New Anthems of Black Liberation
The crowd leaned in and pushed through a thin police line that stood before the sharp embankment leading down to the highway. They surged over the steep hill and flooded the two southbound lanes of NC 147, winding through stopped cars. The day prior, a New York grand jury declined to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. As the powerful mass moved through stopped traffic, the horns of many cars chirped to life, singing along with the chanting and drumming bodies that marched past two exits of the Durham Freeway. The group exited on Chapel Hill Street and wound their way back into downtown. The demonstration completed its circuit, returning to the street that separates two of the largest building in downtown Durham – the glittering Durham Performing Arts center and the whitewashed walls of the Durham jail. As the group amassed in the intersection, a chant broke out; it was the refrain from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Drums dropped in with a backbeat, people moved to the center and danced. It was a moment of catharsis: an affirmative reclamation of resiliency in a march marking yet another black man’s death at the hands of police. The words of “Alright” sounded as a tonic, offering space for people to hear themselves as vibrant participants in the movement for black lives.
Black American music is inextricably linked with the political sphere in both reflective and constitutive ways. Indeed, no music can be extricated from the historical matrix in which it is conceived and sounded. Narratives of black music often claim it is inherently music of resistance. As Shana Redmond writes, “Within the African diaspora, music functions as a method of rebellion, revolution, and future visions that disrupt and challenge the manufactured differences used to dismiss, detain and destroy communities” (Redmond 2013, 1). While it is important to lift up these resistance narratives in black music, Kevin Quashie points out that black culture is at times over-determined as resistance culture (Quashie 2012).
This paper seeks a nuanced reading of black anthems as both an expressive and constitutive force in the black freedom movement. Black anthems are at times conceived as such when composed and sounded into the world. However, in other instances, it is the fertile environment into which they sound that causes them to resonate with resistance movements and to be heard as anthems of struggle. Such is the case with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a song that I will argue has found resonance as an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, not through a contrived effort on Lamar’s part, but due to a the social reverberation that the sonic object found upon its release.
Here I will explore the history of the black anthem and then offer a discussion of music that has reverberated as resistance music in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ultimately, I will argue that “Alright” has emerged as the primary anthem of the contemporary black liberation struggle. I will approach the song by exploring the production of the musical track, as well as the music video created for it. I will then study the process by which the record moved from a space of personal expression outward into the movement public – where it was claimed and remade it as an anthem of Black Lives Matter. A final argument will deal with ways of knowing through sound, arguing that anthems such as “Alright” offer avenues for people to experience themselves – to know themselves – as part of a movement shaped, in part, by sound and music.
Tracing the Black Anthem
In Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, Shana Redmond makes use of six musical anthems to launch discussion on the historical and social contexts from which these anthems gained prominence. In so doing, she weaves together a lively exploration of the substantial role music can play in shaping and reflecting social movements and public consciousness. Conceptualizing the
black anthem in the context of the African diaspora, Redmond draws on Stuart Hall’s notion that the “production” of identity is always in process and never complete (Redmond 2013, 5). Thus, as black anthems have risen to prominence and fallen out of use, they have done so in ways that reflect the historical moment. These anthems have both reflected and contributed to the construction of black identity as it has shifted over time.
Redmond describes black anthems as being motivated by Robin Kelley’s notion of freedom dreams, which she describes as “ideas and artistic practices attached to movements of conscience” (ibid 8). Further, she argues, “Black anthems construct an alternative constellation of citizenship – new imagined communities that challenge the ‘we’ of the ‘melting pot’ or democratic state, yet install new definitions of ‘we’ in its place” (ibid 15). Following Redmond here, I argue that black anthems become sites for the consolidation of social movements. They are not just reflective of movements. They are a glue that binds them together. They are an avenue for people to find a sense of belonging within a movement, a sense of home.
Here, the work of ethnomusicologist Steven Feld – and in particular his notion of acoustemology – is relevant. Feld describes acoustemology as “an intimacy-making bridge” (Feld 2012a, 10), or “sound as a way of knowing” (ibid, 7). From this perspective, anthems can “bridge” time and space and offer a way for people to “know” themselves as connected to a movement. Thus, it is in the acoustemological sense that listeners can find a sense of belonging within a movement. Whether by participating in the physical act of singing or chanting the anthem, or by simply listening to it, when people resonate with this anthem they may know themselves to belong in the movement.
Redmond traces a detailed history of the black anthem in her monograph, highlighting both works that were created as anthems as well as music that took on an anthemic resonance after its release. She begins her study by examining composer Arnold Ford’s “Ethiopia (Thou Land of Our Fathers),” a song written expressly as the anthem of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). This was an anthem in the traditional sense: state-craft joined with musical composition to the end of identifying and strengthening a particular strand of black nationalism (Redmond 2013, 39).
Next, Redmond traces the thread to the Weldon brothers’ “Lify Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which was adopted as the Negro national anthem by the NAACP between 1919 and 1920. Here, she notes that “Life Ev’ry Voice” was not institutionalized in the same way that the UNIA anthem was. In this case the anthem was adopted, reshaped, and transformed by the black community who embodied it through performance. James Weldon Johnson eventually acknowledged that the song belonged to the race, not to him, as “it had autonomously developed customs above and beyond his imagination” (ibid, 78).
Another example of an anthem whose form shifted over time is Paul Robeson’s “Old Man River,” a song originally bearing the inscriptions of minstrelsy in its Show Boat context. However, as Redmond charts Robeson’s transformation into a pan-African activist, she documents that the song acquired new meanings both through Robeson’s rewriting of the lyrics, and through the new political sensibilities Robeson brought to his performance of the song. “At Robeson’s hands,” she writes, “old man river had been transformed from a weak, pitiable Black man to a righteous iconoclast and global freedom fighter” (120). This example demonstrates that an anthem can be a song used in staged settings as well as in participatory ones. In contrast, “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem of the picket lines of the 1940s. It has resounded as a decidedly participatory anthem, as it was to be sung by activists throughout the civil rights era and beyond.
In her discussion of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” Redmond suggests that this anthem marked the transition from civil rights activities of the 1950s and early 1960s to black power methodologies strategies of the late 1960s and early 1970s (ibid, 181). The song was adopted by the Congress of Racial Equality as the Black National Anthem in 1971, aiming to displace “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” To Redmond this proposed shift signified “the important identity contests that were waged in the fifty-year period between adoption of these two texts” (ibid, 192).
Redmond concludes her study with a discussion of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” from 1990, which she describes as the last black anthem of the twentieth century (ibid, 261). This song reflects the ongoing evolution of the historical-cultural matrix in which black anthems have sounded and continue to resonate. “Fight the Power” typifies an era in which art, politics, and the body are colliding and merging with technology. As Mark Katz writes, “‘Fight the Power’ is a complex and subtle testament to the influence and possibilities of sound recording; but at the same time, it reveals how the aesthetic, cultural, and political priorities of musicians shape how the technology is understood and used” (Katz 2010, 161). The song also looks back, taking inventory of black movement history. From the red, black and green color motif of the UNIA to black movement slogans like “power to the people” and “I’m black and I’m proud,” Public Enemy announces “an engagement with previous struggles even as they mount their own” (Redmond 2013, 262).
Indeed, each of the anthems Redmond studies continues to resound in contemporary black movement culture in some way, whether through “praise, critique, adoption, sound bite, or remix” (ibid, 269). The legacy of these anthems suggests that culture is an ever-evolving process, that as the struggle finds new manifestations it demands new music. As Stuart Hall eloquently puts it in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,”
Cultural identity…is a matter of “becoming” as well as of “being.” It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous “play” of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere “recovery” of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past (Hall 1990, 225).
We can know a movement through its musical indexes, and people can know themselves as participants in a movement via sound. Whether through listening, singing, chanting or remembering, anthems both connect us to history and ground us in the socio-political present.
Anthems of Black Lives Matter
The black liberation movement has found renewed energy in the era of Black Lives Matter. Following the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the movement has come to occupy a significant position in contemporary America. The crisis of racist violence, and, police violence in particular, has risen to the forefront of American discourse as social media and cell phone camera documentation permit stories of brutality to travel instantly and resonate insistently.
The names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland (among others) have become rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter Movement. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, “Today the birth of a new movement against racism and policing is shattering the illusions of a colorblind, postracial United States. Cries of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Black lives matter” have been heard around the country as tens of thousands of ordinary people mobilize to demand an end of rampant police brutality and murder against African Americans” (Taylor 2016, 10).
Along with the recitation of these names and slogans, musical sounds have resounded in the space of #BlackLivesMatter. From songs written in explicit mourning of lives lost to instrumental tributes to the growing movement, sound has played a significant role in constituting the movement for black lives. There has been, since 2012, a proliferation of songs with lyrics directly inspired by or referencing the movement. Examples include: Daye Jack (ft. Killer Mike)’s “Hands Up,” Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” Taina Asili’s “Freedom,” Aloe Blacc’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Brown,” Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talbout,” JB!! aka Dirty Moses’ “Lights Up,” Beyonce’s “Freedom” and “Formation,” Miguel’s “How Many,” Victoria Monet feat. Ariana Grande’s “Better Days,” Common feat. John Legend’s “Glory,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II,” Z-Ro and Mike Dean’s “No Justice No Peace,” D’Angelo’s “The Charade,” J. Cole’s “Be Free,” Prince feat. Eryn Allen Kane’s “Baltimore,” The Game’s “Don’t Shoot,” Rhiannon Gidden’s “Cry No More,” Tom Morello’s “Marching on Ferguson,” Usher feat. Nas and Bibi Bourelly’s “Chains,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, both significant jazz instrumentalists, have brought the spirit of resistance into their compositional practice and have spoken directly about their work as reflecting the struggle for black lives (Hunter-Tilney 2016, Ulen 2015). Kamasi Wahington’s recording The Epic (2015) is a personal statement that has resonated as an ode to the black freedom movement (Shatz 2016). Robert Glasper’s aching record Covered (2015) closes with the track “I’m Dying of Thirst,” on which Glasper’s own son and other children recite the names of people who died at the hands of police (Ulen 2015).
All these songs have rung out in the era of Black Lives Matter, and in most cases were written in explicit response to the movement. Each of them can be heard as an anthem of sorts, though they have impacted the movement and the broader public to varying degrees.
It is fitting that Black Lives Matter be buttressed by numerous anthems, as the movement has been, up to this point, largely decentralized. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi conceived of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin 2012. Since then the movement against police violence has coalesced under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), with numerous individuals and organizations staking claim to the language. BLM has been largely decentralized, but not leaderless. The BLM website says poignantly,
Many Americans of all races are enamored with Martin Luther King as a symbol of leadership and what real movements look like. But the Movement for Black Lives, another name for the BLM movement, recognizes many flaws with this model. First, focusing on heterosexual, cisgender black men frequently causes us not to see the significant amount of labor and thought leadership that black women provide to movements… Moreover, those old models of leadership favored the old over the young, attempted to silence gay and lesbian leadership, and did not recognize the leadership possibilities of transgender people at all. Finally, a movement with a singular leader or a few visible leaders is vulnerable, because those leaders can be easily identified, harassed, and killed, as was the case with Dr. King (Cullors 2015).
The shortcomings of singular leadership are reiterated by Shana Redmond as reflective of the shortcomings of the anthem writ large. In concluding her study she writes, “Although often composed, and always performed, collectively, the imbedded singularity of the anthem may be its undoing. Like the messianic leadership that has proven troubled and inefficient time and time again, the isolation of a sonic text as the mouthpiece for a collective invites challenges that most anthems cannot withstand over time” (Redmond 2013, 288). This is a useful warning against lifting one anthem to the pedestal of the anthem. However, for the purposes of this paper, it is important to recognize that one song has had perhaps the strongest resonance in BLM since its release in June of 2015. That song – Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” from the contemporaneous album To Pimp A Butterfly – is a powerful (though in some ways an unlikely) choice for an anthem of Black Lives Matter. Unlike many of the other songs listed above, “Alright” was not conceived as an anthem. A fertile cultural moment met this brilliant and personal work with a resounding reamplification that has since cast it as the foremost anthem of Black Lives Matter.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”: A Schizophonic Perspective
When sound is captured by a recording mechanism, archived, and then allowed to circulate, it can take on new meanings and resonances beyond its initial performative context. Murray Schafer conceptualized schizophonia as a phenomenon deriving from the split between an original sound and its recorded transmission or reproduction. Schafer writes, “I coined the term in The New Soundscape to be a nervous word. Related to schizophrenia, I wanted to convey the same sense of aberration and drama” (Schafer 1977, 91). Similarly, Alexander Weheliye contends, “the putative split between sound and source created anxieties about the writing of sound and the visual dimensions of music” (Weheliye 2005, 20). It is interesting that both writers emphasize the splitting of sound from its source as a cause for anxiety. Weheliye, however, concludes that the split creates new means for engaging the sonic (ibid).
In his essay, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” Steven Feld expands on Schafer’s notion of schizophonia:
Unlike Schafer, I do not use the terms principally or simply to refer to the technological process of splitting that constitutes sound recording. Rather, I am concerned with the larger arena where sound recordings move into long- and short-term routes of circulation and patterns of consumption. At stake, then, in the splitting of sounds from sources is the possibility of new social life, and this is principally about the recontextualization and resignification of sounds (Feld 2012b, 41).
The idea that the schizophonic split leads to recontextualization and resignification is echoed by Wehelye as he describes the opportunities afforded to black communities through this process. “Sound recording and reproduction technologies,” he writes, “have afforded black cultural producers and consumers different means of staging time, space, and community in relation to their shifting subjectivity in the modern world” (Weheliye 2005, 20).
This stream of thought connects recording technologies to a flexibility of sonic meaning. An artist’s intention in creating a work, then, has only so much bearing on how the sounds will reverberate and travel once they are circulated into the public via recording. Roland Radano writes in Lying up a Nation, “I want to argue that we construct a critical position from the stories contained in ‘the music itself,’ in tales perhaps exceeding the intentions of the artist, yet through which we locate the truth about racial life in America” (Radano 2003, 25). With these lenses in hand, I turn to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
A schizophonic narrative of “Alright” as produced by Sounwave and Pharrell
A phonographic needle is dropped, and the song jumps from the speakers: a low-fi hi-fi crackle, sampled just below Lamar’s vocal. Disembodied and re-sampled voices form major chords, sounding an open-throated “ahh” vowel. Vowels are the vocal sounds said to be most unmediated by the materiality of the body, but here the sound is processed through midi manipulation – stacked, spliced, sampled, shifted.
Lamar’s voice moves between three pitches; the second time he reaches for the highest of these, with the sound ‘yah,’ he pushes sharp for emphasis.
A hollow (again) open-throated hissing sound that recalls a dentist’s suction device builds a moment of energy before Lamar asserts the refrain of the song over a brief drum fill, giving way to the groove.
The pulse is designated strongly by a digital open high-hat sound marking quarter notes. The kick drum follows closely to the bass line, and a highly compressed digital snare sound offers accents in the rhythmic spaces. The strong emphasis here on the quarter-note pulse and the timbre of its demarcation by the hi-hat sound invokes Fela Kuti, Afrobeat, and its use of the shekere in similar fashion.
The synth bass propels the song through this section with a stretched 3 over 4 quarter note syncopation. The bass and kick drum parts emphasize beat 1, then beat 4, then beat 2 of the next measure. This syncopation gives the track forward momentum, capacious and untethered.
While the refrain is chanted, sounds float in the sonic space – saxophone weaves ambient textures. Fender Rhodes chords chime spaciously.
At 0:35 a swelling cheer builds a moment’s tension before the beat breaks open and leaves space for Lamar’s vocal. Here the reverb is audible on the voice – clearly a digital effect that adds a spaciousness to the vocal. It doesn’t sound to be in a room, rather disembodied, resounding in space.
At 0:46 a heavily reverberated tone enters and rises through a few intervals, perhaps a saxophone sampled and placed.
At 1:13 we return to the introduction section of the arrangement; the drum fill rolls through again, and we are swept into the chorus.
Beneath the hook, an unwieldy saxophone line breaks loose at 1:44, offering a moment of tension that resolves back again into the hypnotic chorus.
At 1:48 a high saxophone note rings out as if drifting in the air, highly mediated with reverb, but as the beat comes to a sudden stop, the reverb is removed and the saxophone is exposed: dry and reedy. The same effect is applied to Lamar’s voice in this section – it begins to be overwhelmed by reverb before the break leaves it bare.
We jump back into another verse, the energy building over a stripped-down beat before the drum fill brings the groove back in, fully formed. After a bar and a half, a snare hit slaps as Lamar punctuates the beat with a falsetto utterance. A moment’s pause.
The beat and Lamar’s voice reenter in full force, saxophone crying busy sheets of sound, but buried in the rear space of the track. Lamar’s cadence accelerates through this verse – rapid and expressive. Then the chorus drops (and everyone’s head bobs in the affirmative).
This final chorus is accompanied by exclamations – successive assents in the background panned throughout the stereo field. Individual voices intertwine with others mediated by delay and reverb.
A doubled and droll voice enters with a lazy melody that carries us towards the end of the tune. The final notes of the song ring out, a melody doubled in baritone and bass octaves.
Finally, we return to a recording of the poetic refrain that appears through TPAB. The sound quality here is rough, as if recorded very simply in a home studio, or perhaps on a cell phone. White noise in the frequency of about 2,000 hertz is audible between words.
Roland Radano suggests that “Subversive listening requires a special attention to the muted and muffled sonorities existing between the lines” (Radano 2003, 13). The schizophonic narrative above offers a jumping-off point for considering the music itself as a site of interpretation, as a way of locating stories perhaps beyond the intentions of the artist, but nevertheless useful in understanding the “truth” that the song expresses (ibid, 25). This type of sonic stratigraphy is a technique for hearing tales that live below the surface of the production, hidden meaning beyond the textual.
What we can hear in this production narrative, then, is a distinctly dialogic work. Multiple voices intertwine, in support of Lamar’s lyric. The plethora of musicians who contributed to its construction all sound the intervocal nature of this track. The voices are variously mediated with effects, in a manner that dislodges them from any one particular setting, and that offers a relatable affect whereby listeners can locate themselves within the recording.
The beat is propulsive and energetic, encouraging forward movement. It is affirmative both in its signification and its musical matter, encouraging the nodding of the head. The song is an offering of hope and optimism in a world replete with barriers.
In the same way that “Fight the Power” looked back on movement slogans of the past, “Alright” looks back to a few distinct cultural locations. The jazz saxophone playing (of Kamasi Washington) recalls the defiant sound of John Coltrane in the 1960s: bold, assertive, lyrical. The 3 over 4 rhythmic motif can be heard as a nod to the diaspora, where 3 over 4 is a distinctive musical hallmark.
But overall it is the hook that grabs the listener – the chant of “We gon’ be alright” is an affective one. It is immediately graspable, a chant in the truest sense. The cadence is a cathartic one that grounds the listener in hope for a better world – something that any effective anthem sets out to do.
To consider further the impact of “Alright,” I turn now to the music video, produced by Colin Tilley in close collaboration with Kendrick Lamar.
A ‘schizographic’ narrative of the music video for “Alright,”
as produced by Colin Tilley
Opening images in black and white–footage of the Oakland streets, an indistinct voice echoing in the background: “housekeeping.” Lamar’s scream calls out, and we are suddenly inside a tight space: a tunnel with a rhythmic light array sweeping past. One feels transported into the interior of Lamar’s metal world.
The shots of Oakland are from street level, looking up. The perspective invokes a desire to escape, the view from inside, craning to look outwards.
We return again to his inner world with a second scream.
The poetic refrain of To Pimp a Butterfly is edited in here, and we realize the housekeeper is trying to come into the hotel room that Lamar references in the verse.
As he says the words “Apartheid and Discrimination,” the white officer discharges his weapon, aimed at the back of a young man seeking escape down the sidewalk.
The gunshot resonates, and what is left is the sound of the city quietly breathing. Faint voices and a motorcycle ignition churning to life signal the hum of an urban soundscape.
And the title appears, backed by an establishing shot of Oakland from the hills to the east of the city.
A new record, produced especially for the video, begins here. Lamar and three others roll down the street in an old car. This acapella moment is followed by a propulsive bass and drum groove. Lamar’s voice floats over the top, reflecting on the success of To Pimp A Butterfly.
The shot zooms out to reveal four white police officers carrying the car as if they are pallbearers. Or perhaps they are carrying the car and its riders as if installed in a chariot.
This shot is suddenly interrupted by the squealing of car tires. We jump-cut to another scene. It’s as if Lamar suddenly awakes from a surreal dream and is shocked back into the present.
Now we are in another car. Dollar bills are thrown by a passenger.
Cut into this shot are other interesting images: Lamar floating gently above the ground, hovering, his feet just a few feet elevated above the earth. And more shots of Oakland from below. They evoke a sense of claustrophobia. The lens is pointed upwards to the sky, signaling a desire for escape, a longing.
Rhythmic cuts show the new Bay Bridge, downtown skyscrapers, Chinatown.
Three kids dance on top of a police car in an abandoned lot. We return to another image of Lamar floating above the ground, this time with a look of hope on his face. The shot cuts to just his Timberland boots, rising a few feet above the earth.
Dancers enter next, performing in front of a tower of boom-boxes stacked high. Is the scene a memorial to Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing?
A powerful bloc of black bodies chant the chorus en masse, invoking the body in protest. This is the image that we’ve seen of people chanting the hook in protest on the streets.
Next, Lamar is the omniscient observer, perched on a street light post, looking down over Oakland (or is it L.A. now?). Again, he is transcendent, rising above the world to offer a zoomed-out perspective. A young man looks up at him from below with admiration.
Cut in here are images of children running and biking through the hills, again signaling escape. They arrive at the top of a hill and look toward the sky, searching for something beyond the view of the camera.
The final scene shows Lamar perched atop a street lamp. An LAPD officer arrives seeing that Lamar has achieved this momentary height and steps out of the car, drawing his rifle.
We cut back to Lamar, then to the police officer. This time the rifle is gone. The officer reaches to his holster and finds nothing. He shapes his fingers into an imaginary gun and casually, almost drunkenly, points it at Lamar on the lamppost. His lips shape the word ‘pow’ as he mimes the execution of our protagonist.
Now, blood splatters from Lamar’s chest as he’s knocked backwards off the lamppost. He falls toward earth, grounded from the images of floating and flying conjured earlier in the video. He repeats the TPAB refrain from the beginning as the forces of gravity lure him towards the pavement.
He lands on his back and everything goes black. But after a moment his face reappears – offering a smile and a wink.
A salient theme of this video is the exploration of escape. The early claustrophobic shots of the city evoke an enclosure. The camera points toward the sky, looking upward, seeking a way out. The striking image of Lamar hovering, floating and eventually ascending through flight is a meaningful one. These images combine to create an affective experience that gestures towards the freedom movement: a desire for escape, for transcendence.
There is an inversion of power relations, especially in regards to race and the power of police over the lives of black men. In the first scene of the video the camera zooms out to reveal white police officers who are carrying the young man as if in a chariot, signifying a flipping of the power dynamic. Or perhaps the officers can be read as pallbearers, carrying the burden of the death the officer will inflict on Lamar later in the video. In either case this images affirms the value of black life. It is also striking that Lamar seems to mentally disarm the officer towards the end as his rifle disappears. Lamar’s death becomes an act, as alluded to by the wink he offers us in the final shot.
Tracing “Alright” as an Anthem of Black Lives Matter
When “Alright” was released on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 it garnered massive acclaim from day one. The record would be nominated for “Album of the Year” and “Rap Album of the Year” at the Grammy Awards, and “Alright” would receive nominations for “Song of the Year,” “Best Rap Performance,” “Best Music Video,” and “Best Rap Song.” The record, as Jamilah King puts it, “didn’t so much announce [Lamar’s] arrival as his generation’s fiercest political artist as it did cement it” (King 2016). Kendrick Lamar’s opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a deeply complex narrative and musical feat of major proportions.
The question remains as to whether he intended the hit single “Alright” to resound as a political anthem. Following the killing of Michael Brown and the commencement of the uprising in Ferguson, Lamar was interviewed by Billboard magazine and spoke about Ferguson and the black community writ large in a way that struck the wrong note for some activists. Lamar said in the interview,
“I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting – it starts from within” (Edwards 2015).
These comments, from January 2015 (several months before the release of TPAB), came across to some as a critique of the Black Lives Matter movement. Further, making this comment to a publication with a predominantly white readership, Lamar ran the risk of giving white readers the impression that the black community lacks self-respect. Black Twitter came down on him swiftly (Lewis 2015).
However, the release of the full album later that year, alongside his powerful performances at the BET Awards in 2015 and the Grammy’s Awards in February of 2016, positioned Lamar’s as a powerfully political voice. Both these high-profile performances were bold statements against state violence. His performance at the Grammy Awards explored notions of escape, police violence, mass incarceration, mental colonization, and black America’s positionality in the diaspora. In the BET Awards performance, Lamar was staged on the roof a graffiti-drenched police car, a huge 51-stared American flag unfurled overhead. It became clear that Lamar was both an artist creating brilliant work and, at the same time, a young black man wrestling with a complicated present. Jamilah King writes, “Taken as a whole, To Pimp a Butterfly is an honest account of one man’s evolving political and personal identity. It’s a 27-year-old telling the world that he’s not perfect, but he’s trying” (King 2016). Lamar has positioned himself as one of the foremost artists of his era, and while his work is fundamentally political, he prioritizes it as artistic, not political, expression.
Kevin Quashie wrestles with the political expectations placed on the work of black artists in The Sovereignty of Quiet. “Quiet,” he writes, “is a metaphor for a full range of one’s inner life – one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears. The inner life in not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness” (Quashie 2012, 6). He continues,
Black culture has been characterized largely by its response to racial dominance, so much so that resistance becomes its defining feature and expectation. In this context, black culture is or is supposed to be loud, literally as well as metaphorically, since such loudness is the expressive articulation of resistance (ibid, 11).
While TPAB is loud in many ways, it is also rooted in a deeply personal and, at times, quiet interior world. “Alright” is an anthem that rose from the interior world of one artist and found intense resonance in a specific moment of the black liberation movement. The song’s central hook, “We gon’ be alright,” has resonated in American streets during Black Lives Matter protests from Durham, to Cleveland, to Oakland and LA. It’s become an anthemic celebration of black resilience, a testament to overcoming the odds of an ongoing white supremacist social order. Lamar is dealing with his own internal demons as well as with the structural oppression he faces on a daily basis. Ultimately, this deeply personal work resonated in just the moment when it was needed. In an interview with the New York Times, Lamar responded to a question about the song’s relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement. He said, “Music moves with the times. It’s not something we have to consciously do. This is what’s happening in the world – not only to me but to my community. Whenever I make music, it reflects where I’m at mentally. And this is where we’re at. When you look at other artists doing the same thing, it’s of the times. And it’s much needed” (Coscarelli 2015).
In conclusion, my contention is that “Alright” has become, in many ways, a perfect (if complicated) anthem for a powerful (if complicated) movement in the ongoing struggle for black freedom. “Alright” resonates in a manner that invites people to find a sense of belonging in black community, and in the struggle. The song is only one anthem among many, but more than any other song, “Alright” best embodies the spirit of the moment: in a simple hook, a four-on-the-floor pulse, an individual perspective, and a resilient sentiment.
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 The flags used in this performance were modeled on the 51-star American flag created by William Pope as the centerpiece for a 2015 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (Weisblum 2015).