To be 100% honest I didn’t see the social commentary aspects of the Young Rapunzel music video when I first saw it but I did like others note that Azealia Banks is an artist with an ever evolving and completely original point of view. I saw her at last month’s Coachella festival, dressed in daisy dukes and a flowing white blouse with the American flag projected on a huge screen behind her. And this was not the pristine flag that hangs at the monuments to power that adorn this nation’s capital, no this flag looked like it had been through some strife and struggle. Here’s this Black woman singing, “I want to be free, I want to be free, I want to be free!” to let’s face it a mostly white audience and it’s then that the message in the words took on a deeper meaning for me. Watching as Azealia viciously, glamorously and I do mean glamorously screams, “ I dare, I dare you” into a blood red megaphone that she’s holding her mic in front of you can’t help but make the connection to the teeming frustration in the streets. Azealia was like some kind of rapping Valkyrie on that Coachella stage and days after this was the one image of her performance that dominated social media. And if there was any doubt Azealia herself acknowledged via social media the striking similarity of her work to current events.
Watch her music video Young Rapunzel and images flash across the screen that look like they were taken from actually uprisings all over this country. Visionary and music Icon George Clinton (the only Clinton I would vote for by the way) recently said, “Funk is anything I needs to be to save your life.” His words resonate deeply especially when we consider the role of music, dance and the arts in the narrative of Black history in America. Music has always been a way for us to express the unspoken, unsaid and sometimes unsayable. Legendary DJ Ebro once told Azealia to “put it in her music” never realizing it was already there, if only he had the ears to truly hear her.
Azealia Banks is by no means the only young female artist willing to speak on the times we are all living in. Arguably the last true pop star (before all of them become obvious tools of the corporate marketing machine) yes you guessed it, Rihanna the most viewed and downloaded artist of the decade has something to say. This is an artist with a maximum amount of global attention on a Micheal Jackson level of intensity and while the anticipation for her next album is at near hysteric levels she drops… American Oxygen.
The lyrics could be straight out of depression era literary masterpiece Grapes of Wrath, “we sweat for a nickel and a dime turn it into an empire.” And the visuals are just as powerful, the iconic images usually reserved as symbols of all American prosperity are cleverly warped to illustrate the stark brutality of the present reality. Scenes of victorious football games are juxtaposed with hordes of police in riot gear and instead of throwing footballs into the end zone for touchdowns they are shooting tear gas canisters at protestors in Ferguson. The fireworks of a typical hot dog fueled Independence Day celebration plays side by side with images of nuclear bombs.
The visuals for American Oxygen ponders the question we should all be asking: What would happen if the Wall Street 1% bulls of capitalism met the youth culture of the occupy Wall Street movement? In fact Rihanna repeats the phrase, “this is a New America, We are the New America” as we see images of marches against oppression from the past till the present. The highlight of the music video is watching Robert Kennedy report the murder of Martin Luther King with the foresight to know that he too will soon join the macabre fraternity of men assassinated in one turbulent decade that forever changed the course of history. The phrase the “American Dream” has never before been presented with so much visceral irony and indeed those words will never be the same again.
Independent artist Dawn Richard quietly released her song Genocide on soundcloud but still managed to make a big noise. No visual aid is needed with lyrics like, “the skin I am in” and “why must we die all the time why must we cry?” To be honest a music video with this no holds barred message would be seriously overwhelming. Listen to the song once and you feel the intensity of the pain that went into every single line and melody. There is a strong anti-commercial element to all three of these songs but Dawn’s offering is completely off the music market and feels all the more personal because of it. This song is just from her to us the listener and in that alchemy between artist and art it reaches past individual boundaries to touch the universal humanity in us all. The part of us that like Marvin Gaye still wonders, “What’s going on?” the part of us that knows without a doubt, “this shit ain’t right!”
It’s important to note that all of these songs are right on time and speak directly to the current social conditions of the country. Also noteworthy is the fact that all of these songs are from female artists. This is important because women and young girls are also being targeted and assaulted and yes even killed but they are often ignored and sometimes not even considered to be victims. Women have been traditionally central to any advancement and revolutionary practice of Black people in America and today it’s no different. Recently the Atlantic magazine highlighted the lack of recognition Black women receive within and without the movement. This is indeed a shame and extremely short-sighted considering artists like Azealia, Dawn Richard and Rihanna are as Dawn says, “willing to stand” when others can’t or won’t.
Header Photo Credits: Pitchfork.com