Music as Activism: An Examination of Two Songs



By Jalen Garcia-Hall

In mid-2015, months after releasing the extraordinary To Pimp a Butterfly, rapper Kendrick Lamar debuted his now hit single “Alright” live at the 2015 BET awards, rapping, “We gon’ be alright!” and “We hate popo/ wanna kill us dead in the street for sure,” atop a tagged cop car and ending the performance in front of a battered American flag. Soon after, this song was sensationalized by two different parties. First, Fox news contributor Geraldo Rivera responded to the performance by calling it, “Not respectful at all,” and claiming, “this is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” Following that, protestors subscribing to the Black Lives Matter movement turned the song into a kind of anthem, shouting “We gon’ be alright!” repeatedly at CPD at Cleveland State University after police pepper-sprayed the crowd during a demonstration.

Back in February, Beyoncé debuted her own black anthem, “Formation,” during the Super Bowl half-time show, in which she sings, “You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama/ I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/ I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” This song too, caused a stir, in part because her dancers at the Super Bowl were dressed in attire resembling the widely misunderstood Black Panther Party. Former NY mayor Giuliani claimed that Beyoncé had used her “platform” at the Super Bowl to, “Attack police officers,” while saying that, “what we should be doing in the African American community…is build up respect for police officers.” Never mind the fact that the song does not address police brutality directly, but simply asserts Beyoncé’s blackness. Never mind the fact that the performance came at the beginning of Black History Month or that police brutality, as exemplified above, is still an issue in the United States.

This idea that the assertion of black power, even in the face of adversity, is somehow damaging peace in America is ridiculous. Peace in America has never really existed, especially not between black Americans and the police force. Even with so many names in our hearts and minds of people slaughtered illegally within the past few years, we should not forget that police brutality and racism existed long before black artists decided to speak out against it. After all, NWA’s “Fuck the Police” did not arise in a vacuum, and “Alright” is not the first time that Kendrick Lamar has discussed police brutality. Songs like “Good Kid” or “County Building Blues” in which he describes his life during the Rodney King Riots in Compton, his father telling him, “Don’t tell your mom that you seen a Molotov bomb,” are just two of the many examples in which he speaks about race and policing. Even while Beyoncé seems new to this trend, it is important to note her famed “Feminist” performance at the VMAs.

What this speaks to is a wider belief that popular art should not deal with the political. An artist’s job, after all, is to entertain. Few will say that they listen to music because they like to be preached to, or to deal with complex issues that lack a clear answer. The problem with this is that it inherently limits the artist’s work, demanding that celebrities (who are also people) remain silent about the issues that they find important. No one complains that people share their opinions on social media platforms, and yet when an artist does the same—especially when discussing a hot-button issue—they are often called out for it.

Still worse is the belief that black artists must remain silent about their views, especially when they directly affect their lives or communities. And I find the insinuation that expressing pride in one’s culture amounts to being anti-police mindboggling. In fact, not only does “Formation” lack any stance on police brutality, but the Black Panthers themselves, whose costume caused such a stir at the Super Bowl, were not anti-police themselves. In fact, the Black Panther Party was a complex grouping of many people that stood against racism and police-brutality; I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to sit down and listen to any speech by the late Fred Hampton or other notable Panthers.

In this writer’s opinion, whether or not one is accustomed to Beyoncé speaking out against police brutality or Kendrick Lamar’s shockingly candid music, one must consider the fact that these are people with views and feelings of their own, and whether or not one wants to remain uninformed when it comes to issues of racism and policing, those that choose to speak out about it have the right to do so, and to think that by being against brutality they are somehow condoning violence against police is just being willfully ignorant.

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