“We gon’ be alright. We gon’ be alright. Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.”
When Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar decided to make this the chorus of his 2015 song “Alright,” I wonder if he could have imagined the remarkable impact that it would have beyond the confines of the music industry. In addition to earning Lamar a Grammy last month, “Alright” has emerged as an unofficial anthem for social justice protests around the country over the past year.
Whether in protest of police brutality in Cleveland, or during struggles for inclusion at institutions of higher learning where exclusionary legacies linger, or, as happened recently, at a rally in Chicago in protest of a certain front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, “We gon’ be alright” has assumed a symbolic place in the hearts and minds of young activists across the country.
As a native of Southern California and longtime fan of Kendrick Lamar, I am ecstatic that this song, with its unbridled celebration of blackness, has seamlessly become a source of strength for many who are fighting legacies of oppression and looking to move their communities and this country forward.
And yet, for all the positive energy that “Alright” has provided for black Americans across the country, there are certain voices in the media that criticize Lamar’s song and other hip-hop songs like it for being responsible for various issues in black communities, such as the deep tensions that exist between communities of color and the police.
In particular, commentators seem to have taken an issue with the full refrain, which reads, “Wouldn’t you know, we been hurt, been down before. When our pride was low, looking at the world like, 'Where do we go?' And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho’. I’m at the preacher’s door, my knees gettin' weak, and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright.”
Let’s get one thing clear: Hip-hop is not the cause of tensions between black communities and the police. There is only one cause—the systematic abuse and killing of unarmed black men, women, and children by the police, an issue that has only recently reentered the public consciousness due to the advent of cell phone footage.
When brothers and sisters and sons and daughters don’t come home again and again, their bodies riddled with bullets, their pockets empty, their skin a shade too dark, it is in this moment that distraught communities find strength in the words of a young Compton rapper, one who speaks to that very same experience because he lived it himself.
The person who hears Kendrick’s words and walks away solely with a message that advocates violence against the police is terribly mistaken. This is a song about hope. This is a song crafted to carry a special message to communities of color struggling against police brutality across the country through a celebration of the remarkable legacy of survival that defines the history of African-Americans in America.
With “Alright,” Lamar reminds black Americans that yes, we’ve been hurt and down before and yes, the struggle against structural racism and the problems it has produced continues. But we gon’ be alright, he says, because if African-Americans have survived what they’ve been through before, they will continue to survive in America. In essence, “Alright” functions as a tool of healing for communities that have been affected by the violence, both physical and psychological, that America’s criminal justice system inflicts each and every day.
That a song like “Alright” is functioning as a healing mechanism is not a new phenomenon. Along with the cold, harsh clanking of chains on the feet of black slaves, one could also hear the beautiful sounds of Negro spirituals. Every tone, as Frederick Douglass once wrote so eloquently, was “a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” Invoking the memory of the ancient Israelites’ bondage, the souls of these black folk would sing, “One more river to cross!” And during the struggle for civil rights in the twentieth century, when black Americans found themselves facing the piercing sounds of high-pressure water hoses and vicious dogs, they found a way to drown out those noises with the angelic sounds of gospel and soul music: “A change gonna come!”
Today, as people of color and their allies find themselves engaged in a struggle against systemic racism in every corner of our criminal justice system, behind every harrowing bullet fired from a police holster, comes the healing power of these words, “We gon’ be alright!”
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.