I’m an avid supporter of Kendrick Lamar’s music. My friends and family all know this. I play his music when I’m at home or in the car, and I am always quick to proclaim him as one of the best rappers of all time since his music inspires me to find my own artistic voice and become a better storyteller of my own life.
Kendrick is part of the Los Angeles-based label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), which houses other music industry stars like SZA, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad. I was such a huge fan of Kendrick that for my 16th birthday, I made sure to order a TDE hoodie in support of the 2017 album DAMN., his much anticipated follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly. DAMN. was released on April 14, 2017. My siblings and I were able to witness Kendrick perform the album live on tour in Detroit. Even though we were sitting in the nosebleeds, I will never forget that night. I was able to rap along to some of my favorite Kendrick songs like “Money Trees,” and halfway through performing “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick stopped and let the entire stadium rap the rest of the song. He even brought out J. Cole as a surprise guest to perform. The energy in The Palace was electric. Kendrick and J. Cole on the same stage? Up to this point in their careers, they had been teasing more music and another collaboration, but all us fans had gotten was the song “Black Friday.” Seeing two of the greats share the same stage was unforgettable.
It’s been four long years since the release of DAMN., and while fans like me patiently await new material from Kendrick, I’ve gone back and relistened to some of my favorite records of his. When revisiting Kendrick’s sophomore album, good kid m.A.A.d city, he name drops two very important cities in the opening track, “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter.” Kendrick discusses his youth and trying to see a girl he was interested in as he raps, “‘Where you stay?’ she said, ‘Down the street from Dominguez High’ / Okay, I know that’s borderline Compton or Paramount / ‘Well, is it Compton?’ ‘No,’ she replied.”
Three things stand out to me in these lyrics: Compton, Paramount and Dominguez High.
Kendrick Lamar was born in Compton, California and I was born in Paramount, California. These two cities located in Los Angeles County are adjacent to one another and divided by the Los Angeles River. Looking through family photos of my early childhood in Paramount helps me understand pieces of my story, and discovering old family photos is like finding a missing puzzle piece. I get closer to understanding the full picture of my life story one photo at a time. There’s this picture of my siblings and me posted up right next to the Los Angeles River that always reminds me of my lifelong bond I have with my older siblings. Here we are, at the borderline between Compton and Paramount, enjoying a nice evening walk along the river.
Kendrick also references Dominguez High School, which was also only a 12-minute walk from our house on San Marcus St. When you can visualize and understand the meaning behind the lyrics to songs, it makes the listening experience so much more enjoyable and relatable.
good kid m.A.A.d city tells the story of a young Kendrick Lamar growing up in Compton, California surrounded by the harsh realities of gang violence and substance abuse in a city that he still dearly loves. In the final verse of the closing victory lap of a track, “Compton,” Kendrick raps, “Now we can all celebrate / We can all harvest the rap artist of N.W.A / America target our rap market, as controversy and hate / Harsh realities we in made our music translate.” The genre of rap gave individuals like Kendrick, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube an avenue to tell their life experiences, and in the process of doing so, they received critical acclaim and success. As a testament to this success, Kendrick became the first rapper and non-classical or -jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018.
Since my family moved to Michigan just before I turned five, I only can vaguely recall my life in California. Memories that remain ingrained in my mind, however, are the times my family went to the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet at night to enjoy food and carnival games. Under the bright California moonlight, families enjoyed Ferris wheel rides and live music while eating elote and sharing tacos on styrofoam plates. Using merchandise, vendors created an entire maze within the Swap Meet for families to buy toys, clothes, art and decorations. The Swap Meets had it all. Here’s a picture of my mom and me at our own shop in the Paramount Swap Meet.
We sold toy model cars ranging from yellow school buses, Dodge Vipers, Mustangs and Lowriders. So many classic Lowriders. I remember I used to love playing with those cars at home on my little carpet race track. When I listen to Kendrick’s music, it bleeds west coast hip-hop: from the funky George Clinton G-funk inspired bass lines on “Wesley’s Theory” to the off-kilter flows on “family ties”, I begin to feel nostalgic for California. Memories and feelings of what life was like for my family in Paramount echo through my mind.
Thankfully, I learn new things about my life in Los Angeles through the stories my family has shared. My brother tells me that one time when he was 8 years old, his school had to initiate a lockdown because someone running from the cops had decided to run through the school courtyard. My sister recalls buying helado from the local street vendor who would stroll in front of our house. My dad tells stories of his experiences being racially profiled by cops. My mom also recounts the event that compelled her to learn how to drive. One day, Mom was at the bus stop having a conversation with her friend. Her friend told her that on the previous day, ICE had raided that exact same bus stop. Throughout the 1980s, Mexican and Central American communities in Los Angeles faced the federal government and their aggressive immigration raids that took place in homes, bus stops, night clubs, agricultural fields and warehouses. Sadly, the fear of potential ICE raids still haunts communities today. In our time in Los Angeles, we were part of the Mexican community. We ran our own Swap Meet stand, sold Lowrider toy model cars and hats and shirts with the word “Lowrider” that I still wear to this day — it can’t get more L.A. than that.
Thinking back to where I was born and where my family lived for so many years gives me a stronger appreciation for Paramount and Kendrick Lamar, since my family was part of this greater Black and Brown community that has shaped Los Angeles culture. You can’t talk about Los Angeles without mentioning the impact of Mexican and Central American communities. I’m inspired to learn more about my Mexican identity when I spend time reflecting on the fact that my family was part of an environment so important and influential to an artist like Kendrick. I’m even more inspired to continue learning about my identity because Kendrick has continually shown support and love for the Latinx community. On Aug. 20, 2012, Kendrick tweeted, “This is LA. I love all my extended Latino families. Their morals their culture. This is California.”
Kendrick’s love for his extended Latinx family goes far beyond just a tweet. When Baby Keem and Kendrick dropped their music video for the song “family ties,” I was blown away by the four-minute song’s editing and the scenes. Throughout the entire music video, different clips of Keem and Kendrick rapping are layered on top of each other. I would describe the music video as having multiple windows open on your computer desktop except, instead of a browser, you have clips of Keem and Kendrick. At the 3:30 minute mark, Kendrick raps in front of EZ Cuts Barber Shop wearing a sombrero and what looks like a denim zoot suit. Here’s a behind the scenes shot courtesy of Compton native and artist, Lil L.
When I first saw this scene in the music video, I had the biggest smile on my face. It may look goofy or seem out of place, but to me, it’s so cool that Kendrick is proudly wearing the traditional Mexican hat. The sombrero is heavily tied to and associated with Mexican culture, as it can be seen being worn by the legendary Mexican singer Vicente Fernández Gómez. The wide-brimmed hat is unmistakable, and I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere being associated with a mustachioed Mexican guy eating tacos and wearing a poncho — but just know that it’s much more than that. People in Central America needed to create the sombrero to combat the harsh sun they dealt with on a daily basis. It’s such a strong symbol associated with Mexican culture and I’m happy that it’s being worn by Kendrick in a music video that has been seen by 38 million people.
In the “family ties” video, Kendrick is referencing the sombrero in a more tasteful manner as he pairs it with the classic zoot suit that has its own history and connection to Black and Latinx communities of Los Angeles due to the Zoot Suit Riots. The zoot suit has historic ties to the Mexican American neighborhood of East Los Angeles and the Black neighborhoods of Watts because, during the 1930s and ‘40s, this style of dress was popular among Black and Latinx communities. These individuals would go on to call themselves “Pachucos;” however, conservative citizens were quick to label Mexican Americans wearing the suits as criminals and gangsters, weaponizing the word and using it in a derogatory manner.
Zoot suits would be further criminalized during World War II when they were banned in 1942 due to the rationing of wool, and those who continued to wear the suits were seen as unpatriotic. Four days after a physical altercation between U.S. sailors and zoot-suiters on June 3, 1943, about 50 U.S. sailors targeted zoot-suiters in Mexican American communities with makeshift weapons. This sparked the Zoot Suit Riots, which lasted until June 8, and during this time, Latinos and Black Americans were the victims of attacks led by racist rioters. Once the riots calmed down, Governor Earl Warren created a committee to investigate the cause of the riots. It was determined that racism, biased media coverage and poor response by the Los Angeles Police Department were mainly to blame.
Clearly, Kendrick Lamar cares enough about the significance of the zoot suit to wear one in the “family ties” music video, and I personally love it. The consistent appreciation that he shows in his work towards the Latinx communities of L.A makes me an even bigger fan of him. From eating elote in a palm tree to start off the music video for the Grammy Award-winning song “King’s Dead” to rapping the start of his verse of “Collard Greens” in Spanish, Kendrick is showing support.
Knowing the history and influence Mexican Americans have had and continue to have in the city of Los Angeles makes me proud to be Mexican American and born in Paramount, California. Wherever life takes me, I know that I have that love for L.A. and the L.A. history is in my blood and DNA — just like it’s in Kendrick Lamar.
MiC Columnist Juan Pablo Angel Marcos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org