Perfect Sound Forever

THE SOULS OF PROTEST AND RESISTANCE


Photograph by Ellis Parrinder / Camara Press / Redux

How James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar led the way
by Dr. Tamara Hill
(October 2022)



(see Part 1 of this article)


By the same token, the musical influences and/or styles of James Brown and Marvin Gaye are quite visible in the current generations of Hip Hop, Jazz or R&B artists and their musical compositions. Kendrick Lamar is one of those artists that has taken their influence and utilized it in a way that speaks to the millennials who are engrossed in the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd and systematic racism. In support of Gaye's influence on Kendrick Lamar, Brian McCollum contends, "The "What's Going On" single, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, was a mainstream breakthrough for conscious soul music. Its stature remains immense- Rolling Stone ranks it No. 4 on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list- and it set the stage the set for themes now essential to Hip Hop, resounding through artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill and Joey Badass." As previously mentioned, Lamar was not even born when Gaye and Brown were making their protest music with lyrics that spoke to the soul of Black people but their multi-faceted dynamics can currently be found in his music.

Exactly who is Kendrick Lamar and why is his influence and music significant to the culture of contemporary Black protest music and Black activism? The answer is that he is a conscious artist or the "Chosen One" who was born in Compton, and whose prophetic lyrics profoundly influence the millennials while exposing white supremacy, racism, and systematic oppression as an entity against Black people. Biography.com provides the details of his background: "Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who performs as Kendrick Lamar, was born in Compton, California, on June 17, 1987. After writing stories as a child, he put to music some lyrics about the rough Compton streets he grew up on as a boy. He rapped under the name K-Dot, releasing a series of increasingly popular mix tapes, which brought him to the attention of hip-hop super-producer Dr. Dre."

When Kendrick was a young boy, he was very aware of the violent, notorious street life in Chicago because of his father's association with the Gangster Disciples who are infamous. Then when the family relocated from Chicago, IL to Compton, California, to escape the uncontrollable gang culture, he witnessed the crack epidemic that was raging the country, especially as a child who was growing up in the 1980's.

Authors Kate Wilson, Mike Usinger and John Lucas describe what happens to Lamar's family once they left Chicago:

"After spending three years sleeping in their car, motels, or the local park, the pair managed to save enough money for their first apartment, and gave birth to the rapper. Their new home wasn't the perfect family environment, however. Lamar figured out at a young age that his father was still working the streets to provide for the trio, and a number of his mom's brothers were Compton Crips. So when the rapper proclaims "Everybody gon' respect the shooter" on the track "Money Trees," he knows what he's talking about."

Lamar's early childhood was much like many children who grew up on Section 8 and welfare in the urban areas of major cities that lack jobs, economic opportunities and social programs that could stabilize a community instead of destroying it. It is because those children see the gritty street life in their urban, crime-infested environments that they begin to comprehend the nuances at an early age about what it takes for people, especially Black people, to maneuver and make money while trying to survive and take care of themselves and/or feed their families. Rebecca Haithcoat reveals what Lamar said in his own words about his childhood, "Lamar's parents moved from Chicago to Compton in 1984 with all of $500 in their pockets. "I'm 6 years old, seein' my uncles playing with shotguns, sellin' dope in front of the apartment. My moms and pops never said nothing, 'cause they were young and living wild, too. I got about 15 stories like 'Average Joe." In addition, the West Coast gang culture whose primary groups were known as the "Bloods" and "Crips" had an undeniable presence in the street and were involved in a multitude of illegal activities. One would think that all of these notorious influences would motivate Lamar to be involved in gang activity but it actually did the opposite- he did not want any part of it.

From all accounts, this Compton-born rapper who was keenly observant and who was named after Eddie Kendricks from the legendary Temptations by his mother, was studious, liked poetry, wrote stories and enjoyed attending school. He attended Centennial High School which was also Dr. Dre's alma mater and was known to get straight A's. As Lamar began to write more poetry and stories, they eventually developed into lyrics. At the age of 8, Lamar was on the set when Dr. Dre was doing the video shoot for Hip-Hop icon Tupac Shakur and their song "California Love." But more importantly, it was from Tupac's video shoot that he was inspired to begin crafting his own music. By age of 16, he was known as "K. Dot" and released his first mix tape titled Y.H.N.I.C. (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year) in 2004. However, Complex Magazine confirms what actually motivated him. "DMX's It's Dark and Hell Is Hot inspired Kendrick Lamar to be a rapper. Lamar is one of the many who were blown away by DMX's classic debut. I just got inspired and I started writing, so that will always be one of my favorite albums... That album inspired me to be a rapper."

Additionally, the "K. Dot" moniker that Lamar used lasted for some time but as with all things, he soon decided that he needed to remain true to himself. "Kendrick changed his name from "K-Dot" because he felt it was a distraction. Kendrick Lamar went by K-Dot from 2003 to 2009, but reverted back to his birth name for the sake of artistic intimacy. "The name change was just me basically developing myself," he said to Hard Knock. Yet, his mix tape was highly successful which lead to his signing of an Indie record label Top Dawg Entertainment in 2003 at the age of 16.

None withstanding, it was not until 2010, that he gained commercial success with Overly Dedicated, and in 2011, he released his Section 80 album which brought a massive online following. From this juncture, he went on to have several collaborations with some prominent artists in the Hip Hop industry such as The Game, SchoolBoy Q and Ya Boy. It is a notable fact that music provided the outlet for Lamar's introspective and gritty lyrics who as a child and young teen witnessed police violence, alcoholism, gangbangers, systematic oppression, crime and a myriad of other issues that plagued his community. Even though his music served the purpose of being a cathartic release from these urban life ills, it did not mean that Lamar totally escaped or ever forgot about his chance encounters while growing up in the hood either. Isanual Ahmed provides insight about how several "traumatic incidents" influenced Lamar's life and music:

"Kendrick's perspective on life always comes back to his Compton roots. His upbringing provides him with a treasure trove of traumatic experiences that gives his music a sense of purpose. On the lyrical blackout "m.A.A.d city," he describes seeing a "light skin nigga with his brain blown out." Around this age, he witnessed his uncle's murder. In conversation, he casually recalls yet another murder, when he called his friend Yo to the barbershop just before someone shot up the block, killing one of their homeboys."
It is from these aforementioned experiences of Lamar that we can perceive and comprehend the reality of urban life for Black people and why his contemporary songs of protest and resistance are so significant and reminiscent of James Brown and Marvin Gaye's demands of equality, love, and the elimination of racism and police brutality.

What is more, Lamar eventually met Dr. Dre after releasing a song titled, "Ignorance is Bliss" on YouTube. Dre invites him to do a studio session. This encounter led Dr. Dre to sign Lamar to his label, Aftermath. "In 2012 Lamar signed with Dr. Dre's label Aftermath Entertainment and released his second LP, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. it debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and yielded the R&B/hip-hop hits "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "Poetic Justice." Critics noted that it was a concept album with an autobiographical narrative" (via Britannica.com).

By 2017, Lamar released his highly acclaimed single titled, "Be Humble" from his Damn album which is acknowledged by Billboard as being his "first No.1" hit as a lead artist. In spite of this accomplishment and that single becoming a commercial hit, he collaborated in 2015 with Taylor Swift for her song, "Bad Blood" where he did the remix. In the song, Lamar raps in the first verse:

I can't take it back, look at where I'm at (Uh)
We was OG like D.O.C., remember that? (Remember that?)
My TLC was quite OD, ID my facts (ID my)
Now POV of you and me, similar Iraq.
I don't hate you, but I hate to critique, overate you.
These beats of a dark heart, use basslines to replace you
Take time and erase you, love don't hear no more.
No I don't hear no more.
(via Genius)
While some music critics and Hip Hop legends were not pleased with the Taylor Swift collaboration, his remix gave her a number one hit in the summer of 2015. In fact, Lamar is credited with the song being a successful remix because no one expected the infusion of Hip Hop with Swift's raunchy and "sassy" lyrics to even be appealing to the masses.

"The lyrics are a parade of she-can't-be-trusted sneers; the music is lurching, glossy strut-pop; and the high-pitched chants in the chorus are all sass. And can we talk about the guest vocalist? He's clearly the secret weapon--no way would this song have reached America's top of the pops without him," deems Chris Molanphy. This is just one of the multiple examples of Lamar's talents and the infusion of his writing skills that have become synonymous with his career and the way in which he conveys his conscious wordplay into his lyrical compositions.

Lamar went on to release To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 that had elements of funk, spoken word and the rhythmic and melodic swag of Jazz. It is from this specific album that his song "Alright," which speaks to the contemporary protest of Black youth and Black people in general across the country that witnessed the brutal killings of African Americans by police and that were being oppressed by a judicial system that did not care if they lived or died. It became a normality that we turned on the television during the summer of 2015 to see Black people, both young and old, in addition to the activists from the Black Lives Matter Movement, peacefully marching in protest to the deaths of young Black males such as Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland who "mysteriously" died while being incarcerated in Texas. Tyler Bishop, in his article, "2015: The Year in Race Relations," from the Atlantic, explains how the year 2015 became explosive for race relations when he describes that tumultuous year:

"U.S. race relations were on a downward slide as 2015 began. The previous November, a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. The case propelled the issue of police violence--and racism--into the national spotlight. But it was just one of many."

In April, Freddie Gray died in Baltimore police custody, and the nation erupted once again. Conor Friedersdorf dug into "The Brutality of Police Culture in Baltimore" (in The Atlantic). A string of questionable police killings led Jason Lee Steorts to ask, "In September, Jeffrey Goldberg explored Louisiana's efforts to end a black murder epidemic: "A Matter of Black Lives" (in The Atlantic).

All of these violent incidents that were either televised by local news outlets or went viral on social media platforms, providing evidence of the civil unrest in 2015. These incidents show how Black people were being brutalized by law enforcement and/or murdered by one individual, such was the case of Dylan Roof, who opened fire on nine innocent people who were praying in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. In response, Black activists were forming organizations, marches and planning future actions to combat and address these issues but they were not the only people paying attention to these protests. Lamar keenly observed all that was happening and comprehended that no matter what systemic oppression and racism that Black people were subjected too in society, "we will be alright."

This ideology rings true because as a group of resilient and deeply faithful people, we had weathered the storms of slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Right movement and are still standing strong today. Black people have endured the remnants of the slave catchers who were the previously authorized and legal patrolmen for escaped slaves to the current police officers who have used illegal chokeholds and "no knock warrants" as justifiable murder of African Americans. Scholar Noriko Manabe further illustrates this notion by asserting about Lamar, "As he explained, "And just saying the alright phrase--what does We are gonna be alright represent?" While Lamar claims that he was not aiming to make a protest song, he would have been writing in mid-2014, when the protests over Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others were heating up; as he noted, "it was a lot going on." He decided to take an approach that was "more uplifting--but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that We strong, you know?" (Gwizdowski 2016).

While music historians are uncertain when "Alright" as the 4th single from the To Pimp a Butterfly album became a protest anthem around the country, it without a doubt declares the resilience of Black people while at the same time has components of the outcries from James Brown, the turbulent '60's and the Civil Rights movement. Gaye's call for peace and love all while exposing the heaviness from the police violence and denouncing the stereotypes of Black people that continue to plague the nation as a whole can also perceived in Lamar's "Alright" lyrics. In "Alright," Lamar vehemently declares in his composition:

Every star in the sky, every thought in my mind
Every tear in my eye fades away
I've got strength in my bones, I can do this on my own
Don't need your help at all, so let me stay right here

[Chorus]
Sometimes, you gotta wake up
But I'm living in a dream and I'm feeling fine Sometimes, we gotta break up
Yeah, I know it hurts, it'll be alright.
[Verse 2]
'Cause, I've been beaten down by you
Six words and I woke up in my bed like it was nothing
Yeah, I woke up in my bed like you were nevеr really there for mе at all
I said I really wanna let you go, let you go
But our memories that we made are made of gold
So, if you tell me you're still missing me
What should I have done differently?
I wanna sleep forever, but, boy
(via Genius)
"According to American studies and media scholar William Hoynes, Lamar's progressive music places him in a long line of African-American artists and activists who "worked both inside and outside of the mainstream to advance a counterculture that opposes the racist stereotypes being propagated in white-owned media and culture," cites radio station WRMF. As a young Black man who was once a young Black child on Section 8, Lamar witnessed the escalating tensions in his own drug-infested community amongst gang members, senseless murders and the overt tactics used by law enforcement that often occurred in his neighborhood. So it was not difficult for him to use and implement the gritty urban verbiage that described the experiences and emotions of most Black people during 2015 and beyond. Even though race relations between Black people and law enforcement from the summer of 2015 to currently in 2022 have continued to escalate with violent acts and inequality, like Lamar says, "I've got strength in my bones, I can do this on my own, Don't need your help at all, so let me stay right here" (2015). Lamar is declaring that there is hope and that we as a people will stand up to these injustices and continue to fight for those whose voice often go unheard. As a contemporary Hip-Hop artist, and from his perspective, Lamar is acknowledging that we are not dependent on a country built on the backs of our enslaved ancestors to make it "alright" but to appreciate and understand our struggle as a people and how music has always provided us with a cathartic release for our hurt and or anger. NPR Writer Andrew Limbong explains Lamar's inspiration for "Alright" and why music is important to him (2015) by affirming:

"The author of the upcoming book Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, Lewis interviewed Lamar after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly and learned the artist was inspired to write "Alright" by a trip to South Africa -- specifically the cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Similarly, Lamar told NPR in a 2015 interview that he was thinking about the history of chattel slavery in America.

"Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on," Lamar said. "Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that 'Alright' is definitely one of those records that makes you feel good no matter what the times are."

By his own recognition, Lamar provides us insight about his inspiration for "Alight" concerning black oppression and why the history of it continues to manifest for Black people in the forms police brutality, the lack of economic opportunities and the mass incarceration of African Americans at an alarming rate when compared to other ethnicities. Consequently, Black music has been a "healing force" in our communities and so has our relationship with it. As it has been previously acknowledged by James Brown, Marvin Gaye and now Lamar, Black protest music, whether legendary or contemporary, has the potential to not only "heal" our people but to let the world know that we will not continue to be victimized by our oppressors.

Additionally, as radio station WRMF explains, the music video for 'Alright' received four nominations at the 2015 MTV Music Awards, including Video of the Year and Best Male video. However, Lamar only won two Grammys that same year for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for his song, "i." Nevertheless, it was his intense and powerful live performance of "Alright" that gave the world a visual representation of what struggle looks like for African Americans who constantly have to deal with racism, white supremacy and in his words, "the po-po," at the BET Music Video Awards in 2015. In in his live performance on BET on June 28, 2015. With an oversized battered and torn American flag while on top of a police car, Lamar began his lyrical anthem by chanting the infamous line from the movie The Color Purple, "alls my life I had to fight." This dialogue occurs in the classic movie when Sophia, who is played by Oprah Winfrey declares her independence and refuses to let another man, including her husband Harpo to brutalize and or violate her ever again. In response to the use of Lamar's sample of her work, Alice Walker recounted:

"I'm happy for him. I think he's understanding that this truth of it. Especially for poor people and people of color in this country. We've had to fight all of our lives. And it's a good thing that we can talk to each other across generations."

Lamar's performance was not only triumphant that night on BET, but was also an exorbitant display of masterful lyrics that were further substantiated by having Black men on stage that were incarcerated, while others walked in a chain gang from the Jim Crow Era, which illustrated that despite the madness of racism, white privilege and oppression, that there will always be the hope that Black people will prevail and overcome. Scholar Noriko Manabe elaborates further about his performance by writing:

"More than the lyrics themselves, it is the paratext of visuals in the form of performances and the music video that has connected "Alright" with police brutality..." Lamar caused a controversy at the BET Awards with the symbolism of a police car, conquered by hip hop graffiti and serving as a stage for an African American star, was evidently too much for Geraldo Rivera, who grumbled on Fox News: "This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism." Lamar retorted on TMZ that the song was about hope, not hatred, and refocused the problem on the reality of police brutality rather than on the way it was being expressed in hip hop (Williams, 2015)."

In contrast to his live performance at various venues, the video for "Alright" was shot in all black and white, which sets the mood for several White policeman carrying a car while a young Black man is lying on the ground. This specific image can either be perceived as pallbearers carrying a coffin or bringing a symbolic death to the Black Lives Matters movement. By the end of the musical narrative, Lamar is shot and killed from a lamppost by a police officer but ultimately dies with a subtle smile on his face. As he falls to the ground after being shot to death, he attempts to complete monologue that he started at the beginning of the video. Whether his lyrics are masterful wordplay or politically motivated as a member of the Hip Hop community, his activism and awareness has been evident for the contemporary version of the Black anthem known as "Alright" that is reminiscent of the famous "We Shall Overcome" protest song used during the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King, and the Black nationalism of Malcolm X.

When we talk about the systematic oppression, white supremacy and the untimely deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and George Floyd and countless other Black people, mainstream music consistently avoids these issues, but the "Chosen One" (known as Lamar) has never shied away from taking a stance as an artist and a conscious Black man. "Lamar evokes past events and their surrounding cultural politics as a way of interpreting the present-day issue of colorism in African-American communities. He addresses a history of discrimination shared by Africans and African-Americans, based in Eurocentric colonial practices. Lamar's engagement relates to the blues matrix because through his music, he reinterprets ancestral experiences of discrimination as a way of understanding the pain caused by racism in the present," contends Scholar Courtney Julia Heffernan. Lamar's words also evoke his memories as child who grew up in a neighborhood full of gangbangers, crime and with minimal opportunities for survival. Therefore, it is his own self-awareness that is apparent as the foundation of his lyrics for "Alright" because while he knows that he has "made it" out of the hood, many African Americans (even Lamar after his success) are still struggling to exist in the midst of police violence, systematic oppression and overt discrimination that are the vestiges which remain from slavery. While his lyrics are infused with Jazz, African drums and Afro-beats, Lamar is providing a definitive narrative of the Black struggle and engaging in political activism with a cautious optimism backdrop that always looms in the background. For example, it was during multiple protests across the country that, "the hard-hitting chorus, "We gon' be alright," channeled protestors' rage as they shouted it on the streets. Soon, videos of protestors chanting and thought pieces about the song's connection to the Black Lives Matter movement flooded the internet," expresses Gillette.

Moreover, the research about Lamar and his inspiration to write such a conscious and resonating song can be a benefit for the systematic study of past artists such as James Brown and Marvin Gaye to contemporary artists and their protest and or resistance music. Or we as a society can formulate a psychological analysis of Kendrick Lamar as an activist and his compositions in relation to the perceptual, sentimental, and social responses to the contemporary anthem "Alright." From either perspective, the rap song is and has remained a part of pivotal moments in 2015, for Black history and American tragedies. Sayeed Joseph explains that "Alright" is the song that moves beyond Kendrick Lamar's personal tragedy, directing his words to be relevant to the larger context of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to James Cone, "The important contribution of the blues is their affirmation of Black humanity in the face of immediate absurdity" (Cone 1972:114). ""Alright" is used as a protest song that affirms Black humanity in the context of police killing": this statement from Sayeed captures "Alright" and its necessity and validity as an anthem for the Black Lives Matters movement and the continuous struggle that Black people are faced with every day of their lives in place where are all humans are "allegedly equal."

Lamar's fourth album release was Damn in 2017. It remains his most significant production of his career to date because it is the one that garnered him a Pulitzer Prize for music. This album according to music historians, "won Best Rap Album and is the first of its kind to win a Pulitzer Prize despite it not being a Jazz or a non-classical work." Lamar was bestowed this honor on April 16, 2018. History.com further affirms that, "It was the first time the award had gone to a musical work outside the genres of classical music and jazz, a watershed moment for the Pulitzers and Lamar and a sign of the American cultural elite's recognition of hip-hop as a legitimate artistic medium." No other artist in the Hip Hop genre or history has received this exceptional award for their lyrical compositions but one can firmly disagree that Lamar winning it made him "legitimate." To clarify this perception, it is because the "Chosen One" was an established, introspective, talented and observant Black rapper from Compton that the Hip Hop world had already crowned as the "Messiah" long before the Pulitzer Prize Board decided to "characterize" him as being legitimate.

Even with this prestigious award, Lamar has remained "humble" which is also the name of one of his hit singles from the Damn album because he has continued to produce effectual, conscious music that can be also found in the 2018 Black Panther soundtrack where he is credited for writing 14 of its compositions. Over the course of four albums, Lamar has been awarded 13 Grammys and is only trailing behind Jay Z and Kanye West who both who have won 24 apiece but music historians do not feel it will not be long before the "Chosen One" surpasses them at some point in his career. However, when asked about his activism, his music and his perception and his audacity to have hope that the Black struggle will eventually be overcome, Kendrick responded by saying in an interview with Insanul Ahmed, "I got a greater purpose he says." "God put something in my heart to get across and that's what I'm going to focus on, using my voice as an instrument and doing what needs to be done."

What James Brown, Marvin Gaye and contemporary artist Kendrick Lamar have done with their voices, self-awareness and lyrical compositions have proven that as Black artists they were aware of "what's going on" and that they did not stand by and do nothing as they observed their people going through the struggles of white supremacy, racism, discrimination and a plethora of societal ills that continue to hammer this country based on the atrocities from the past. What's more, even though Brown and Gaye were not politicians or Baptist ministers like Dr. King, they had also experienced the discrimination, police brutality and overt racist acts of segregation as young Black boys who grew up in Washington D.C. and Augusta, GA. Then their experiences were repeated in the music industry with not being allowed to eat in restaurants with White people, being followed by the KKK and seeing the multiple "colored"-only signs on buildings that they could only enter from the back as young men who were traveling the country on tour buses. As a result, these social experiences and their political stances are fully verbalized in Brown's "Say It Loud," and Gaye's "What's Going On?" as interpretative anthems from two legendary Black men who refused to let civil unrest go unnoticed. Lamar, as a contemporary artist and who was born decades after Brown and Gaye, utilizes the lyrical thesis of "Alright" to not spread "hate" (as Geraldo Rivera alleged) but to remind Black people that the struggle has not ended, because we are still here and in the words of Dr. King, "We shall overcome." We can truly thank Brown, Gaye and Lamar for their contributions to the genre of protest music and resistance anthems.




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McArdle, Terence. "MLK was dead. Cities were burning. Could James Brown keep Boston from erupting, too?" Washington Post April 5, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/04/05/mlk-was-dead-cities-were-burning-could-james-brown-keep-boston-from-erupting-too/ James Brown in concert in Boston on April 5, 1968. (Bob Dean/Boston Globe) Photograph. Accessed 14 April 2022.

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Lamar, Kendrick. Photograph by Ellis Parrinder / Camara Press / Redux; April 17, 2018

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