that was something that emanated from Jam Master Jay. Jason just always had a ton of style. He got a lot of his sartorial style from his older brother, Marvin Thompson. Jay looked up to his older brother and kind of dressed the way that Marvin did, including the Stetson hat. 

"When Run and D told Russ, Jason is going to be our deejay, Russell got one look at Jay and said, ‘Okay, from now on, you guys are going to dress like him.’"

Run, DMC, and Jay looked like their audience. That not only set them apart from the costumed likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it also cemented the group’s relationship with their listeners. 

"When you saw Run-DMC, you didn’t see celebrity. You saw yourself," DMC said in the group’s recent docuseries

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Another thing that set Run-DMC (the album) and Run-DMC (the group) apart from what came before was the fact that they released a cohesive rap album. Nine songs that all belonged together, not just a collection of already-released singles and some novelties. Rappers had released albums prior to Run-DMC, but that’s exactly what they were: hits and some other stuff — sung love ballads or rock and roll covers, or other experiments rightfully near-forgotten.

"There were a few [rap] albums [at the time], but they were pretty crappy. They were usually just a bunch of singles thrown together," Cory Robbins recalls.

Not this album. It set a template that lasted for years: Some social commentary, some bragging, a song or two to show off the DJ. A balance of records aimed at the radio and at the hard-core fans. You can still see traces of Run-DMC in pretty much every rap album released today.

Listeners and critics reacted. The album got a four-star review in Rolling Stone with “the music…that backs these tracks is surprisingly varied, for all its bare bones” and an A minus from Robert Christgau who claimed “It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever.” Just nine months after its release, Run-DMC was certified gold, the first rap LP ever to earn that honor. "Rock Box" also single-handedly invented rap-rock, thanks to Eddie Martinez’s loud guitars. 

There is another major way in which the record was revolutionary. The video for "Rock Box" was the first rap video to ever get into regular rotation on MTV and, the first true rap video ever played on the channel at all, period. Run-DMC’s rise to MTV fame represented a significant moment in breaking racial barriers in mainstream music broadcasting. 

"There’s no overstating the importance of that video," Adler tells me. vIt broke through the color line at MTV and opened the door to a cataclysmic change." 

"Everybody watched MTV forty years ago," Robbins agrees. "It was a phenomenal thing nationwide. Even if we got three or four plays a week of ‘Rock Box’ on MTV, that did move the needle."

All of this: the new musical style, the relatable image, the MTV pathbreaking, and the attendant critical love and huge sales (well over 10 times what their label head was expecting when he commissioned the album from a reluctant Russell Simmons — "I hoping it would sell thirty or forty thousand," Robbins says now): all of it contributed to making Run-DMC what it is: a game-changer.

"It was the first serious rap album," Robbins tells me. And while you could well accuse him of bias — the group making an album at all was his idea in the first place — he’s absolutely right. 

Run-DMC changed everything. It split the rap world into old school and new school, and things would never be the same.

Perhaps the record’s only flaw is one that wouldn’t be discovered for years. As we’re about to get off the phone, Robbins tells me about a mistake on the cover, one he didn’t notice until the record was printed and it was too late. 

There was something (Robbins doesn’t quite recall what) between Run and DMC in the cover photo. The art director didn’t like it and proceeded to airbrush it out. But he missed something. On the vinyl, if you look between the letters "M" and "C,", you can see DMC’s disembodied left hand, floating ghost-like in mid-air. While it was an oversight, it’s hard not to see this as a sign, a sort of premonition that the album itself would hang over all of hip-hop, with an influence that might be hard to see at first, but that never goes away. 

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A collage photo of African women rappers (Clockwise from top-left): Femi One, Deto Black, Nadfiav Nakai, Candy Bleakz, Rosa Ree, Sho Madjozi
(Clockwise from top-left): Femi One, Deto Black, Nadfiav Nakai, Candy Bleakz, Rosa Ree, Sho Madjozi

Photos: Kaka Empire Music Label; Dave Benett/Getty Images for Dion Lee x htown; Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images; Slevin Salau; Asam Visuals; Harold Feng/Getty Images

list

10 Women In African Hip-Hop You Should Know: SGaWD, Nadai Nakai, Sho Madjozi & More

Women have been a part of African hip-hop since its onset, contributing to the genre’s foundation and evolution. These 10 female African rappers bring unique perspectives to hip-hop coming from Nigeria, Ghana and across the continent.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:26 pm

African music has become increasingly mainstream, with Afrobeats gaining global popularity in recent years. As Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid, and Tems have become household names, and the Recording Academy presented the inaugural Best African Music Performance award in 2024, all eyes are on Africa.

Hip-hop is a crucial thread running through Afrobeats, which also mixes traditional African rhythms with pop and dancehall. Hip-hop landed in Africa between the 1980s and 1990s, first in Senegal in 1985 and in South Africa the following decade. Over time, African hip-hop advanced from imitating American styles, to a focus on artists incorporating their own cultural experiences, languages, and social commentary.

The result was a distinctly African sound, present across the continent from West to East Africa. In Nigeria, the rap scene is almost mainstream with artists like Olamide earning a GRAMMY nomination for Best African Music Performance for his hit song with Asake; Tanzania has gained enormous respect on the international rap scene for its own "Bongo Flava." 

Women have been a part of African hip-hop since its onset, contributing to the genre’s foundation. Nazizi Hirji is known as the "First Lady of Kenyan Rap" for becoming the first successful female artist in her country at age 16. Mariam of the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam created a distinctive sound by fusing elements of hip-hop and traditional Malian music. 

Africa's hip-hop community is ever-evolving, and women are at the forefront. The following 10 African women rappers are bringing their unique voices, experiences and sounds to the scene.

Explore The Sounds Of Africa

SGaWD

After leaving her career as a lawyer to pursue music, the Nigerian rapper SGaWD is beginning to make her mark on the scene. Fusing elements of hip-hop and Nigerian alté, SGaWD creates a sound without restrictions. 

She released her debut EP, Savage Bitch Juice, in 2021 and collaborated with fellow Nigerian artist Somadina on flirty lead single "Pop S—." In the second single "Rude," SGaWD detailed the nuances of her romantic and sexual experiences with men. She followed this with a slew of singles, including "INTERMISSION " and "Dump All Your Worries On The Dance Floor."

Her summer anthem "Boy Toy" is a sexy and melodic blend of rap and R&B. Her comfort with sexuality goes beyond lyricism; the music video for "Boy Toy" shows her comfort and embrace of sexuality via wardrobe choices and choreography.

But it's not all sex; SGaWD is dedicated to organizing her community. In December 2023, she organized The Aquarium, a sonic experience that included performances from herself and other female rappers.

Lifesize Teddy

Mavins Records is known for producing back-to-back breakout stars — from Rema to Arya Starr — and fans now expect a new artist from them annually. When Lifesize Teddy was introduced to the scene, rapping as her alter ego PoisonBaby, she got deep. Her intro video dissected her relationship with her inner child and explored her roots in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. 

After spending three years of artist development in the Mavin Records Academy, she started her music career, by releasing two EPs in the span of four months in 2023. Her self-titled debut EP was led by the single "Hypnotic," a flirty song of sexual freedom that merges hip-hop and Afrobeats. Her second EP, POISN, featured five songs with one featuring her fellow Mavins Records artist, Magixx.

She ended last year headlining different shows in Lagos’ Detty December and is a special guest on Ayra Starr World Tour. 

Eno Barony

Ghanaian rapper Eno Barony's name reflects her aura and essence: "Eno" is Twi for mother, and quite fittingly she is referred to as "The Mother of Rap" in Ghana. Raised by missionary parents, she uses her music to spread the message that women should not be silenced. 

She has been releasing music for over a decade, with singles "Tonga," "Megye Wo Boy", "The Best," "Touch the Body," and "Do Something" gaining mainstream attention on the continent. Eno Barony released her first album in 2020 and, the following year became the first female rapper to win Best Rapper at the Ghana Music Awards. 

Her most recent album, Ladies First, captures the nuances and complexity of being a woman in Ghana and serves as a form of resistance to patriarchy. Opening track "God Is a Woman," featuring Ghanaian singer/songwriter Efya, establishes the tone: Eno is "entering every lane" even though "it’s a man’s world and she entered without a passport". 

Eno Barony continually pours vulnerability into her music. On these lead singles; "Heavy Load" and  "Don’t Judge Me" she raps about accepting her body image and addresses the culture of unconstructive criticism in the music industry, respectively. Last month, she released a new single "Good Enough," a romantic and reflective tune.

Nadai Nakai

Hailing from both Zimbabwe and South Africa, Nadai Nakai has been a fixture in the African rap scene for over a decade. She was the first female rapper to win the Mixtape 101 competition on the hip-hop show, "Shiz Niz."   

A mentee of pioneering Kenyan hip-hop artist Nazizi, Nakai released her first single "Like Me" under Sid Records in September 2013. The rightfully braggadocious song detailed her many talents and skills, wrapped in clever lyricism. She continued to release a slew of singles, including "Naaa Meaan" (a collaboration with Casper Nyovest, a South African male rapper), which garnered over 1 million views. Her debut album, Nadai Naked, was an ode to women making liberating choices. 

Her hip-hop and R&B-inspired songs highlight her values of female free expression and strength. Her most recent single, "Back In," announced Nakai's return to the industry after grieving the death of her boyfriend, AKA. She plans to release a tribute EP dedicated to AKA.

Deela

Deela saw a hole in the Nigerian music industry that needed to be filled. Where were the women who talked and behaved like her, with brazen confidence and an unfiltered sense of expression? 

She started making music during the pandemic lockdown, releasing singles such as the raging "Bitch Boi" and trap track "Rolling Stones." Both tracks later appeared on her debut album, Done Deel. Deela's most popular single, "Get A Grip," shows the rapper is demanding autonomy while owning her promiscuity and single life.

Deela's experimental sound includes ventures into trap, drill and more. Her 2023 album Is This On? showcased this range via UK rap-inspired "Trapstar" and straight-up hip-hop track "Take That Up" featuring Flo Milli.

She hit the ground running in 2024, releasing a collaboration with Somadina titled "Lagos" and a love-themed EP, Love Is Wicked

Deto Black

Lagos-based rapper Deto Black is an artistic polymath who dabbles in modeling, acting and photography. Her music spans hip-hop, Afrobeats, rap, pop and rock, and is becoming known in the alté scene following her collaboration with Odunsi the Engine, Amaarae and Gigi Atlantis on "Body Count." Deto’s verse on the 2020 track is  sex-positive, and encourages listeners to follow her example. 

Deto released her debut EP, Yung Everything, in 2021 and followed with singles "Nu Bag" and "Just Like Deto." At the start of 2024, she released "It’s A No From Me" featuring Chi; its music video was directed by notable alté artist Cruel Santino.

Rosa Ree

Tanzanian rapper Rosa Ree addresses the nuances of womanhood in male-dominated spaces. She entered the scene in 2016 with the goal of proving her naysayers wrong, releasing the aggressive "One Time" to dispel any notions that a woman couldn't exist in hip-hop.

In her 2022 single "I’m Not Sorry," Rosa Ree dismisses criticism and asserts that she won’t be sorry for showing her true image or voice. She also explores the unique bond between mother and child in 2023's "Mama Omollo," further showcasing the multifaceted identities of women in music.

Rosa Ree's 2024 single "In Too Deep" further showcased her introspective side by exploring themes of emotional hurt, betrayal and disappointment.

Candy Bleakz

Nigerian rapper Candy Bleakz fuses Afrobeats, amapiano and hip-hop, with heavy emphasis on street music. She started making music in 2019 and quickly began developing a community. Candy Bleakz collaborated with Zlatan and Naira Marley on "Owo Osu." 

Her resume now includes hits like "Baba Nla," "Kelegbe," "Virus", and "Kope." Her single "Won La" was even featured on the American TV series "Flatbush Misdemeanors." The most amazing thing about Candy Bleakz, though, is her courage to question the established quo and push for female representation in the infamously male-dominated street music scene.

She released her debut EP, Fire, in 2022 and raps proudly about her life and talent. On its breakout single, "Tikuku," she addresses her haters head-on. This song has garnered over 300,000 posts on TikTok going as far as eliciting a challenge in the Nigerian section of TikTok.

Candy Bleakz's second EP, Better Days, was released on March 22 and featured lead single "Para," a rap song featuring African drums, strings and chords. 

Femi One

At just 26 years old, Femi One is a renowned  Kenyan rapper and songwriter. Most of her songs are in Swahili and Sheng — a unique offering as many African rappers perform in a more universal language. 

Over the past five years, Femi One has released back-to-back singles, culminating in her 2019 debut EP XXV. " Two years later, her debut album, Greatness, further detailed her wild style and personality. Tracks like "Balance" are jam-packed with witty wordplay and hidden allusions. She also taps into her gospel roots on Greatness, thanking God for her career on "Adonai."

Her latest single, "B.A," is a pure Afrobeats song that invites listeners to lose themselves in the music and positive energy by throwing open the virtual club doors. 

Sho Madjozi

This South African rapper is known for her bold aesthetic, from her rainbow-coloured hair to her bright costumes. She released her first song, "Dumi Hi Phone," in 2017 and dropped her a genre-bending debut album the following year. Limpopo Champions League explores sounds from hip-hop to EDM.

Sho Madjozi has a quirky habit of writing songs about notable individuals. Her breakout single "John Cena," a tribute to the wrestler and actor, earned her the BET award for Best New International Act in 2019. She also collaborated with Sneakbo, Robot Boi and Matthew Otis on the hit amapiano song "Balotelli," which celebrated the renowned African soccer player. 

Sho Madjozi's music is entirely intertwined with her culture; she raps in the Bantu language Xitsonga and performs traditional dances such as xibelani wearing an adapted 

xibelani skirt. The xibelani (which translates to "hitting to the rhythm") dance is native to Tsonga women, and is performed by girls on special occasions as a celebration of their culture. Sho Madjozi's use of the dance and interpretation of its clothing helps shape her region’s cultural identity.

11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More

Danielle Ponder's Powerful Song Of Reckoning
Danielle Ponder performs during 2023 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

interview

Danielle Ponder's Powerful Song Of Reckoning: How The Singer/Songwriter Melds The Personal & Historical On "Manhunt" Theme

Former public defender Danielle Ponder is known for her deeply emotive R&B. Her latest release is the theme for AppleTV+ historical thriller "Manhunt." Ponder unpacks music's power to connect and heal — whether that's on stage or on the silver screen.

GRAMMYs/Mar 18, 2024 - 07:32 pm

Danielle Ponder has an intriguing and eminently re-tellable origin story —  a many-forked path that winds through the courtroom and to the global stage. 

The Rochester, New York artist began her career as a public defender, later changing lanes to become a R&B and soul singer/songwriter. Most recently, Ponder is the composer and singer of "Egún." The theme song for the buzzy AppleTV+ historical thriller "Manhunt," "Egún" — which means "ancestor" in Yoruba — is as haunting as it is catchy. Its reverb-drenched, clap-driven refrain of "you can’t keep running" is an irresistible singalong about the inevitability of historical reckoning. 

It’s a perfect fit for a miniseries about the race to capture Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, and a thematic branching out for Ponder, who specializes in woozy, soul-baring songs about individual heartbreak. Of course, from Ponder’s perspective, it’s all part of the same whole. 

"If my heart has been broken because of a man, or my heart has been broken because of experiencing racism, I'm still just sharing my life," she tells GRAMMY.com. "But I don't got no man to cry about, so that has opened up a lot of space to cry about the government." 

After listening to her talk about the many-forked path Ponder has taken  — from being discouraged from listening to secular music by her pastor father, to performing in a family band, to leaving her career as a public defender, recording her solo album Some Of Us Are Brave and touring the globe with artists including Trombone Shorty — the question that lingers, thrillingly, is where else she’ll go. Ponder spoke with GRAMMY.com about the power of music to restore fuller humanity to incarcerated people, the joys of live performance and solo composition, and the hip-hop legend who encouraged her to focus wholeheartedly on music. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

As a former public defender, you have a very specific and elegantly synthesized belief about how music could contribute to actual criminal justice. How did you develop that philosophy, and how does it inform your work today?

When people ask me about being a public defender versus being a musician, there's two kinds of themes that I see. I think both require the art of storytelling, the ability to tell someone's story in a way that a listener is hearing you, and not only hearing you, but empathizing. And then when I say empathizing, it brings me to the second piece of it. I think music has such a beautiful way of placing us in someone's world. I use the example of Alanis Morissette, because that song, "You Oughta Know" — I heard it when I was 16, and, child, I thought I was going through a breakup! That song just made me feel. She articulated emotions in a way I couldn't even understand at that age, but I immediately can empathize with the pain she was going through.

We need that empathy so much in our criminal justice system. It's so easy to other people, to call people defendants, to call them perpetrators, and not see their humanity. When I was working in the criminal justice system, representing over 100 people in a day sometimes, you can lose faith in humanity, because you see those people being treated terribly, being dehumanized consistently. 

But then I got to play shows on the weekend, and I saw the best of us. I think about how we capture the energy of empathy that we feel in music, and apply that to other parts of our lives. Specifically, when it comes to criminal justice reform, how do we also hear those stories, and as human beings be able to connect with where a person is, or where a person was in their life?

You and your band performed at Attica Correctional Facility, where your brother was incarcerated at the time. Would you talk about that for a little bit? As soon as I heard the story, I wondered if you’d consider following in Johnny Cash’s footsteps with a live album recorded at a prison. 

I'm still trying to get my own footing, but I know that part of my work has to be highlighting not only criminal justice reform, but the people behind the stories. Being involved with people who are incarcerated is a beautiful way to do that. I do have some things that I'm working on right now that involve me working in a prison and I'm really excited about that. 

Going back to Attica, that was my favorite show. I play a lot of shows, but there’s something really beautiful and painful about seeing talented people in cages. There was a man who had been there since 1976, serving a life sentence. He plays the saxophone so beautifully, and as a society we’ve made it so the worst thing he has ever done has defined his life. We had people join us on stage, they rapped, and sang, and played the keyboards, and knowing that this is talent that the world may never see? The rate at which the U.S. incarcerates people, one of them could be our next Billie Holiday, or our next Miles Davis

The other piece was watching the guards and the incarcerated men react to the music equally. In the beginning of the show, the guards were really trying to just keep it together, but eventually, they started clapping along with the music, and it was beautiful to watch. Those lines between guard and inmate begin to fade, and two groups of people who have been institutionalized in many ways, connect and clap on the same beat. That's why art is important — it breaks down the walls that we build up. And it's our most ancient way of connecting. We need that more than ever right now.  

You’re well-known for your deeply personal songwriting, often about romantic relationships. "Egún" is quite different, it’s got a historical theme, and a significant invocation of ancestors. What’s the story of how you wrote this song — did it exist before you were approached to work on something for the series?  

The music already existed; it was a riff I wrote in law school, but the lyrics really came when [series creator and showrunner] Monica Beletsky spoke to me about one of the witnesses at the trial, who was a Black woman, Mary Sims. [Sims had formerly been enslaved by Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was tried as a co-conspirator with Booth.] I wanted to write something from that angle, from that character. I knew I could connect to that, but I needed it to go somewhere a little deeper. For me, that was to think of all of the people who lost their lives to the most horrific institution that this country has known, and that we fight for freedom — we are persistent in our fight not only for ourselves and for our children, but for those who have died under slavery. 

The song was much bigger than saying "we're gonna catch you for killing Lincoln." It was saying that a reckoning will always come; I wanted it to send a message that liberation is going to happen, and as dark as our world can feel, we have made great strides. I wanted it to feel like the ancestors will literally haunt you. You can't run away from it, you can't hide. When I think about people who spend so much time attacking trans folks or attacking Black folks, I just think that hate is living in your heart, how is it serving you?

It’s a fascinating song, because it’s so personal while mapping to something much bigger, thematically. This is such an extraordinary moment for personal and confessional songwriting, particularly among female artists. Who are the artists you respect and look up to in that cohort alongside you? 

Jamila Woods is such a great writer — she was a poet earlier. I'm always jealous of the songwriters who used to be poets, they’re so good at writing and they can also sing. I just did a project with Adi Oasis, too. I love her work, and this song that we've done, "Dumpalltheguns." Brandi Carlile is obviously the GOAT of songwriting. These are just a few in my rotation — there's so many people who I really admire, whose songs I listen to and feel like Oh, my God, why didn't I write that?

Along those lines, how do you discover music that’s new, or just new to you? A number of your influences are — and I mean this as a compliment to them — weirdo British eccentrics, but I know that you listened to very little secular music in your childhood. How did other genres of music and artists like Pink Floyd and Portishead come into your life?

It really started with Columbia House — I owe them like $10,000. My dad backed off of his no secular music rule when I was 16 years old. So I just went ham, and bought a lot of hip-hop, artists like Lauryn Hill, KRS-One, and Jay-Z. But I also bought Alanis Morissette and Pearl Jam. Through my love of alternative and hip-hop, I discovered trip-hop, which to me, is like the child of those two genres. That's how I became a Portishead fan. Pink Floyd is a band I discovered later in life, probably in my college years. It may just be because everyone had that damn poster on their wall. 

Trip-hop evokes so much emotion, and it's cinematic, and that's the type of music I love. I just live for emotion. I want to feel something deeply when I hear music, I want to get goosebumps! There's times when I just want to party, but mostly, I want to cry. I want to feel something really deep, and that's what I want my music to do for people.

So where are you now, as a songwriter? Are you writing your second album at this point? 

I am in it. I just came back from some sessions in London, and am going to do some sessions here — I was working on music this morning. 

A lot of space has opened up for what they would call political music — I don't love that title. Because it's just my life. You know, if I talk about heartbreak, or my heart has been broken because of a man or my heart has been broken because of experiencing racism I'm still just sharing my life. But I don't got no man to cry about. So that has opened up a lot of space to cry about the government. 

That interest in provoking emotional responses, and the cinematic quality of your own work, are such strong throughlines across your early material, and you’ve brought it with you on songs like "Egún." What draws you to creating songs so suited to TV or film?

Cinematic music is emotional music, because the person who's writing the score is attempting to get you to feel something. They're very deliberate and intentional about it. The music can change what you feel is coming in the next scene, how you feel about the characters. It's shaping the story, and I am obsessed with getting people to feel things. 

When I first saw one of my songs synced to the "Manhunt" credits, I cried, because it just felt perfect. I was in court two years ago, and now I’m watching the credits — I just started screaming. It's a perfect marriage.

You’re composing and recording, and you’re a relentlessly touring musician. What does playing live do for you like as an artist?

I mean, it's my favorite thing to do. Being onstage is my sanctuary; it is where I am most present in my life, it's a meditation. When I hit that stage, I could be stressed, I could be sick, but something happens where I kind of forget about things, it's when I'm most fully present. 

Community is very important for me, I don't want to be sitting in my house, playing the guitar to myself. And going back to this ancient way of connecting, it’s bringing your music to the public square and playing for the village. I think the intention, the purpose of music is to build community. And when I'm performing on stage, I feel like the luckiest person that I get to do that, and that someone gives me a check after, is really insane.

I can't overstate how lucky I am to perform live. But I will tell you that you have to take time to be in the creative space. And so right now, I'm not performing that much, and I'm really thankful for the break, because I need to know what's next to say.

When you’re in that creative space, or squeezing in those moments while you’re on the road, how frequently do you play songs in progress for a live audience?

Well, "Roll The Credits," for example, I wrote that song on tour. I had and loved the music, and I was like, "Let's just perform the song tonight! I'll freestyle something." And then at the next show, some of those lyrics stuck, they were actually good! So I added some more – honestly, I wrote this song live on stage. By the fourth or fifth show, I had the lyrics. 

Usually, the music comes first and I usually write lyrics last, sometimes grudgingly. There's a song right now I'm ready to perform, and I have not finished writing it, but I'm wanting to perform it next Friday. So hopefully these lyrics will finish themselves.

Let’s bring this full-circle. When you were playing in that first band with your brother and cousins, what did you imagine the future would hold? 

Honestly, we thought we were gonna be the Jackson 5.

I love that. Kids don’t have limited ambitions, they don’t hide their light under a bushel, so they straightforwardly plan to be the literal king of pop music. Why not?

I'm trying to do that now. As you get older, you start downsizing your dreams — I did that. And then the universe showed me I didn't have to, because things were happening that were beyond what I could imagine. 

And so now…I don't want to put any limitations on myself because of my age, or because of how late I got into this. If I’d done that, I wouldn't have believed that I could write a theme song for a TV series, I would have been too scared to do it. So I'm working on transforming my thinking, because I could actually do all the things. 

Was there one particular moment when you realized you were going to return to that youthful energy and feeling to pivot entirely to being a professional musician? 

There were several little moments within the span of a few months, but one that sticks out was a Zoom call with Q-Tip. And he said, "I know about your work as a public defender, and you've been an activist for years, and it's time for you to be rewarded for your work." 

It gave me goosebumps when he said that. It gave me permission — I’d been wondering, should I leave this very important work to just do music? — but also that permission was coming from Q-Tip! He heard my music, and it gave me some validation. So that was one of the moments where I knew I’d be telling my boss, "Hey, man. I can't be here much longer."

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Kendrick Lamar GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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