At a time when Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’ has still got the world agog and tongues wagging, it may be a good juncture to proffer some reflection on similarly themed works that have been afforded the benefit of hindsight. Of ‘This is America’, Glover has himself stated that he does not believe that it is his place to offer an interpretation of the text nor video. Ethnographers of popular culture, thus, have a responsibility to be studious as regards the social dynamics around the piece; towards a well-informed theorization of the current phenomenon. In the meantime, a recent work of popular music that struck similar chords with Glover’s ‘This is America’ has been accorded substantial time and the advantage of retrospection after the fact. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 critically acclaimed ‘Alright’ demonstrates that an artist’s (latest) work may assume a reflection of the expectations, responsibilities, challenges, and failures of a system or occurrence as may pertain to her/his identity/race. Such consciousness may in fact be a catalyst for creativity as is evidenced from the explorations of a popular music representation of a persecuted people who appear to have developed deep distrust in an increasingly divided nation where races are wary of one another.
There is no gainsaying that ‘Alright’ is a racially inspired piece of music which offers more of succor than protest:
I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in a hotel room
Lucifer was all around me
So I kept running
Until I found my safe haven
I was trying to convince myself of the stripes I got
Making myself realize what my foundation was
But while my loved ones [were] fighting a continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on Apartheid and discrimination
With the foregoing words, Kendrick Lamar opens the video to his strongly worded yet comforting song ‘Alright’. Such a paradox as is described in the preceding sentence is so because the song is strongly worded or comforting depending on whom the audience is. To the African American population, for whom ‘Black Lives Matter’, here’s a piece of comforting hip hop particularly as encoded in the song’s chorus which Lamar introduces through the celestial invocation of the words ‘But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright’. On the other hand, to the average white policeman for whom the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ somehow implies that ‘Non-Black Lives Don’t Matter’, thus, resulting in a fearful carriage of duty; the introductory lines above together make a strongly worded message that minces no words in calling out his actions as evil.
In the hook, Lamar is clear about African Americans’ disapproval of trigger happy policemen when he sings “And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga”. There is in fact a striking scene in the video where Lamar sits in the driver’s spot of a car occupied by three other African Americans. But the car is not being driven; instead it is lifted by four white policemen in a manner similar to men carrying a corpse in a coffin.
In closing, Lamar repeats the first five lines of his intro and adds alternate lines thus:
I didn’t wanna self-destruct; the evils of Lucy [were] all around me
So I went running for answers
The closing two lines see Lamar subtly nudging white policemen consumed by hatred for blacks to seek celestial intervention by way of deliverance.
Meanwhile, the election of Barack Obama – an African American – to the presidency of the United States of America in 2008 was thought to be an indelible statement on the inimitable place of America in the process and progress of human civilization. The needless African American deaths and the establishment and maturation of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement during the Obama presidency goes to show the extents of paradox as well as the limitations of multiracial unity. Whereas whiteness has been described as an invention, so also is blackness. This perspective offers an outlook into the invention of identity and of identities. Such insight is somewhat necessary for both the racial accusers and the racially accused as far as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement goes. Perhaps folks ought to take politics more seriously and biology a bit less seriously even though it would take more than that considering the blur that exists in the distinction of both. Lamar’s ‘Alright’ represents a vital documentation of an era where black America was said to be free, yet, the reality of black lives required a movement admonishing all to realize that black lives matter!