Kendrick Lamar brings his healing energy to Austin

It’s impossible to talk about Kendrick Lamar’s music without talking about race relations in America. With the fire of a street preacher, the grit of a martial artist and the lyrical dexterity of Dylan, no artist more accurately captures the current turmoil in our country’s streets than the 29-year-old emcee from Compton. Like Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye before him, he’s a righteous teacher in a difficult time with the power to present an unflinching picture of what’s really going on in a way that resonates broadly.

Many bands will have fantastic performances at the Austin City Limits Music Festival this weekend, but Lamar’s Saturday headline set is the most likely to open eyes and possibly even change lives. He wins hearts and minds every time he hits the stage.

Set against a complex musical backdrop of free range jazz and funk, Lamar’s 2015 opus “To Pimp a Butterfly” delves into what it means to be black in modern America. He pulls back the veil on the deep-seated mistrust, the multigenerational ache that incubates rage and the soaring aspirations that will not be grounded, even when the arc of the moral universe Martin Luther King promised would bend toward justice feels agonizingly longer than it should be.

Shortly after the album was released, standout track “Alright,” a protest anthem with a slick Pharrell Williams-produced groove, became a theme song at Black Lives Matter rallies across the country. The chorus, a repeated chant of “We gon’ be alright,” is more than a hook. It’s a mantra, a daily affirmation. Written to empower black people, the song’s reach has grown to encompass everyone troubled by the way ongoing violence undermines our dreams of unity. It’s something we can repeat to ourselves every time a body drops. Every time. Words have power, and on the dark days when we don’t even believe them, we can say these words, “We gon’ be alright, we gon’ be alright, we gon’ be alright,” until hope returns.

"That was just a moment that you don’t experience or see at 99 percent of the concerts you go to, where the audience is able to show their love and the artist has to take a moment and pause."

V. Marc Fort, webmaster/publications coordinator for the Texas Music Office

In an interview with the New York Times in December, Lamar recognized the song’s power. “When I’d go in certain parts of the world, and they were singing it in the streets. When it’s outside of the concerts, then you know it’s a little bit more deep-rooted than just a song,” he said. “It’s more than just a piece of a record. It’s something that people live by — your words.”

When Lamar previewed his ACL Fest set last year in a surprise appearance on “Austin City Limits,” the festival’s namesake television show recorded at ACL Live, the audience seized those words and made them their own. That night, in a break between songs, a spontaneous chant began at the front of the stage and spread through the concert hall. Almost 2,000 Austinites raised their voices, shouting “We gon’ be alright” in unison. Lamar, who burned with passion that night, leaned in, guiding the chant, dropping it down to a whisper and building it back to a deafening shout. The moment was powerful, breathtaking and unforgettable. In a city struggling with diversity problems, it was also complicated.

This is the story of how it went down, told through the voices of the staffers and fans who made the moment happen.

The crowd cheers and holds up cellphones while Kendrick Lamar performs at the 2013 Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park. Lamar prompted the crowd to hold up their phones and said the lights represented hopes, dreams and ambitions. Ashley Landis for American-Statesman

Kendrick Lamar was the first rapper to play the storied television show since production moved to the Moody Theater at ACL Live in 2011, but the show’s executive producer, Terry Lickona, had been working on his appearance for a few years, since he caught Lamar’s phenomenal ACL Fest debut in 2013.

Playing on a side stage in the sunset time slot, Lamar drew a crowd of thousands both weekends that year, and he rocked them ecstatically. Near the end of each set, he commanded the audience to put their cellphone lights in the air, then went on to explain that the sea of lights filling the field represented the hopes, dreams and ambitions that everyone has been shooting for. He passed a virtual bottle and made a toast to everyone’s prosperity.

Terry Lickona: (That) was the first time I’d ever seen him live. … He just blew me away. His performance was just electrifying. … I’ll be honest. I pretty much made up my mind then and there that somehow we had to get him to do “Austin City Limits.”

With the release of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the stakes went up and Lickona began “working every angle” to try to get him on the show.

Terry Lickona: That album more than any other musical work in 2015 spoke to the world we live in today, the state of America today, and it was also a game changer in hip-hop music. The record itself … forget about the message that went through the record, but the way he fused elements of jazz and R&B into his hip-hop was brilliant, very genius, original.

V. Marc Fort (webmaster/publications coordinator for the Texas Music Office): I was a fan before the song “Blacker the Berry,” but by the time I started hearing that and other tracks (on “To Pimp a Butterfly”) I loved him … I could see why some people were starting to say he’s the one … Kendrick’s a once-in-a-generation type of artist.

Evelyn Ngugi (YouTube star, Evelyn From the Internets): When “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” (Lamar’s 2012 full-length debut) came out, I thought that was like the best hip-hop would ever be, but then “To Pimp a Butterfly” came out and I just lost my mind.

Corey Baum (singer, guitarist): Right before (his “ACL” appearance) was when he had that super-high-profile “Saturday Night Live” gig, and maybe before that there was another late show gig. … I remember watching those and being like — this is a full artist firing on all cylinders right now. Those are like, complete performances; I was really blown away by it.

The appearance on “Austin City Limits” was Lamar’s first long-form television performance of material from “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

Dennis Dennehy (Interscope Records): Kendrick’s always made important albums, but the way this last album went, the statement he is making with it. … I think what we wanted to do was find the right place for Kendrick to really unwind on a television performance. … We were discussing the way this album went and the way his live show was going and how powerful and mesmerizing (it is) and how that could be played out in front of a live audience and a television audience simultaneously. And I think in that regard we thought there was no better fit than “Austin City Limits.” You would really be able to capture the intensity, the ferocity and the vibe that comes from seeing Kendrick live.

When the taping was announced in late September, the initial excitement was muted somewhat as reality set in. Lamar, who usually rocks stadiums, would be playing to an audience of about 2,000.

Terry Lickona: As you might imagine, those tickets were precious. We distribute our tickets in the same way no matter who it is. We have a certain group of people who subscribe to come to shows, but we also have a lottery system where we give out hundreds of tickets to the public on our website and it’s first come, first served.

Evelyn Ngugi: They said they would announce it on Facebook. I did the thing where I put ACL Live Facebook as the first notifications I would get. Where it will put them on the top of my timeline/newsfeed no matter what. So I did that so that I wouldn’t miss the announcement and then I just prayed … signed up, prayed … and got in.

V. Marc Fort: Because it was a smaller, intimate show and because he’s so popular I just assumed there was no way I’d get in. … I wasn’t even planning on going because I didn’t have tickets or anything. … I had just posted on Facebook that if anybody happens to have an extra ticket please let me know. Luckily enough (an artist friend) Nakia saw that.

Terry Lickona: We always have people who will show up without a ticket and just stand in line all day and hope for the best. Most of the time I say at least some of them get in. … I remember going out for lunch or coffee that day. There were definitely people out there at 10 o’clock in the morning. The doors didn’t open until 6.

Corey Baum and his fiancee, Amitiss Mahvash, didn’t have tickets to the show, so they decided to roll the dice on the standby line.

Amitiss Mahvash (employment program manager, Caritas of Austin): We stood in line for a couple hours. Probably like two or three hours before the show.

Evelyn Ngugi: It rained that day … and we got in line really, really early. I saw my co-worker in line. We both left work, like, before we were supposed to … then it stayed, kind of drizzling.

It was a rainy day in the middle of a long rainy season, and perhaps that dampened the curiosity of casual fans. A good chunk of the seats reserved for sponsors and subscribers ended up open. The top section of the club filled up with folks from the line.

Joah Spearman (CEO, Localeur; board of directors, KLRU): It was the most diverse “Austin City Limits” taping I’ve ever been to by far. I’ve gone to dozens of tapings. … I probably had eight or 10 black male friends with me at that show.

Reggie Coby (musician, rapper): I was up top on the balcony and the people who were the rich people were down (below). You could tell that they weren’t really Kendrick Lamar fans. Up top we were going nuts.

Evelyn Ngugi: We got in, got in our seats. It was me and my friend and we were like the only black people in our section.

Though the audience at the Kendrick Lamar taping seemed more diverse than the average “ACL” taping, black people were still a small percentage of the crowd, and there’s an inherent tension when a black artist known for making music that revels in blackness plays to a majority white crowd.

Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone (rapper): “The Blacker the Berry” got me high. I don’t know how Austin felt … I remember looking around and realizing that the crowd didn’t seem to connect with that song as deeply as I do, but that song right there took me to a place that I needed to go spiritually.

Joah Spearman: It was the first “ACL” taping that, myself as a black man, I felt like it was a taping that was specifically for me. … Like, wow, I’m hearing him in Austin, Texas, I’m one of the 6 to 7 percent of black people in this city, and here’s a show where the artist looks like me. And the artist is talking about things that I’ve lived and all these things.

But Lamar’s message and his platform as an international artist transcend race. He remarked on it at multiple times during his set. He was an enthralling performer. Most of the crowd was thoroughly engaged. The energy level, the hype kept building throughout the night. Joah Spearman was swept up in the experience.

Joah Spearman: I had a sense that the show was coming to a close, and I kind of always had a sense that he was going to end with “Alright.” I didn’t know he had a set list that had other stuff on it, and there was a little pause, and I just started saying, “We gon’ be alright.”

The folks in Spearman’s group, including his fiancee, Susannah Haddad, picked up on the chant, and it rapidly spread.

Susannah Haddad (media and events coordinator, La Patisserie): Basically, it started from the crowd and just being like, this is how much we represent with this song.

Terry Lickona: We were sitting in the control room watching the show, of course, as it was happening. … It was certainly not the way we rehearsed it that afternoon and the director was, I can almost hear him shouting, “Get some shots of the crowd, get some shots of the crowd. People are chanting.” We didn’t know how long it was gonna go on … or how Kendrick would react to it.

Gary Menotti (director, “Austin City Limits”): That was not on the list to play (next). That was a forced effort from the audience.

The chant took over the room. Soon everyone in the house was shouting together, “We gon’ be alright.”

V. Marc Fort: The audience started chanting “Alright” and you could see it on his face that he was just overcome by the vibe in the room and how much everyone was feeling it. That was just a moment that you don’t experience or see at 99 percent of the concerts you go to, where the audience is able to show their love and the artist has to take a moment and pause.

Reggie Coby: It started kind of quiet, “We gon’ be alright,” and then it just grew, we were losing it up there at the top. … It felt like a moment.

Lamar took to the front of the stage like a conductor and began directing the chant.

Reggie Coby: He built into this crescendo, then he brought it back down and he brought it back up and I was just like, “This is, this is crazy.” I was going nuts at that point.

V. Marc Fort: Americans are seemingly at the most divided times in our history in the last 50 years, so that all of those things coming together right at that moment and then the song and the chorus and the lyrics coming together as an anthem for almost the healing of Americans, or of all of us together as people. It was just really a powerful, super powerful moment.

The overriding emotion in the room at that moment was elation, but race in America (and in Austin) is complicated. There was also a certain amount of tension.

Evelyn Ngugi: When we’re singing “We gon’ be alright,” it has a very different meaning for us than we saw in the entire space. So they’re just saying it like, “We’re gonna be alright,” and I’m like, “Be alright from what?” When me and my friend were singing it, we’re singing it with like our whole bodies and you know, when less melanated people who might be singing it, it’s kind of just like a song. … So that was a weird moment.

Reggie Coby: I really feel like that song captures that feeling, it’s like, yeah, we know (expletive’s) (expletive) up, we know the police ain’t rocking with us like that, they never have, but you know what? We survivors. We overcomers. We make it through everything we’ve been through, so just know that we gon’ be alright. So I feel like that’s perfect.

Joah Spearman: That song is so powerful that it doesn’t just speak to the black people in the audience — it speaks to everyone. So it’s the people who do use the hashtag black lives matter and it’s also for the people who are trying to understand what it means to those people.

Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone: Lamar was in a place as a leader. He has something deeper to give beyond music. I also felt that, for at least that moment, we all believed, and felt a unity that is hard to achieve outside of spaces that are not “religious.”

Joah Spearman: To have an album like his performed in a city like Austin, which isn’t necessarily a bastion of diversity, I think it was a special moment … I think for Austin to be the place that a special show like that happened is pretty powerful.

Terry Lickona: It was definitely one of the most historic shows that we’ve done. … It was by far my favorite show from last year, but it’s gonna resonate for a long time. And be kind of a benchmark in a way. Certainly one of those milestones, and hopefully it’s going to open the door to do more hip-hop and urban music at the show.

Andre Van Buren (artist relations, KLRU): The hip-hop show was live because at that time we hadn’t done anything like that. The last hip-hop show that they had was at the old theater. So having it at the Moody was just priceless, especially with Kendrick’s new album being as hot as it was at the time.

Joah Spearman: Someone like Kendrick Lamar 10 years ago, I don’t think he’d have the audience. He would just be known as an underground rapper, but I think because of what’s happening, I think his messages are so powerful and they transcend the hip-hop genre. … It went from OK, we’re talking about the plight of black people or police brutality or whatever to the status of the world today.

Amitiss Mahvash: (It’s) what we need and what the world needs.

Corey Baum: I went in like this guy is on fire right now and I watched that and was like this dude’s on fire, that wasn’t like a trick of the camera on TV, that was an incredible performer.

Susannah Haddad: I remember as we were walking outside the door there was a group of some friends that we knew who were hanging out kind of, you know, in the back. And we see each other, like Joah goes up to one of them and we all started jumping up and down, like, “That show was so good!”

Reggie Coby: (I was) super inspired … almost buzzing kind of, vibrating … like I had witnessed something, like I was a part of moment.

V. Marc Fortress: I didn’t know it would be life-changing, and it was for me personally… I think a lot of people left that concert either going home to start a new hip-hop act or trying to figure out another way they can make a change in the world. I doubt that I’m the only person that left that concert feeling inspired to figure out a way to make America alright.