The Shortcomings of “Woke” Music Videos

When images of Black trauma, violence and death only restage suffering for people of color, we are left to wonder: How can they do better?

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The Shortcomings of “Woke” Music Videos

Two minutes into the Black Eyed Peas’ latest music video for their new single “Get It,” we see a man holding a sign that reads four simple words: this is very bad.

This is everything that’s already unfolded and will soon follow: Teargas spilling across asphalt as protestors run for cover; ICE arresting a group of Latinos; police officers holding their guns at the Black men they have already shot dead—Black men whose deaths we know all too well. There is a reenactment of Philando Castile’s death, his chest fired with bullets in the passenger seat of his car. There is Eric Garner, whose silent mouthing of I can’t breathe feels deafening over’s verse. And there is a man like Walter Scott, shot in the back while running away. As he collapses to the ground, white supremacists march beside him, tiki torches in hand.

This is America. So it was suggested three months ago, when Donald Glover a.k.a Childish Gambino dropped his single of the same name, with its staggering music video to match. A video where we similarly watch Black bodies gunned down without care or reason—except this time at the hands of Glover himself. Sherrie Silver’s choreography sees the Atlanta star cocking his body in manic form, his crazed eyes and Sambo grin settling us into a minstrel scene of the modern age. As the song’s initially cheery Afrobeat comes to a halt, Glover leans into the stance of an unmistakable character: Jim Crow. And like the 19th-century Black actor donning blackface for Jim Crow, it seems Glover must do what he can to secure his own livelihood as a Black entertainer in America—even if it involves shooting another Black man in the head, flattening a church choir with an assault rifle, smirking along, jigging, and feigning ignorance as it all plays out.

He intentionally implicates himself here; the Black Eyed Peas seem to do it in their video, too. As police officers sweep the street, is sitting on a bench, oblivious to their movements. Moments later, and Taboo lean along a storefront, stealing unfazed glances at Eric Garner’s chokehold murder down the street.

Collectively, they depict the lengths to which people of color must often perform indifference to stay alive— whether as musicians, or largely speaking, as citizens. But it is only ever that: a display, a self-preservationist act of detachment. Each act of violence still stings; every image of Black death leaves its gruesome, lasting imprint on the mind. Witnessing these videos asks us to weigh some moral costs, then: Is reliving trauma really worth it, when the only payoff is praising artists for their own self-awareness?

No amount of artistic intention or filmic nuance seems to offer up much more than that. Rather, in the instance of videos like these, spectacles of police brutality, racism, and violence only remind us that their artists know precisely what they’re doing. They’re “woke,” insofar as they actively confirm the profitability of Black suffering: “Get your money, black man,” sings Glover on a loop, a mantra for every death he commits as the video’s sole executioner. “Get It,” works to the same end: “I’m ‘bout to get it, get it all,” drones. These admissions, while poised as celebratory and triumphant, remain defeatist in the context of these videos. Childish Gambino and the Black Eyed Peas turn a blind eye to the very violence they stage, and in doing so, suggest that success for Black and brown folks is contingent upon being able to do the same.

And to some degree, they’re right. When the recent news of Nia Wilson’s murder on Oakland’s BART hit my newsfeed, I was paralyzed in the same way that I usually am when I learn of yet another death. A fog sets over me, some morbid mix of disillusionment and fury blurring the edges of my vision. For some time a few years ago, I had not yet learned to push past this state. I would sit idly, that day’s goals and tasks suddenly lost to the rage bursting inside me and to that desperate fixation on learning as much as I could about the circumstances—watching and rewatching footage, reading police reports, altogether building the evidence that would somehow confirm my feelings. But when I learned of Wilson’s death on an early Monday morning, I had a workday and the entire workweek ahead of me; I could not allow myself to be derailed. I took a breath, turned off my notifications and pushed that familiar fog into the corners of my mind. I feigned ignorance, to and for myself.

Videos like “This Is America” and “Get It” seem to suggest that this is the only way we can exist: in an endless, hopeless loop where we ignore scenes of violence, whether out of self-preservation or willful indifference. The opposite cannot be said of these videos, when we have already been taught to disregard their violent imagery. When they reappear, they fail to shock us out of our rhythm—meaning that these videos also fail to create any generative effect on the real world.

But what if the alternative were possible? What would it look like to truly shock?

It might look something like spinning the imagery on its head: Music videos where white bodies are gunned down in the same way we’re so accustomed to seeing Black bodies being murdered. Or more constructively, it may look like refusing to give power to either party: in 2015, Run The Jewels’ music video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F**k)” sees a Black man (Lakeith Stanfield,) and a white police officer (Shea Whigham) battling it out with no victor in sight. At the onset, it seems we’ve caught them in the middle of a long fight—exhausted, heaving, and sweaty, they clumsily beat each other to no end. The result: a video that highlights the futility of their violence, instead of glorifying it.

Yet perhaps the more shocking approach would be to refuse staging this violence at all. We already ignore it; so what if, in its place, our Black artists only chose to plant restorative images, vivid pictures of Black joy and Black excellence? Maybe these utopic visions would become so frequent in our art and media that they’d begin to permeate the public imaginary. What if our collective psyche could shift—what if Black folk were appreciated and considered for more than their victimhood? Flying Lotus’ 2014 music video for “Never Catch Me,” was a step toward this; conceived by “This Is America” director Hiro Murai, the video sees two Black children rising from their coffins to dance gleefully along the funeral aisle. They are free and beaming and beautiful—and like the track’s title suggests, they are untouchable. But this freedom inevitably falls short when held against the looming backdrop of their death. Under this lens, it seems mortality is the only instance in which Black bodies can taste freedom.

I’d like to believe more hope than that exists. When our Black artists refuse to inhabit the tropes they’ve been allotted by the media—that of the beaten, of the dying, of the perpetrator or the victim—their performance may reveal narratives of Black life that are far less reductive. This is not to say that we should do away with our harsh realities. But there is more power in rewriting them, and curating the stories we don’t see often enough.