When a New Jersey high school teacher decided to infuse pop culture in a class syllabus, he probably didn't see one assignment taking off quite like this.
After listening to hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar's newly-released album, "To Pimp a Butterfly," 29-year-old instructor Brian Mooney found that the lyrics had a similar message to a book his students were reading, Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye." Mooney shared his findings in his blog, writing that he saw parallel themes between the book and the album, which relates to the constant struggle of Black people trying to discover and accept their racial identity, while constantly being pressured to conform to a universal standard of beauty though media portrayals in popular culture.
The freshman-year students at the racially diverse High Tech High were tasked with analyzing the general message of the album, while comparing their notes on Morrison's book. Mooney, whose background specializes in hip-hop literacy, spoken word, and urban education, according to his blog, found Lamar’s album has a message to “love oneself,” and to not succumb to the pressure of being “pimped,” or pressured to conform to the long-lasting stereotypes of Blacks in American society.
Surprisingly, the blog founds its way to Lamar, who on Monday surprised the classroom in person, inviting students (and even Mooney) to freestyle with him over various beats. With a classroom and auditorium roaring with ecstatic students, the artist listened to students who performed spoken word that discussed the issues of being pressured to assimilate to the cultural standards of mainstream society.
“I think it’s really validating as a young voice, for someone to come listen to that voice, and give specific feedback to that voice. It’s empowering,” said student Ben Vock, who was able to perform spoken word in front of Lamar.
Before leaving, Lamar played one of his most famous songs “Alright,” which considers that although fighting the objectification by mainstream society is a constant struggle, everything will one day be okay.
"When a 16-year-old is intrigued, it lets me know how so far advanced as a society we actually are. And that inspired me on a whole other level," Lamar told NBC BLK.
Along with writing a paper that compared the book to the album, Mooney assigned each student to analytically listen to four songs off the album; “Complexion”: learning to love your skin tone, “King Kunta”: learning to accept your racial identity, “Institutionalized”: not letting your skin complexion restrict you from your dreams through self-discrimination, and “u”: a discussion of mental illness in the Black urban community, due to White systematization.
"The music is just not about me anymore," Lamar said.