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When people in society are exposed to an unacceptable status quo, they use agitation to demand social justice. Since slavery, black Americans have faced social and political inequality, racial segregation, poverty, and a variety of other restrictions. To address the difficulties, influential African Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr., used nonviolent resistance to achieve social justice (Williams, Yohuru, 14). Music has been a key component in inviting and sustaining such programs in favor of such courses (Williams, Yohuru, 98). In recent years, Black Americans have gone through police brutality and racial discrimination, sparking protests such as “Black Lives Matter”. Through music, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Leon Bridges have expressed that even as the black community face social injustices, there is still hope for better future.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Leon Bridges’ “River”, have all touched on the issues of police brutality, black struggles and the fears associated with the black identity. Through these songs, the artists have managed to express their thoughts on the struggles that the black American community is going through. With protests such as “Black Lives Matter” going on, these artists have supported their course and served to remind them that there is hope through the adversities. In addition, these songs encourage the blacks to maintain their identity since they have gone through such struggles before, and through hope, they conquered.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”
“Alright” is one of Lamar’s hit songs in the album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. It is an energy packed song that, through visual and audio, reflects on the challenges of maintaining the black identity through the daily struggles (Lamar). In the track, Lamar uses a second person view to talk reflect on dark moments and the personal and communal failures he has encountered.
In the introduction of the song, Lamar says, “All my life I have to fight, nigga (Lamar).” He describes the struggle that the black community go through in their daily lives. They fight for fair treatment, justice, equality, and other rights. Waking up each day, and fight through life, before retiring to bed and continuing the struggle the next day.
At one instant of the song, Lamar says “I fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure/ I never liked you, forever despise you – I don’t need you, don’t let them deceive you (Lamar).” This is a reflection of how the society whispers to the ears of the black community. Telling them that they are failures and that no one ever liked them. This is a true feeling that the black community encounters every day. They feel unwanted and therefore strive to abandon their identity.
Before the chorus, Lamar proclaims, “When you know, we been hurt before, nigga/when our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like “where do we go? (Lamar)”, nigga/ And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the streets fo sho, nigga. (Lamar)” In these lyrics, he expresses that the blacks have been going through the same injustices for years; to a point that they ask “where [would] they go (Lamar).” Though living in America, they have grown to hate the police for who have been killing innocent blacks. Recruited to protect them, the police have for years acted on the opposite; and reacted to black people’s problems with aggression to the point of killing them.
Throughout the problems, he reminds the community that “we gon’ be alright (Lamar).” Through the injustice, the discrimination that they undergo, Lamar reminds them that there is hope, they should not give up. In the context, “we gon’ be alright” accounts for the revolutionary appeal (Lamar). It is a radical declaration to the black community that the suffering and the violence they experience every day should not define them; rather motivate them to preserve their black identity.
Beyoncé’s “Formation” was debuted a day before the Super Bowl, where she was scheduled to perform. She uses a visually-striking, high-level, allegory to express the police brutality, the financial disadvantage, and the racism that black people are exposed to in their everyday lives (Beyoncé). Through powerful lyrics and video, she rallied behind social equality and provides hope for the blacks even with the threat to their black identity.
The opening of the video features Beyoncé squatting on top of a sinking police vehicle; in a seemingly flooded New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina. At the background, a voice says, “What happens to New Orleans? (Beyoncé)” This was a reference to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina that caused hundreds of deaths of black lives and loss of their property in New Orleans. The loss of lives and property was due to the failure of the US domestic policy, and the reluctant department to respond to the situation in order to save lives.
In another scene, a young boy, dressed in black attire and hoodie, dances to the tunes of the track. Suddenly, the scene changes to show that he is dancing in front of the row of policemen dressed up in riot gear. Suddenly, the boy stops dancing and raises up his hands, and the police respond by doing the same. Leading to the scene with words written “stop shooting us” on a wall (Beyoncé). Beyoncé expresses how the police are ready to engage to violent means even on trivial matters in the black fraternity. As the blacks “dance” through their lives, the police are ready to retaliate and kill black children, women, and men in controversial circumstances.
Among other agendas, Beyoncé rallies show the black community to own their black identity. She says, “My daddy Alabama/ Momma Louisiana/ You mix that Negro with Creole, make a Texas Bama/ I like my baby hair with baby hairs and afros/ I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils (Beyoncé).” By being proud to be born black, she reminds the black family that they should never be apologetic by being black nor being afraid to show the world who they are. Moreover, she says that they should not resort to plastic surgery, but maintain the “Jackson 5 nostrils (Beyoncé). Lastly, there is a message of hope to the blacks. One scene shows a man holding up a newspaper with Martin Luther King Jr on the cover. Beside Luther’s face are the words “More Than A Dreamer (Beyoncé).” Beyoncé seeks to remind the blacks that they have gone through such oppressions in the past, and they have survived. Through the injustices such as police brutality, and other social injustice, Beyoncé reminds them of their previous achievement; and thus hope for the future.
Leon Bridges, “River”
Leon Bridges “River”, a track from the album Coming Home, is a soul music that touches on the lives and the struggles of the black lives. While the lyrics of the song converse on salvation as the way to cool him from the adversaries he is facing, the video depicts the unique struggles that black men and women face in America. He explained that his intentions for the song were to “heal those who are hurting (Bridges)”
Through the opening scene of the song when Bridges starts singing, one can notice the television showing blacks protesting and breaking a police vehicle. The scene is followed by a child hopelessly looking through the window, and a man with blood on his t-shirt (Bridges). Afterward, the scene shifts to a black family on the streets seemingly conducting a candlelight vigil and then releasing black balloons into the air. Bridges seek to bring the audience to the “normal” scenes at the black community (Bridges). Things that they have been forced to, get used to, as they go through them on a daily basis.
Even as they go through the social injustices, Bridges shows the affection they afford each other in their families. The man (who had a bloodied shirt) is seen holding his baby and calming it, and a boy is embraced by a woman (Bridges). The community members, dressed in white, are seen rejoicing, wearing white and singing to the tunes of the songs. These people have their families and their loved ones who care about them; and even as they undergo the adversities they still go home and get the love and the hope that keeps them going.
Symbolically, the river represents redemption; maybe from oneself, and from the oppression. Bridges use the same symbolism to shine hope on black community that one day; all their problems will be fixed. With the “blood on [their] hands”, and while “[their] lips aren’t clean”, Bridges says that they can “go to the river” and “all [their] sins will flow down the Jordan” (Bridges, Leon). This implies that, by believing in the Lord, they will be free from their sins, and that God will watch over them. Therefore, he shows that there is real hope in their world, and they need to embrace it.
One of the most central themes expressed by the three artists is that of the blacks struggle through oppression especially the police brutality. In addition to that, they have rallied towards bringing hope to the African American community in who go through the oppression telling them that they are going to be alright. In the midst of all the struggles they undergo, Beyoncé, Lamar, and Bridges remind the blacks that they have been facing the same issues and that they should not lose their identity.
The message of struggle has been expressed by Lamar with strong lyrical command while Beyoncé and Bridges have preferred powerful videos instead. Lamar sings as though he is conversing to his image on a mirror, constantly telling himself repeating the phrase “Nigga, we gon’ be alright.” Talking about “pay cut”, “digging in the pocket.. ain’t a profit big enough to feed you” and such references in his rap, he is able to visualize the situation undergone by the black communities (Lamar, Kendrick). Moreover, he uses poetry to at the start of his song as well as the ending.
Unlike Lamar, Beyoncé and Bridges use powerful videos to invite the audience to their world. In reference to police brutality, Beyoncé portrays a young boy dancing in front of the riot police, and the words “stop shooting us” in a scene (Beyoncé). Similarly, Bridges opening scene before he sings, the television shows black people protesting and hitting a police vehicle. Moreover, Beyoncé shows in several scenes black people marching, proud black children, pictures of Martin Luther King, sends messages of the fight for civil rights and proud identity (Beyoncé). In the same manner, Bridges has scenes of black neighborhoods, vigils, and others powerful sections such as a man with bloodied shirt, to express the message of oppression, despair, and hopelessness that people face. Both Beyoncé and Bridges are able to point to these adversaries without referring so much to them.
Lamar and Bridges refer to God as their source of hope. Lamar says that they may face all the problems, as well as failures, “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright (Lamar, Kendrick).” Other instances, he says that “My rights, my wrongs; I write till I’m right with God” demonstrating his plan for success is based on God (Lamar, Kendrick). In the same manner, Bridges says, “Surrender to the good Lord, and he’ll wipe your slate clean (Bridges, Leon).” The two artists rely on divine powers to lead the black community to a better life and above the social ills. Differently, Beyoncé refers to the black community past victories such as civil rights by Martin Luther for future success.
Music can be a powerful source of pointing out the social injustices in the community. Lamar, Beyoncé, and Bridges touch on the struggles of the black community, and the injustices that they undergo; for example police brutality. Through the use of powerful videos and messages in their lyrics, they rally against the social ills facing the black community. Though they present their messages differently, they all remind the black community even as they go through the present social injustices, they should not lose hope not forsake their identity for there is hope in the future.
Beyoncé, “Formation.” Youtube, 9th December, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDZJPJV__bQ
Bridges, Leon, “River.” Youtube, 1st February, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Hegd4xNfRo
Lamar, Kendrick, “Alright.” Youtube, 30th June, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY
Williams, Yohuru, Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement. 1st ed., New York, Taylor & Francis, 2015.
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