Probably the most interesting and provocative music video of the last decade has provoked perhaps predictable tepid moralizing from certain quarters. If you haven’t seen it, do. Interspersed with footage of Rihanna singing (and at times crawling on the ground with an inflated parachute providing resistance) is moving collage of some of the defining and most emotive events of the USA.
Barack Obama being sworn in as President, Martin Luther King marching, a gunship firing, police in riot gear looking more like an army of Darth Vaders than traditional police, immigrants sitting atop a train, protests, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the 9/11 attacks. It is a provocative portrayal of a nation that likes to think of itself as standing for peace and justice, globally.
Reaction: Liberty.me — which, according to the Ludwig von Mises Institute, is a “a friendship network, publishing platform, news stream, broadcasting system, and discussion forum” — rants that, “a mere, gross display of patriotic affection transforms [by the imagery in the video] into a perverse love-letter to nationalism.” I honestly have no idea how someone could come to that conclusion.
Despite a promising headline that implied it had diagnosed the video and “What it Means for America,” The Huffington Post also seemed not to grasp its essence, saying, lazily, that “Basically, any major ideas or events that are associated with America are seen in Rihanna’s video.”
Wrong. If nothing else, you would have expected someone to pick up on the the sign, waved by a protester, at 3:49, reading “I can’t breathe” — a reference to the death of Eric Garner on July 17 of last year, caused as a result of a police officer using a choke hold on the African-American man. This alone transforms the meaning of “American oxygen” — idea so pervasive that they appear to be “in the air we breathe” — to something that is, or can be in certain circumstances, poisonous.
The video has a very strong Black nationalist theme running through it — and it appears overtly in the use of the historic footage of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. There is also a split second of “Black Power” graffiti on a wall (as well as a sign with “White Power” and a swastika scrawled on it — obviously, Rihanna is condemning White supremacy).
Scene of violence against young Black men, the Ku Klux Klan riding on horseback, etc., as well as footage of other violence — including an atomic bomb blast — makes for uncomfortable viewing, in contrast to virtually every other popular music video out there, which are made to appeal to as many potential “consumers” as possible.
“This is the New America”
It’s not all bad news, though. Toward the end of the song, there are more optimistic images: a Black protester holds up a sign that reads “we’re in this together”; another young Black man is carrying an old White woman to safety; a White man is lifting up a Black man, who is apparently injured, helping him; and Black and White children are sitting together, smiling. All of this occurs as the lyrics turn to “this is the new America.”
Besides the Black nationalist theme of the struggle of African Americans to be equals in the USA, there seems to be another, perhaps more subtle idea: That there is a struggle between a totalizing mechanistic and the human spirit: “We sweat for a nickel and a dime; turn it into an empire,” is one line in the song.
And then there is the footage of war machines, factories, etc., that appear to be reducing people to automatons and nature to a trash heap, contrasted with footage of protest and overcoming legacies of oppression; Wall Street and the printing of money contrasted with an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. There is a struggle a between the American people (and perhaps people elsewhere, since both immigrants and war play a role in the video) and those at least sometimes in power, between the “haves” and “have nots.”
Perhaps it would have been good to have included footage of more controversial figures such as Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey, but, regardless, American Oxygen is a thought-provoking, and, in a certain sense, revolutionary work.
Angel Millar is the editor of People of Shambhala and the author of The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Revolution in the Modern Age.