I Can’t Change The World Until I Change Myself First

When you think of music in 2015, you have to think of Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly recently scored 11 Grammy nominations, more than any other artist, and “Alright” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement against police abuse.

Lamar grew up in Compton, Calif., in the ’80s and ’90s, surrounded by poverty and gang wars. He says he witnessed his first murder at age 5.

“It was outside my apartment unit,” Lamar tells NPR’s David Greene. “A guy was out there serving his narcotics and somebody rolled up with a shotgun and blew his chest out. Admittedly, it done something to me right then and there. It let me know that this is not only something that I’m looking at, but it’s something that maybe I have to get used to — you dig what I’m saying?

“You grow up inside these neighborhoods and these communities, and you have friends, friends that you love, friends that you grew up with since elementary. And you have their trust, and you have their loyalty. So it brings influence. So no matter how much of a leader I thought I was, I was always under the influence, period. Most of the times, when they were involved in these acts of destruction, I was right there.”

Kendrick Lamar doesn’t have a rap sheet himself, but he says he’s hurt people. Music saved him: He spent long nights in the studio instead of on the streets, and two years ago, his album good kid, m.A.A.d city went platinum. But for a young man who grew up in Compton, sudden success was overwhelming.

“You can have the platinum album, but when you still feel like you haven’t quite found your place in the world — it kind of gives a crazy offset,” Lamar says. “When you go inside these places, no matter how much money you have, no matter how much success, when you still feel like you’re not comfortable, where’s the feeling in that?”

On To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar confronts these emotions. There’s a refrain that he keeps coming back to, a spoken-word piece of sorts: “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same, abusing my power, full of resentment, resentment that turned into a deep depression.” Then there’s a night in a hotel room, where he describes himself literally screaming out in agony.

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