A Comparative Analysis of To Kill A Mockingbird & To Pimp A Butterfly
By Jaylin Paschal
Two of the most gorgeous, critically acclaimed bodies of artwork I've come across--To Kill A Mockingbird and To Pimp A Butterfly--both offer social commentary on the racial injustice infused into the everyday lives of the societies of their subject matter. Harper Lee's literary masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, examines the life, death, and "innocence" of black bodies in 1930's Alabama. Kendrick Lamar's lyrical LP does the same, offering an up-close-and-personal view into the lives of black men in modern-day Compton, California by exploring the same themes.
Obviously, these two works are separate and distinct, each functioning at their own pace, level, and genre. However, after a year of trying to ignore the similarities and shrugging them off as coincidental (Which I'm (not) sure they are.), a comparative analysis was bound to happen. So here it is: A Comparative Analysis of To Kill A Mockingbird and To Pimp A Butterfly.
A close look at both projects, the novel and the album, produces a theme of innocence--it's existence, it's meaning, and it's denial. So first, in analyzing these projects, we need to discuss killing and pimping, mockingbirds and butterflies.
To Kill A Mockingbird's setting of Jim Crow Alabama allows "killing" to be a very literal concept. Background knowledge sets the scene, as readers are aware of the prevailing functions of racism, including segregation and lynching. Tom Robinson, the black field hand falsely accused of raping a white woman (our mockingbird; our symbol of innocence), ultimately dies at the hands of the state. Killing this mockingbird, Tom, is made particularly despicable because of Tom's objective "goodness." He was asked into a white woman's home to complete a favor for her, turned down her sexual advances, was accused of rape and assault, and paid the ultimate price--a clear example of "No good deed goes unpunished." However, his unjust death by seventeen bullets (Sounds familiar, right? Sounds recent?) pushes the reader to see how innocence and purity are concepts not applicable to black men; to see how no star-pupil behavior or act of kindness can save a black body from itself.
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy... but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Kendrick Lamar's modern approach on innocence refocuses killing to pimping. Now we take a close look at the exploitation of black bodies. What does it do to the psyche of black men to turn black bodies to profit? Or to criminal? Or statistic? Or capital? Or inmate number? Or to fetish? Kendrick allows us to eavesdrop into his internal conflict with masculinity, blackness, and innocence. In many ways, this album is about Kendrick struggling against the music industry's attempt to pimp him, but in other ways, it is social commentary on "the system,"--personified by Uncle Sam--"pimping" black men.
It is in these ways that To Pimp A Butterfly makes me recall To Kill A Mockingbird, although innocence is not the only theme the two works share. From "Wesley's Theory" and the Robinson family, commenting on the socioeconomic status and economic struggles of black people, to "Mortal Man" and the backlash Atticus felt for defending a black man, posing the question, "When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?"
And the similarities continue.
The response to Kendrick stating "This dick ain't free," was "I'm gon' get my Uncle Sam to fuck you up." All too similar to Ewell's (and her family's), response of getting the system to "fuck up" Robinson when he denied her advances.
And lastly, there is the repeated theme of death; of no one surviving the system. A stark example of this is, besides the murder of Tom Robinson, is the outro of To Pimp A Butterfly. Ending the project, Kendrick has a conversation with Tupac. Concluding the brief interview, Kendrick shares his metaphor of a caterpillar pimping a butterfly; manipulating the butterfly's growth for its own personal gain.
Notice how Pac doesn't last the length of the conversation.