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What is Kendrick Lamar Hiding?

Kendrick Lamar sits at a microphone, wearing sunglasses

One of the biggest myths about Braille is that it’s hard to read or that it’s somehow another language. Neither is true. Braille is just simple, straightforward code. In a cover story this month for Mass Appeal magazine, hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar admitted that he was now using Braille, a somewhat curious announcement that piqued our interest here at the LightHouse. Turns out he had stashed a Braille message in the liner notes of his new, Billboard-topping album, To Pimp A Butterfly [listen on Spotify]. “Nobody has caught [it] yet,” he told Mass Appeal, blowing his own cover and explaining that the message, when decoded, would reveal the album’s full title.

But there were some problems. Kendrick hadn’t really created very useful Braille. For starters, there were no bumps. The dots were printed, not embossed, ironically obscuring their whole raison d’être. This wasn’t lost on Lamar, in fact maybe it was intentional: “You can’t [sic] actually feel the bump lines. But if you can see it, which is the irony of it, you can break down the actual full title of the album.” So — it was Braille, yes — but Braille for the sighted. Kendrick is counting on the fact that no one really knows Braille, which is not far off. After all, getting someone with good vision to learn Braille is kind of like getting Winnie the Pooh to start wearing pants — it might happen, but don’t hold your breath. So why should you care about this Braille message, or any Braille at all for that matter?

The answer is literacy. It’s estimated that only about 10% of blind people know Braille, which means 90% of blind people are missing out on millions of the world’s accessible texts. As a newly blind (low-vision) person myself, I don’t read Braille, either. So I couldn’t translate the secret message from Kendrick Lamar myself, either. Luckily we have a whole team of people here to do just that. The folks in our access to information services (AIS) department specialize in this exact stuff — translating and elucidating information — not only here at LightHouse, but for the public. They Braille business cards, restaurant menus, maps, and all other kinds of tactile documents. All I had to do was walk across the hall and ask “Have you guys ever heard of Kendrick Lamar?”

a page from Kendrick Lamar's CD booklet, blown up and Brailled

Within minutes, I had a big piece of paper — much bigger than a CD booklet — right in front of me, fully Brailled, courtesy of AIS. The reason they had to blow it up was because the CD-booklet-sized Braille code was actually way too small for a real blind person to read, even if it was raised on the page. This is directly related to the size of human fingertips. In order to differentiate between dots, you need Braille to be a certain size. This is also why converting from small print to to Braille often takes more paper. (If you want to see how many pages a document would take up as Braille, resize the font to 29 pt).  Because the original Braille on To Pimp a Butterfly was done in ink, now not only was the Braille message tactile but it was also visual. This is somewhat rare — to have Braille with ink on top of it, that a sighted person can look at and, if not read, at least organize in their mind.

If you’re sighted, look at the photo above; Kind of takes some of the mystery out of what all those blind people are running their fingers across, doesn’t it? If you look at the photo above, you’ll see one simple dot on the first line — that’s the letter “a.” And for those who are interested in Braille learning that’s similarly visual and tactile, we actually offer books like this in our store, along with some other goodies. I still wanted to know exactly what Kendrick’s message meant, though, and I wanted to hear it from an expert.

a chocolate bar with the letters EHC

I brought the Kendrick-Braille to Frank Welte, one of our Braille experts, who coincidentally was munching on one of our dark chocolate, Braille-studded candy bars. His dog Jeep came and said hi first, then I handed Frank the sheet to tell me what it said. He came at it with his left hand — perhaps counterintuitively — peoples fingers are, for some reason, often more sensitive on the left. It only took him a split second before he started translating:

”A Kendrick By Letter Blank Lamar.”

What the hell does that mean? It didn’t make sense. The Braille is actually formatted quite well — the cell spacing was just right, which is something that beginning Braillers don’t often consider. And yet, the words were completely mixed up. Upon further Googling, I found that other Braille experts reached the same conclusion when consulted about the album art. The Braille was actually pretty good, but the sentence was incoherent. Complex magazine figured it must be a mistake. But our expert disagrees.

“People could take a Braille alphabet card and figure it out. But it’s still weird that they didn’t get it in order. There’s no obvious reason why it wouldn’t be in order… They might have intentionally scrambled it just for the fun of it.”

The Braille was in its simplest form, sure — lower case and uncontracted — but there was no reason the words should be shuffled around, unless through human error or intention. We can only conclude that Kendrick wanted to obscure the meaning even further — or just thought that the dots looked cool that way and that no real blind people would actually bother decoding it.

But decode it we did, and diehard fans of the Compton rapper already know where this is going: the words, rearranged, are meant to say “A Blank Letter By Kendrick Lamar.” That’s the real, extended title to To Pimp A Butterfly. We know this because Lamar’s last album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, had a similar subtitle: “A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar.” So there you go. To be honest, it kind of seemed too easy. And our experts agree:

“A lot of people think learning Braille must be terrible, like learning a whole foreign language,” Frank told me later on,”but it’s really much easier than that. The best analogy I can think of is like when you’re a kid, and you learn your printed letters, then you’re introduced to handwriting. It’s the same language, just different-shaped characters. That’s what learning Braille is like, it’s like learning cursive. It’s actually even easier than cursive, because everyone’s handwriting is different, but with Braille, every letter is the same.”

There’s a lot more to say about Braille, but we’ll save that for another day. Most importantly, next time you want Braille done right, whether you’re a famous rapper or not, do yourself a favor and email an expert — hint hint (that’s us).

Email Will Butler at (Twitter).


Check Out This Amazing Blind Pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii (+ special ticket discount)

Nobuyuki Tsujii at the piano

In anticipation of this summer’s Music Academy at Enchanted Hills in Napa, we’re excited to announce our first concert discount, through the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. Email for a 25% off coupon to see Nobuyuki Tsujii Friday, May 1 at Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, CA [ticket link].

Here at the LightHouse, we try to steer clear of stereotypes; like, for instance, “blind people play the piano!” That being said, when a blind pianist, especially one as young as Nobuyuki Tsujii, rises to achieve one of the highest honors in the music world, it’s definitely worth celebrating. Tsujii’s prowess at classical piano is literally breathtaking. From pounding études to sensitive, melting nocturnes, he can truly do it all, which is why he took home the gold medal at 2009’s Van Cliburn piano competition in Texas. Since then, he has traveled the world, educating students about both music and blindness. Blind since birth, Tsujii learned to play the piano using braille music (check out our Music Academy for more info on that). Now working at the highest levels, Tsujii has graduated to learning extensive classical works by ear. An article translated on his website from Japanese explains: “Learning a piece of music involves much more than simply memorizing a sequence of notes and dynamic effects. The musician’s mind, ear, and fingers have to master thousands of details, including subtle variations in tone, phrasing, voicing, and the piece’s musical architecture.”

Tomorrow night, May 1, Tsujii will perform Chopin, Beethoven, and other pieces at the beautiful new Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, and if you’d like to buy tickets, we’d like to help! In support of our upcoming Music Academy at Enchanted Hills in Napa, the Green Music Center has offered 25% off for friends of the LightHouse. Just email and you’ll get back a promo code. If you can’t make the trek, definitely still listen to Tsujii’s performances on YouTube, such as the one below, of him playing a striking étude by Franz Liszt.

SF Pride Announces First-Ever Blind Grand Marshal

Belo Cipriani

We’re very excited to share the news that our friend Belo Cipriani has just been named as a Grand Marshal for this year’s LGBTQ Pride Parade in San Francisco! Pride is set to take over the city once again June 27-28, and for the first time, one of its eleven Grand Marshals will be totally blind. A past student of the LightHouse, freelance journalist and accomplished memoirist, Cipriani is an exemplary figure for both the LGBTQ community and the Blindness Community. After losing his sight several years ago after being brutally beaten in the Castro, Cipriani (now 34) emerged as not only an incredibly resilient character, but one willing to share his most personal experiences both in print and in person.

“This is one of the best things that has happened in my life and I’ll always treasure this moment,” said Cipriani, beaming from the front page of this week’s Bay Area Reporter, where he also writes a column called “Seeing in the Dark.” Cipriani has been attending Pride for going on twenty years now, and one can only imagine his “pride” at becoming the celebration’s first-ever blind Grand Marshal. Cipriani said he is brainstorming how to incorporate this into the theme for his parade contingent, adding, “the only thing that is certain is that my guide dog, Oslo, will ride with me in the convertible. I am sure he’ll have a blast.”

This year’s Pride Parade will march from Embarcadero to right near our headquarters at 214 Van Ness Ave., and we’ll be there cheering along. Read more about the 2015 theme, “Equality Without Exception,” over at the Bay Area Reporter. You can read more about Belo at his website, and hear him talk about himself and his book in the YouTube video below. Recently Cipriani also wrote a great article about beauty and dating for Huffington Post.

Have a cool story for us? Email tips to

Apple Wants Blind People To Buy Apple Watches

a gold-plated Apple Watch with deluxe black leather band and classic clock face

Blind and low vision users who want to test drive the Apple Watch’s accessibility features can now call 1-800-692-7753 and make a special Apple Store appointment to try on a fully-functional model. Test one out for yourself, then let us know how it went, by either commenting on this blog post or by talking to us on Twitter or Facebook.

It’s a little counterintuitive, even surprising to the general public: the idea that a smooth, buttonless touchscreen display could work for someone with little or no vision. And yet, since Apple’s release of VoiceOver in 2009, the iPhone has become the flagship product for what the National Federation of the Blind calls a “revolutionary breakthrough” in access. And they’re not exaggerating, either. The independence, information, and entertainment that the iPhone has given to its blind and low vision users has not only made it the go-to device when it comes to accessible technology, but has put significant positive pressure on apps, websites, and other services which rely heavily on iPhone users for their business.

Enter the Apple Watch — the newest, perhaps fanciest mobile device ever from Apple. The Watch has been buzzed about more than almost any other Apple product before, and now, months and months after its initial announcement, it’s finally reaching the public. We’ve been waiting with baited breath, watching over previous weeks as technology professionals, journalists, and advocates all over the world unboxed their Watches or walked into stores to find out if Apple had put the requisite thought and care into the accessibility of this new product. In an interview with Pacific Standard, Michael Hansen of the accessibility blog AppleVis preaches cautious optimism, but like many blind and low vision Apple fans, we’re ready for answers, sitting around at the LightHouse wondering: can we use this thing?

The answer, as far as we can tell, is an emphatic yes. And Apple has gone out of its way to reassure blind users that they will have ample opportunity to test out the Watch’s accessibility before they make the big purchase.

But at first this didn’t seem like an option. The demo models that sat lashed to tables in Apple stores around the world were, for blind users, no better than toy mockups. You couldn’t turn on the supposed Accessibility settings, least of all send a message or recreate an action that you might actually take in your daily life. The #a11y (accessibility) community started to cringe, but luckily, Apple identified the issue, and swooped in with a more than adequate solution.

As AppleVis points out, testing the Apple Watch as a blind consumer is now as easy as making a single phone call and scheduling an appointment. The number is 1-800-692-7753 (US and Canada), and all you need to do is say you’d like a Watch appointment, then pick your Apple store. Make sure to specify that you’d like to test its accessibility features, and they will have someone fully equipped to show you how it all works.

There’s never any way of telling if a product is going to be a huge success or a huge flop, but already outselling all previous Android wearables, it’s hard to imagine that at this point Apple can go very wrong. And as long as the company is providing access to everyone, regardless of their physical differences, we’re behind any new product that could improve quality of life. Some potential uses for the Apple Watch include improved guidance, fitness apps, and not losing track of hardware that’s fragile or too small to find. Sounds good to us.

If you take all these steps, what we’d really love is your feedback. Let us know how it goes!

Note: Be advised that, though you don’t need to bring anything to the appointment, the Watch itself is meant to function only in tandem with an iPhone.

Got tips, other comments or questions? Email

Adaptation of the Day: The MLB Pitcher

Here at the LightHouse, we’re excited for baseball season. As you may have heard, our SF Giants swept the Dodgers this week, and now you can be ready for every game with one of our brailled Giants schedules. As the season heats up, we are extra-heartened to hear another story of blindness and adaptation from the Minnesota Twins.

Minnesota Twins pitcher J.R. Graham wears special socks so that his blind mother can tell him apart from his teammates

Twins Pitcher J.R. Graham wears some pretty wild socks. With his pants rolled up, Graham wears knee-high, navy blue socks with skinny, stirrup-style bands reaching down to his shoes. Graham sticks out like a sore thumb around his teammates and on the filed — but that’s exactly the point. Turns out Graham dresses this way for his mother Julie, who has been visually impaired most of her life due to Best’s Disease. Though she’s legally blind, with the help of J.R.’s special attire, Julie can spot her son whether he’s pitching shut-out innings in Minneapolis or on the road.

Graham is brand new to the MLB, but has been adapting his appearance to keep his mom in the game since he was a kid. At the age of nine, his father suggested that since his teammates all wore black cleats, maybe he should try wearing white ones. At twelve, Graham first strapped on his stirrup socks and never looked back. Having the knowledge that his mom can follow the game is a great feeling for him and his family, and these little gestures are a part of their everyday life. “We’re all trying to do something to make it a little bit easier for her,” Graham said in an interview.

But this isn’t just a heartwarming story; It’s a good reminder that often the best adaptations are collaborations. Improving quality of life is not just about turning yourself inside out to make changes, but also working with the people and environments around you to find simple fixes for otherwise daunting problems.

Have an adaptation, question, or other story for us? Email tips to