The Complexity of Complexion: Colorism in Pop Culture

The field of entertainment has a dark history (no pun intended) as it pertains to perceptions of beauty. The issue of Colorism has found its way into pop culture.  According to the documentary “Dark Girls”, colorism is “prejudice or discrimination based on the relative lightness or darkness of the skin and generally a phenomenon occurring within one’s own ethnic group.”

This phenomenon is illustrated in the song, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” by Kendrick Lamar featuring Rapsody on his recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The song is a narrative that follows the relationship between two slaves, one who works in the field picking cotton and the other who works in the house. This dynamic is relative to the issue of colorism because it often times reflects the intent of divisiveness between darker and lighter skin tones, where the latter is sometimes the offspring of the slave master themselves. Lamar emphasizes in the second verse:

Dark as the midnight hour, I’m bright as the mornin’ Sun
Brown skinned but your blue eyes tell me your mama can’t run
Sneak me through the back window I’m a good field ni**a
I made a flower for you outta cotton just to chill with you
You know I’d go the distance, you know I’m ten toes down
Even if master’s listenin’, I got the world’s attention
So I’ma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival
Of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival
Beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken
By different shades of faces
Then wit told me, “You’re womanless, women love the creation”
It all came from God, then you were my confirmation
I came to where you reside
And looked around to see more sights for sore eyes
Let the Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times

The Willie Lynch Theory that Kendrick Lamar mentions in the verse refers to a speech that was said to have been delivered by Willie Lynch, a British slave owner in the West Indies, to slave owners in Virginia in 1712. Supposedly, this speech, “The Making of a Slave” teaches the slave owners several methods to “control the slaves.” While it is highly debatable that such a letter or speech ever really existed, the content of the alleged speech has some merit. For instance, one of the lines from the speech reads,

“You must use the DARK skin slaves vs. the LIGHT skin slaves, and the LIGHT skin slaves vs. the DARK skin slaves.”

Recently, people on the internet took issue with Kendrick Lamar’s recent engagement to his fiancée, Whitney Alford. Kendrick’s life imitated his art in demonstrating, true to his words, that complexion doesn’t “mean a thing”. Kendrick chooses to see the beauty in his partner, revealing that we “all come from God”. Unfortunately, this mentality was not shared by others who still, to this day, believe that one skin tone is superior to others.

I guess the people who have an issue with Lamar’s fiancée is unaware of his support for dark-skinned women. In an interview with Miss Info, he gives reason as to why he chose a dark-skinned model for the video, “Poetic Justice”. He states, “We had another girl for the lead but I had an idea where I just wanted a little bit of a darker tone [girl] in the video. It’s almost like a color blind industry where there’s only one type of appeal to the camera. ….. I always kept in the back of my mind like ‘you don’t ever see this tone of a woman in videos.  No disrespect, I love all women, period. But at the same time, I still feels like it needs that balance.” 

I tend to agree wholeheartedly! We should embrace all colors, for the real beauty lies within the diversity of our skin tones. Like Rapsody so eloquently put it:

“Black as brown, hazelnut cinnamon tea
And it’s all beautiful to me
Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens
We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colours ain’t a thing”


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

Learning Objective/Outcomes: Students will determine Kendrick Lamar and Rapsody’s points of view in the song, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” from the album To Pimp a Butterfly. They will analyze how style and content contribute to the power and pervasiveness of the lyrics, and provide a conclusion that reflects on what is experienced, observed, and/or resolved after listening to the song.

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Back to Test Class – 9leaves and Dee
Lesson tags: Colorism, Eleventh, Featured, Film, Hip-hop, History, Lyrics, Music, Pop Culture, racism, Skin Bleaching, Skin Tanning, Social Studies, Song analysis, Tenth, Twelfth

Jeffrey Vinson

Jeffrey Vinson Jeffrey D. Vinson has been an educator for nearly a decade and is the head teacher at Roots Activity Learning Center, an African-centered private school in Washington, DC. His research and practice in Hip-Hop Integration is primarily based on the many contributions that the African Diaspora has made on western civilization. His aim is to provide students the necessary skills and experiences to handle the many challenges that they will face both inside and outside of classroom. Jeffrey empowers his students’ learning experiences by utilizing culturally responsive teaching through art, technology, and community development.