A writer and mother asks, “What is the anthem of today’s civil rights movement?”
by Adiba Nelson
As we anxiously await November, the protests for racial justice continue. Black men and women are still being shot by the police, and—to add salt to an already festering wound—so are peaceful protesters calling for change. Does this sound familiar? Does it sound like the stories we’ve heard about the violence that erupted at civil rights marches of the 60s? Of hoses and dogs and the white men who wielded them against Black men and women and children?
When you think of all this, do you hear music? I do.
Some songs of the time, some older – but always a soundtrack to the bleeding out of a nation. Life is being simultaneously rocked and comforted by a playlist of raucous protest and defiant healing. But this is nothing new – my grandma taught me that.
We Shall Overcome: Grandma Ann, As Observed from the Orange Couch
My Grandma Ann lived in a large apartment on a tree-lined street in the Bronx. When you entered her home, you were greeted by the strangest, plastic-covered, octagonal dining room table. And the chairs, instead of circling the table, sat against the wall facing the kitchen. In her living room was a wall of mirrors and a plastic-covered, orange-velvet couch. As memorable as my grandmother’s furniture was, what stays with me are the pictures that hung on her walls: prints of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakhan, and a snapshot of her and my grandfather, dressed to the nines and surrounded by their children.
Grandma Ann would sit beneath those images and hum, usually a slow, almost melancholy song. I would watch her from the sticky plastic couch as she swayed back and forth, patting the rhythm on her large round knee. I never knew the lyrics to the song she hummed and often wondered if she did either.
Many years later, as a young adult, I heard the song sung at a NAACP conference. “We Shall Overcome,” the great anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Of course. It had been hummed into my childhood.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that song lately, and about Grandma Ann humming it, staring up at the leaders of her day. Was she humming that anthem to them, to her late husband and children, or to me? And if that was her anthem, what is mine?
The lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” are somewhat slow and repetitive, and if I’m being honest, they don’t truly move me until I get to the penultimate verse:
“The truth shall set us free, the truth shall set us free
The truth shall set us free someday
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
The truth shall set us free someday”
Truth: noun, a fact or belief that is accepted as true.
Free: verb, release from captivity, confinement, or slavery.
The truth shall set us free—but whose truth?
I’ve wondered about this final verse because truth is subjective, as is the concept of “free/freedom.” What is true for the oppressor is never true for the oppressed, and what looks like freedom to one man looks like a jail cell to another.
What was freedom for Black folks of my grandmother’s time? Was it the freedom to move through life, no longer held captive in slavery of any form, without the fear that they would be killed unceremoniously?
Was it the freedom to operate a business and compete with local markets? My grandfather owned a barber shop, so was his the freedom my grandmother hummed, rocked, and patted for? The freedom that comes with not having to rely on white people for your livelihood? On whose belief system were the freedom riders, MLK, and my grandmother banking, to grant them this version of “free” they clung to so tightly? Were they hoping a white lawmaker somewhere would hold a certain set of truths to be self-evident? The truth that Black people were equal to white men and women, that they deserved the same legal rights and protections afforded to white men and women, and that they were worthy of the same kind and amount of dignity and respect based on the fact that they too, were human beings? One could not deny that this truth was, and is, self-evident.
Everything that barred Black people from these truths, these freedoms—every murderous glance, every threat, every overt aggression and every microaggression, every sideways glance, spit on their path, hushed judgement, rushed judgement, child killed, woman raped, man hung—all of it, I believe, laced every word of “We Shall Overcome.”
But that penultimate stanza, proclaiming “The truth shall set us free one day”? That verse was pregnant with the protest of the conditions of the day and birthed hope for a future unseen. Hope that future generations would come to know this protest song as “a relic,” a song once sung, but no longer needed.
I think my grandmother knew she might not live to see the overcoming, but she hummed, rocked and patted hope into her knee, and from my perch on her plastic-covered, orange-velvet couch, my soul heard it.
F— Tha Police: Searching for Self in Secret
If Black folks were trying to overcome in the sixties, by the eighties we were over it and ready to burn it all down.
I was raised in New York City, alternating between Queens and the Bronx. If you know anything about music you know that the Bronx is the birthplace of hip hop, and Queens was home to some of the best rappers in the game—LL Cool J, Run DMC, Kool G Rap, just to name a few.
I used to watch my neighbor, Jason, breakdance on a flattened cardboard box in his driveway with his friends every day after school. The worm, the robot, the helicopter. The boys lived for those moves. And I lived to watch them. And to hear their music, which Jason played off a boombox. As soon as I would hear Kurtis Blow’s infamous “These Are the Breeeeaaaakkkkksssss,” I knew it was time to throw open my window and hang half of my body out of it, hollering “Go! Go! Go!” in my squeaky six-year-old voice.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap in the house. English was not my mom’s first language and she couldn’t always understand what rappers were saying, which meant she couldn’t decide whether or not it was “safe.” So, I was left to “listen” only when Jason and his friends battled in the driveway.
In 1988 we moved to Arizona, where everyone was talking about N.W.A., the rappers from Compton, CA, and their string of hits—“Straight Outta Compton,” “Dopeman,” and the infamous “F— Tha Police.” Not surprisingly, my mom didn’t let me listen to them.
Coming from the east, I was new to Black life on the West Coast. Where I came from, I’d seen a disproportionate number of Black people living on the streets and plenty of drug use, but I had never heard of gangs, had never seen or heard of police brutality. Were those things happening in New York? Of course, but the music my neighbors were listening to didn’t tell those tales—at least not that I could tell. On the West Coast, it was all about the Bloods and Crips and the corrupt LAPD.
My mother gave N.W.A. a hard pass, but that didn’t stop me from sneaking it through a friend’s headphones at school. The group told stories about their life experiences—from drugs to women to the police. They painted pictures with their lyrics, criticized politicians, and shined a light on a subject that no one wanted to talk about—the abject treatment of Black people at the hands of the police. They were the lyrical definition of a modern-day protest.
This universe I knew nothing about scared the living daylights out of me, but it also fascinated me. It highlighted a movement I knew I somehow belonged to, based on the color of my skin, but one I couldn’t fully access based on the protection of my mother. I searched for myself in the lyrics, scoured every line looking for where I fit in.
Every generation has been bad for Black folks in one way or another, but now I was old enough to understand was happening. And N.W.A.’s music helped me see and hear it.
“F— Tha Police” was the late ’80s/early ’90s anthem for civil rights.
“F*** the police comin’ straight from the underground
A young n**** got it bad ’cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
F*** that shit, ’cause I ain’t the one
For a punk m*********** with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
F*****’ with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every n**** is sellin’ narcotics
You’d rather see, me in the pen
Than me and Lornzo rollin’ in a Benz-o”
Violent? Yes. Explicit? Absolutely. Alive with the imagery of a life lived in the crosshairs? One hundred percent.
It’s easy to see how my mom only heard the cursing and use of the n-word, strictly forbidden in our house, and said “Nope.” But in those raps, I heard stories about people who looked like some of my friends at school. I heard anger and frustration and a “fed-upness” with a system that refused to see Black people as worthy of life, much less dignity. I heard my friends talk about their brothers and cousins who’d had run-ins with the police, and it never ended well.
One kid, I’ll call him John, had been arrested a couple of times by age 12 because he “fit the description.” John was no angel, but no 12-year-old boy on this planet fits the description of a full-grown man. The only description John fit was “Black,” which was not enough to place handcuffs on a child.
So, N.W.A. had every single right to yell their rage, the collective rage, into every single microphone they came across. John was the “young n**** who had it bad cause he’s brown,” as the lyrics went. Black boys and men have never been safe enough to merely exist in this world. So the violence N.W.A. rapped about, along with their rage and their cursing, made sense to me. It was a kind of verbal riot, one that captured all the things that I—and so many of my Black friends—were feeling.
Alright: Full Circle
I’ve listened to music with my daughter Emory since she was in my womb. In utero, my daughter was introduced to Buena Vista Social Club, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Jill Scott, Pearl Jam, Mozart, and so many more. I loved watching my belly move in undulating waves when Emory heard the sound of John Coltrane or bounce up and down whenever she heard the unmistakable timbre and cadence of a Jay-Z hook. I relished every moment of those times.
As my daughter has grown, music has remained a staple in our home. Dance parties happened almost daily until she was seven, me lifting her out of her wheelchair, twirling and dipping her low, twerking with her on my hip and making her laugh. Much like I watched my grandmother, she watches me from her car seat or her wheelchair, as I hold dance parties and lip sync concerts for one in the car, or in the living room.
She’s eleven now, too heavy for me to carry, so I spin her around in her chair or roll her back and forth, while she shimmies her shoulders, bobs her head, does the hand bounce. I don’t shield my daughter from music unless it is sexually explicit. It is important to me that my daughter finds aspects of herself in song and identifies with a movement centered around her very existence as a Black person in America.
The first time I heard Kendrick Lamar’s anthem “Alright” with my daughter, we were in the car on the way to school. Flipping through the R&B and HipHop stations on satellite radio, I heard a saxophone through my speakers and held the channel there. It was the Black folks anthem that spoke to our resilience in the current day and time, written by a kid from Compton.
“Alls my life I…hard times like yah! Bad trips like yah!” Kendrick sings. “Nazareth, I’m f***** up, Homie you f***** up, But if God got us then we gon’ be alright!”
I instinctively went into head bob and hand bounce mode, but my kid did something I’d never seen her do. In my rear view mirror, I saw her tiny six-year-old fist punch into the air in time to the music. I didn’t say a word.
You see, up to this point we’d never had an explicit discussion about her Blackness, or the fact that she has a disability. We’d never discussed the fact that men who look like her father, women that look like her mother, and children that look like her are killed on a regular basis because a system that never deemed us equal too often sees us as a threat, simply because of the color of our skin.
This world will want her to believe that she is not “alright,” but at that moment she seemed to know what Kendrick Lamar was saying. That she, too, was gonna be alright.
If you believe that looking adversity in the eye and proclaiming “You can’t break me” is a form of protest, then that is exactly what Kendrick Lamar was effectuating with this song. And Emory, my small human, picked up on it immediately.
I tossed the lyrics around in my head, like a prayer. How does such a song happen? What births lyrics that simultaneously enrage and offer hope?
Kawan Prather, aka KP The Great, producer and co-writer of “Alright,” told me the song came from a place of truth.
“There are a lot of artists who have no choice but to speak their truth, and their truth is based on their environment, their surroundings, and the events that happen,” he said. “A true artist can paint that picture really well, but not every artist works that way. There are some artists that make music to escape that, and there are artists that make aspirational music. But the music all comes from an honest place of either aspiration or hope,” Prather said.
Is that what my daughter connected to? Was she connecting to the delicate hope and the brazen truth that was woven into the lyrics of “Alright”?
“Wouldn’t you know
We been hurt, been down before, N****
When our pride was low
Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go, N****?”
And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, N****
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright”
For Prather, “Alright” is an anthem, one that captures the full spectrum of the civil rights struggle, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If you just take ‘We gon’ be alright’ by itself, it could be ‘Don’t worry be happy’,” he told me. “But if you add ‘If we do these things for ourselves’ it adds a different layer. If you add a layer of spirituality, it brings something else. If you bring ‘and if all else fails’, you know what I’m saying, it’s a Malcolm/Martin song. Progress is needed, and there are different tactics to get to that equality that we need. I think this song gives enough to the voice and the voices that are looking for it.”
My mind blown, I had to go back and listen to the song a few times. Lo and behold there it was: Malcolm and Martin, with such subtlety, the two most notable activists of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, their dichotomies as allegory over slick beats.
“I’m at the preacher’s door, my knees getting’ weak and my gun might blow, But we gon’ be alright.
In his famous speech, “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop,” the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (the preacher) said, “Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
Malcolm X, on the other hand, said, “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
In 2020, there have been peaceful protests, sit-ins, and “rallies” held in front of prosecutors’ homes. And there have also been riots, riots, and more riots. All are warranted. All have their rightful place in the movement.
As Kawan said, “We have walked fast, we have walked slow, we have been quiet, and we have been loud.”
My grandmother often said, “When you don’t listen, you feel.”
Martin, the preacher, wanted us to be heard. Malcolm, the radical (a word I use as compliment), was okay with his demands being felt, if it came to that. If Martin was “We Shall Overcome,” Malcolm was “F— Tha Police.” And now, 52 years later, we need both. So Kendrick Lamar gave us “Alright.”
Have we reached the apex of our own “Martin and Malcolm moment” conversation in society? Are we witnessing what happens after “the gun blows”? Is there a bullet whizzing through everything we’ve come to know as “American culture”? Are we the bullet? Protest music has come full circle, and we are living at the center of it all.
What I see on my daughter’s face when she hears the tell-tale horn of Lamar’s anthem, “Alright,” and her fist pierces the air, feels something like revolution. The change that might be possible in the near future. I wish Grandma Ann could see it.
Kawan said Quincy Jones once told him that when producing music, one should leave space for God to enter the room.
Amen. May God keep entering the room, because we haven’t overcome yet.
But maybe we’re closer to the truth.
Adiba Nelson is a freelance writer and author, based in Tucson, AZ. Her debut memoir, Ain’t That A Mother, will be published Spring 2022 by Blackstone Publishing.