Analysis of the Rap Songs This is America by Childish Gambino and Alright by Kendrick Lamar: The Usage of Rap as a Tool of Protest

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Investigation
  3. Conclusion


Music plays a very important role in society and has since society began. It is extremely valuable in 2019, from showing and explaining the past by using the music produced in that time, to reflecting society today. Apart from publicising the issues prevalent today, music can also initiate change and protest. It can be used just for pure enjoyment, and while most music is used for that purpose, many songs have underlying tones of protest and judgement against society, whether they be sexism, racism or homophobia. The focus of the songs used, ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino and ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar, in the following points will be on race and the prejudice surrounding it in the United States of America (USA).


Music can directly influence people and the way they live their lives, whether that be in a positive or negative way. Plato stated that ‘Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.’ While this quote shows quite a negative outlook on the fact, it is still true in some ways. Music changes along with society. Every time a drastic change in society occurs in history, the music of that time changes to fit the theme. Whether it is music affecting society or vice versa, the outcome is generally the same. The general opinion of the public is either changed or enforced by the music released. Therefore, music can change society drastically and will continue to for years to come. Music can invoke positive change, such as the Live Aid Festival which raised a lot of money for global poverty by using the many famous artists participating and performing to encourage people to come and donate to the cause. Unfortunately music can affect society in bad ways as well. Certain rap songs for example, contain sexually violent lyrics and therefore, according to Christy Barongan and Gordon C. Nagayama Hall of Kent State University, increase violence against women.

Having said that, there has always been controversy around rap music and while certain lyrics do have a negative impact, when looking at rap as a product of its historical and political circumstances, it can be argued that hip-hop is merely a symptom of violence rather than the cause. Hip-Hop originated in New York City in the 1970s and drew inspiration from music such as jazz, soul, gospel, and reggae. It was created by the working-class African-Americans and grew to reflect and influence the black youth in the city. Rappers were the voice of the disadvantaged and underprivileged and rap’s potential for political advocacy stems from the history of African-Americans: from their beginnings in West Africa to their enslavement in the USA, to the struggles against segregation after emancipation, to the continuing battles against economic segregation and the reclamation of their cultural identity.

By the 1980s, rap had become commercialised and started to lose its significance as a form of resistance. As rap became increasingly popular, it became more of a business rather than a way of coping with the struggles faced everyday by those in poverty. Rap lost its effect and while some rap songs are still protesting against the injustices faced by African-Americans, many include possibly inappropriate topics such as violence, sex, and drugs. However, much of the violence mentioned in these songs reflects the culture and history of the group and the results caused by racial prejudice and poverty.

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One such song is ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino which was released in May 2018. It is a rap song and generally appeals to the youth of society, particularly the African-American youth. This song focuses on the many issues facing America today, such as racism, police brutality, gun violence, and the fact that so many people are ignorant of these problems due to social media. All of these critiques voiced in the song are never explicitly made but instead are thinly-veiled jabs at these issues. In the music video, we see Gambino shoot a guitarist while his body contorts similarly to the old Jim Crow caricature which is a reference to slavery and how this dark history still affects black Americans today. Soon after, we see him place the gun on a red cloth held by a young boy. This highlights the gun epidemic in the USA and the idea that guns are treated with more respect than human lives. “Police be trippin’ now” is a direct reference to police brutality in America. “Get your money, Black man” points to the hard truth faced by many successful African-Americans: that even though he is now successful, he will always be faced with prejudice and racism.

This also references the complicated relationship between fame and suffering for people of colour. Most famous African-Americans have had to use their pain and suffering to get any recognition at all. ‘This is America’ reflects the desire for black people to use any available platform to show that they are suffering. So they relive trauma in order to make it into art, only for mainstream America to consume it and ignore the truth. “Look how I’m geekin’ out. I’m so fitted, I’m so Gucci, I’m so pretty, I’m gon’ get it, watch me move” is how Gambino mimics those who are easily distracted from social issues by social media and materialism. The video also showcases this by the dance moves distracting the audience from everything that is happening in the background. At the very end of the video, we see Gambino running in the dark with people chasing him. There could be many reasons for why they are chasing him: for causing all of the destruction or for revealing the truth. Possibly, the most sinister reason is that they plan to force Gambino back into his scripted role where the black entertainer is not a mirror but a toy.

‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar highlights other issues stemming from racial injustice, namely mental health. It was released in June 2015 and also falls into the rap genre and appeals to the American youth, particularly black men. Mental health has always been an issue in the black community due to the legacy of slavery. While suffering and depression is seen as a normal part of life, suicide is seen as cowardly and sinful. ‘Alright’ is used as a protest song in the context of police brutality. “Alls my life I has to fight” is a reference to the novel, ‘The Colour Purple’ as well as Lamar’s own struggle with depression. “But homicide be looking at you from the face down” as well as “…po-po wanna kill us dead in the streets fo sho’” are references to police brutality and the constant fear people of colour live in. “We gon’ be alright” is repeated throughout the song as a message of hope, that despite the pain and suffering, they will survive. Lamar’s personal experience with depression, suicide, and survivor’s guilt and how it relates to the racial discrimination he faces is what makes this song truly great.


These two songs, along with many others, are a call back to how rap music used to be: for protest. ‘This is America’ focuses mainly on the complicated relationship between fame and suffering while ‘Alright’ focuses on the mental health of African-American men. Both songs reference current issues, such as police brutality, gun violence and racism. They show the general public what is happening in the USA. Thus music does play a very important role in society, whether it be to spark change or to reflect issues that need to be solved.

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