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  • Alex Kaplan

“We gon' be alright,” Hip-hop and Protest

In the murky July heat of 2015, a crowd had amassed in response to the police questioning of a 14-year old Black boy for supposed intoxication. Before long, the crowd evolved into protest as police pepper sprayed the crowd. Amidst the ensuing chaos, a member of the crowd helped the boy call his mother, and later was released into her custody, bringing the altercation to a halt. Then, inexplicably, the crowd began to chant lyrics from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”.



“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, and the album it comes from (“To Pimp a Butterfly”), is one of the 2010s defining pieces of political music, easily cementing itself into legendary status from the moment it was released, often heralded as the single greatest musical statement of the 2010s. Lamar climbed atop his throne as not only the current king of hip-hop, but the voice of the generation, willing to explore the dark and treacherous world of oppression without flinching from its less favorable sides. But, when it comes to being a song of protest, “Alright” does not stand alone. Hip-hop has a long history with being the music genre of protest, especially that which concerns police.


All the way back in the early 80s as the concept of Rap music was still being formed, long before the golden era of the 90s, the stadium sound of the 00s, or the most popular music genre of modern times, everything was much more simplistic. Rakim hadn’t brought the idea of flow into the artform; MF DOOM wasn’t spitting tongue twisting bars where ever syllable rhymes with another; Kanye West hadn’t completely redefined the sound of production multiple times over. Despite all that, the topics discussed nowadays were even present then. One such example is the song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1982. Though more rudimentary than a majority of the Rap lineage to come after it, the message of the song itself is unquestionably that of racism and white supremacy in America. While relatively singular in the discussion of the topic at the time, the group planted the seeds that other music acts would cultivate and expand upon in years to come.


In the late 80s and 90s, more and more music acts popped up, using hip-hop as the artform for spreading their political messages. One of the most notable groups to take the stage with this motive was Public Enemy. They produced one of the first hip-hop protest songs to transcend the genre; “Fight the Power '' was the sound unanimous with fighting against injustice and fighting for what you believe in. Its uncluttered sound and clear lyrics only stand to make the meaning that much more understandable. Public Enemy spends the song calling out numerous injustices to Black people, from the underrepresentation of public figures to the paradox of freedom of speech being dangerous for a Black person. It is unflinching in its argument, and unstoppable in its righteous anger. But to say Public Enemy were the only group to express such feelings on a hip-hop beat would be a lie.


Another group to really take a movement and incorporate that into their music was NWA. They left nothing of the movement they were promoting up to interpretation, from the meaning behind their name to their strict anti-police rhetoric. There was little left up to imagination about what they were protesting. Most notably this manifests in the song “Fuck Tha Police,” an unapologetic and unquestionable protest against the unjust tyranny of police brutality as well as racially motivated policing. It’s assertive, but clear, loud, yet sobering, powerful despite the attempts at censoring it, including one of the first instances of the “Parental Advisory” sticker in hip-hop. The song itself was so demanding with its presence that NWA even garnered a letter from the FBI and survived to tell the tale themselves, something that can’t be said for many other provocative African American leaders receiving similar letters. Of course with so much notoriety and power within the lyrics it quickly became one of the most powerful and long standing protest anthems in hip-hop.

(The members of the notorious NWA)


Though nothing quite reached the inescapable grasp that NWA had on the protest scene, there were a number of other artists pushing the label. One such, less discussed artist, is KRS-One, a rapper who’s never been afraid to inject his political beliefs into his music. His biggest claim to fame was actually such a song in “Sound of Da Police,” written in a similar style to NWA’s anthem, but with a darker and grittier tone. While this is the song he has with the most mainstream success, KRS-One has influenced numerous other artists with his lyricism and political messaging.


Another artist with similar political leanings within his music was the late and great Tupac, who gave birth to a new wave of conscious MCs. Though he didn’t have quite the protest song as those previously discussed, his approach of conscious thought in constructing songs did inspire many to come, most notable to the discussion at hand being Kendrick Lamar himself who has mentioned Tupac as one of his favorite rappers on multiple occasions.


Even during the era of radio play and stadium sound in the 00’s, Jay-Z, easily one of the most notable figures in hip-hop at the time, didn't refrain from critiquing police in his music. In the second verse of his hit song “99 Problems,” he paints the picture of a police encounter in which the law acts frivolously and ridiculously, pulling over Jay-Z for going “55 in a 54.” The song paints the picture of how even though he is this widely successful artist, he still can’t escape the problems his skin color poses.


That brings all the way to more modern times. Kendrick Lamar came onto the scene with incredible power, voice, and a connection to the current times and daily challenges seen by people of color. He channeled all of this, the songs and artists before him, and all the hope he could muster into “Alright,” and this effort did not go unnoticed. Not only did it become one of the most decorated songs of the 2010’s going as far as placing 45th in Billboard’s list of the top 500 songs of all time, it immediately took up the mantle of the next big protest anthem, practically synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement.


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