Both Party And Protest, 'Alright' Is The Sound Of Black Life's Duality

Aug 26, 2019
Originally published on August 26, 2019 9:34 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


It was a coincidence that the police were there.

In the summer of 2015, hundreds of black activists and organizers from across the country gathered on the campus of Cleveland State University for a three-day conference called the Movement for Black Lives. This was an opportunity to get together and share best practices and plan future actions, and was the first time many of them were meeting face to face.

It was a heavy moment. News was spreading about Sandra Bland — a black woman who was found dead in a Texas jail cell after being arrested at a traffic stop, and just the latest in a long list of names that had become synonymous with police violence against black people. But there were moments of joy, too. During a break, someone put on the song "Alright" by Kendrick Lamar, and a whole auditorium of people broke loose.

ADVISORY: This video contains profanity.
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"It was a celebratory moment of black love," says Waltrina Midleton. She's a youth reverend, then based in Cleveland, who helped set up the event.

The conference ended on a Sunday afternoon. At the same time people were saying their goodbyes with hugs and kisses, a bus was coming across campus. Inside, a police officer was detaining a black 14-year-old suspected of drinking alcohol. In surveillance and body cam tape released by the Greater Cleveland Authority Regional Transit Police, you can see the cop take the kid off the bus and handcuff him inside a sheltered bus stop.

Middleton could make out that something was going on. "I'm standing on the steps," she says, "and all of a sudden, the crowd went from of folks saying goodbye to, 'Oh, something's happening.' " It had been less than a year since police shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was playing with an Airsoft gun outside a rec center, in the very same city. People started gathering at the scene, holding up their phones to record.

According to the incident report, officers asked the 14-year-old for his mother's name and address, which he gave to them. One of the bystanders also asked for this information. From the report:

"That unknown female was informed by us that we will handle calling a parent or guardian. [REDACTED] blurted out to her his mother's phone number. Ptl. Horton and Ptl. Dorko were blocking the crowd from entering the shelter and the ability for them to have any communication with [REDACTED] (for his safety)."

"Our ultimate goal was to make sure that this young child was not criminalized," Middleton says. "That this child left the situation alive, and also that an adult who was accountable for that child was present."

The crowd grew, more police showed up, and bystanders became protesters. Some of them linked arms around the police cars. An officer pepper sprayed them. The scene continued to intensify until, finally, the teen's mother arrived. The police escorted mom and son to an ambulance, and then let them go.

For a story involving a young black male, escalating tensions, police in riot gear and people getting pepper sprayed, this is a happy ending. Some of the protesters begin to shout a familiar refrain: "We gon' be alright."


Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly was released in the spring of 2015. "Alright" was the fourth single off the record. It's hard to say exactly when the song was first used at a protest, but the story in Cleveland touched on many of the issues of the moment concerning police relations with black people. At similar demonstrations, the chanted hook quickly became a fixture.

In a 2016 interview with super-producer Rick Rubin hosted by GQ, Lamar said he sat on the beat — dreamed up by another super-producer, Pharrell Williams — for six months before figuring out what he wanted to say. "The beat sounds fun," he said. "But it's something else inside the chords that Pharrell put down."

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The dah dah dahs that make up those chords are Williams' own disembodied voice, running constantly through the song. They're haunting, in a way. "Maybe it's the ancestors who never received the justice they deserved," says Miles Marshall Lewis.

The author of the upcoming book Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, Lewis interviewed Lamar after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly and learned the artist was inspired to write "Alright" by a trip to South Africa — specifically the cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Similarly, Lamar told NPR in a 2015 interview that he was thinking about the history of chattel slavery in America.

"Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on," Lamar said. "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."

In the song's prechorus, Lamar lays this feeling out succinctly. He begins in the past:

Wouldn't you know, we been hurt, been down before
When our pride was low
Looking at the world like "Where do we go?"

The emotional payoff of the chorus isn't complete without this lead-in, acknowledging the long history of black oppression. Then he brings us back to the present, where things are different, but not different enough:

And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the streets for sure
I'm at the preacher's door
My knees getting weak, and my gun might blow,
But we gon' be alright

When the narrator shows up at a preacher's door, reeling in the face of police violence and oppression, he's holding a gun. Lewis says the moment reflects the old duality of the civil rights struggle: "He might trade in the Martin hat for the Malcolm hat, and have to defend himself."

But it's up to the listener to decide which way the gun is pointed: at the police, at the preacher, at someone else, or back at the artist himself.


On June 17, 2015, a white nationalist shot and killed nine black people inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S. C. — including Reverend DePayne Middleton Doctor, Waltrina Middleton's cousin. In the aftermath, Middleton said she wanted to leave her work, her ministry, her activism, shut the door to the world and people around her. "It's so easy to say 'my cousin was murdered, I'm done. Eff all this. This isn't going to change anything.' And walk away," she said.

This sentiment is reflected in "Alright," too — particularly the contrast of the bright, optimistic, communal chorus against the dark, self-critical and solitary verses: "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." There's a powerlessness here, as even Lamar, who at this point in his career was positioned as the rapper, succumbs to apathy and greed.

"He's not denying that we're in a protracted state of trauma," Middleton says. "He's saying, 'I know that we may have all of these things around us that will allow us to escape, but the movement is still there, the fight is still there.' And I think it's important to recognize that — because sometimes we don't think about the psychological impact and trauma of fighting for your life every single day."

"After the death of Freddie Gray, a lot of us was just stuck and lost," says Devin Allen. He's a photographer from Baltimore, who documented many of the protests, prayers, riots and marches that took place in 2015 when Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died after injuries he sustained while being transported by police.

When we spoke, Allen talked about the curfew that followed, the occupation, the black people shot by police who, for better or worse, haven't become household names. He said that protesters in Baltimore weren't singing "Alright" in the streets like in other cities. Instead, the song had a more private presence: something you listened to in the car by yourself, at home with your family, at the club with your friends.

Allen's photos these days deal with softer subject matter: Friends, neighbors, random kids living their lives in Baltimore. It's cautiously optimistic work that he says is inspired by Lamar. And he sometimes posts videos of his daughter dancing along to "Alright," or mugging for the camera, rapping along.

"One day we will be all right," he says. "Gotta keep fighting for that. The moment I don't believe it's gonna be all right, what am I fighting for?"

You can read the phrase "We gon' be alright" as indicative of some distant future, where white supremacy and oppression are no longer a major concern — one day, as Allen puts it. But maybe it can also mean something simpler, sooner. Something as small as coming home to your family.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

There's a song that's become an anthem of protest over violence perpetrated by the police against black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

KING: Kendrick Lamar's "Alright." The song pulls off kind of a balancing act. There is hope. There's despair. There's the ideal world, and then there's the real one. For our American Anthem series, here's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the summer of 2015, hundreds of black activists and organizers from all across the country gathered on the campus of Cleveland State University for a three-day conference called the Movement for Black Lives. This was the first opportunity for activists who might have only known each other by their Twitter handles to finally meet face to face. It was heavy stuff.

Sandra Bland, a black woman, was just found dead in a Texas jail cell, arrested after a traffic stop, the latest in a long list of names that have become synonymous with police violence against black people - Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. During a break, someone put on Kendrick Lamar's "Alright."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) And when I wake up, I recognize you're looking at me for the pay cut. But homicide be looking at you from the face down.

LIMBONG: Reverend Waltrina Middleton, a youth minister who helped organize the meeting, says it was cathartic, helped release some of the tension in the air.

WALTRINA MIDDLETON: And when he said, we going to be all right, the whole auditorium just broke loose.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) My knees getting weak, and my gun might blow, but we going to be all right. We going to be all right.

MIDDLETON: It was a celebratory moment of black love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) We going to be all right. Do you hear me? Do you feel me?

LIMBONG: As the conference ended, people gathered outside with their hugs and kisses and goodbyes. At the same time, a bus was crossing the campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Yo, how old are you?

LIMBONG: Inside the bus, a police officer was detaining a black 14-year-old suspected of drinking alcohol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Are you drunk?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stop requested.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Huh? No?

LIMBONG: In surveillance and bodycam tape released by the Cleveland Transit Police, you can see the cop take the kid off the bus, handcuff him. Remember - just a year earlier, in this same city, police shot and killed Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was playing with an airsoft gun outside a rec center. Waltrina Middleton watched this all unfold.

MIDDLETON: I'm standing on the steps, and all of a sudden, it went from a crowd of folks saying goodbye to, oh, something's happening.

LIMBONG: People start gathering around the scene, holding up their phones to record.

MIDDLETON: Our ultimate goal was to make sure that this young child was not criminalize, that this young child left this situation alive and, also, that an adult who was accountable for that child was present.

LIMBONG: The crowd grows, more police show up, bystanders become protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Got a crowd of about a hundred people.

LIMBONG: Some of the people link arms around the police. Then an officer pepper sprays them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling).

LIMBONG: Finally, the 14-year-old's mother arrives. The police let him go. That's when the crowd starts to shout...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right. We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: "Alright" came out in 2015. It's hard to pinpoint the first time it was used at a protest. But here in Cleveland, what was earlier a song for celebration became something else.

MIDDLETON: It was a moment for that song to erupt and for it to form as a rallying cry or affirmation that not only are we going to be all right, but this work continues.

LIMBONG: The balance between party song and protest music, uplift and aggression, self-doubt and confidence, it's all inside "Alright." Kendrick Lamar told GQ in 2016 that when he first got the beat from producer Pharrell Williams, he couldn't quite figure out what he wanted to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR: The beat sounds fun, but there's something else inside of them chords that Pharrell put down.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LIMBONG: Miles Marshall Lewis says these chords can sound like ghosts.

MILES MARSHALL LEWIS: Maybe it's the ancestors who never received the justice they deserve.

LIMBONG: He's the author of the upcoming book "Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power And Poetry Of Kendrick Lamar." For him, it's not the we going to be all right part that reveals the whole song, but the lead into it - when Lamar says, when you know, we've been hurt, been down before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) When our pride was low, looking at the world like, where do we go?

LIMBONG: Here's Lamar from the GQ interview again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR: I wanted to approach it as a more - uplifting but aggressive, you know. Not playing the victim but still having that - we strong.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

LAMAR: You know?

LIMBONG: In the song, Lamar makes explicit that he's talking about the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) And we hate po-po (ph) - want to see us dead in the street, for sure. I'm at the preacher's door. My knees getting weak, and my gun might blow. But we going to be all right.

LIMBONG: Miles Marshall Lewis says this is the duality of the black struggle. In the face of oppression and police violence, Kendrick is kneeling in front of a preacher, and he's got a gun - echoing nonviolence versus more militant options for freedom.

LEWIS: I mean, his gun might blow. I think what he means by that is he might get fed up. He might trade the Martin hat for the Malcolm hat, you know, and have to defend himself.

LIMBONG: Videos of the song as a protest anthem spread online, from D.C....

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: ...To Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: A post-2016 election protest in front of Trump Tower in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We going to be all right. We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: Lamar told NPR in 2015 that "Alright" was inspired by the long history of black oppression and defiance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LAMAR: Four hundred years ago, as slaves, you know, we prayed and sung joyful songs, you know, to keep our heads level-headed. And 400 years later, we still need that music to heal.

LIMBONG: Reverend Waltrina Middleton, the minister from earlier, needed that healing. In June of 2015, a white nationalist shot and killed nine black people inside a church in Charleston, S.C., including DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Waltrina Middleton's cousin. She said, in the aftermath, she wanted to close herself off.

MIDDLETON: It's so easy to just say, you know, my cousin was murdered. I'm done. You know, F all of this. This isn't going to change anything. And walk away.

LIMBONG: A sentiment reflected in "Alright," in the contrast between the song's bright and optimistic chorus against the dark and self-critical verses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) 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.

LIMBONG: Kendrick Lamar says he can see evil and injustice, but even he can't help but not think about it and just cash his checks, powerless against the greater forces of oppression. It's not an uncommon feeling, says Devin Allen. He's a photographer from Baltimore, and he documented many of the protests, prayers, riots and marches that happened after the death of Freddie Gray.

DEVIN ALLEN: After the death of Freddie Gray, a lot of us were just stuck and lost.

LIMBONG: He says many of his activist friends were distressed, suicidal even. But "Alright" helped them keep going.

ALLEN: For us, we were fighting. Like, that whole year, we was protesting at least, like, once a week. And when you riding in a car to hop out on the frontlines, that's what a lot of us was bumping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN: (Singing) ...You know. We've been hurt, been down before.

LIMBONG: There's a video he posted of his daughter dancing along to "Alright" while he sings. There's family around, party balloons floating in the background. Devin Allen says it's a song he has to believe in.

ALLEN: The moment I don't believe it's going to be all right, what am I fighting for?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN: (Singing) We going to be all right.

LIMBONG: At a protest or march, out in the public, "Alright" is a tool against police brutality, white supremacy, oppression. Behind closed doors, in your car or at home with your kid mugging for the camera, it's an anthem of faith, hope and endurance.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")

LAMAR: (Singing) We going to be all right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.