Kendrick's “Alright” is the Protest Song for a New Generation
By Kelly Dearmore
Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” CSN&Y’s “Ohio.” Each share something in common beyond being brilliant, time-tested classics. As some of the greatest protest songs to ever move hearts, souls and minds, these anthems remain emotional touchstones, as relevant now as they were upon their release three, four and five decades ago.
For a protest song to be effective, it must first be an impeccable piece of music - a composition that still shines brightly when removed of its lyrical importance. To convey a powerful message aimed at healing injustice, the words and melody must stick in the listener’s brain upon that crucial first listen. Few will hang around to learn about a struggle or conflict if the music doesn’t grab them from the jump, no matter how vital the message.
From To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick’s “Alright" has proven itself as a vehicle for communicating the pain and promise of the Black experience. The 2015 track has become a go-to protest song for the Black Lives Matter movement, as it continues to grow in significance and influence.
In The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, author Marcus J. Moore relays how in July 2015, just a few months after To Pimp a Butterfly’s release, “Alright” organically became a movement’s manifesto. He reports that, following a protest on the Cleveland State University campus in the wake of the Tamir Rice killing, “a chant started to billow throughout the mass: We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!” Since then, the torch song has only gained steam as a defining track for the decade it was recorded and for the lives it portrays.
One way you know that a protest song is making an impact is when dissenting voices fall over themselves to discredit its lyrics. Wouldn’t you know it: also in July 2015, conservative talking head Geraldo Rivera took issue with the song’s line “And we hate po-po/ Wanna kill us dead in the street, fo sho." The controversial television host claimed such rap lyrics “have done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.”
Of course, Rivera missed the point of how “Alright” takes tragedy and turns it into hope and how its simple, catchy-as-hell chorus gives voice to those who feel voiceless. His mentality is the same controlling tone many of his contemporaries take towards black athletes who kneel during the national anthem - in protest of police brutality.
As 2019 rolled toward a new decade where “Alright” would become even more topical, the tune appropriately sat at or close to the top of countless critics’ and publications’ end-of-decade lists.
Real life is not black and white, and “Alright” embodies that complexity. Few songs have ever captured the beauty of hope and faith as they weaves through grief and uncertainty. The song’s hopeful signature line says it all without being overly idealistic, which is what makes it real and tailored for this moment in history. “If God got us,” Lamar says. “Then we gon' be alright.”
Kelly Dearmore is a music writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Press and Lone Star Music.