DAMN.: The Art and Importance of Storytelling

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Essential Question

How do Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN. and the work of photojournalist Gordon Parks tell stories that bring attention to social issues?

Overview

Note: For this lesson, teachers will need access to Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN. This lesson contains strong language and references to abuse, sex and drug use. It is intended for upper grade levels. Teacher discretion strongly advised.

In this lesson, students will analyze several tracks from Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. They will answer questions about selected songs from the album together as a class. Students will also participate in a gallery walk composed of stills from the music video for Kendrick Lamar’s “ELEMENT.” and the work of Gordon Parks that inspired the video, exploring how photos tell stories and tell us about race in the United States. The lesson will conclude with students using inspiration from Lamar and Parks to create their own creative storytelling project.

In April 2018, rapper Kendrick Lamar made history when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his 2017 album DAMN. Not only was Lamar the first non-jazz or classical musician to receive a Pulitzer, but DAMN. was the first hip-hop album to win the prestigious award.  After already being widely celebrated by critics and fans and appearing on numerous end-of-the-year “Best Album” lists in 2017, the Pulitzer jury recognized the album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

DAMN. recounts Lamar’s experience after the mega success of his magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly, an album detailing the struggles and experiences of the Black community in the United States. To Pimp a Butterfly was immortalized when Harvard University decided to archive it in its Hip Hop collection, as well as through the song “Alright,” which became widely considered the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement and one of the most influential songs of the 2010s.

While To Pimp a Butterfly was widely praised, it still drew backlash, especially from American conservatives. After an award show performance of “Alright,” reporters on the Fox News network proceeded to bash Lamar’s song and performance, arguing hip hop was more “dangerous” than racism for Black American youth. The song, which was made to instill hope in the aftermath of several high profile police brutality cases in the United States, was painted as anti-police and anti-American. This backlash (along with the praise), spurred Lamar into the spotlight as not only a political performer, but one of the leading voices in hip hop.

In DAMN., Lamar addresses such conservative critiques, using the 14 tracks to confront his critics and haters while telling the story of his upbringing in Compton, California, his feelings towards fame, and his experience as a Black American after the presidency of Barack Obama.

Lamar’s storytelling transcends the 14 tracks on DAMN. through the six music videos created for the album. In the music video for “ELEMENT.” Lamar pays homage to another great storyteller: photojournalist, director, and activist Gordon Parks. After working odd jobs, Parks eventually landed a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s, focusing his work on the segregation of Washington D.C. After the FSA closed in 1943, Parks freelanced as a photographer until he landed a job at Life Magazine from 1948 to 1972 as the first Black photojournalist for the publication. While at Life Magazine, Parks focused his photos on fashion, celebrities, but also social injustices of everyday people. Some of his most well known photo essays focused on racism, poverty, and the struggles of urban inner city residents. With his photos, Parks was able to tell the stories, in addition to giving a platform to people who were regularly ignored and discriminated against in The United States.

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Objectives

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN. and its cultural impact
    •  The work and activism of Gordon Parks
    •  The art of storytelling and how it can be done through photos and music
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to better understand the craft of storytelling by analyzing Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN and the work of photojournalist Gordon Parks.

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • In what ways can we tell stories? Where do you hear or learn stories?
    • Can you give an example of a story you find compelling? What makes it compelling? How is the story told? What does the storyteller do to make the work engaging or intriguing?
  2. Tell students that in this lesson they will be examining the Kendrick Lamar album DAMN. Ask students:
    • Have you ever heard of Kendrick Lamar, or this album? What do you know about the artist or the album?
    • How might an album be an example of storytelling?
    • In April 2018, Lamar was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the album. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for “excellence in newspaper journalism, literary achievements, and musical composition.” Why might have Lamar’s Hip Hop Album won this award? What kind of perspective might it offer?

Procedure:

  1. Pass out Handout 1 – Primary Source Documents. Have students read Document 1: Transcript of Fox News’ The Five reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s BET performance of “Alright” either on their own, with another classmate, or out loud as a class. Then ask students:
    • What are the show hosts’ reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s performance? Why don’t they appreciate the performance?
    • How do you think Lamar responded to the criticism about his work?
  2. Have students read Document 2: “DNA.” by Kendrick Lamar. Then ask students:
    • Who do you think Lamar is addressing with this song?
    •  Why do you think Lamar included the snippet of the criticism from FOX News anchor Geraldo Rivera? Do you think the song serves as a response to it? If so, explain Lamar’s position.
  3. Have students read aloud Document 3: Gordon Parks Introduction. Then, display the above images. Tell students that the images come from Parks’ “A Harlem Family” series which feature the Fontenelle Family referred to in the handout. Ask students:
    • What stands out to you about these images?
    • What message might Parks be trying to get across through these images?
    • How might a typical Life Magazine reader in 1967 respond to this photo essay?
    • Read the quote at the bottom of Document 3. In what way might these photographs speak to Parks’ “Personal Project?”
  4. Print and place the Gallery Walk Images throughout the classroom.  Pass out Handout 2: Gallery Walk Observations to students. Tell students they will be looking at pairs of images, one from Gordon Parks and the other from the Kendrick Lamar video “ELEMENT.”  Ask students to record their initial response to the images in Handout 2, considering what emotion and message each image might be trying to convey. After the Gallery Walk, ask students:
    • What can we infer about America through Gordon Parks images?
    • What can we infer about America through the stills from the “ELEMENT.” video?
    • Why might have Lamar sought inspiration from Parks’ work? What does this say about America today?
  5. Ask students to examine Document 4: “XXX.” ft. U2 by Kendrick Lamar in Handout 1. Before playing song, ask students to pay attention to:
    • The tone of voice Lamar uses
    • The topics covered in the song
    • The words or lines that are particularly interesting to you.
  6. Play the song “XXX.” ft. U2, beginning at 4:14. Ask students:
    • Who or what is Lamar addressing in this song? How does he interact with these ideas or people?
    • Who might “Johnny” be? Why might “America love him”?
    • What are some examples of contradictions found in the song? (For example: Lamar tells his friend that he would kill another person if they killed his loved ones while on his way to speak to kids about gun control.) What purpose might such contradictions serve in the song?
    • There are few references to religion. Why might Lamar refer to religion?
    • How is America characterized in the song? What events is this characterization based off of?
  7. Direct students’ attention to Document 5: “Fear” by Kendrick Lamar in Handout 1. Play the song “FEAR.” from 0:37-6:30. and ask students to follow along with the lyrics, making notes of anything that stands out. Ask students:
    • What are some of Kendrick Lamar’s fears? How do they differ at the ages he speaks of (ages 7, 17, 27)?
    • The song opens with a sample of the 1973 song “Poverty’s Paradise” by The 24 Carat Black, which details a man’s experience growing up in poverty and not being able to provide for his family. How might this sample connect to Lamar’s “FEAR.”? Why might have he chosen this sample?
    • How is the tone and subject of “FEAR.” different than other songs previously listened to?

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • How does Lamar tell stories from his lived experience on DAMN.? What emotions or feelings does he experience? What parts of the songs listened to in class best represent such feelings and experiences?
    • Why do you think the album garnered critical acclaim, including winning a Pulitzer? How does it represent an American experience?
    • What similarities might exist between the work of Kendrick Lamar and Gordon Parks?
  2. Outside of class time, have students take pictures or write accounts about aspects of their everyday life. Students can focus their project on their neighborhood, their family, an interest or hobby or another creative aspect. Encourage students to consider the work of Gordon Parks in which their photos or writings together tell a story. Students can create a slideshow and share their stories with their class.

Extension Activities:

  1. Listen to DAMN. in its entirety. After listening, write a one page summary of the album. Pay attention to any motifs or repetitions of certain lines. What story is Kendrick Lamar trying to tell? How does the end of the album compare to the beginning? According to Lamar, the album can be played in reverse (Starting with “DUCKWORTH.” and ending with “BLOOD.”). If you would like, you may listen to the Collector’s Edition of DAMN. which features the reverse tracklist, available on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. Does the story change at all compared to the standard version of DAMN. (beginning with “BLOOD.” and “DUCKWORTH.”)? If so, how is it different when the order of the tracklist is reversed?
  2. Research and write a two page paper about one of Gordon Parks’s most famous photographs, “American Gothic” (1942). Consider the following resources while you research the significance of the photograph:

When writing the paper, consider the following questions:

  • How are the two pieces similar? How are they different visually?
  • Why do you think Parks chose to reference Wood’s piece?
  • How do these two pieces depict America?
  • In what ways might Park’s “American Gothic” provide commentary to Wood’s “American Gothic”? Is he presenting anything Woods neglected?

Use details from both artworks and the information gathered from your research to support your arguments and reflections.

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (Extension Activities Only)

  • Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge  9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1:Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.