When injustice permeates society, sometimes the only way to accurately convey the array of emotions it catalyzes among people is via song. Music is a potent and indispensable form of protest.
The pain and rage produced by the persistence of inequality, violence, racism and oppression in the United States has generated some of most powerful songs of the past century.
In 1962, Bob Dylan wrote what is arguably the most famous protest song in history, "Blowin' in the Wind." It was a poignant and potent reflection on the sentiments of one of the most tumultuous periods in 20th century America. As Time puts it:
Dylan made people look both inward and at the discordant world around them. His voice signaled that of a new generation, one ready to confront the injustices of the time and unwilling to settle for war or indifference.
The song struck such a nerve, it inspired other great musicians to write their own protest songs.
"A Change Is Gonna Come," which Sam Cooke composed and recorded in 1964, was a direct response to Dylan's work. When Cooke first heard "Blowin' In The Wind," he reportedly stated,
Jeez, a white boy writing a song like that?
Cooke was tragically and fatally shot two weeks before the song was released, but it went on to become an anthem of the civil rights movement and a song that continues to inspire hope to this day.
Dylan and Cooke were hardly the first to write protest songs, and they certainly wouldn't be the last. Many musicians, from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neil Young to Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to N.W.A and Rage Against The Machine, would follow in their footsteps.
The beauty of musical protest is it's not confined to any single genre.
Today, Kendrick Lamar is continuing the tradition.
It's very telling the album deals with many of the same themes as other notable protest songs written by the artists mentioned above, among others, yet arrived decades after those were composed.
The US has certainly made some progress in establishing a more equitable society, but obviously still has a way to go.
The high profile deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, together with others, have incited palpable discontentment across the country.
Lamar's album is a timely meditation on the convoluted emotions and events surrounding this movement.
"Blacker The Berry," arguably the most powerful and emotive track, was written in direct response to the death of Trayvon Martin.
As Lamar recently explained:
These are issues that if you come from that environment it's inevitable to speak on. It's already in your blood because I am Trayvon Martin, you know. I'm all of these kids. It's already implanted in your brain to come out your mouth as soon as you've seen it on the TV. I had that track way before that, from the beginning to the end, and the incident just snapped it for me.
Like Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke in the 60s, Kendrick Lamar has tapped into a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the status quo in American society. And it's already having an observable impact.
To Pimp a Butterfly has been a massive success and widely applauded, with the Guardian calling it, "the album hip-hop had been waiting for." It's intelligent, articulate and pertinent, so much so teachers are using it to discuss race with their students.
Moreover, a week ago, activists attending a Black Lives Matter conference at Cleveland State University became upset after police removed an allegedly intoxicated 14-year-old from a bus. As they attempted to block the squad car holding the teen from leaving the area, an officer pepper sprayed the crowd.
In response, the activists began chanting a portion of what has debatably become the most popular track on Lamar's album, "Alright."
It seems "Alright" has now become the anthem of Black Lives Matter, which is quite fitting given the song touches on police brutality but still radiates positivity.
Correspondingly, at the BET Awards in June, Kendrick Lamar made a big political statement by performing "Alright" atop a police car.
Subsequently, Geraldo Rivera appeared on Fox News and lambasted Lamar for the performance, stating,
This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.
Rivera found one of the lyrics in the song, "And we hate po-po/ Wanna kill us dead in the street, fo sho," particularly problematic.
This sort of argument is nothing new, and it's embedded in a misconstrued perception of what hip-hop represents, which Lamar highlighted in his apt and well-articulated response to Rivera's comments:
How could you take a song that's about hope and turn it into hatred? The message is 'we gon' be alright' it's not the message of 'I wanna kill people.' The problem isn't me standing on the cop car, I think his attempt is deleting the real problem, which is the senseless acts of [cops] killing these young boys out here. I think for the most part it's avoiding the truth, it's reality, this is my world, this is what I talk about in my music and you can't dilute that. Me being on a cop car, that's a performance piece after these senseless acts. Hip-hop is not the problem, our reality is the problem. This is our music, this is us expressing ourselves. Rather [than] going out here and doing murder myself, I want to express myself in a positive light, the same way other artists are.
Simply put, hip-hop is an artistic response to the harsh truths individuals like Rivera seem determined to deny.
Kendrick Lamar is not the first hip-hop artist to write protest music, nor is he the only rapper or artist producing politically-charged tracks in relation to Black Lives Matter.
J. Cole, for example, wrote an insightful and emotional track, "Be Free," in response to last summer's disturbing events in Ferguson.
From hip-hop's earliest days, numerous artists have utilized the genre as a platform for expressing the unsettling realities of the inner city and the systemic mistreatment of blacks in America.
This is particularly evident with songs like "The Message," released by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1982, as well as Public Enemy's "Fight The Power," released in 1989.
With that said, there is no artist currently having a larger impact than Lamar in terms of the social movement currently sweeping this country. Lamar is revitalizing music as a form of protest and disproving notions hip-hop poses a danger to society.
His album, To Pimp A Butterly, has emerged as the unparalleled soundtrack to Black Lives Matter.
Not long ago, Questlove, drummer for The Roots, wrote an impassioned plea to the musicians of this era:
I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in... I really apply this challenge to ALL artists. We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New Simones.
Lamar has answered this challenge. He's the voice of this generation and proof hip-hop can change America for the better.
He tells the truth, which is the first necessity of progress.
Citations: Top 10 Protest Songs (Time), Someday Well All Be Free 100 Hours Of Soulful Protest Music (NPR), 10 Best Protest Songs Of All Time (Rolling Stone), The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement (Politico), 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Rolling Stone), Kendrick Lamars Alright Chanted by Protesters During Cleveland Police Altercation (Pitchfork), Geraldo Rivera Blames Kendrick Lamar for Americas Racial Divide (BET), Kendrick Lamar Puts Geraldo Rivera in His Place (BET), Kendrick Lamar I am Trayvon Martin Im all of these kids (The Guardian), A Visit From Kendrick Lamar Best Day Of School Ever (NPR)