How Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" Became The Anthem To Civil Unrest In 2015
The rapper’s Grammy-nominated single flooded the streets during another year of racial disparities.
It’s no secret that 2015 was the year civil unrest flipped its lid and had the country slapping on kufis en masse. When it comes to racial and societal injustices, every generation has had their unfair share of outcry. Millennials, in particular, have hundreds of cases, but thanks to the Internet, we’re able to invoke some type of change—or at least awareness—on a larger scale.
For the past three years, I took part in protests both actively and on the sidelines as a reporter and a civilian in New York City. It was powerful to see people of all hues take a stand against the lingering systematic oppression that ended the lives of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose and countless others. Marching on the West Side Highway, in the heart of Times Square and on the cobblestone streets near Union Square, I remember screaming the now-mandatory chants “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “No Justice, No Peace” and “I Can’t Breathe,” as others played N.W.A’s “F**k Tha Police” and Kanye West’s “Never Let Me Down.” What I didn’t know was that another mantra would soon play though our voice boxes and iPhones and Android speakers: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
I first heard the Pharrell/Sounwave-produced track the week Kendrick’s album To Pimp A Butterfly leaked. I thoroughly enjoyed the racially charged album, but for me “Alright” was the tune that made the intense TPAB a little light. The jazz blends were clearly evident as a vocally lit Pharrell helped push the looped chorus into a memorable chant. The tune goes from serious to joyful to mindful as Kendrick spits, “Everyday my logic, get another dollar just to keep you/In the presence of your chico... ah!” and pulls the listener back into the oblivion of hope (and catching their breath) with “I rap, I black on tracks so rest assured/My rights, my wrongs; I write 'til I'm right with God.”
While listening to it on repeat, I was reminded of the lesson that pain isn’t permanent and getting through the tough times are what make us all stronger. My roommate and I decided to throw a close friend a celebratory Earthstrong bash paired with our housewarming just two weeks after TPAB’s release. It was a few months too late (six, actually), but anything for a party, right? I’ll never remember exactly how over 50 people fit into two-bedroom railroad apartment, but I do remember the negro spiritual that took place when “Alright” oozed through the speakers. We stayed low, knees bent, enthralled in the rapper’s verses and jumped up the low-ceiling heavens in unison once the chorus dropped. Sure there were a few on the sidelines (because, new album) but to see the mutual sense felt on that Friday night was incredible. It was a commanding moment because we all felt the pain and empathy we had towards those who perished at the hands of police.
Over 20 people died in police-related shootings that week. That month also brought to light the Department of Justice’s scathing report of the Ferguson Police Department. Emails and documents collected revealed how police officials violated the constitutional rights of African-Americans. Evidence of racism was also seen in the disturbing increase of arrests and fines towards black people. Multiple officials resigned following the harrowing report but at that point, the lesson of forgiveness wasn’t learned. The pain didn’t go away so we chanted “We gon’ be alright,” eyes shut tight with fists in the air. But like your Twitter timeline, the moment was gone before we really got to analyze it.
What’s worth analyzing is the problem this country has with statistics and police killings. While Vice’s July report on people who die in police custody points to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' Deaths in Custody Reporting Program for the answers, the data collected by the program dates back to 2012 with 4,309 dead after being taken into police custody or in a federal prison. The number doesn’t include how many people die while in contact with police because it’s never been tracked as closely as album sales are.
Before leaving office, former attorney general Eric Holder called the gap in stats “unacceptable,” while FBI director James Corney admitted the numbers they’ve acquired aren’t accurate. The stats are needed to track the now public problem with excessive force and improve police training. Advocates and news outlets have done the job of tallying police killings. The Washington Post reported as of yesterday (Dec. 10), 917 people were killed by police this year while the website Killed By Police tallied 1,120. At the time of the release of Butterfly in March, over 100 people were fatally shot by the police.
As critics continued to berate police officials over the loss of black lives in Ferguson and beyond, Kendrick’s album was taking a beating of its own. Fans were surprised to find the album full of jazz, blues and funk inspiration. Those of the woke status praised it for presenting blackness in it’s blackest form and others realized the bars and glory K. Dot spit over tracks like “Blacker The Berry” and “Institutionalized” just weren’t relatable.
Nonetheless, the album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, as well as number one on the Billboard Rap Album chart. The week of its release also broke a Spotify global record after it was streamed 9.6 million times on its first day. Despite the minimal clapback from those who questioned the album’s first soul-pop single, “i,”the album was still a success, but more brutal blows were on the way.
A few months later, “Alright” the fourth single of the album served as Kendrick’s performance opener for the BET Awards. As dancers waved American flags towards the audience, Kendrick stood on top of a graffiti covered police car spitting the truthful lyrics. A few days later, a luring video for the song was released but many were distracted due to swarming critics of Kendrick’s performance. Rap heads fell in love with the surprise verse added in the performance while, on the other side of the fence, Geraldo Rivera slammed the rapper for provoking young blacks to hate law enforcement. Stunned, the rapper spoke out about the backlash to TMZ. “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred?” he asked. “The overall message [of ‘Alright’], is, ’We gon’ be alright.’ It’s not a message of ‘I want to kill people.’ This is reality. This is my world. This is what I talk about in my music. You can’t dilute that.”
As the year pressed on, America experienced more exhausting racially-charged incidents. In addition to the Charleston, S.C. massacre, in which Dylann Roof executed nine Black churchgoers during a Bible study, countless cases of racial profiling on college campuses at University of Missouri, Yale and Harvard popped up and filled Twitter timelines. “Alright” began queuing up again in vines and viral videos at protests from West Baltimore to the streets of Chicago. We know now as a nation the problems we’ve dealt with are more than just about race. Police training and alleged overlook from government officials have also been brought to light.
Only time will tell what will happen next in relations between the people and law enforcement but for many, music helps heal wounds. At the top of the month (Dec. 6), the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the Department of Justice would investigate the Chicago Police Department in light of the released footage of the Oct. 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. For over a year, video of the shooting was kept from public view.
Further reports uncovered police accounts were drastically different than the video, which showed Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the 17-year-old 16 times seconds after exiting his squad car. The investigation will look into Van Dyke’s use of deadly force and other police in one of the country’s most dangerous cities. The investigation is a step in the right direction to rewrite the adaptation many have when it comes to how we view troubling police tactics.
Just a few weeks before McDonald’s video was released, Kendrick performed in the city for his sold-out Groove Sessions tour. The crowd at the Riviera Theatre mirrored house bashes, clubs and protests as the crowd jumped in unison to the shows closer: “Alright.” With more pain coming towards the grief-stricken city, a moment of clarity and hope was given to the crowd and to those across the nation. In times of despair, we’ve come together to remind ourselves that better days are ahead. 2015 was no different and perhaps next year will help bring more change. By no means is the fight over, but at least under one groove, we’ve all realized with time, unity, commitment and love we’re gon’ be alright.