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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.
"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."
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.
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