Kendrick Lamar's Stylist Shares the Hidden Messages in His Grammys Performance: Exclusive

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the Grammy Awards on Feb. 15, 2016 in Los Angeles.

The day of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance, the soon-to-be-seven-time winner saw his completed show for the first time at dress rehearsal. He took in what the rest of the world would see in just a few hours: Four shackled men dressed as inmates (the “Chain Gang,” as Lamar’s team called them) -- blue on blue, white sneakers and cornrows. 

The intro to Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry” blared urgently from the speakers as UV lights switched on to reveal African Surma and Mursi tribe-inspired designs, thickly painted on top of their uniforms. As the saxophone and drum beats transitioned “The Blacker The Berry” into “Alright,” four women -- wearing straw skirts, matching anklets, ornately beaded Maasai-inspired neckpieces and red African Himba tribal markings “to represent the color of the earth and blood” -- stomped and spun in unison in front of a bonfire. The lights shut down. A white outline of Africa appeared on screen, “Compton” written in black lettering in the middle of the continent. Dianne Garcia, Lamar’s friend and stylist for over three years, had realized Lamar's stylistic vision for one of the most politically charged Grammy performances ever. 

Billboard spoke exclusively to Garcia, an L.A native and stylist for over eight years, about the symbolism permeating each look, the challenges of working with glow-in-the-dark paint (“it was quite disastrous”) and how Lamar “deserves all the good that comes from this performance.”

When did you start preparing for the performance?

I'd heard about and thought about it for months, but we started really prepping about a month before, and that was basically doing all of the research and pulling photos, making references and going back and forth with Kendrick and Dave [Free, Co-President of Top Dawg Entertainment], the so-called “little homies.” And we really started fully prepping, pulling, dying fabrics and getting stuff made about two weeks prior to the performance. It took about seven people -- a crew of seven to eight.

And how many people did you have to dress in total?

Four dancer inmates, 4 extra inmates in the cell (non-dancers), 2 “bone breakers” (the African dancers painted in bright UV paint, as opposed to white UV paint), 4 female African dancers, 4 male African drummers, and 5 band members.

What was Kendrick’s involvement in the creative process?

He was involved in the sense that he knew exactly what he wanted. He showed me a photo of the prisoners and was like “This is my inspiration”. There were these guys walking in a chain gang and he said 'I want them to look like this'. And I knew that he wanted the African guys to glow in the dark because they were going to go into a sequence where everything was going to be dark and they were going be lit with UV lights. So [Kendrick] showed me a photo of that, and then afterwards he went back to focus on the music and the performance itself. Then it was my job to pull up the references on what he wanted and go back to him and get his approval on all of the inspirations. [Below is the exact photo Garcia and Lamar used for his inmate inspiration.]

AP Photo/Daniel Portnoy
A group of inmates walk in leg chains under supervision on a road near the South Florida Reception Center, a maximum security prison, in Miami Tuesday, Nov. 21, 1995.  
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS
Kendrick Lamar during opening of 2016 Grammy performance.
Kendrick Lamar during opening of 2016 Grammy performance.Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARASNARAS


Where did the idea to transition into the African themes come from?

It was actually Kendrick’s idea. He said that he wanted these guys to come out in the chain gang and suddenly they transform into these African dancers when they go into the second sequence. It was Kendrick's idea, and it was my job to figure out how I can technically make that happen. How can I have these guys walk out and when you see them in a regular spotlight, it just looks like they're wearing plain clothing? And then how can I make it so that when the black light comes on, all you can see is the tribal paint? We sourced this special effects paint that’s invisible to the naked eye and only visible in the black light or UV light.

How many times did you test the paint?

Quite a few times. It was quite disastrous because at first they just didn't turn out right. You have to paint it to a certain amount of thickness for it to light up bright enough to show under the UV light. Luckily, we have a friend, George Thompson, who's a really great painter. And he was able to help us with the technicalities of painting the clothes, so that was a really cool collaborative project between us and George.

So were there specific African tribes the team wanted to reference?

We researched a bunch of African tribal body paint by this tribe called the Maasai. They paint their bodies in this bright white paint when they're doing the ceremonies and it's really cool. I gave George the information. I gave him quite a few pictures, told him to kind of digest it on his own and come up with his own interpretation of what he thought would look good for the performance. And he ran with it, and it came out great. 

Kevin Winter/WireImage
Kendrick Lamar in glow in the dark paint during his 2016 Grammy performance.
Kendrick Lamar in glow in the dark paint during his 2016 Grammy performance.Kevin Winter/WireImage


Was there writing on the back?

Yeah! On top of the invisible UV paint that you guys were able to see, the prisoners actually had the number -- their inmate numbers -- screen-printed on their chest and also on the back. It says TDE [for Top Dawg Entertainment] on the back and they’re supposed to look like the DOC or “Department of Correction” writing. So we did our own take on that, screen-printed with reflective 3M Paint. 


The reflective paint didn't show on tv so here it is. #TDE #Grammys #kendricklamar

A photo posted by Dianne Garcia (@thedonna) on


Do the inmate numbers have any significance?

Yes. It's actually the date of Nat Turner's revolt [August 21-23, 1831].

Are there any other pieces of symbolism the audience might’ve missed?

You can't really see it onstage but the girls, the dancers, they have red paint painted all over their body and that’s inspired specifically by the Himba tribe in Northern Namibia. They wear this red paint that’s supposed to represent the color of the earth and the blood. And we picked the Himba tribe basically because [they are] really strong women who do all the labor work while taking care of their own homes and all this stuff while the men are out herding cattle and doing politics. [The photo Garcia and Lamar used is below and from photographer Jimmy Nelson's book "Before They Pass Away".]


Peter Adams/Getty Images
Himba tribe girls and young women dancing in Namibia.
Himba tribe girls and young women dancing in Namibia.Peter Adams/Getty Images
Kendrick Lamar performs  onstage during the 58th Annual Grammy music Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 2016.  Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images


What do you think was the most difficult part of styling a live performance versus a red carpet look? 

It’s very, very difficult and very, very different. A red carpet, you're pulling from all these designers who want to dress your client. They send a bunch of stuff and you get to pick the best look and have the tailor tailor everything prior to your client arriving on the red carpet. It's very easy, they're just walking through one place and then they're at the award show.

Versus a performance, all of the dancers have to wear certain types of undergarments that secure them but isn't visible from the stage. Everything that they wore, the skirts and everything, had to be hand made and fit to their bodies and secured. You can't tell from an audience's perspective but everything was tied down and taped down so that in the live performance, nothing is going flying, someone's skirt isn't falling off. A necklace isn't hitting the dancers in the head. It's really tricky.

Is this your proudest styling moment?

Absolutely. This is my proudest styling moment just because I've been with Kendrick and TDE for a long time. I've seen the progression. I think he deserves all good that comes from this performance and the Grammys and the awards and his nomination. I'm really happy for him, and I'm really proud because, most importantly, when I was backstage with my crew and the dancers, everyone was so happy to be there. I feel like everyone knew that they were a part of a really special moment in music and hip-hop and knew how important this performance was going to be. I've been doing this for 8 years. But I've never seen so many people so proud and so excited to be a part of something that was basically inspired by one person.

2016 Grammys