2015 was a tense year. Protesters took to the streets in multiple states, demanding an end to police brutality amid several high-profile cases where police murdered unarmed black men and received little more than a slap on the wrist. In July 2015, nearly a year after a Cleveland police officer killed Tamir Rice, The Movement for Black Lives held its first conference at Cleveland State University, as a way to strategize ways to hold law enforcement accountable. After leaving the conference one afternoon, several attendees witnessed police harassing a 14-year-old boy at a nearby bus stop, believing he had an open container of alcohol. The crowd confronted the police. Some were pepper-sprayed, but they stood their ground, and were able to get the boy's mom on the phone and later on the scene. She demanded the police release her child and was successful. This 14-year-old kid did not become another statistic.
In what felt like a rare win against the police, the crowd of 200 spontaneously chanted the chorus to Kendrick Lamar's recently released song, "Alright." We gon' be alright! We gon' be alright.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF SIMON AND SCHUSTER
- Wings: Author Marcus J. Moore wrote about this moment in his upcoming book, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, which Simon & Schuster will release on Oct. 13.
"It was a heroic scene, a sea of triumphant black people walking through the streets, passing police cruisers like they weren't even there," he wrote in the book. "The Cleveland demonstration was a flash point for the movement overall and now it had an anthem."
"Alright," arguably one of the most important songs of the decade, is complex, and was initially inspired by Lamar's recent trip to South Africa, where he witnessed extreme poverty, but also resiliency in the people. The song's lyrics confront police brutality with the ferocity and anger that people were feeling, all while Lamar weaved in his own story about battling the dark temptations of fame and greed. It resonated strongly with people.
"It's a personal song that became a protest song because of the public," Moore tells me. "You barely heard it on the radio but the fact that you hear it in the street is more validation for him. In that way it became a protest song because you had all these Black people who took ownership of it. It became their 'Lift Every Voice and Sing.'"
This was one of many moments Lamar's music impacted culture over the past decade, which is the focus of Moore's book.
A year after Cleveland, Lamar delivered one of the best, most provocative Grammy performances ever. He and his crew shuffled on stage in prison chains, silent, demanding the audience digest the meaning behind this powerful image: this "great" country treats Black men like criminals. He performed an incredible medley of "The Blacker the Berry," "Alright," and some previously unreleased material, fueled by tumultuous live jazz and closing with the evocative image of a map of Africa and the word "Compton" written on it. His performance spoke on the complex topics of Black identity, trauma and joy with the emotionality and nuance it required. And people from all walks of life paid attention.
"When you think of the Grammy audience, you're not thinking of a room full of Black people; you're thinking about white people who probably barely know who he is," Moore says. "For him to make that bold statement, along with To Pimp a Butterfly, I think that's what sort of pushed him into the pop canon. It was fearless and it was bold."
The book follows Lamar's life and career, but it focuses on Lamar's importance, which Moore argues has already been significant, despite Lamar still being in the early stages of his career.
"I think he is the greatest rapper of his generation," Moore says. "I feel like the reason that people cling on to him is because he gives his listeners something to dive into that makes them realize that everything is going to be okay as long as you're honest with yourself."
It's probably not possible yet to see all the ways that Lamar has contributed to the larger dialogue. Many of the ways are subtle. But Moore makes a strong case that Lamar has helped broaden the conversation around Black identity in a way that will continue to have ripple effects.
"In current culture, there's this rush to deem everything GOAT-worthy or amazing," Moore says. "I feel like more than anything, Kendrick's impact is that he showed everybody that he's a human. He rapped about his family and friends. He rapped about struggling with self-doubt, depression. He's talking about how he struggled with suicidal thoughts. What he did for Black America was to show the rest of America that we're three-dimensional people. That's even how I ended the book. Where he's like, 'I'm just a guy. I'm just talking about stuff that I can relate to.'"