On August 1, 1981, 12:01 am, Eastern time, how the masses consume music changed forever. MTV founder John Lack intoned the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” over footage of the first space shuttle launch of Apollo 11. Then, the music video “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles appeared on screens across the country. Thus, MTV was born, and with it a new medium for musical artists to reach their audiences. It is not that there hadn’t been music videos in some form or other before, but MTV, through its iconic branding and content, was the perfect delivery system for this art form.
As time went on and reality shows infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist, the network shifted its focus beyond music; not quite killing the video star but definitely wounding it. The good news is that during this time, the internet continued to develop. Video-specific platforms like Youtube and the proliferation social media platforms have led the way in keeping music videos alive. Now, with video of all types the undisputed king of content, we are seeing a renewed interest in music videos, especially in the most artful. What we are witnessing, especially over the past year, are music videos that are very much a reflection of the current political and social climates both on a national and global level. And the music leading this charge: Hip-Hop. The genre’s cultural impact is as strong as ever, and its artists are reaching new, exciting heights. Many have been using their influence and their platforms through music videos to bring awareness to issues of great importance. This is not to say that artists haven’t used music videos for similar purposes in the past, but at this time hip-hop seems to be doing the best job at sparking the strongest conversations in a creative and insightful manner.
Here is a selection of music videos from Hip-Hop artists that have generated deep awareness, debate and analysis in the past year:
By now, many of you have probably seen and read at least a few articles breaking down Childish Gambino’s highly technical and metaphorical video for his song “This is America”. While people continue to dissect it looking for hidden meanings yet to be uncovered, what seems to be clear is that this video reflects different aspects of the black experience in our country. Gambino hasn’t spoken much publicly or explained in interviews the meaning of the work he created, leaving it up to the audience to interpret it.
Another video heavily focused on racial tensions is Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist”. The video begins with portrait shot of a white, bearded man wearing a Make America Great Again hat. In the first verse, Joyner raps from the perspective of the white man, with political and social beliefs he projects this character may feel. As the camera moves, you see him seated across a round table from a black man in a bare, run-down room. The second verse is from the black man’s perspective, touching on many of the issues about race in America today and throughout history. Both verses are presented as explanations of why both sides feel the way they do. The video ends with the two characters hugging each other, followed by the written message “We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us, and wealth classified us.”
Logic, who is bi-racial, has often used his platform to speak about his own experience and feelings about race. But with his song and video “1-800-273-8255”, he wanted to touch on sexuality, mental health, suicide, and the stigmas that surround public conversation on all three topics. The song title itself is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The video, featuring a number of well-known actors, shows the journey of a high school student as he begins a relationship with another boy at his school, and how he has to struggle with reactions from both parental figures and other kids at school. The impact of both the song and the video has been incredible. According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, in the three weeks following the song’s release calls directed to the NSPL rose by 27%, while visits to their website increased from 300,000 to 400,000 in just a few months. Frances Gonzalez, Lifeline’s Director of Communications reported that following the night of the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, where Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid performed the song, the NSPL experienced a 50% surge in calls to their hotline.
J. Cole’s album KOD broke all sorts of streaming records when it was released on April 20th. The album, whether intentional or not, dropped on the unofficial international weed holiday and has a strong focus on addiction of all sorts: drugs, alcohol, money, social media. The video for ATM brings the characters presented on the album art of KOD to life. It touches on addiction, but particularly focuses on the rappers complicated relationship with money. The video draws inspiration from iconic music video director Hype William’s abstract video for Busta Rhymes’ song “Gimme Some More”, taking viewers on a paper-chasing adventure where money is the end all goal for the hustler character, played by Cole.
The artistry, cultural relevance, and impact of music videos continues to grow as time goes on. We hope they remain as a medium that can create meaningful conversation, knowledge and engagement for audiences worldwide.