Last night, I wasted precious minutes of my life running through highlights of the VMAs. I wish I hadn’t. A program that I used to look forward to every year has now become a farcical parade of attention-grabbing pop stars and drama-provoking divas. This year got particularly awesome when Rebel Wilson, a young Australian woman, used police brutality as a punchline before delivering the award for Best Rap Video. Irony at its finest. The good folks (sarcasm) at MTV tried WAY too hard (not sarcasm). The one redeeming quality? The category for “Best Video With a Social Message.” The category started in 2011, and is often filled with pop starlets rallying against bullying and rock bands who don’t like the president. Every once in a while, there’s a cool video, but it’s rare. The nominees this year were lackluster to me, so I decided to do my own version of the award while narrowing the field to my favorite musical genre: hip-hop/rap. Hip-hop has always had an affinity for speaking out against social and political injustice, so I figured I would throw out a handful of contemporary videos that speak on varying issues we face in today’s society. Here’s the nominees for “Best Hip-Hop Music Video with Powerful Message That We Should Pay Attention to As a Community, Society, and Country.”
Run The Jewels – Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)
Directed by A.G. Rojas
As solo artists, Killer Mike and El-P always had something to say in their music. Once the two pulled off the ultimate team-up and formed Run The Jewels, their audience grew and their message(s) spread. With “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” the duo enlisted former Rage Against The Machine frontman, Zack De La Rocha, for one of the most blistering bangers off their second studio album. The video treatment features very little of the three emcees visually, but delivers an experience that’s not easy to forget. Tackling the topic of police brutality, director A.G. Rojas dismisses the simple version of violence against one side or the other (or both) that’s so often portrayed in our bought and biased mainstream media. Rojas’s vision was to display the futility of the violence, and showcase the fact that sometimes these sides are pitted against each other by outside forces. In the video, you see the two combatants battle in an exasperated, awkward, desperate manner. There’s no winning or losing. There’s just an endless, pointless struggle. This is one of the most important videos of the year, and maybe ever.
Big K.R.I.T. – Soul Food
Directed by Alex Nazari
Krizzle is the man. Unfortunately, not a lot of people know that. He’s one of the most slept on dudes in rap nowadays. Throughout his catalogue, he delivers southern-fried bangers and soulful songs full of meaningful content. His song “Soul Food” is about remembering the value of family and friends, and the video reflects that perfectly. Director Alex Nazari sets the scene nicely as we see a family preparing for a home- cooked meal. We see warm smiles, good food, and good times being enjoyed—later, we find out that those images are from K.R.I.T.’s memories. He’s in the house in the present time and it’s empty of everything but memories of those better times. Don’t sleep on Big K.R.I.T. He’s the King of the South.
Vince Staples – Señorita
Directed by Ian Pons Jewell
Bobby Hundreds posted this video when it dropped, and for good reason. Vince is an emerging voice in hip-hop, and his first single off his debut album couldn’t have been a stronger statement. The visuals for “Señorita” are more impactful than I expected from a song with a Future sample utilized in the chorus. The boisterous and catchy track from Vince’s critically acclaimed Summertime ’06 doesn’t exactly evoke images of sociopolitical discourse, but that’s exactly what the video delivers. As Vince rips through some of his hardest verses on the album, we see a dystopian neighborhood full of minorities going through the usual day to day activities attached to those groups of people by mainstream stereotypes. As they trudge through their daily existence—some of them literally—they’re gunned down by what appears to be an automated turret on a tower looming over the community. I view the omnipotent weaponry as a metaphor for the powers that are taking liberties with their position in life and killing people of color. It’s a direct reference to issues tearing our country apart right now, and also a nod to works like 1984 and V for Vendetta where “undesirables” are unceremoniously killed because of their race, religious views, or sexual orientation. To top it all off, at the end of the video, the viewer discovers that this neighborhood is an exhibit of sorts at a museum for the privileged. In this case, and most all cases in this context, the privileged are white people. Vince is no stranger to making statements in his music or videos, but he came out swinging with this one.
Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Directed by Colin Tilley
You can’t have a good list about hip-hop nowadays without Kendrick Lamar on it, and rightfully so. Almost every video that’s come from To Pimp A Butterfly has had a message in it, and what do you expect from one of rap’s most forward-thinking and prominent voices? If I could set up a modern dream team of emcees with something to say, Kendrick would be the point guard. “Alright” may be the most fun song on this list, but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch. With apocalyptic imagery set in Oakland and Los Angeles, the art direction and cinematography is one of the more interesting aspects of the video (it reminded The Hundreds staff of the work of San Francisco photographer Travis Jensen), but there’s also imagery that strikes nerves in today’s social climate. Amid the police violence on black bodies in the video, in some shots, Kendrick is literally floating above it all. There’s probably a message there: “We gon’ be alright.”
Big Sean – One Man Can Change The World
Directed by Andrew Hines
Big Sean took home the Moonman for Best Video with a Social Message at the VMAs for this video. Personally, I don’t feel like he had any real competition, but that’s not to say that this isn’t a powerful video. I wasn’t a huge fan of this track until I saw the accompanying visuals. For a guy mostly known for his braggadocio and punchlines, Big Sean definitely tugs at the heart strings on this one. The video follows a young kid as he witnesses and experiences the turmoil of inner city life. We also see Sean speak at a funeral for his grandmother (I believe) as he relays stories of her achievements and positivity in the face of adversity and racial bias. Late in the song, John Legend comes in to really take the feels to the next level as only he can do. As the video comes to an end, we see our young protagonist ride his bike off into the proverbial sunset ignoring the negativity around him. Another video touching on the social issues faced in urban neighborhoods, director Andrew Hines separates this video from the rest with graceful cinematography and visuals that match the tone and emotion of the song.
J. Cole – She Knows
Directed by Sam Pilling
Stepping away from 2015’s understandably popular theme of social injustice, I chose this video because it touches on topics that are ultra-prevalent in our society today and that hit close to home for me personally. The video for “She Knows” comments on various issues surrounding strained marriages, broken homes, and the damage done to our youth by those factors. We follow the main character, Kyle, and his friend as they skip school to smoke weed, drink forties, and skate. Typical teenager stuff, right? Actually, yeah. Anyways, after outrunning a cop who caught them skating an abandoned pool, Kyle has to make a pit stop at his house where he finds his mother with another man. Earlier in the video, the viewer gets hints that things aren’t that great at home and Kyle is suffering the brunt of the familial hardship. This development only adds fuel to the fire and Kyle erupts from his house and takes off down the street. Later, we find him at home eating dinner with his family as a narrator speaks a prayer of gratitude for the gift of family. There’s various issues eating away at our society and community, but in my opinion a lot of them start at home. As a country we’ve been weakened by our lack of family values. Strong families produce strong people, and strong people contribute to strong communities. Strong communities turn into strong societies that live and work together to strengthen a country. Do you view America as a truly strong country?
Bonus: N.W.A – Fuck tha Police
What is there to be said about these guys that isn’t being said everywhere right now? The N.W.A. biopic did better than anyone expected it to in the box office and put the original gangsta rappers back in the limelight. One of the reasons the movie speaks so loudly to this generation is because, as a society, we’re seeing a lot of the things the Compton-based group dealt with, but thanks to the all-powerful Internet, we’re seeing it more frequently and on a much larger scale. I see a story about an innocent person of color being killed on my Twitter feed EVERY DAY. There was no video made for “Fuck tha Police,” but the lyrics directly confront issues of police brutality and the mistreatment of black lives. The song attacks the idea of crooked cops, and the abuse of power. I wish there was a 2015 version of N.W.A.—not only does hip-hop need a redirection of angst and expression, but so does our youth culture. We’ve become apathetic about these issues and it’s costing some of us our rights. It’s costing others their lives. I wish more people had something to say. Fuck the police forever. Thank you, N.W.A.