One of the main themes in Kendrick Lamar’s tour de force King Kunta is ‘the yam’. If you are wondering what the yam is, and what it represents, you don’t have to look far for an answer: we find both the question and the answer in the lyrics.
What’s the yams?
The yam is the power that be
You can smell it when I’m walking down the street
What’s the yams?
The yam brought it out of Richard Pryor
Manipulated Bill Clinton with desires
From Kendrick to Achebe
The yam is power, the yam is prestige, the yam is status. But the yam can corrupt you, it is not a force of good or bad. Richard Pryor set himself on fire, Bill Clinton cheated on his wife. But Kendrick did not invent the yam as a symbol of power. The yam is a direct reference to Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart in which the production of yams is in direct relation to the social status in the Igbo society. And this is not fiction, the yam is a staple food cultivated especially in Nigeria, but also other parts of West Africa.
“The accumulation of yams and the size of a man’s barn defined his status in many Igbo communities. Success in yam production acted as the ladder for social mobility. In most parts of Igboland, men who distinguished themselves as yam farmers were also recognised and rewarded by their communities with the title of Ezeji or “yam king.” Aspirants to the powerful ennoblement had to meet the rigorous criteria of cultivating a certain number of yams in addition to feasting a large number of people.”
From Achebe to Yeats
In the novel Things Fall Apart we meet Okonkwo and experience how his world in Igbo society is influenced by British colonialism and Christianity. It is not a spoiler that Okonkwo’s worldview will clash with this Western influence, and that his traditions and culture will break down. It is clear from the title: things fall apart.
This title is a direct quotation from W.B. Yeats’ hauntingly beautiful poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It is clear that both works deal with a feeling of terrible dread, a fear of a devastating force that will break down your world as you know it. In fact, we even know exactly why Achebe chose this tile, as he explained in an interview with the Paris Review.
“I liked Yeats! That wild Irishman. I really loved his love of language, his flow. His chaotic ideas seemed to me just the right thing for a poet. Passion! He was always on the right side. He may be wrongheaded, but his heart was always on the right side. He wrote beautiful poetry. It had the same kind of magic about it that I mentioned the wizard had for me. I used to make up lines with anything that came into my head, anything that sounded interesting. So Yeats was that kind of person for me. It was only later I discovered his theory of circles or cycles of civilization. I wasn’t thinking of that at all when it came time to find a title. That phrase “things fall apart” seemed to me just right and appropriate.“
The beauty of intertextuality
That we only need one work of art to connect two such vastly different pieces of work as The Second Coming and King Kunta is a beautiful example of intertextuality. Yeats was an Irish poet who wrote The Second Coming in 1919. Achebe was a Nigerian novelist who wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, 39 years later. And Lamar is an American rapper who wrote King Kunta in 2015, another 57 years later. It shows us that even though cultures may be seperated by time and space, and may look vastly different from one another still build upon each other. Not only in literature, music, and writing, but in creativity, thoughts and ideas in general.