“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar appeared in 2015 in his acclaimed album “To Pimp A Butterfly” followed by an accompanying music video. Kendrick Lamar entered the mainstream after the success of his first album “good kid, m.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar Biography 2018).” His songs were inspired by the challenging life on the streets of Compton, where he was born and spent his childhood, and he was mentored by prominent hip-hop artist Dr. Dre (Kendrick Lamar Biography 2018). Kenrick sees himself as a voice for African Americans who don’t have one, and believes he has a great responsibility to speak up for them (MTV 2015). He originally gained inspiration for the song after visiting Africa and seeing the problems people across the world have to deal with (MTV 2015). “Alright” was produced by another famous African American musician, Pharrell Williams, who can also be heard in the chorus of the song. The music video for the song was released in June 2015, directed by Colin Tilley, appears exclusively in black and white, displaying shots from both San Francisco and Las Angeles (Tardio 2015). The video contains themes of the relationship between the black community and the police, an issue that was a hot topic at the time and still is today. The song continued to grow in popularity as its theme truly resonated with the contemporary social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was declared “Best Rap Album” at the Grammys, and “Alright” the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, with the lyrics “We gonna be alright,” heard at Black Lives Matter events across the country (Harris 2015).
The concept of using music to protest social injustice has been around for quite a while. For example, in the 1960s many musicians created songs criticizing America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, such as “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Haltiwanger 2015). Nowadays, the use of music to call attention to societal issues is a fairly common occurrence, making music an effective tool for giving people a voice.
Because of this, it is no surprise that soon after the formation of the Black Lives Matter
movement, Kendrick Lamar stepped in with his song “Alright” to vocalize the sentiments of African Americans across the country. The movement formed in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed African American, Trayvon Martin, claiming it to be self-defense (McLaughlin 2016).This caused much outrage among African American citizens, as they believed Zimmerman’s severe actions were racially motivated, and that his acquittal was an unacceptable absence of justice. The goal of the Black Lives Matter movement was and is to end racial profiling of African Americans by police, and to hold those who abuse their power as a police officer accountable for their actions. The movement calls attention to the fact that blacks are much more likely to be arrested or shot by police officers than members of other races. In fact, 31% of Americans killed by police are African American, despite only representing 13% of the total population, minorities are almost 30% more likely to be shot and killed by police while unarmed than white citizens, and blacks are more than twice as likely to be arrested for drug offences than whites, despite relatively similar drug usage rates (Lopez 2017).
The Black Lives matter hashtag soon gained popularity on Twitter as people across the country began to call for justice and reform of a system that appeared to disregard the lives of African Americans (McLaughlin 2016). The movement continued to grow a large following after countless subsequent acquittals of police officers who shot and killed African Americans. Protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri after a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, and protests appeared in locations across the country following similar occurrences such as the death of Freddie Gray (McLaughlin 2016).
It was during this time that Kendrick Lamar released his album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which contained the song “Alright,” expressing the tension and fear that exist between American law enforcement and the black community. The song echoed the fact that members of the black community are rightfully afraid and resentful towards the police because of the countless examples of police executing unarmed African Americans and facing no consequences. This fear and absence of justice is unacceptable in society, which is why the Black Lives Matter movement fights for the simple right to not have to be afraid of getting shot by those who claim to protect them. Because of the sentiments the song conveys, it is not uncommon to hear the lyrics of “Alright” shouted at Black Lives Matter events, and because of this, many label the song as the anthem of the movement (Harris 2015). The fact that the message of “Alright” was so widely accepted indicates how, while slavery may have ended over 100 years ago, the effects are still visible today, as the racism Atlantic slavery put into place still exists and still claims the lives of African Americans through police profiling and brutality. “Alright,” has secured its place in history just as the protest songs of the 1960s did, by being a voice for a prominent movement that will be remembered for decades to come.
Themes and Style
“Alright” holds many important themes that intertwine both the lyrical and visual elements of the work. One common theme that appears throughout the music video is the relationship of the black community with the police. For a long time in African American music, perhaps since the first slave hymns were created, music has been used as protest. As one of our sources states: “This paper suggests that political and gangsta rap music artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s were utilizing a bold form of oppositional culture in protest and condemnation of perceived racial formation, institutional discrimination, and urban decay in the inner cities” (Martinez 3). “Alright” undeniably continues this trend. Kendrick is very outspoken and says what he feels he must say about the struggles of his people: “Alls my life I has to fight, nigga!” It is important to him to be as succinct and loud about his point as possible so the whole world understands: ‘these people, MY people, are struggling’. To counter the oppression of the people around him, Kendrick utilizes his voice and the story of his struggle to empower others. As stated in “Popular Culture as Opposition Culture: Rap as Resistance”: “African Americans and other oppressed groups such as American Indians and Mexican Americans have discovered varying ways to resist systematic injustice. Michael Hechter (1975, 1978) suggests that subordinate groups will use their own culture to resist oppressive circumstances” (Martinez 4-5).
The fact that the music video was shot around Oakland, a city in California known for high levels of crime and poverty, and displays of poverty and crime like the hellish beginning of the video with broken bottles, fire and darkness, try to convey this same point about the struggles of black America as a way to protest how their problems seem to be simply swept under the rug. ‘No more’ this video seems to say. The modern struggles that the African American community deal with are many and diverse, but the song focuses specifically on police brutality and the police’s treatment of the community.
In the music video the police are a violent, malevolent force. This theme is exemplified firstly in one of the early shots of the video, which shows the shooting an unarmed black man running away from police; this is probably a homage to Walter Scott, an African American man who was fatally shot five times in the back when running from a police officer. Distrust of police is not a new trend in the black community, as seen in our source: “ NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” by NWA (Niggas with Attitude) reflects a cold cynicism with regard to an obviously racist police authority. ‘Fuck tha police, comin’ straight from the underground/A young nigga got it bad because I’m brown and not the other color Some police think/They have the authority to kill a minority’ (Dre, Ren and Ice Cube 1988a)” (Martinez 13).
Secondly a police officer shoots Kendrick from his perch on top of the light pole at the end of the video. Before being shot Kendrick looked like he was on top of the world and free from this cycle of terror inflicted on others in the black community; it is shown in that scene that no one in the black community is immune from this violence, and mourns those lost. The use of a grayscale color scheme with the video emphasizes all of the messages Kendrick is trying to convey in the music video, indicating that like the video itself, the messages he is trying to convey are black and white.
Another common theme in the video is brotherhood and unity; Kendrick is always with other people, celebrating, feeling the togetherness, and staying stronger as a group. This seems to be a common theme in hip-hop, and contrasts with the appearance of other negative qualities:
Another aspect of the rap/hip-hop genre is its deep-seated homosociality and “brotherly love”. This is juxtaposed with frequent misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and violence often found in gangster rap, specifically, but this dichotomy also exists in this moment of Lamar’s video. He exclaims:
“On my momma, nigga — I’ma be the greatest to ever do this s**t…on my momma, though, like…on the dead homies”
…just before the instrumental begins and he raps:
“Tell me who the bitch nigga hatin’ on me. Jumpin’ on my d**k, but this d**k ain’t free. To Pimp A Butterfly — another classic CD. Ghetto lullaby for everyone that emcee (sounds of gunshots). Nigga, now R.I.P., my diligence is only meant to write your eulogy.”
On the whole however, the message of this song is meant to be all positive. It conveys through the lyrics a feeling that even when you feel as though your situation seems hopeless and events have taken a turn for the worst: “Hard time like ‘God!’ Bad trips like ‘Yeah!’”, your friends and your family will always be with you: “I’m fucked up homie, you fucked up, but if God got us then we gon’ be alright”.
“Alright” says that the past does not have a firm grip on the present and the future. Kendrick conveys a feeling of optimism throughout the song, that despite their struggles, past and present, he, his friends and family, and everyone in the black community “gon’ be alright”. The scenes of chaos in the beginning of the music video do not need to be the future for the black community; they can create something more beautiful for everyone, together. Along with that optimism however, Kendrick laces in some skepticism about the present, while although it was the year 2015 a time of progress, it still was 2015, a time of stagnation. These struggles that the black community faces will not just disappear, as evidenced by the police officer shooting him down from the light pole. One should dream to fly high, but be more wary than Icarus and try not to fly too close to the sun.
As stated in “The Improbable Story of How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Became a Protest Anthem.” the controversy surrounding “Alright” concerning the black community had less to do with the song in itself but rather what came before the dropping of “To Pimp a Butterfly” and the beginning of the popularity of “Alright”. According to the article, Kendrick’s relationship with the black community was at times strained and even hostile. Many lashed out at his remarks about some events affecting the community, angrily denouncing what they felt was very conservative and insensitive perspective on the situation. As the article states:
The criticism that followed was swift. Outspoken rapper Azealia Banks was perhaps the most public critic when she fired off a series of tweets: “‘When we don’t respect ourselves how can we expect them to respect us’ is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard a black man say. Lol do you know about the generational effects of poverty, racism and discrimination? There are things in society that benefit a select few of us. fine….But don’t put down the rest by saying they don’t respect themselves. HOW DARE YOU open ur face to a white publication and tell them that we don’t respect ourselves…. Speak for your fucking self”.
However, due to her habit of getting into fights with other celebrities, perhaps Azealia Banks did not have as much of a finger on the pulse on the black community as suggested. Regardless, what was important was that with the popularity of “Alright” the perception of Kendrick totally changed; everyone understood Kendrick’s stance on these events, and they approved.
The most famous controversy surrounding the song is the infamous Fox News segment in which the pundit Geraldo Rivera, unappreciative of Kendrick’s performance at the BET awards
and the song in general, said “this is why say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”. This prompted a response from Kendrick, saying “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred. The overall message is we’re gonna be alright”(Heins 3). This controversy highlights the ongoing debates between artists using their work to speak for themselves about their lives and those around them to highlight the injustices in society, artists like Killer Mike and Lauryn Hill, and people like Rivera and Bill O’Reilly, who seek to dismiss these claims made by artists.
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Harris, Aisha. “Has Kendrick Lamar Recorded the New Black National Anthem?” Slate, 3 Aug. 2015, http://www.slate.com/culture/2018/04/springsteen-on-broadway-is-worth-it-for-the-quiet.html.
Heins, Scott. “Kendrick Lamar Slams Fox News, Defends Hip-Hop.” Okayplayer, 3 July 2015, http://www.okayplayer.com/news/kendrick-lamar-fox-news.html.
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Lopez, German. “There Are Huge Racial Disparities in How US Police Use Force.” Vox, 6 May 2017, http://www.vox.com/cards/police-brutality-shootings-us/us-police-racism.
McLaughlin, Michael. “The Dynamic History Of #BlackLivesMatter Explained.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 Dec. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/history-black-lives-matter_us_56d0a3b0e4b0871f60eb4af5.
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Andres. “Exclusive: We Got All The Answers About Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Video.” MTV News, 1 July 2015, http://www.mtv.com/news/2201127/kendrick-lamar-alright-video-colin-tilley/.
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Ramocan, Yuri. “For The Dead Homies .” Medium, Medium, 7 Dec. 2015, medium.com/@yramocan/for-the-dead-homies-a-critical-analysis-of-kendrick-lamar-s-alright-music-video-eddde3be3177