How Black Screenwriters Legitimize The Artistry Of Hip-Hop Through Film

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Kendrick Lamar made his acting debut this week on Starz’ Power, playing an unkempt, eccentric flacka addict named Laces. Power co-creator and writer Courtney Kemp said that the gritty crime drama’s rule for star cameos is that the aspiring actor would have to portray the opposite of what the public would expect, and decided with Kendrick that he would play a “crackhead” to surprise the audience.

From the second he appeared on screen though, the racial unity-preaching Laces reminded me of an avant-garde character ripe for a skit, verse, or music video from a Kendrick Lamar project. And it’s not just the half-braided, half afro ‘do that Kendrick more neatly rocked on Saturday Night Live or Laces’ deranged cackle that harkens to the brilliant voice manipulation throughout his music.

In his short screen debut, Kendrick was a wide-ranging presence — he didn’t merely say one line and disappear. In just a couple scenes, Kendrick acted as memorable comic relief with his “nasty, nasty n—- “ line, was a unique plot device to further one of the series’ main storylines, and became one of the few characters on the show who appeared to make 50 Cent’s sociopathic, hyperbolically indestructible character Kanan have a glint of existential introspection by asking him about his inner sadness and inability to make human connection — before the gag is revealing that Laces was reciting a commercial for the depression drug Cymbalta.

Kendrick said in a sit down with Kemp that Laces reminded him of “a character that I know” from his native Compton. Given Kendrick’s music is so steeped in reflecting the realities of his hometown, Laces is a clever harkening to Lamar’s musical artistry, which is a further testament to the Power writers’ understanding of the rapper. They’ve already perfectly accentuated 50 Cent’s music persona through Kanan, a conflict-craved gangster from Jamaica, Queens who is just as apt to drop a hilarious one-liner as he is to attack every character in a scene. As Kendrick and 50 Cent slid down a New York street, with Laces darting around like a hood hobgoblin and Kanan shooting up rival gang members, it was as if both characters had been pulled from either artist’s rhymebook and fit into the script.

The quandary is, if 50 or Kendrick wrote a rhyme about riding down the block on a bike shooting people, you could bet some of the same critics who grant Power writers their due freedom as screenwriters would be less willing to identify solely those verses as works of art. Since hip-hop’s inception, rappers have had to bear the criticism of being instigators of gun violence who are seemingly guilty of steering the entire Black community’s moral compass wayward. That argument is based in some merit, given artists’ impact on the youth, but that dynamic shouldn’t deprive rap artists of the same creative freedom given to novel writers and screenwriters. Writer and director David Chase has said that his canonic Sopranos series is based on Italian wiseguys he saw while growing up in Newark, New Jersey’s North Ward neighborhood. Chase’s explanation parallels the foundation of basically every hip-hop album, yet his artistry has never been questioned — as it shouldn’t be.

Hip-hop culture has been co-opted — and in many ways diluted — to become corporate America’s ace-in-the-hole, but the music has taken a slower time being accepted by the artistic bastions of the same establishment. Hip-hop is always the Grammys’ bridesmaid, but never the bride, as this year’s ceremony once again displayed. Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy gushed that Kendrick’s win for DAMN. “shines a light on hip-hop in a different way.” In reality, hip-hop always shone brilliantly before that light existed. Kendrick’s Pulitzer nod is an incredible feat, but it’s a damn shame it took this long for a hip-hop project to have been recognized when canonical projects like Illmatic, Ready To Die, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill — to name just a few — were never considered.