You could hear their chants from the White House.
On June 6, hundreds of activists and protesters gathered on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a two-block section on 16th Street in Washington D.C. that was renamed amid BLM protests.
The large yellow words painted on the ground—“Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police”—were mostly covered by the feet of protesters, but the echoes of the crowd’s chants carried for blocks. It was the ninth day of protests against police brutality and racism, following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people in this country. And although there were instances of intense conflict with officers, there were also uplifting moments of solidarity.
Sometime around 1:30pm EST, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning single “Alright” played on the speakers, sparking a group sing-along.
“The energy was incredible,” recalls Joshua Potash, an educator who witnessed the D.C. event. “When the song came on, there was some dancing and singing along and generally just a happy atmosphere.”
On the same day, thousands of miles away on the west coast, the record blasted from a portable sound system, strapped to the back of a truck. Protesters jumped, danced, and marched to “Alright” on Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado. Tay Anderson, Denver Public Schools director and one of the organizers of the march, says “Alright” was included in a playlist of songs meant to unify the people.
“Music uplifts our community, and so we were playing different songs that have been our ‘struggle anthems’ to equality so that black people can say their lives matter,” he explains. “And so Kendrick’s song is something that is a rallying cry.”
Since its release in 2015 on To Pimp a Butterfly, “Alright” has been widely accepted as one of this generation’s most important protest anthems. It’s a symbol of hope. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the song was first used in a protest setting, but many trace it back to July 2015, as news of Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody spread, and protests ensued. It was later played during the Million Man March for racial equality, a Movement for Black Lives conference at Cleveland State University, Trump protest rallies, and countless Black Lives Matter events across the country.
For decades, artists have used their music to speak out against injustice. In 1964, Sam Cooke released “A Change Is Gonna Come” in response to the Civil Rights Movement. The following decade, Marvin Gaye released “What’s Goin On,” an introspective record that explores poverty and the Vietnam War. In 1988, N.W.A. dropped “Fuck Tha Police,” a controversial song combatting police brutality and racial profiling. But “Alright” wasn’t set out to be a protest song in the same way these songs were.
When the record first dropped, acclaimed producer Sounwave admitted that he didn’t expect “Alright” to turn into a protest song. But Chicago rapper Rick Wilson argued that its transition to becoming an important political song came naturally. In 2015, Wilson attended The Movement for Black Lives National Convening in Cleveland, where he recalled attendees using the song after a violent confrontation between police officers and a group of civilians.
“It says that even though things are tough, and they might even get worse before they get better, we have faith that things will be okay, and that together the movement will ultimately win.” - Joshua Potash
“Everyone just started chanting the chorus,” Wilson told HipHopDX at the time. He compared the song’s impact to the Civil Rights protest song, “We Shall Overcome.” Wilson explained, “Like ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the 60s, folks were in the streets literally saying, ‘We gonna be alright, do ya hear me’ and chanting his actual lyrics.” He added, “I think that was a very powerful moment because it’s like, ‘Damn, we just took these rap lyrics and turned it into a protest chant.’ We’re all one big family. I think Kendrick, when that song plays, he’s talking about all of us.”
While there are similarities to previous protest anthems—the jazz instrumentals and clear social commentary—the tone of “Alright” is noticeably more uplifting, which Kendrick has explained was intentional. “It was a lot goin on, and still to this day, there’s a lot going on,” he explained in a 2016 interview with producer Rick Rubin. “I wanted to approach it as more uplifting but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that, ‘yeah, we strong.’”
The chords that Pharrell laid down as the foundation for the track and Sounwave’s production is what gets people dancing at marches and rallies, but Kendrick’s lyrics ultimately made it the powerful protest song that it is.
“Alright” was inspired by Kendrick’s trip to South Africa where he visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, and he has said that he was thinking of America’s history of slavery and systemic oppression when he wrote the lyrics. The song’s pre-chorus has the most impactful message:
Wouldn’t you know
We been hurt, been down before
Nigga, when our pride was low
Lookin’ at the world like, "Where do we go?"
Nigga, and we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’
Nigga, I'm at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright
On the pre-chorus, Kendrick starts by addressing the ugly history of pain and struggle within the Black community. He then moves into the present by touching on the current instances of police killing Black people in the streets. But despite everything, he ends by assuring listeners that “we gon’ be alright.”
“Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on,” Lamar told NPR. “Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records that makes you feel good no matter what the times are.”
Potash suggests the pre-chorus is spreading a message of hope. “It says that even though things are tough, and they might even get worse before they get better, we have faith that things will be okay, and that together the movement will ultimately win.”
As a new wave of protests break out across the country in 2020, there are a different set of songs that are soundtracking the movement, and not all of them are overtly political. Pop Smoke’s “Dior” and “Shake the Room” don’t have lyrics that explicitly reference police brutality or racism, but they do have a raw energy that is connecting with people who are fed up with what’s continuing to happen in this country. Seven years after the Black Lives Matter movement began, people are justifiably angry that Black people like George Floyd are still being murdered at the hands of police, and they’re looking for music that reflects this frustration.
Still, “Alright” continues to play an important role at protests. On June 2, it was reported that the song’s Spotify streams had spiked by 787 percent. Amid the devastating news cycle, people are still looking for moments of hope. Although protesters are angry and hurt, Anderson suggests that the track is a reminder to keep looking forward.
“It brings our people together,” he says. “Not everything is about mourning. It’s about celebrating where we’re going together.”