Last Wednesday here in Baltimore, a small group of protesters, including many familiar faces from the past year of activism, gathered for the 122nd consecutive West Wednesday though it also felt like a semi-official celebration of what was, in retrospect, the start of the Baltimore Uprising.
See, the Baltimore Uprising began one year ago around this time, months before the death of Freddie Gray. On Nov. 24, 2014, a Missouri grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That next day, Baltimore erupted in protests—along with cities around the nation—decrying the lack of police accountability. Hundreds in Baltimore took to the streets at various demonstrations around the city—a turnout that was surprising and sudden. It was clear this would not be an isolated incident: Baltimore's response to Ferguson laid the groundwork for April's uprising following the death of Freddie Gray.
Now, a year later, it sometimes feels like little has changed. Last Tuesday, many watched (or chose not to watch and just consider) the shooting of Laquan MacDonald, a 17-year-old from Chicago. The teen, armed with a knife, appeared to be walking away from police, but was shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times. The video finally appeared—it took more than a year for the public to see it. Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder and protesters, after viewing the video, took to the streets in Chicago that night. This week, the first of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death goes to trial.
This past West Wednesday, which fell on the one-year anniversary of the start of the uprising, was also a vigil for Laquan MacDonald and all other victims of police brutality, including of course Tyrone West, who died in police custody in July 2013. Because West's death was not high-profile like Freddie Gray's—it was not yet profitable for the news to cover alleged police brutality and terror—he has, by way of his family's radically inclusive spirit, been absorbed by the movement—he is every and any victim of alleged police brutality, it seems.
After members of the West family and a number of others activists spoke, the group began singing Kendrick Lamar's 'Alright.' The song, which finds Lamar, with some rasp in his throat, the sound of spit hitting the microphone, announcing "And we hate po-po/ When they kill us dead in the street for sure" and on the hook, half-singing words of encouragement, "I'm fucked up, homie, you fucked up/ but if god got us then we gonna be alright," has become the anthem for what is so clearly now the second civil rights movement.
This makes sense. 'Alright' is a catchy, political track from a record that everybody under 30 knows and loves. And 'Alright,' a hit from a mega-successful pop-political rapper with a wizened sense of responsibility, answers all of those nostalgists who worry about why this movement isn't like the other movements from back in the day. 'Alright' is the 'What's Going On' of right now. And Lamar's album "To Pimp A Butterfly," like the song, is masterful though conflicted, and sometimes frustrating, political art—it is touched by victim-blaming, respectability politics, and other things that have to go. I keep thinking about Lamar's 2011 track 'HiiiPower' which invokes Fred Hampton, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale, because it seems like something has changed in the rapper in four years. He's become safer though his voice is louder and more important. This is America and Lamar is no longer a runty MC on the internet who can name-drop Black Panthers, but a superstar. And whether that's a change in attitude or the game you play to be on a major label, it's the weird confluence of politics, star power, and music industry bet-hedging that created 'Alright,' a song everybody knows and that might be more important than reminding listeners that Fred Hampton was pretty much assassinated by the Chicago police in 1969. Plus, none of that close-reading matters much when a group of activists are singing its encouraging words to one another in front of City Hall. Pop music sells escapism and at least Lamar, who knows the extent of police terror, is offering hope we can trust.
During the uprising though, the song I heard most was Future's 'March Madness,' which bemoans police brutality in one breath and celebrates getting extremely fucked up in another (this, by the way, feels more accurate to real life than the laser-focused, hyper-cogent rage of proper political rappers anyway; rarely are we only concerned with injustice). And on the anniversary of Mike Brown's death at a march here in Baltimore that began at Penn-North, a man pushed a shopping cart with a giant speaker in it, blasting another track from Future, 'Trap Niggas,' whose hook goes, "God blessin' all the trap niggas." That murky burst of empathy for drug dealers—soldiers in the drug war—is a protest song too. And I'm not so sure that Future is less "political" than Lamar either.
But neither artist's songs have been ringing in my head since last week. What has are stray phrases from 'Do The Right Thing,' a poem performed at West Wednesday last week by Mohamed Tall. Its refrain, "I got a target on my body somebody, please protect me," works a lot like a catchy rap hook, and it's followed by a flurry of polysyllabic points, observations, turns of phrase, and a dramatic recreation of the famous "We want some brothers on the wall" scene from Spike Lee's masterful movie from which Tall's poem gets its name. Tall's poem has a second, more searing refrain too: "So when I pick up my gun to protect my son, don't look at me like I'm crazy, because I told you, I got a target on my body somebody."
Tall's 'Do The Right Thing' is lyrically ambitious like Lamar and unflinching like Future. And though "I got a target on my body somebody, please protect me" offers no solutions like 'Alright,' just some hope and anger at the same time, it does roll off the tongue like "we gonna be alright." And as protesters gear up again—and we're all wondering how police will handle the situation—I hope to hear this homebrewed, hypnotic poem (that's not signed off on by a corporation) chanted at protests as well.