For the longest time, society has used art to discuss numerous issues that plague society, allowing for better discourse to enhance relationships within societal factions and groups. Art allows people to delve into critical subjects and fields in society, ensuring that the analysis derived from these endeavors achieves productivity and hence contributes to the development of society. Music is an art form that enables people to express their feelings regarding various societal issues with the aim of inquiry or enlightenment of society. The widespread influence that music has on the world makes it a perfect tool to sensitize the masses, discuss critical topics in a relatable way and hence achieve developmental discourse in society that involves every faction and group. A key issue that plagues society and is often the basis of various musical genres is racism. Racism has had a devastating toll on the African American community, and musical genres such as Hip-hop and Soul have been critical means to articulate their plight. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on?” are two songs that cover the issue of racism. The two songs have various comparisons regarding their musical composition as well as structure. Further, their lyrical and musical connections articulate themes such as police brutality, the hope of African American struggle, and their different approaches to combat the racial violence inflicted upon African Americans. This paper delves into the two songs’ articulation of race, their musical composition, and their music-lyric connection.
Discussion of Social Issue
Racism is a social issue that entails the discrimination and prejudice inflicted on a person or groups of people” based on their skin color or ethnic group” ( Schwartz 280). Throughout history, racism has had devastating consequences on the people and groups involved, and the main example is the African American demographic. African Americans in the United States have, for the longest time, faced a difficult time due to the racial prejudice that exists in the county. The origins of racism in the country date back to the county’s beginnings, and it entailed African Americans being held captive by Caucasian persons in plantations where they toiled and lived under harsh conditions. Fast-forward to 1865, slavery was abolished, but the racial discrimination that stemmed from it continued. African Americans continued to face this discrimination even after the abolishment of slavery, with numerous acts of violence inflicted upon them through the various forms of racism that emerged. According to Schwartz, abolishing slavery in the United States did not help the African American demographic since they have” continued to be slaves to this day” (281). The racial equality struggle in the United States has entailed numerous iconic figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, and multiple civil rights groups, such as the Black Panthers Party and the Black Lives Matter movement. These organizations and key civil rights leaders have been at the forefront of fighting for racial equality in the county, even as the country’s law enforcement system continues to inflict untold suffering on the African American demographic. Music has been a critical tool used over the years in the fight against racism, with numerous African American artists across multiple genres highlighting the racial issues in America, and its widespread nature has made it possible for the whole world to realize the adverse effects the social vice has on people.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Marvin Gaye’s “What Going On?” deploy different musical tones and pitch elements to highlight the similar issue of race. The song “Alright” entails an upbeat tempo even as Kendrick raps over the fast beat and articulates his central theme of race in the song. The song uses fast drum beats and background vocals, contributing to the allure of the song. The background vocals complement Kendrick’s rapping since they aid in blending the song’s upbeat nature with its somber message. On the other hand, “What Going On?” uses a slower tempo and beat, with Marvin Gaye’s singing and vocal being predominant. The song’s theme gets well-articulated using Marvin Gaye’s slow and rhythmical singing since he seeks to show the sadness the African American demographic has experienced due to race.
A key comparison element between the two songs is the different genres that they each belong to. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is a song that falls within the HipHop rap category, and a vital element of the song that contributes to this attribute is the rapping. Rapping entails rhyming words and speeches occurring over a musical beat, and Kendrick Lamar deploys this musical style in his song. The melodic beat of the song is fast-paced, and Kendrick raps over this fast beat skillfully as he asserts his central theme regarding police brutality and the overall effects of racism on African Americans. On the other hand, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” is a song from the musical genre of soul and RnB, and this attribute is due to the song’s slow beat and vocals by both Marvin Gaye and his background singers. In the song, Marvin Gaye sings with a melody over its musical beat, with background vocals that help enhance its rhythm ability. The Soul RnB musical genre entails a significant amount of singing, usually by one or more singers, and background vocals mostly get used to accentuate the song’s rhythm as well as its somber mood.
The use of choruses on songs has, for the longest time, allowed for the emphasis on a particular theme across musical genres, and this aspect is present in both songs. In the song “Alright” Kendrick Lamar uses the words “we gonna be alright” as the chorus as he seeks to reaffirm his message of the hope African Americans have despite the pain inflicted upon them due to racism. Similarly, Marvin Gaye uses the words “what’s going on” as the chorus, which aid to show the song’s theme and key message. A significant difference in both songs’ chorus is the number of times they are used since Alright uses its chorus three times, while “What’s Going On?” uses its chorus twice with more pre-choruses than “Alright.” Also, both songs have outros, and Marvin Gaye uses ad-libs for his outro, signifying the song’s ending. On the other hand, Kendrick’s outro entails a poem reflective of the song’s theme.
Music Lyric Connections
The two songs have lyrics that connect to many aspects of racism, with a particular aim of its criticism, and one such criticism is the damnation of police brutality inflicted on African American persons. In Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” he sings, “And we hate popos, when they kill us dead in the streets for sure” ( Manabe). From this lyric, Kendrick Lamar shows the racial violence that the police inflict on African Americans, so much that they deeply disdain them. African Americans have long suffered immense pain and death at the hands of African Americans, and this racial dynamic has resulted in them hating law enforcement officers. Marvin Gaye sings, “Don’t Punish me, Brother, with brutality” ( Sciurba et al. 73), and this lyric highlights the sense of violence that the police have continued to inflict on African Americans
Alright and “What’s Going On?” both highlight through their lyrics the pain and suffering that African Americans go through due to their skin color, with them having hope in spite of this pain. Marvin Gaye sings, “Oh but who are they to judge us because our hair is long.? We’ve got to find a way” ( Sciurba et al. 75). In this lyric, Marvin Gaye shows that despite the racial judgment that African American persons receive due to their skin color, they have to find a way to surpass these challenges and find happiness amongst themselves. Similarly, Kendrick articulates the same rhetoric through the lyrics, “I’m fucked up homie you fucked up, but if God got us, then we gonna be alright” ( Manabe). He remains hopeful from a spiritual perspective since he believes God will absolve them of the racial difficulties they endure in the country.
The pain and suffering that racism has inflicted on the African American demographic make them tired of the pain and suffering, and the two songs have divergent views on how to end this suffering. In Marvin Gaye’s song, he sings, “We don’t need to escalate. See war is not the answer”. From this lyric, Marvin advocates peaceful means of addressing the senseless racial prejudice and violence inflicted on African Americans. He believes that using violence to address the violence they face will be meaningful and not achieve any results. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar advocates for more drastic measures since he is tired of the pain and suffering they have experienced. Kendrick raps, “my knees getting weak and my gun might blow, but we gonna be alright” ( Manabe). This lyric articulates Kendrick’s message of using violence since non-violence can no longer work to end the racial prejudice they face. The gun reference n the lyric alludes to the violent measures that should be taken to address the racial discrimination and violence they face from the police.
In conclusion, racial discrimination is a social issue that has continued to plague society, and artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Marvin Gaye have used their artistic talents to address it. Racism has, for the longest time, had adverse effects on the African American demographic, and it dates back to the days of slavery, with its effects continuing to be felt to date. Music provides a means for people to address critical societal issues, and the songs “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye achieve this feat exceptionally. The paper discusses the various comparisons of the two songs, such as their musical genres, Hip-hop and Soul RnB, as well as their composition, with one being fast-paced while the other being slow-pitched, and their structure, such as the choruses’ compositions. The two songs’ music and lyrical connections also get covered, with elements such as the police brutality themes in both coming to light and the hope for African Americans despite their suffering. In addition, both songs’ lyrics show different views regarding addressing the pain and suffering of African Americans, with Kendrick advocating for more severe measures while Marvin Gaye advocating for more peaceful and non-violent measures.
Manabe, Noriko. “We Gon’Be Alright? The Ambiguities of Kendrick Lamar’s Protest Anthem.” Music Theory Online 25.1 (2019).
Schwartz, Stephan A. “Police brutality and racism in America.” Explore (New York, NY) 16.5 (2020): 280-282.
Sciurba, Katie, and Keelie Bauman. “Rising Up with Our Students: Music, Visual Texts, and Literacies of America.” English Journal 111.5 (2022): 71-78.