Black protest music is one of the oldest genres we can conceive of. Building on African rhythms that have been impacted and empowered by life in Africa as well as the trauma of slavery, colonialism, and all of their consequences, Black protest music has been an avenue for Black folks to represent themselves and push back against the oppressive forces that have tried to eradicate them for hundreds of years.
With that said, it’s hard to overstate Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” as a crucial song in the Black protest canon. He knew he was always going to be a legendary figure; a visit from Tupac in one of Kendrick’s dreams destined him to be the torch-carrier for LA, both socially and musically. Kendrick says Tupac told him to “not let my music die,” a statement that “scared the shit” out of Kendrick. As one of the biggest names in Black protest music in the 90s, it’s significant that Tupac came to Kendrick to tell him to keep the legacy going.
This kind of vision also refers to Kendrick’s spirituality, a constant theme in his music, and the Black protest music canon. Acknowledging and empowering his own spirituality carries weight for his listeners, and that aspect of himself is in full effect on “Alright.”
At its core, “Alright” is a spiritual song, much like most Black protest music. And while the performative atheism of young people only continues to grow, songs like “Alright” prove that we’re still motivated by spiritual messages, as the song’s chorus, “we gon’ be alright” feels like a testimonial for endurance and strength. Right before the song’s chorus, Kendrick raps “But if god got us, then we gon’ be alright.”
In the first verse and pre-chorus, Kendrick addresses his vices, the ills of capitalism, misogyny, and state sponsored violence. It’s a violent mix of the United States’s biggest issues, and contains a key aspect of processing trauma; acknowledging it. The chorus follows, repeating the fact that “we gon be alright,” a reminder that things can work out in light of the world’s many evils. It poses the song as a healing factor for all those that have violence done against them at the hands of the state.
It could be a protest against ill-meaning Christians and other religious folks that do violence in the name of hate, to use his spirituality in such a humanistic and loving manner. Or it could be against anti-religious folks that claim religion is only really used to create arbitrary distinctions between humans, in the goal of further division.
Another crucial aspect to the massive popularity of this song at protests is its catchy, easily repeatable nature. It’s not like every single person at the protest knows the song, but after a refrain or two, it’s pretty easy to get on board. It’s a combination of the song’s spiritual message and lyrical simplicity that cause it to be embraced by thousands of protestors across countries and languages.
Further, the songs collaborators are some of the biggest in hip-hop and contemporary Black music in general, with Pharrell Williams, Thundercat, Terrace Martin and Sounwave, amongst others, lending helpful hands in the production of the song. Longtime collaborator Martin’s presence on the alto saxophone gives a necessary depth to the song, a nod to the Black creators of the early 20th century that had to express themselves through their instruments before they could really embrace their voice. The saxophone has been written about abundantly as a crucial piece of Black protest, and it’s fitting to include it on this track.
A confusing aspect of the song that can be viewed as protest is the introduction of the track’s music video:
The first bars of the song feature a funky beat, seeing Kendrick bounce along it with glee, as he’s carried by police officers down the street. Bumping with his Black Hippy friends ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul in the car, it presents an image that their music and ensuing stardom and celebrity place the four of them above the law. Clearly seeing the inequities of the carceral system, Kendrick recognizes that his fame completely changes the way he’s seen, and it can almost transcend his race. Almost.
Through innovative musical stylings, cutting lyrics, simple chorus, and spiritual message, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is a central track to Black protest music, a song that’ll live on as long as Black folks are protesting for better treatment.