Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Alright - Kendrick Lamar

The song 'Alright' by Kendrick Lamar was released as part of his Grammy winning, third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, on March 15th 2015. The album itself is critically acclaimed for its powerful political and social message and themes which run throughout the record. It touches on major topics ranging from gang violence, mass incarceration and institutionalised racism. This honest expression of many issues faced by African Americans is incredibly powerful and many have talked about the "Overwhelming Blackness" of the album. Kendrick Lamar uses musical aspects, as well as lyrical, to present the black culture, for example his use of blues and jazz influences. The record was released during a period where there was a major focus on police brutality and the treatment of African Americans, as well as the rapid uprising of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. 

'Alright' is seen as an anthem to black resilience and is used by activists. One example took place at Cleveland State University where people protesting police harassment began to chant "we gon' be alright", the chorus of the song. The rest of the lyrics of the song focus on themes of exploitation ("I recognise you're only looking at me for the pay cut") police brutality ("We hate Po-Po, wanna' kill us dead in the street fo' sho'") and temptations and desperation to make money when coming from a poor background ("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"). This song stands out in particular as it looks at these issues but continues to carry a hopeful message throughout and leads to the idea of one day reach a place where everyone will be "alright", perpetuating the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr.

The official video was released on June 30th 2015 and created a lot of controversy due to the message it conveyed and the imagery it contained. The video opens with shots of Compton, an incredibly poor area of LA that is a primarily African American population, it continues to show a group of black men smashing a car and drinking alcohol in the street, before a young black man is arrested and shot when he tries to run away. The video then cuts to a scene where Kendrick Lamar is in a car which is being carried on the shoulders of four white police officers. The video continues to show Kendrick Lamar floating above the people and streets of Compton, perhaps suggesting that he has 'escaped the hood' through his success. Due to this and the repeated use of money and gang imagery in the video it could be seen suggesting that music, gangs and money, in particular are the only ways in which African Americans can gain success in modern day America. The video ends with a white police officer shooting Kendrick Lamar down from the lamppost he was standing on and smirking after he does it, this could be seen as suggesting that no matter high up he gets, Kendrick Lamar and African Americans are still in danger. After he hits the ground, presumably dead, Kendrick Lamar smiles at the camera, telling the viewer he is still alright.

The song was also used in an advert to promote the Grammy's, where Kendrick Lamar was nominated 11 times. In the promotional video we see black men and women of all ages, speaking the lyrics of the song on the streets of Compton, this also conveys the idea that the purpose of the song is to uplift and inspire a sense of hope in African American communities.

One of the most controversial scenes in the music video shows a group of dancers standing on an abandoned police car. This is an idea that Kendrick Lamar had already presented the day before the release of the music video at the BET Awards, where he performed the song while standing on top of a vandalised police car, while dancers both on the stage and in the crowd invoked imagery of the Los Angeles and Baltimore Riots. This performance was particularly controversial, one example of this is the reaction of presenters on Fox News who stated that Kendrick Lamar and hip hop in general “has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism” and also argued that his performances was intended to incite violence against the police. These views could be seen as oppressing free speech and trying to put the cause of African American struggles as a fault of their culture and perhaps could be seen as evidence of institutionalised racism.

In conclusion the song 'Alright' calls upon many of the issues faced by African Americans, with particular emphasis on racism and the victimisation of black people by the authorities that are supposed to protect them. However the song is a key example of African American culture, with its blues and jazz influences on hip hop and through its themes and lyrical expression. In addition to this also invokes a positive and overall hopeful feeling from its listeners, providing the idea that African Americans and black culture are strong enough to overcome these issues and everything will be alright. 

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