Music videos are an art form that many people take for granted, as they usually accompany an artist’s album rollout process and therefore are seen as an afterthought instead of a meticulously crafted form of expression. Some viewers just see them as pleasing visuals to a certain song, but others may be able to look deeper into the meaning and why the choices made in a video’s construction work with that specific song. Depending on a certain artist’s attention to detail and message he or she is attempting to relay to the public, music videos are able to portray an idea in a way that enhances the song it features. Rap music, specifically, has had a rough history with music videos. When many people think of rap music videos, they immediately think of drugs, sex, women, and money being flaunted across the screen, with a complete lack of substance. On the other hand, many music videos in modern rap music actually allow the audience to see a glimpse into the harsh realities that rappers face, and address issues such as activism and social justice. By using deconstruction, we can understand the choices behind these two contrasting visuals, where one is glamorizing the lives of rappers while the other is revealing the truth behind the facade. However, while it may seem on the surface that the socially aware videos are doing more to address a problem in society, the more crass videos say just as much about the problems of society by keeping silent on the issues themselves. In this criticism, we will analyze and deconstruct Childish Gambino’s video for “This is America,” Kendrick Lamar’s video for “Alright,” JAY-Z’s video for “The Story of O.J.,” which all have deep ties to the subjects of race relations in America, and the general discrepancies in how people of color are viewed and treated in a country that prides itself for being equal and accepting of all. All three of these videos share the pursuit of change, while revealing the hidden power hierarchies that are instituted in the current day.
The flawed relationship between what we see and what it actually means is extremely apparent in Childish Gambino’s video for “This is America.” The video displays the paradoxical realities of living as a person of color in America and, under the surface, shows how the media hides much of what is going on in black culture by glossing over key elements. The video begins with Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) dancing alone, approaching a black man who has a bag over his head. When the line “This is America” is spoken, Glover fires the gun at the man, killing him. The man is dragged away like garbage, while the gun is covered in a red towel. Even this first scene can be deconstructed, as the rhetorical choices here are deeper than what the audience initially sees. When diving into the symbolism, it can be argued that Glover is creating a narrative about black-on-black violence, and how the government would rather save its precious gun laws than to stop this violence from occurring. Glover shows the illogical aspect of this situation perfectly, as the man he shoots doesn’t even get the courtesy of being seen as anything more than an anonymous body, due to the bag over his head. This can also be related to how the media will cover stories where they barely feature the victim involved, if he or she is a person of color.
The next scene in the video that we will deconstruct is when Glover is dancing with uniformed school children behind him. They all share the same wide smiles, seemingly unfazed by any problems going on in the world. This is what Glover wants us to focus on, because that is what the mainstream media focuses on. In the background, however, chaos ensues. Behind the dancing children are riots, cars on fire, and cops chasing criminals. If we analyze this deeper, we can see a clear juxtaposition of how the media operates. Glover’s choice here insinuates that society doesn’t want to focus on the negative aspects, and choose not to document this mayhem. This in turn leads the public who aren’t exposed to discrimination and violence to believe everything is going well, because they have no reason to believe otherwise. Glover makes it a point to show that society ignores this reality with a short scene of teenagers glued to their cellphones while all the mayhem is occurring.
Donald Glover’s “This is America” deconstructs the belief that America is great just the way it is, and highlights real problems that need to be solved before we can actually progress as a society. With all the attention the video has gotten, Glover has opened up the minds of people who once may have been numb to what is really going on, and therefore succeeds in his attempt to completely reshape the idea of his country. While the video is extremely blunt and controversial, Donald Glover subtly gets a message across that wouldn’t be able to be heard in any other form. So much of the video’s depth is hidden in plain sight, which makes deconstructing it so impactful and positive to the pursuit of change.
The next video we will analyze is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” This video specifically highlights police brutality against people of color, which is yet another issue that our society is still up against. Much of the video is based in Oakland, which is notorious for resistance between the police and people of color. The first scene from the video to deconstruct is towards the beginning, where Kendrick and his friends are riding in an old car, which is being carried by policemen. On the surface it may seem like Kendrick is being carried like a king, but when looking deeper it can be argued that actually, the imagery is alluding to the police being the people that will carry Kendrick to his grave. The car symbolizes a casket, and one of the officers that acts as a pallbearer is actually the one that fires at Lamar at the end of the video, killing him. This choice is haunting and sets up the video for more darkness along the way. The choice to overlay the entire video in black and white can be deconstructed to depict white and black races, but also and more importantly, the bleakness of the subject matter shown in the video. While the song is about Kendrick accepting depression and knowing in the end he will be “alright,” the fact of the matter is that there is a lot for Kendrick to be worried about.
The next aspect of the video to highlight are the scenes of Kendrick floating in the air throughout the video. The only time he isn’t floating is during scenes where he is on the ground with a large group of friends. In deconstructing this juxtaposition, it becomes clear that Kendrick uses this imagery to show that while he accepts that he is larger than life at this point in his career, he isn’t untouchable. He still remembers and values his upbringing and the reality that he is still connected to his roots in the streets. This deconstruction is valuable because Kendrick doesn’t want himself to appear as royalty, and therefore includes just enough glamour in his act to acknowledge how far he’s come without neglecting the progress that needs to be made in his community.
The final scene to be highlighted is at the end of the video, where Kendrick is standing on the top of a light pole, seemingly the king of the world. Out of nowhere, a policeman shoots Lamar down, causing him to fall to the concrete. On the surface, it is obviously a nod to police brutality, but when deconstructing the scene, it becomes clear that there is more. It shows that even Kendrick Lamar, one of the most prominent stars in modern music, is still subjected to the effects of police brutality. If Kendrick is able to be shot and killed so carelessly, is anybody safe? That is the message Kendrick is trying to make, and he does this excellently. While the song itself seems to be about accepting pain and knowing everything will be okay, the video heightens this to an extreme. Only through deconstruction we can see that what appears to be a video about Kendrick being a king is actually more about him coming to terms with the fact that fame and success doesn’t make him immune to the problems people of color suffer in their neighborhoods.
The final video to deconstruct is JAY-Z’s video for “The Story of O.J.” This video is entirely a cartoon, reminiscent of old Mickey Mouse cartoons. On the surface, the characters in the video appear to be fun looking cartoon characters, but by deconstructing the art here, we can see that many of the caricatures are based off of racist imagery from a pre-tolerant America. We can also relate this to Disney’s history of racism, and how JAY-Z doesn’t want the memory of that to be forgotten. If we dig deeper, JAY-Z’s choices here are intentionally saying that it doesn’t matter how successful a person of color is in America, as there is a limit to the representation they can have. He uses the character of O.J. Simpson not to show how positive the imagery is, but instead because O.J. liked to pretend his race didn’t affect him. JAY-Z is obviously not a fan of this sentiment, as he mocks O.J. in the video for denying his own heritage.
The video becomes a mini history lesson in itself, but without deconstructing it, the audience may see it as just a fun cartoon. One interesting aspect to deconstruct are the differences in character choice. Some of the characters look like minstrels, which is JAY-Z’s way of labeling the “faux” people. We can see this because the character design adheres to the stereotypes of people of color. On the other hand, the “real” people are drawn like black panthers, to show that the fight for equality must continue on. JAY-Z makes it clear to point out that while they share their differences, they are all the same and need to be on the same page about this. The entire video, when deconstructed, is aimed to show that people of color should not strive to enter white society or be so attracted to it, because social status does not mean one is allowed to forget where they came from. Due to its ties to Disney’s history of racism, it also generalizes America’s history of racism and makes a point to push for change. By deconstructing this video, we are able to see that JAY-Z isn’t falling for the lie that racism has been eradicated, and therefore holds a mirror up to society to show this.
Music videos are powerful tools in expressing ideas that a song may have trouble doing alone. Rap music in itself has always had ties to activism and social justice, but only in deconstructing its videos are we able to see how much is really left unsaid and unheard for people of color. Through Childish Gambino’s video which highlights the media’s lack of addressing real situations the black community faces, Kendrick Lamar’s video which paints police brutality in an incredibly haunting way, and JAY-Z’s video which shows that America’s institutionalized racism is still alive in many ways today, rap music clearly has a lot to criticize in today’s culture. So much is bubbling under the surface and by taking things at face value, society will never wake up. They need to deconstruct the messages rappers are sending out, in order to truly understand the hierarchies that are still in place, disabling real progress to be made.