How Kendrick Lamar's 'Alright' became a 21st century protest anthem
In late July 2015, amid incredibly high tensions, a crowd of protesters gathered on the campus of Cleveland State University to lament the killing of Tamir Rice. Demonstrators throughout the United States still seethed from similar deaths in other states, and almost daily, new groups of people took to the streets to rally against injustice. Following the Movement for Black Lives conference, where local demonstrators and members of Black Lives Matter met to discuss the rampant police brutality that swept the country, the group left the conference en route to the buses slated to take them to their respective homes. Standing outside, the group noticed police officers harassing a young boy for carrying what they thought was an open container of alcohol onto the bus. The boy was 14 years old, and because the city had just mourned the death of Tamir, the strain reached a boiling point.
Incredulous, the crowd questioned the transit police officer about why the child was being detained. They were pepper-sprayed. Someone in the crowd asked for the phone number of the boy’s mother. She was called and was soon there talking to police. According to news accounts, the boy was released from police custody and went home with his mother. The crowd of 200 was elated; for the first time in almost a year, they had a win against law enforcement. Soon, a chant started to billow throughout the mass:
>We gon’ be alright!
We gon’ be alright!
It was a heroic scene, a sea of triumphant Black people walking through the streets, passing police cruisers like they weren’t even there. No way could this make up for the loss of life that permeated the past two years, but for a brief time, all the agony led to this moment, right there in Cleveland. In months past, the movement had escalated beyond peace and became violent at different points. But the Cleveland demonstration was a flashpoint for the movement overall, and now it had an anthem tying it together.
Along with the strides activists made in cities like New York and Cleveland, the movement had its own “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” albeit with a few cuss words. But that was the temperature of the time. We were tired of trying to overcome and wanted equal treatment right now. The action was captured on video and instantly went viral. Just that quick, Kendrick’s music was at the center of a political movement, and the rapper — whether he knew it or not — was suddenly the country’s foremost purveyor of protest music.
Kendrick and the team hadn’t created the art for a viral moment, but maybe that was why it resonated so strongly. It came from an honest place, from a hole of darkness and personal torment. It just happened to connect with the masses. But because he was so forthright about his strife, and because the song used straightforward language to denounce police brutality, “Alright” hit listeners in a very real way.
Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, first heard the song on her way home from Ferguson, Miss., where BLM and local demonstrators were gathered following the acquittal of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown. “I remember seeing the ways in which these issues were being touched on,” Garza tells me. “The main message underneath it was morality, like, ‘What are we teaching our kids?’ It was a dose of reality for lots of people, and that rarely gets into the mainstream.”
In 2016, as a businessman turned reality TV star named Donald Trump was running for U.S. president, protesters at the University of Illinois at Chicago chanted the hook of “Alright” after his rally was canceled for security reasons. By the end of the decade, music publications considered it one of the very best songs — if not the best song — of the 2010s. And unlike other commercial hits, which can be quantified through sales and streams, “Alright” touched people in ways that can’t be measured.
“You might not have heard it on the radio all day,” Kendrick told Variety, “but you’re seeing it in the streets, you’re seeing it on the news, and you’re seeing it in communities, and people felt it.”
“Alright,” and To Pimp a Butterfly as a whole, wasn’t just of the moment; the song and album were instant classics that lobbed Kendrick into the pantheon of rap’s all-time greats. Critics openly wondered if he was now the greatest rapper the world had ever seen, and whether his body of work was the best catalog ever compiled. That’s lofty praise for someone who hadn’t been in the game that long, who by his own admission hadn’t made his best work yet. He was still working, still keeping his head down in search of the perfect project. But when To Pimp a Butterfly was released — by surprise on March 15, 2015, a week before it was supposed to come out — it rocked the foundation of hip-hop and music overall, from its cover art, and the flurry of unabashed black music that tumbled from the speakers. It sounded far different from good kid, m.A.A.d city — a fact that angered some fans who craved that record’s opulent, wide-open soundscapes and tightly woven story line. To Pimp a Butterfly was more sprawling and more ambitious, a complicated patchwork of themes and ideas. It was angrier, denser, and made for headphone listening.
More than anything, it was the sound of Kendrick battling his demons in front of his biggest audience, which not only alleviated the pressure he faced, but also somehow enabled him to connect it with all sorts of listeners.
“Kendrick had so much respect from everybody,” Robert Glasper tells me. “He spoke to the jazz cats, to the music nerds, to the backpack rappers, the gangsters. That album touched everybody.”
FROM THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT: HOW KENDRICK LAMAR IGNITED THE SOUL OF BLACK AMERICA BY MARCUS J. MOORE, TO BE PUBLISHED OCT. 13, 2020, BY ATRIA BOOKS