Kendrick Lamar's 'Alright' Is The Sound Of Black Life, Both Party And Protest The Kendrick Lamar song turned protest chant against police violence identifies a daily balancing act: There is hope, and there is despair. There's the ideal world, and there's the real one.
NPR logo

Both Party And Protest, 'Alright' Is The Sound Of Black Life's Duality

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/753511135/754266286" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Both Party And Protest, 'Alright' Is The Sound Of Black Life's Duality

Both Party And Protest, 'Alright' Is The Sound Of Black Life's Duality

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/753511135/754266286" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

There's a song that's become an anthem of protest over violence perpetrated by the police against black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

KING: Kendrick Lamar's "Alright." The song pulls off kind of a balancing act. There is hope. There's despair. There's the ideal world, and then there's the real one. For our American Anthem series, here's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the summer of 2015, hundreds of black activists and organizers from all across the country gathered on the campus of Cleveland State University for a three-day conference called the Movement for Black Lives. This was the first opportunity for activists who might have only known each other by their Twitter handles to finally meet face to face. It was heavy stuff.

Sandra Bland, a black woman, was just found dead in a Texas jail cell, arrested after a traffic stop, the latest in a long list of names that have become synonymous with police violence against black people - Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. During a break, someone put on Kendrick Lamar's "Alright."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) And when I wake up, I recognize you're looking at me for the pay cut. But homicide be looking at you from the face down.

LIMBONG: Reverend Waltrina Middleton, a youth minister who helped organize the meeting, says it was cathartic, helped release some of the tension in the air.

WALTRINA MIDDLETON: And when he said, we going to be all right, the whole auditorium just broke loose.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) My knees getting weak, and my gun might blow, but we going to be all right. We going to be all right.

MIDDLETON: It was a celebratory moment of black love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) We going to be all right. Do you hear me? Do you feel me?

LIMBONG: As the conference ended, people gathered outside with their hugs and kisses and goodbyes. At the same time, a bus was crossing the campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Yo, how old are you?

LIMBONG: Inside the bus, a police officer was detaining a black 14-year-old suspected of drinking alcohol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Are you drunk?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stop requested.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Huh? No?

LIMBONG: In surveillance and bodycam tape released by the Cleveland Transit Police, you can see the cop take the kid off the bus, handcuff him. Remember - just a year earlier, in this same city, police shot and killed Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was playing with an airsoft gun outside a rec center. Waltrina Middleton watched this all unfold.

MIDDLETON: I'm standing on the steps, and all of a sudden, it went from a crowd of folks saying goodbye to, oh, something's happening.

LIMBONG: People start gathering around the scene, holding up their phones to record.

MIDDLETON: Our ultimate goal was to make sure that this young child was not criminalize, that this young child left this situation alive and, also, that an adult who was accountable for that child was present.

LIMBONG: The crowd grows, more police show up, bystanders become protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Got a crowd of about a hundred people.

LIMBONG: Some of the people link arms around the police. Then an officer pepper sprays them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling).

LIMBONG: Finally, the 14-year-old's mother arrives. The police let him go. That's when the crowd starts to shout...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right. We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: "Alright" came out in 2015. It's hard to pinpoint the first time it was used at a protest. But here in Cleveland, what was earlier a song for celebration became something else.

MIDDLETON: It was a moment for that song to erupt and for it to form as a rallying cry or affirmation that not only are we going to be all right, but this work continues.

LIMBONG: The balance between party song and protest music, uplift and aggression, self-doubt and confidence, it's all inside "Alright." Kendrick Lamar told GQ in 2016 that when he first got the beat from producer Pharrell Williams, he couldn't quite figure out what he wanted to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR: The beat sounds fun, but there's something else inside of them chords that Pharrell put down.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LIMBONG: Miles Marshall Lewis says these chords can sound like ghosts.

MILES MARSHALL LEWIS: Maybe it's the ancestors who never received the justice they deserve.

LIMBONG: He's the author of the upcoming book "Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power And Poetry Of Kendrick Lamar." For him, it's not the we going to be all right part that reveals the whole song, but the lead into it - when Lamar says, when you know, we've been hurt, been down before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) When our pride was low, looking at the world like, where do we go?

LIMBONG: Here's Lamar from the GQ interview again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR: I wanted to approach it as a more - uplifting but aggressive, you know. Not playing the victim but still having that - we strong.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

LAMAR: You know?

LIMBONG: In the song, Lamar makes explicit that he's talking about the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) And we hate po-po (ph) - want to see us dead in the street, for sure. I'm at the preacher's door. My knees getting weak, and my gun might blow. But we going to be all right.

LIMBONG: Miles Marshall Lewis says this is the duality of the black struggle. In the face of oppression and police violence, Kendrick is kneeling in front of a preacher, and he's got a gun - echoing nonviolence versus more militant options for freedom.

LEWIS: I mean, his gun might blow. I think what he means by that is he might get fed up. He might trade the Martin hat for the Malcolm hat, you know, and have to defend himself.

LIMBONG: Videos of the song as a protest anthem spread online, from D.C....

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: ...To Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: A post-2016 election protest in front of Trump Tower in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: Lamar told NPR in 2015 that "Alright" was inspired by the long history of black oppression and defiance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LAMAR: Four hundred years ago, as slaves, you know, we prayed and sung joyful songs, you know, to keep our heads level-headed. And 400 years later, we still need that music to heal.

LIMBONG: Reverend Waltrina Middleton, the minister from earlier, needed that healing. In June of 2015, a white nationalist shot and killed nine black people inside a church in Charleston, S.C., including DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Waltrina Middleton's cousin. She said, in the aftermath, she wanted to close herself off.

MIDDLETON: It's so easy to just say, you know, my cousin was murdered. I'm done. You know, F all of this. This isn't going to change anything. And walk away.

LIMBONG: A sentiment reflected in "Alright," in the contrast between the song's bright and optimistic chorus against the dark and self-critical verses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) I can see the evil. I can tell it. I know it's illegal. I don't think about it. I deposit every other zero.

LIMBONG: Kendrick Lamar says he can see evil and injustice, but even he can't help but not think about it and just cash his checks, powerless against the greater forces of oppression. It's not an uncommon feeling, says Devin Allen. He's a photographer from Baltimore, and he documented many of the protests, prayers, riots and marches that happened after the death of Freddie Gray.

DEVIN ALLEN: After the death of Freddie Gray, a lot of us were just stuck and lost.

LIMBONG: He says many of his activist friends were distressed, suicidal even. But "Alright" helped them keep going.

ALLEN: For us, we were fighting. Like, that whole year, we was protesting at least, like, once a week. And when you riding in a car to hop out on the frontlines, that's what a lot of us was bumping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN: (Singing) ...You know. We've been hurt, been down before.

LIMBONG: There's a video he posted of his daughter dancing along to "Alright" while he sings. There's family around, party balloons floating in the background. Devin Allen says it's a song he has to believe in.

ALLEN: The moment I don't believe it's going to be all right, what am I fighting for?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN: (Singing) We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: At a protest or march, out in the public, "Alright" is a tool against police brutality, white supremacy, oppression. Behind closed doors, in your car or at home with your kid mugging for the camera, it's an anthem of faith, hope and endurance.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) We going to be all right.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.