In fraught times, videos for artists like Prince, Indochine and – of course – Childish Gambino are proving a nuanced space for discussion, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
When two tribes went to war with Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984, US President Ronald Reagan duked it out in the ring against then Soviet ruler Konstantin Chernenko. In 1990, Public Enemy fused the history of Martin Luther King Jr with contemporary protests when they fought the power.
Political and social discourse has always woven its way through music video, but in 2018, after a decade or so in the wilderness, promos fully reclaimed their power. Donald Glover – a.k.a. Childish Gambino – commandeered the commentariat with his complex, layered dissection of race, violence and politics in the US, This is America. The Hiro Murai-directed video has clocked up over 432 million views since it hit YouTube on May 5th.
As seminal as This is America is, it didn’t appear in a vacuum. Over the past few years major artists have grown increasingly vocal in their videos. In 2016 Beyoncé’s Formation video, directed by Melina Matsoukas of Prettybird, tackled black history and police racism as well as the sub-par support for those impacted by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In 2017, the suite of videos accompanying Jay-Z’s 4:44 album dissected the portrayal of African Americans in mainstream media. Retro animation ‘The Story of OJ’ questioned the enduring, damaging depiction of black people by white animators, while ‘Moonlight’ saw Friends recast with an all-black cast.
To an extent, the ability to voice political and social views – and to have a mass reach - relates to the power of the artists involved, explains PromoNews editor and UKMVA founder David Knight. “They’re so powerful, those artists, they’re not going to have it dictated to. It amounts to ‘what does Jay-Z want, what does Beyoncé want’. They’ve obviously got great experience. They’ve made a gazillion videos over a long period of time, they know exactly what to do,” he says. ”I think that it’s unlikely that Donald Glover would have made This is America had he not made Atlanta. He was making great videos before he made Atlanta, it’s just that they weren’t that kind of videos. This is America is an extension of his creativity.”
But what makes the current times such a potent crucible for political discourse in music video is – surprise – the bizarrely poisonous post-modern, truth-bending political situation spreading throughout the world. Trump. The rise of the far-right. Social media bots. Brexit. And for many minorities the feeling that their home countries are starting to question their legitimacy as citizens. The slippery post-truth world is catalysing artists to assert their truth – and the inherent playfulness of promos allows them to pirouette lightly and pointedly, like stiletto knives.
Bouha Kazmi is a director with Independent / Indy8 and London Alley and his video for legendary French band Indochine, Station 13, is a brutal and difficult exploration of violence and racial bigotry. That video was devised at a time when, he says, real world, volatile, social injustice pervaded every media channel.
But while the current politics are unavoidable and dominate creators’ minds, it also raises difficult problems. “I think for the most part it is the current political climate. People want to tackle the more hard-hitting socio-political topics and offer up opinion on what they’re seeing, feeling and experiencing, but there are some apprehensions as to how artists might be outwardly perceived, how far topics can be pushed and who out there would heed their call. Who are these people speaking to? Is there an openness for their concerns to be heard? Would artists’ financial backers allow such topics to be explored? How can these groups or individuals make a meaningful difference? Is anyone listening to what they have to say? These are all important questions that we need to be asking. Each macro decision taken at a higher level will, at some stage, affect the every everywoman and everyman… and if people’s voices aren’t heard, or if their consciousness isn’t stirred and inspirited, then how will anyone affect any long-term change?”
Bouha references artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as artists who have influenced popular sentiment and therefore the course of history. “The fact that some artists today are still using their platforms and audience outreach to express something significant, rousing, potentially life-altering, or at the very least provoke an inquisitiveness of the mind, should be commended. If not them, then whom?”
Even if not providing a rousing and clear message, music videos can also provide a place for artists and directors to try make sense of the world. The 1975's recent video Love It If We Made It, directed by Adam Powell, was described by NME as a 'state of the union address for a fractured planet'. It's an overwhelming collage of everything that's going on in the divisive, confusing and (it feels like) pre-apocalyptic times. Everything from the plastics crisis to the Grenfell tragedy, Harvey Weinstein and police racism turns up for a song whose plaintive refrain sounds like nearly-abandoned hope.
Where music video really allows artists and directors to soar is the relative lack of formal constraint. They don’t have to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. They don’t often require deep character studies. And audiences that might not tolerate montage or surreal leaps in more narrative forms are more willing to forgive that with promos. Plus, a relatively short run time means that a punchy idea or argument doesn’t need to be diluted.
Salomon Ligthelm of Stink directed the first official posthumous Prince video, ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’. It was created for a privately recorded acoustic version of the Civil War era spiritual. Salomon decided to tackle the issue of gun violence and also drew inspiration from Prince’s activism around the death in custody of young African American Freddie Gray in Prince’s native Baltimore.
Music video allowed Salomon, who was in Baltimore the day after the riots triggered by Freddie Gray’s death, to approach the ideas with nuance. “There are three layers to the story: the spiritual, which plays texturally into the narrative of the son in the afterlife. And then there are the political and cultural layers - which are very important.
"We get bombarded by news (which is often very black and white) so I wanted to contextualise the issue and bring it down to its human level - show the effect that gun-violence has on families and communities. I’m trying to arrive at the most important nucleus of that story, then allow the mother’s grief to give a sense of the injustice,” he explains.
Salomon is South African, so well-versed in divisive political and social contexts. He grew up under Apartheid and says he ‘saw some things I can’t unsee’. “I think we're in a very interesting season in politics and social awareness (and hopefully change). As much as I hate seeing the ugliness of the world - how divisive and just how bigoted people are, I also think maybe for the first time the ugliness is starting to break through the surface of the perfect American Veneer,” he says.
“Music video as a platform allows ways to reach a wider and more diverse audience, given you’re dealing with popular media, and already tapping into ever-growing pools of followers associates with their favoured musical acts," says Bouha. "In a sense, you’re offering up points of view within a platform whose primary mandate is to entertain people – you’ve already grasped their attention – and so being able to address some of the more important topics that affect individuals’ day-to-day lives allows both young and older generations to engage in a healthy means of discourse.”