Kendrick Lamar had a good Grammys Monday night. The Compton-born rapper/composer not only won five, four of them for his jazzy 2015 masterwork, To Pimp a Butterfly, he also performed to great acclaim two of Butterfly's most stirring, politicized paeans to black life and culture — "The Blacker the Berry" and "Alright" — in a medley with a third, untitled track whose lyrics recalled Feb. 26, 2012, the day Trayvon Martin was killed.
But some watching the performance had other recollections — namely of a theatrical work Philadelphia rapper Dice Raw created and performed here in 2013 and in Los Angeles last year.
Lamar's performance had him shackled in chains, with actors, musicians and dancers in prison jumpsuits behind gilded bars. The piece transitioned into a choreographed African dance with a large silhouette of Africa as a backdrop. "Which was weird because that's what Dice Raw's the last jimmy had — exactly," said Raw's publicist Seandra Sims.
Conceived as a stage counterpart to Jimmy's Back, a concept album by The Roots' occasional mouthpiece Raw — real name Karl Jenkins — the last jimmy had runs at the Prince Theatre and North Broad Street's Freedom Theatre.
Last summer, Raw's hip-hop theater piece about the high incarceration rate among black males in the United States was performed in Los Angeles. That production's musical director, Wendell Patrick, immediately took to social media while watching Lamar on the Grammys. "About five seconds into Kendrick's performance, I said "hold up ... wait a second ... what's this?" Patrick wrote on Facebook.
As social media buzzed Monday night, Raw was home in Philly staring in disbelief at his television.
"I though Kendrick's performance was good — I was watching/not watching — until I got a phone call asking me what I thought," Raw recalled yesterday with a laugh. "Oh yeah, the prison thing. That's a point. Then the gold cages onstage, yeah that's another coincidence. Are those musicians in cages? OK. African dance in the middle of that montage — another coincidence, too.
"My legal team and the production crew behind the L.A. performance took to social media very quickly and heatedly to say that Lamar has borrowed elements of the last jimmy — at least in their opinion," Raw said.
"There were some differences between what Lamar did and Raw's play," Sims allowed. "Dice's show used prisoners in orange outfits. In Kendrick's production, they wore blue jumpsuits."
Simms said yesterday that Raw's lawyers immediately got in touch with Lamar's representatives, "just to let them know that we knew. This is a legal situation and legal people need to be in charge of it."
Reached via email, Lamar's press representatives at the Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope labels through Universal Music Enterprises had no comment yesterday.
Raw took pains to express his admiration for Lamar and his music, calling the Compton rapper his "brother." Raw also said he's pleased to see #BlackLivesMatter and mass incarceration issues getting bigger exposure. "To have people with that forum and wide-ranging audience makes the fight a lot easier," he said.
Raw wouldn't comment on what, if anything, his legal team might do should it become clear that elements of the last jimmy were used without credit for the Grammy production.
"Something stolen? I don't know. If something did happen, I'd just like Kendrick to call me, you know. It's sad that — if somebody took something. Maybe it happened subconsciously."
He continued, "We're both fighting the same fight. I'm sure the brothers who are incarcerated appreciate his efforts. Lamar and I can't aim attacks at each other. The real enemy is unseen — who is pulling the strings behind mass incarceration and all this new Jim Crow madness. It isn't Kendrick Lamar — he's not the enemy," Raw said, adding with a laugh, "...but maybe his choreographer is."