Essential Question

How have musicians responded to the Black Lives Matter movement?

Overview

(Note: this lesson contains some profanity. Teacher discretion advised.)

On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Black teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, who was part of the neighborhood watch program in a Sanford, Florida community, shot Martin after a physical altercation. Martin was unarmed. When Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder, protests erupted across the country, both on foot and online. In response to the verdict, activist Alicia Garza wrote a note on Facebook affirming her love for Black people and that their lives matter. The post went viral, leading friend Patrisse Cullors to repost Garza’s statement to Twitter with the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. The hashtag soon became a slogan, then, with the help of activist Opal Tometi, an online campaign. After the 2014 killing of unarmed Black teen Mike Brown by a Ferguson police officer, Black Lives Matter gained further momentum and became an organization with chapters nationwide.

Black Lives Matter is a new movement, reminiscent of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, but one of the digital age where activism occurs as much in virtual spaces as it does real spaces. The movement calls for not only justice for Black Americans affected by police brutality, but for social, political, and economic power in Black communities. Black Lives Matter advocates for the eradication of poverty, addressing the mass incarceration problem, and ensuring that Black queer, trans, and disabled lives matter too. As it has grown in notoriety, politicians, actors, athletes, musicians, and other public figures have also joined in the movement.

One of the most applauded and debated projects to come out of the Black Lives Matter movement is Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly, which features the song “Alright.” Not only was the single a commercial success, but its chorus, “we gonna be alright,” was chanted at protests across the country in response to cases of police brutality and other unrests. It was only a short amount of time before “Alright” became associated with older protest songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Fight the Power.” Lamar orchestrated political performances around the song: during the 2015 BET Awards, he performed the song atop police cars in front of a torn American flag, and at the 2016 Grammy Awards he performed the song while wearing shackles.  Thanks in part to these performances, “Alright” became, for many, an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. But Kendrick Lamar isn’t the only megastar to connect their work to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The day before her February 2016 appearance at the NFL Super Bowl 50 halftime show, Beyoncé surprised fans with the unannounced release of a new single, “Formation.” The song charted a new, more political and unapologetically black direction for Beyoncé. At her Superbowl performance, the new lyrical direction of “Formation” was visualized through the  all-black outfits featuring military style jackets and leather berets Beyoncé and her dancers donned, which were reminiscent of both Michael Jackson and the Black Panther party. Behind the scenes photos showed Beyoncé and her dance team throwing up one fist, a gesture often associated with Black power. The song and the performance caused an uproar. Some police unions called for a boycott of Beyoncé. But writers and activists praised the performance for its pro-Black women sentiment. Indeed, many consider “Formation” a Black women’s anthem due to lyrics expressing pride in Black culture and physical features, such as a nose with “Jackson Five nostrils,”  and an Afro hairstyle with slicked baby hairs.

In this lesson, students will read statements from Black Lives Matter and watch a clip from CNN’s Soundtracks to explore the significance of the movement and the music made in response to the issues they rally behind. Students will also analyze clips from the music videos of artists Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter to understand music’s relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

View More

Objectives

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The formation and mission of the Black Lives Matter organization and movement
    • The significance of an anthem to a group of people
    • How Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” celebrate Black culture in America and relate to the Black Lives Matter movement
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to define an anthem by exploring how Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” celebrates Black culture, while also speaking out against racism in America. Students will also draw connections between the songs and the goals of the Black Lives Matter organization.

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • What is an anthem? What makes a song an anthem?
    • Can you think of a song that defines a historical moment you have experienced in your lifetime, or speaks to your identity? Would you consider that song an anthem? Why or why not?

Procedure:

  1. Ask students:
    • What do you know about the Black Lives Matter movement and organization? When did you first hear about it, and where?
    • What issues do you think Black Lives Matter confronts?
  2. Pair students together, and give each pair Handout 1 –  Black Lives Matter Document Set.  Have each student in the pair read one document in the handout, and then summarize what they’ve read with their partner, mentioning the main ideas of the reading. After student pairs have gotten a sense of both documents in this way, convene as a class. Ask students:
    • What is Black Lives Matter?
    • How is it organized? Who are the founders?
    • What inspired its formation?
    • What are the goals of Black Lives Matter ?
    • What are the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter? How do these principles connect to their overall goals?
    • Considering the beliefs and mission of the organization, what do you think art inspired by Black Lives Matter might look or sound like?
  3. Tell students they will be looking at two songs that have become connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. Play Clip 1, “Alright” and ask students:
    • Have you heard this song before? Where?
    • According to the clip, Rev. Jesse Jackson tried to get demonstrators to sing the song “We Shall Overcome.” What is the historical relevance of this song?
    • According to the clip, why didn’t the song resonate with demonstrators of today?
    • Why do you think “Alright” resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement?
  4. Play a portion of the official music video for “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, starting at the 2:40 mark (Note: This is a YouTube link which may also feature advertising. We suggest loading the video before class.) Encourage students to take notes on whatever strikes them as important or appealing. After showing the clip, ask students:
    • What kind of lighting and color is used in the video? Why might the directors have chosen this artistic direction?
    • The song opens with “All my life I had to fight n—-. . .” which is a reference to Alice Walker’s classic book The Color Purple. How does this first line frame the rest of the song? How might it affect the listener?
    • How is the community presented in the video?
    • In the song, Lamar raps “We hate po-po when they kill us dead in the streets fo’ sho,” and the video features scenes relating to the police. How are police depicted in relation to the community of color in the video? How might this relate to high profile cases of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown?
    • There are several scenes of people dancing, including a scene where kids dance atop of a police car. What might dancing represent?
    • What do you think makes “Alright” an anthem?
  5. Play the a portion of the official music video for “Formation” by Beyoncé (3:12- 4:47). Encourage students to take notes on whatever strikes them as important or appealing. After viewing, ask students:
    • What are some of the settings featured in the video? Where do you think the video takes place? What role do the settings play in the overall message of “Formation”?
    • What references to Black culture did you see or hear in the video?
    • The dancing scenes that take place in a parking lot are shot differently than other scenes in the music video. Describe how this scene is shot differently. Why do you think director Melina Matsoukas made this decision? How do you think this might relate to issues regarding the treatment of Black Americans?
    • In the chorus, Beyoncé calls out “okay ladies, now let’s get in Formation!” Why might Beyoncé specifically focus on Black women? What significance might the act of “Formation” have?
    • At the end of the video Beyoncé sinks into water on top of a New Orleans’ police car? What might this symbolize?
    • How are the police depicted in the music video for “Formation”?
    • Who do you think the intended audience for this video is?
    • What makes “Formation” an anthem?

Summary Activity:

  1. Place students into groups, and pass out Handout 2 – Connect, Extend, Challenge to each group. Using the notes they took while watching the videos, ask the students to complete the handout as a group.
  2. Have student groups present their ideas to the class.

Extension Activities:

  1. Research and choose a song from the list below that speaks to the sentiment or issues addressed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Analyze the song and the accompanying material (such as the cover art, the official music video, interviews, live performances, etc.). Write an argument on why the song relates to the Black Lives Matter movement and Black culture overall.
    • “Freedom” by Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar
    • “Drowning” by Mick Jenkins ft. BADBADNOTGOOD
    • “Americans” by Janelle Monáe
    • “Nike” by Frank Ocean
    • “Summer Friends” or “Paranoia” by Chance the Rapper
    • “We the People” or “The Space Program” by A Tribe Called Quest
    • “F.U.B.U.” by Solange
    • “VRY BLK” (ft. Noname) or “Blk Grl Soldier” by Jamila Woods
    • “Casket Pretty” or “Blaxploitation” by Noname
    • “16 Shots” by Vic Mensa
  2. Research and summarize how Black writers have considered the position of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar within Black culture after the release of Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly. How do their interpretations differ?

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge 8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge  9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.