As a fan of rapper Kendrick Lamar, I love that a portion of his hit song “Alright” has become an informal anthem of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (BLM). While institutionalized racism and violence continue to treat black life as a dispensable commodity, “Alright” has come to function as a revolutionary call to communal affirmation. The use of “Alright” in contemporary protests is a clear reminder of the cultural and socio-political importance of art. Like much great art (especially in musical form), “Alright” reflects the zeitgeist—the spirit of a particular moment or time—in which it was created. However, as I have continually examined both Lamar’s music and the work of BLM, it is clear to me that “Alright” ought to be heard not only as a call to revolutionary communal affirmation, but also as wisdom regarding the importance and potential power of black self-care and self-love.
“Alright” is an energy-packed track from Lamar’s sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB). A deeply personal album, Lamar uses TPAB to reflect on the challenges of remaining true to and loving himself in a world and music industry that seems determined to objectify him. In the context of the TPAB, “Alright” follows a track titled “u” where Lamar painfully reflects on dark moments when he’s struggled to love and forgive himself in light of personal and communal failings. “u” feels like Kendrick looking in a mirror and hating what he sees; the lyrics are him talking to himself. In a tortured tone Lamar says:
I fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure—you ain’t no leader!/I never liked you, forever despise you—I don’t need you!/the world don’t need you, don’t let them deceive you/numbers lie too, fuck your pride too, that’s for dedication/thought money would change you, made you more complacent/I fuckin’ hate you, I hope you embrace it….
The dark introspection of “u” vividly displays what Cornel West has referred to as the nihilistic threat facing black America. In his book Race Matters, West wrote, “the major enemy of black survival in America has been and is neither oppression nor exploitation but rather the nihilistic threat—that is, loss of hope and absence of meaning.” 1 The self-degradation in the lyrics of “u” reveals Lamar as an individual who—despite outward success—is tempted by nihilistic self-perception.
The movement from “u” to “Alright” is marked by Lamar’s personal shift from self-loathing and suicidal thoughts to pained but defiant, self-affirmation.2 Retaining the dark difficulty of “u,” “Alright” does not simply bask in triumphalism. Instead, in language resembling words spoken by Sofia in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Lamar begins “Alright” declaring, “Alls my life I has to fight, nigga.” Additionally, before the chorus of “Alright” reaches its now famous apex, Lamar reflects on the challenges he’s faced to this point: “When you know, we been hurt been down before, nigga/when our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like “Where do we go?”, nigga/And we hate po-po [the police], wanna kill us dead in the streets fo sho, nigga/I’m at the preacher’s door, my knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright.” Thus, similar to West’s conception of nihilism, Lamar shows that being “alright” is not finally dependent on the elimination of social injustice and racism. Instead, the declaration “we gon’ be alright” is made in the face of social and existential hardship, and this accounts for its revolutionary appeal. Spoken in the face of this hardship, “we gon’ be alright” is a radical declaration of intent that keeps suffering and violence from being the definitive characteristics of black life.
It is important to note that in the context of TPAB, Lamar’s “we” can be heard in two ways. On the one had, “we” can be heard as Lamar continuing the conversation with himself that began on “u.” On the other hand, “we” can also be heard as it has functioned in BLM, as a collective declaration. Either way, in the context of TPAB, the “we” in “Alright” symbolizes the self-regard that makes radical self-care and self-love possible. There is wisdom to be gleaned from the fact that the deeply personal struggle depicted on “u” and “Alright” has become a collective chant of defiance and resistance. Lamar’s TPAB is a powerful reminder that black self-care can contribute to—and is inseparable from—social and political struggles for justice.
The determined resistance for which “Alright” has become an anthem is vital to the cause of justice, but Lamar’s album also reminds us of the revolutionary nature of black self-care. The tragic suicide of MarShawn McCarrell, a committed BLM activist in Columbus, Ohio, is another reminder that no amount of movement activity can replace the need for black people to care for ourselves. In a society predicated on violently assaulting black humanity and self-regard, black self-care is a revolutionary endeavor.
Like much good art, Kendrick Lamar’s TPAB is therapeutic, but it cannot replace the need for healthy community, counseling, and therapy. Heard with a concern for the wholeness and health of the black community, TPAB reminds us that, in the end, #BlackLivesMatter—like so many other moments in what Vincent Harding called “the river” of black struggle—is about social change because sadistic social ethics (e.g., police brutality and state-sponsored racism) produce the sites and practices that perpetuate unhealthy black self-regard. 3 It’s true: “we gon’ be alright;” but only as we foreground and conclude social and political resistance with the radical practices of black self-care and self-love.