“It’s like you hungry. You reached your level. You don’t want anymore. We asked 10 years ago. We was asking with the Panthers. We was asking with them, you know, in the Civil Rights Movement.  We was asking. Now those people that was asking, they’re all dead or in jail. So now what do you think we’re gonna do?”-Tupac Shakur

There are many ways to engage with the world. For me, it’s through music. Life mused to a soundtrack as vast as my experiences.

Play SWV’s “Right Here (Human Nature) Remix” and I’ll pop back to a family trip to Niagara Falls, me 5 years old sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s jeep as he cut off the ignition. I’ll remember cruising with him down North Carolina backroads to an oldies station that played Michael Jackson’s original on a Sunday evening. It’ll take me back to a boarding school dorm room in Durham when my best friend and I discovered we were kindred spirits. Or to dancing in the middle of a Cameroonian dance hall for my 24th birthday.

Music is a muscle memory, one I flex often. I know as much about myself from the ways I’ve adapted beats and melodies as I do from family stories overheard during Thanksgiving or watching my grandma make her version of the family’s homemade mac and cheese.

I am the product of lyrical legacies. Ones I build on and break off because I listen to them often as I learn to live.

But as much as this is about me, it isn’t. This sensibility is a black tradition, as old as being black in America and as necessary as ever. Music’s how we build. How we bridge. How we resist. How we do this with ancestors, comrades and kids. It’s how we experiment together across time and space to claim the right to have the space to be present at all times.

So why is this being denied today as one generation takes up the task for social justice from those before?

In a Washington Post op-ed, former Civil Rights Movement activist Barbara Reynolds discussed her reservations, like some of her contemporaries, for supporting today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The reasons are plentiful. We let profanity slip off our tongues and we come ready to dismantle white supremacy unencumbered by suits and ties. We don’t apologize for ourselves and we do not deny that we may not forgive or that forgiveness is not enough. We don’t organize ourselves on church pews.

And yet we still organize, even if the terms are not the same as those of our predecessors. Even if those terms echo in the songs that we sing. Even if that means we sing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” over “We Shall Overcome.”

The latter has carried our people for centuries. While we associate much of its political power from the marches of the 1950s and 1960s, the roots of the melody are as deep as the Southern soil so many of our people were forcefully brought here to tend. In 1901, Charles Albert Tindley published “I’ll Overcome Someday” from which the lyrics derive. And yet before the turn of the century, the refrain we recognize today was sung over cotton buds under the sun as a work song , “I’ll be alright someday.”

Sound familiar?

While Reynolds finds it difficult to hear the resonance between the tunes of Baby Boomers and her generation’s babies, is this because the tunes are truly different or a problem of being open to listening? As the children her generation bore and raised, why isn’t there the benefit of the doubt that we heard them? That we still hear them?

“Alright” for us today does what “We Shall Overcome” did for Reynolds. “Alright” for us today does what “I’ll Be Alright Someday” did during slavery. It is an affirmation of us for us. It is a reminder that our work is not in vain, that our work is our future and that our future will be one of freedom, regardless of how treacherous the journey to get there.

The fact that we’ve changed the lyrics doesn’t deny our links; it’s an honoring of them. We have witnessed the patience of those passed and prided them for pressuring our country to pass laws that honor our dignity as human beings. And there was progress. But in 2015 we continue to fight for our lives and watch the same country dismantle those very laws by using our steps forward to hold us back.

The old strategies no longer suffice. And neither do the songs.

We are unapologetically ourselves in whatever way we choose to be because our predecessors sacrificed themselves for respectability and it was still not enough. We are claiming our right to be flawed — and for this we are, as we say, flawless. We do not wait and this is how we dare fear. How we hold each other. How we get over. How we gon’ get free.

Yes our tactics are unconventional, but only because new conventions are necessary. So while we sing “we gon’ be alright,” it is, quite frankly, only because we inherited it from those before us, like Reynolds, who said “we shall.”


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