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Kendrick Lamar and “Alright”

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is regarded as one of the most talented and commercially successful hip hop artists today. Growing up in Compton, Lamar was surrounded by hip hop culture and gang activity which influenced his music. Like much of his other work, the album To Pimp a Butterfly, released in 2015, garnered global success [1]. It intricately draws upon themes of personal and communal struggle by referencing issues like police brutality, which still plagues blacks in America. But to comment on these challenges, Lamar takes on an Afrofuturist approach. Afrofuturism, a concept that has been around since the beginning of the twentieth century, was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery in his essay, “Black to the Future.” Dery defines Afrofuturism as “American-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” [2]. In other words, it is a way of imagining an enhanced black future by drawing on the past. Jazz composer Sun Ra introduced Afrofuturistic themes in his music in the 1950s. George Clinton and his collective, Parliament Funk, later popularized Afrofuturist music by developing a new kind of funk inspired by psychedelic and science fiction influences [3]. Lamar invokes elements of Afrofuturism throughout “Alright.” In the same sense that artists like N.W.A. and Ice Cube created exaggerated and fictional worlds to escape reality, Lamar uses his futuristic world to transcend boundaries and establish himself as a voice of hope.

Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” music video [4].

 

Hovering into the future

In “Alright,” Lamar invokes a key element of Afrofuturism by reflecting on black history and linking it to an imagined future. Some scholars have described Afrofuturism as “the space between the slave ship and the spaceship” [5]. In the “Alright” music video, Lamar places himself in this “space.” At the beginning of the song, he samples a line from the 1985 film, The Color Purple, about a young African American girl in the early 1900s facing racism, sexism, poverty and violence as a slave in the rural south. The line Lamar samples reads “Alls my life I had to fight” and is said in the movie by Oprah Winfrey who plays the role of a slave girl named Sofia. Immediately, he alludes to the history of slavery. As Lamar repeats the first half of the line again, the audience sees a clip of Lamar’s feet, hovering over the pavement, moving in forward motion. This visual of Lamar levitating, which is repeated throughout the video, mimics the hovering of a spaceship, a clear symbol of a sci-fi future. By layering a visual that symbolizes the future over an aural line that invokes the past, Lamar draws on Afrofuturism. On a slightly separate but important note, in The Color Purple, Sofia is a strong-willed character and a mentor to other slaves on the plantation. By using her quote as the first line in the song, Lamar establishes himself as an influential voice who will guide his community toward a better future.

Other musical and visual tropes in “Alright” allude to the rich history of African Americans. For example, a saxophone riff emerges in the first line, drawing from the tradition of jazz music. As Candace G. Hines notes in a paper exploring black musical traditions, “the jazz performer creates as he performs, improvising notes and deliberately deviating from traditional notions of music pitch” [6]. In this way, the saxophone instrumentation throughout the song alludes to a historic jazz tradition but also a tradition of improvisation and deviation, something that Lamar is doing through the creation of this futuristic world in his music video. Lamar also references clear signifiers of hip hop culture, drawing inspiration from its history. Rap, breakdancing, and graffiti are all styles that contribute to hip hop as a culture. In “Alright,” layered on top of Lamar’s raps are scenes of urban cities, graffiti, and people dancing. As Tricia Rose notes in her essay on hip hop, these styles “not only boost status and elevate black and hispanic youth identities, they also articulate several shared approaches to sound and motion which are found in the Afro-diaspora” by highlighting flow, layering and rupture [7]. Therefore, by harkening on these styles in his music video, Lamar alludes to black history.

Futuristic elements in “Alright” help Lamar to project a sense of control and hope. For example, he incorporates sci-fi noises and trap beats throughout the music video which represent his technological agency. He also samples from “Wesley’s Theory,” another song on his album that features George Clinton who is known for helping to popularize Afrofuturism music by incorporating psychedelic and science fiction sounds [8]. Furthermore, Lamar always returns to the simple hook of “We gon’ be alright.” By using the future-tense, Lamar gives hope that there will be a better, more peaceful future. These ideas are visually manifested in the video through Lamar’s maneuvering of space. For example, the video takes place in various locations, from Los Angeles to the Bay Area . Lamar is not physically constrained, and therefore digresses from portrayals of entrapment in the ‘hood,’ as is commonly portrayed in videos like Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” Lamar physically transcends boundaries imposed by the reality of being a black man in America. Further, Lamar is elevated in most of the video, not touching the ground. He hovers above the streets and stands on a traffic light pole. By physically placing himself above the city, Lamar demonstrates control and elevation into a futuristic world.

 

 

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[1] Kellman, Andy, “Kendrick Lamar: Bibliography,” allmusic.com. Accessed Dec. 6, 2018.

[2] Dery, Michael, “Black to the Future,” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham and London, p. 179-210, 1994.

[3] Bird, Joshua, “Climbing Aboard the Mothership: An Afrofuturistic Reading of Parliament-Funkadelic,” Occam’s Razor 3 (2013).

[4] KendrickLamarVEVO. “Kendrick Lamar – Alright.” YouTube video. Posted June, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY 

[5] Ritter, Juliana, “Black Liberation Teach-In Series Presents: Afrofuturism,” campusy.unc.edu. May, 2016.

[6] Gines, Candace, “Black Musical Traditions and Copyright Law: Historical Tensions,” Michigan Journal of Race and Law 10 (2005): 481.

[7] Rose, Tricia, “A style nobody can deal with. Politics, style and the postindustrial city in Hip Hop,” Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, New York and London: Routledge, p. 351. 2004.

[8] Bird, Joshua, “Climbing Aboard the Mothership: An Afrofuturistic Reading of Parliament-Funkadelic,” Occam’s Razor 3 (2013).

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