This is America: Gut-punching political music videos worth the pain
Still utterly dazzled by Hiro Murai’s jaw-dropping video for Childish Gambino’s “This is America”? Of course you are. When the video dropped last year it brought the internet to a standstill as audiences gaped in wonder at Donald Glover’s (Solo: A Star Wars Story) astounding theatrical performance as he unravelled all the hidden details within the video’s staggering visual message.
“This is America” is one of the boldest and most unique political music videos to have been released in recent years – perhaps ever – and it came at a time when there have been a lot of terrific social commentaries stacked into music videos. Here’s our ranking of the nine best political music videos released in the past couple of years.
9. Joey Bada$$: “Land of the Free” (2017)
The Brooklyn-bred rapper (and occasional Mr. Robot star) doesn’t hold back in his lyrical examination of American identity, declaring “Three K’s, two A’s in AmeriKKKa” within the first bridge of “Land of the Free”.
The video for the song is just as bold, with a row of white cops depicted as using a lineup of prisoners of color to unload some ammunition into. The footage is interspersed with Bada$$ simultaneously swinging the American flag and standing in front of a Klansman-esque burning cross.
8. Beyoncé: “Formation” (2016)
Nobody expected Beyoncé (Austin Powers in Goldmember) to come through with a music video so vividly tackling issues of systemic racism and police brutality but she did exactly that with “Formation”.
Visuals allude to the controversial treatment (or lack thereof) of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and to the fatal shootings of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown by showing a young boy defiantly dancing in front of a row of armed white cops.
7. M.I.A.: “Borders” (2016)
Directed by the political hip hop artist herself, the video for “Borders” highlights the obstacles and suffering refugees incur while trying to escape tyranny. On Twitter, M.I.A. revealed the video is as much a political statement as it is a personal tribute to her family, dedicating it to her uncle.
One of the first Tamil migrants to come to the UK in the 60s who went to inspire so many people as a creative, daring man with so much swag that everything I do doesn’t even touch his sides. Thank you for helping my family come to England and taking us out of Sri Lanka and saving us.
6. Kendrick Lamar: “Alright” (2015)
Protests can sometimes be made with positive statements like with the Colin Tilley (Mr. Happy) directed video for “Alright” that showcases Lamar flying through the air like a superhero and a squad of cops carrying a car containing Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock.
5. Janelle Monáe: “PYNK”
At a time when the phrase “Grab them by the pussy” has become synonymous with one of the most powerful men in the world and where pussy hats have become a derisive icon of white feminism, Emma Westernberg and Monáe’s (Hidden Figures) video for “PYNK” offers a visceral re-appropriation of the pussy as an astoundingly positive force.
Unabashedly queer and shrewdly inclusive of all women (“no matter if you have a vagina or not”), the video is a bright, beaming ray of thrilling, radiant protest (as opposed to being a real gut puncher).
4. Pussy Riot: “Make America Great Again” (2016)
Jonas Akerlund’s brutal video was made prior to Donald Trump’s presidency and demonstrates the levels of fear with which half of the country felt over his potential win of the vote.
Depicting the MAGA President as a classic villain enlisting a number of heavies to torture and brand people he considers to be insubordinate, the video is a burst of protest bolstered by Pussy Riot’s refrain. “Let other people in / Listen to your women / Stop killing black children / Make America great again”.
3. Open Mike Eagle: “Happy Wasteland Day” (2017)
Accompanied by the bold statement, “We’re releasing this video a year to the day of the election of the garbage king. May our national nightmare end sometime soon,” “Happy Wasteland Day” wastes no time in envisioning a world where a king shoots civilians who fail to entertain him. The song is full of allusions to police brutality that the video presents within an afrofuturistic dystopia full of commentaries about current US politics.
2. DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels: “Nobody Speak” (2016)
Sam Piling’s satirical take on the petty antagonism at the heart of greater political conflicts is, as Run the Jewels’s Killer Mike stated, “such a dope video. It’s what I really wish Trump and Hillary would just do and get it over with . . . And even in that fight I think Hillary would win – and that’s not an endorsement.”
1. Jay-Z: “The Story of O.J.”
Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go) & Jay-Z reclaim minstrel caricatures of blackness in their video for “The Story of O.J.” The animated video powerfully illustrates the song’s themes of racism and class divisions within black culture while also highlighting a history of color stigmatisation.