Black History: This is Reality, This is our Music
“Hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.”
Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera made this statement after rapper Kendrick Lamar’s opening performance of his single “Alright” at the BET Awards in June 2015. Kendrick rapped on top of a vandalized police car, spitting rhymes Rivera felt were “counterproductive.”
In response, Lamar said that Rivera was misconstruing the context and message of the Grammy-nominated “Alright.”
“The overall message is, ‘We gon’ be alright,’” he said. “I think his attempt is really diluting the real problem, which is the senseless acts of killings of these young boys out here.
“It’s avoiding the truth. Hip-hop is not the problem. Our reality is the problem of the situation. This is our music. This is us expressing ourselves.”
It’s true, though. With his two Grammy-nominated studio albums, Lamar talks about some deep cutting issues within his life. He’s a Compton kid. Gang violence is about as prevalent as police brutality, and he’s rapped about both.
But this particular cut in “Alright” was what stoked Rivera’s fire:
“And we hate po’-po’; \ Wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho’. \ I’m at the preacher’s door. \ My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow. \ But we gon’ be alright.”
To be honest, there is a lot to take in with this verse. Kendrick’s talking about police brutality a couple of lines before he says that his gun might blow. To some listeners, he might be asking forgiveness for the sins he’s about to commit. To others, he’s praying for the strength to keep the willpower needed to keep from taking action.
The thing about music is that there will always be multifaceted interpretations, but hip-hop seems to be on another level of multiple interpretations. Call it a race thing. Call it a culture thing. Call it whatever you will.
The point remains that hip-hop has come a long way since “Rapper’s Delight.”
It started with “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They told a verbal story about life in the projects.
“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, \ Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. \ I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far \ ‘cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.”
It’s tame by today’s comparison, but it still shows just how much of a struggle many black people faced not two decades after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There was still a search for equity that was yet to come to fruition.
It moved on to N.W.A., who some think toed the line with their album “Straight Outta Compton.” While a number of songs capture the ethos of life on the streets and police brutality, the first lines of “Express Yourself” get the gist of it.
“I’m expressing with my full capabilities, \ and now I’m living in correctional facilities.”
In context of the era and the group, N.W.A. received a lot of heat and faced potential jail time for their album and some of the tracks on it – all of which were them spitting truth about daily lives in the streets of a racially-divided Compton.
But it brings us back to Kendrick and his lines from “Alright” – really, the entirety of the song. While hip-hop has had a long history of songs painting a picture of life in the ghettos and amid racial tensions, few in modern times have resonated like this opus from “To Pimp a Butterfly” – itself an achievement of hip-hop storytelling mastery.
With this success has come a lot of controversy. Kendrick’s performance on the cop car is paralleled in the music videos with scenes of Lamar and others in a car with four policemen acting as the wheels, carrying the car on their shoulders.
These clips and some of his lyrics show what some may find is a disrespect of police and reason for agreeing with Geraldo about hip-hop. But ask Rodney King, Eric Garner or any of the countless black Americans who have died at the hands of police.
Hip-hop may be provocative, but its aim is to evoke thought – not death.
Rapper beefs and late night shootings aside, what has hip-hop done other than express something? Grandmaster Flash never up and ganked someone when recording “The Message.” N.W.A. members may have been violent, if “Straight Outta Compton” was any indication, but their hardest blows against police were their words.
Say what you want about King, Garner and the other late black Americans reaping consequences for their acts. That’s not the point. The point is that hip-hop as a whole is not dangerous.
But how we interpret hip-hop can lead to some dangerous places.
Since the days of N.W.A., Public Enemy and gangsta rap as a whole, hip-hop has come under scrutiny as a violent medium. It continues to this day, with “violence and guns” replaced in the argumentative lexicon with “sex, drugs and money.”
But it leads some to believe that, when a rapper puts out a socially conscious record like Kendrick did with “Alright,” the gangsta rap attack is back to defile the airwaves, the children and the streets. It’s not.
What it’s here to do is shed light on a situation.
Visit lyric annotation website Genius to see just that. Yes, some lyrics could promote violence, philandering or other generally unsavory acts. But look deeper into what you hear.
See that, in the case of “Alright,” it’s not a call to arms, but a call to think.
“Rather [than] going out here and doing the murders myself, I want to express myself in a positive light the same way other artists are doing,” Lamar said. “Not going out in the streets, [going] in the booth and talking about the situation and hoping these kids can find some type of influence on it in a positive manner.”
So many artists before Kendrick have hit the booth to try and keep others from hitting the streets. For Flash, it was life in the ghetto. For N.W.A., it was what it was like on the streets of Compton.
For Lamar, it’s about reminding the black community to remember one thing in spite of the violence and vitriol surrounding them:
“If God got us, then we gon’ be alright.”