“We see what’s going on out here. This isn’t just a one-time thing where this unarmed Black person gets killed for no reason. Why are we so silent?”
That was Questlove in this week’s episode of Hip-Hop: Songs That Shook America speaking on the lack of socially conscious music in the wake of countless police killings of Black people. The deafening silence he heard through the celebratory music of the time led him to go on Instagram in December 2014 and challenge all artists to make protest songs. It’s unclear if Kendrick Lamar consciously accepted that challenge, but this week’s episode about his Grammy-award winning single “Alright” explores how it was exactly what Questlove, and the world at large, needed.
After a brutal 2014, full of unjust murders of Black people at the hands of police, 2015 felt like a recurring nightmare where Black people could be choked to death and shot in the back by the same people that swore to protect the same Black bodies they destroy. This dark cloud cast a shadow that enveloped every crevice of America from the streets to LeBron James and the NBA. At the same time, the most popular hip-hop songs on Billboard all of 2015 were party songs like Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
On the latest episode of Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is explored as almost anachronistic in a time of apparent artist apathy towards social issues and still became an anthem for the millennial generation’s first major civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter. This episode makes sure, at no point, does the viewer get the impression they’re simply hearing people talk about a rapper with a popular song.
One of the best parts of the episode is how each guest’s reverential relationship with the song shared the same analytical depth of the song itself. Pharrell, the producer of “Alright,” compares Lamar’s flow to a Miles Davis trumpet run and the social agency of his pen on par with Bob Dylan. Questlove connects Lamar’s “Alright” to a long lineage of protest art including Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and Oprah Winfrey’s Sofia in The Color Purple.
“Alright”’s lineage in the history of protest art is the central crux of this episode.
There are moments in the episode where Questlove would deconstruct and recreate the entire beat with keyboardist Ray Angry and music producer Stro Elliott or gush about Lamar’s lyrical ability. But, those are presented as ancillary to the song’s cultural impact; extraordinary machinations that resulted in something larger than themselves. Activists DeRay McKesson and Brittany Packnett of Black Lives Matter, as well as Me Too Movement founder Tarana Burke helps elucidate “Alright”’s place in modern Black movements.
DeRay and Packnett take us into the tense altercation between the Cleveland police and Black Lives Matter activists in July 2015. Outside of the first-ever Black Lives Matter conference, a transit officer pepper-sprayed a crowd protesting the dubious arrest of a 14-year-old boy. They explain how once the large congregation of activists was able to get the young boy out of police custody, the assembly of Black and brown people ebulliently changed “We gon’ be alright.” That’s when Packnett gives the most salient connection between Kendrick Lamar’s song and the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement.
‘We gon be alright’ doesn’t just me we’re going to be ok. It means we’re going to be the reason that we’re ok. We’re going to wrap our arms around each other so tight that nothing can get to us. So, in your moment of fear when police snatch you up, we got you and we’re going to be alright together.”
These are the type of moments that help canonized great hip-hop music. Burke likens “Alright” to “this generation’s ‘Fight The Power,’” a phrase that transitions to Chuck D and Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy speaking on how the 1989 anthem was created as a response to drug and murder epidemic in Black communities. Simply mentioning the connection between “Fight The Power” and “Alright” is astute, having Chuck D make that connection makes this episode feel like a definitive stamp of approval.
Lamar doesn’t participate in the episode, only appearing in video and audio clips. Sounwave, Lamar’s longtime producer and friend, is the lone person with intimate knowledge of the lyricist’s rise who participates. Last week’s episode on Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” suffered from a lack of present-day insight from its creator since the episode was heavily centered on the creation of Kanye as an artist. While Lamar’s absence is obvious, this episode’s conspicuous focus on the song’s connection to the larger plight of Black people and our movements makes the artist’s insight complementary instead of necessary.
To hear Lamar put it from an interview clip included in the episode, “Alright” is the product of him “pimping” his celebrity for leadership, a mentality that inspired the title of his groundbreaking To Pimp A Butterfly.
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