Alabama’s got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows ’bout Mississippi, goddam!
Written by legendary singer and pianist Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam” is a furious cry against the June 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the racist bombing, three months later, of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four black girls. More than a half-century later, it remains arguably the most uncompromising protest song ever, manifesting the outrage over bigotry, violence, and oppression.
In the restive year since unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by now-former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, some have evoked Simone’s classic. Others have wondered aloud about when this new civil rights movement, propelled by Black Lives Matter, would find its own song. At last, the streets answered:
“We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!”
Those words, from rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” reverberated after a recent Black Lives Matter conference at Cleveland State University when police used pepper spray to disperse activists blocking a cruiser. In a widely shared video, young African-Americans chanted that lyric from Lamar’s politically astute album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” released earlier this year. It’s unlikely that will be the last time its healing chorus will echo in this nation’s neighborhoods.
As with any dynamic cultural moment, this 21st century civil rights movement is being buoyed by its own unique soundtrack. Music unifies, perhaps never more than in times of social turmoil. It’s a common bond, a succinct language forged from purpose and principle — such as “We Shall Overcome.” Lee Hirsch’s award-winning 2002 documentary, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,” examines the extraordinary role music played in the long fight and eventual fall of apartheid in South Africa. In the film, a white South African police officer admits that he found the toyi-toyi — the cadenced chant and stomp symbolic of antiapartheid protests — so intimidating it made the hair on his neck rise whenever he heard it.
Lamar’s “Alright” has the same effect on those who can’t begin to comprehend the ire of young African-American protesters. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera criticized Lamar’s antipolice-brutality lyrics as “so counterproductive.” He also singled out the Compton rapper’s BET Awards appearance in June, when he performed the song in front of an American flag backdrop while standing on the roof of a graffiti-covered police car. Rivera said it sent “exactly the wrong message.”
It is, however, the right message for a growing number of musicians. Soul savant D’Angelo rushed out his long-awaited third studio album, “Black Messiah,” late last year, compelled by the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner. His song, “The Charade,” featured the stunning line: “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ’stead we only got outlined in chalk.” Prince, whose music has rarely been overtly political, released “Baltimore” shortly after Freddie Gray died while in the custody of Baltimore police. His song includes the lyric, “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace.”
Jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard named his new album “Breathless” as a reference to Garner’s “I can’t breathe” — his final words after being wrestled to the ground in an illegal chokehold by a New York City police officer in July 2014. On the title track, Blanchard changes the “I” of Garner’s plea to “we,” making it the charged lament of, perhaps, an entire generation. Yet, in an interview with Mother Jones, Blanchard makes clear his album also looks toward peace, and a path for moving forward.
That’s what the protesters chanting “We gon’ be alright” seek as well. Both exuberant and defiant, Lamar’s words offer them hope, not helplessness; they celebrate survival, not victimhood. The movement thrives; so will its music — new sounds for a new revolution. As its activists and supporters continue to find their voice, so too will they recognize and embrace their joy, heartbreak, and determination in song.
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.