As NPR writer Noah Adams put so eloquently in the introduction of “The Inspiring Force Of ‘We Shall Overcome,” the defining theme song for the civil rights generation wasn’t a marching song nor defiant piece of work. It was a simple composition representing hope and subversive uncertainty. Though the song is used globally as something more in line with inspiration, “We Shall Overcome”s origins are fairly interesting. Like most contemporary American music, slavery is the root. According to reports, the field song’s original lyrics are “I’ll be all right someday.” Fast forward to last weekend’s Million Man March, videos emerged across various outlets of various protesters and activist screaming with every ounce of passion “We gon’ be alright.” That’s right, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly single “Alright” featuring Pharrell is becoming more than the music itself. Speaking with DX Senior New Writer Victoria Hernandez, Chicago rapper Ric Wilson spoke about attending The Movement For Black Lives National Convening in Cleveland with The Black Youth Project 100. Describing graphic images of men, women and children being pepper sprayed by local police after confronting authorities for trying to arrest a 14-year-old boy, he also made one fairly interesting comment about “Alright” being chanted there as well: “Everyone just started chanting the chorus, so it wasn’t just the song,” he said. “‘We Shall Overcome’ in the 60s, folks were in the streets literally saying, “We gonna be alright, do ya hear me’ and chanting his actual lyrics. I think that was a very powerful moment because it’s like, ‘Damn, we just took these Rap lyrics, turned it into a protest chant.”
The progress of blacks in a “post-Obama” America will probably be debated for years to come. However, there’s no debate that everything from the conversation regarding police brutality and voter registration laws to Black Lives Matter has stirred up a new civil rights movement not seen since around the time Martin Luther King and thousands of others participated on the historic March On Washington over 50 years ago. If “We Shall Overcome” became a healing chant eventually leading to The Voter Rights Act of 1965, Brown Vs. The Board Of Education and other progressive legislation loosening discriminatory chains of Jim Crow oppression, “Alright” is looking to have that same effects for the social media generation. On various levels, it’s easy to understand why anyone would feel that way about track seven of To Pimp A Butterfly. Lamar’s lyrical prowess within the song’s actual verses are fairly complex in both delivery and wordplay. Looking deeper within the narrative structure of Lamar’s sophomore follow-up to Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, the track comes after “u” which has Compton’s own literally breaking down mentally at the seams. “Alright” is about looking past those problems through his spiritual beliefs. Like any great hook of the modern age “We gon’ be alright” is fairly simple. Anyone of any age or ethnicity can sing along. While black America may find themselves somewhat divided on how to exactly solve different problems faced, knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel is all that matters. The themes of both “We Shall Overcome” and “Alright” are purely about hope despite how hopeless times may feel. Most importantly, both are musically upbeat.
— The Hilltop (@TheHilltopHU) October 10, 2015
No doubt, there are many who hate the trap explosion that’s Hip Hop recently for many reasons. America’s history with Southern music has that effect. Some feel the lyrical content promotes degeneracy, most artists just mumble their way through a song with autotune and the beats are lacking completely. Fair complaint. Then again, as Andre Grant said in an editorial recently, one doesn’t have to pick and choose a limb on Hip Hop’s fairly large tree and Lamar totally understands that. Trap is simply another expression of black pain, fun, defiance, happiness, hurt and in Fetty Wap’s view, even romance. Interviewing Pete Rock several months ago, he called “Alright” trap. The Pharrell and Soundwave production features the sonic structure of the controversial genre with standard use of high-hats and bass. But, it’s the different touches that elevate To Pimp A Butterfly’s most radio friendly single like Terrace Martin’s saxophone and subtle melodic touches. “Alright” is very much an edgy track for today’s Hip Hop centered ears. No different than “We Shall Overcome”s evolution through slavery, political protest and later gospel and blues that helped the civil rights movement.
Tuesday night, I attended the Young Thug show at Club Microsoft in Downtown LA. Besides having an extremely diverse crowd, music played ran the gamut between Future’s “Commas” and A Tribe Called Quest “Electric Relaxation.” The crowd was fairly dead that night. Thugger’s performance didn’t help either. It was sort of dead. Then a moment came sometime between the headliner’s performance where the DJ put on “Alright” and the crowd went wild. K. Dot managed to create not only a radio friendly single but a movement builder that’s relatively versatile. Since To Pimp A Butterfly’s dropped, there have obviously been bigger singles released this year. What other track has managed to get steady play in the club, house party, radio and protest? The hell with Geraldo Rivera. “Alright” may not be the biggest single put out this decade but, it’s surely the most important. This is what Hip Hop’s about.