Photo of Rock Hall at Temple University
Photo: Betsy Manning / Temple University

Noriko Manabe’s article, which breaks down the ambiguities of the Grammy-winning track by rapper Kendrick Lamar, was recognized with an Outstanding Publication Award from the Society for Music Theory last fall.

“We gon’ be alright,” sings Pharrell Williams in the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning hit “Alright.” The song is included on Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, which was released amidst political unrest in the country and at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum. As such, the song quickly became adopted as a protest anthem, and its hook could be heard chanted by activists marching in the streets throughout the United States.

But in her article “We Gon’ Be Alright? The Ambiguities of Kendrick Lamar’s Protest Anthem,” Associate Professor of Music Studies Noriko Manabe argues that the song’s protest message is more likely a result of the context surrounding it, rather than the complex meanings hidden within the music itself.

“I was interested in the fact that the song itself actually sounds more layered than what it is often taken to mean,” said Manabe, who earned an Outstanding Publication Award from the Society of Music Theory (SMT) last October for her analysis of the song.

Manabe has a keen interest in protest music, or the music of social movements. Her 2015 book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima, is about the antinuclear movement in Japan, and much of its analysis focuses on hip-hop. When “Alright” started to gain traction at Black Lives Matter protests, Manabe naturally found herself drawn to the track and decided to conduct a deeper analysis of it.

In her analysis, Manabe argues that “Alright”’s meaning and status as a protest anthem is owed more to its music video or Lamar’s live performances of the song, including his rendition at the 2015 BET Awards. During that performance, Lamar stood atop a police car, and a tattered American flag was projected behind him as he rapped. 

Manabe writes in her article that it is easy to see why “Alright” would be connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, “given such powerful and symbolic visuals in the music video and high-profile performances, coupled with a few lyrics in the song itself.”

When she dove into the music itself, Manabe found that the track’s composition is ambiguous and leaves itself open to multiple interpretations. For example, the song’s beat appears to be in the 4/4 time signature (i.e., beats grouped in fours) that is incredibly common in popular music and hip-hop. But Manabe’s analysis found that the music emphasizes a different pattern, where a group of three beats is followed by a group of five beats (3+5), which is far less common and results in a feeling of uncertainty.

“Sometimes the syllable ‘right’ in ‘alright’ falls on the downbeat, and sometimes it is not on one of those strong beats,” she said. “It gives the track an off-kilter feeling, as if to say, sometimes it’s alright, and sometimes it’s not alright. That, I think, is what’s being communicated.”

Manabe’s article also breaks down Williams’ delivery of the hook, particularly his rising intonation at the end of the word “alright,” which Manabe says can make the phrase sound questioning. “In African American Vernacular English, the uptalk of that rising intonation can be interpreted in a lot of different ways,” she said. “It could be a question, a statement, or it could be ‘are y’all with me or not?’ It could be all sorts of things.”

Perhaps more than anything, Manabe says “Alright” serves as a great demonstration of how art can take on meanings beyond what may have originally been intended by its creators.

“There are lots of hands that become involved in the making of ‘Alright,’ between Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave and all of the people who are involved in the video,” she said. “Then the journalists chime in, and the protestors make it into a protest track. It shows how a sonic creation can never be wholly owned by the creator. It becomes what the public makes it out to be.”

Manabe’s article was the first journal article on hip-hop to receive an award from the SMT. While popular music journals have been publishing works centered on hip-hop for some time, Manabe said that music theory journals have lagged behind in their coverage of the genre. That is changing, however.

“There is an active group of younger music theorists who are working specifically on hip-hop analysis,” Manabe said. “It’s a growing field.”

Manabe is continuing her own work on protest music. Her video on Japanese rock star Kuwata Keisuke using the Beatles’ Abbey Road as a foil to critique the Japanese government was published by SMT’s video journal. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Protest Music, and she is conducting work on Asian American hip-hop and #StopAAPIHate.