When an A-list black celebrity—I’m talking upper-echelon A-list—does or says something pertaining to race specifically advocating for the black social-justice movement, it dominates news headlines, because there’s the idea that once you’ve “transcended race”—that is, crossed over—and are wholeheartedly embraced and accepted by the mainstream, it is in your best interest not to remind folk that you’re black.
So when these mainstream artists do remind us that they’re black, it’s huge—à la the reaction to Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, which she released Saturday. Then there was her reiteration during the Super Bowl halftime show. She had her backup dancers in Afros and berets, looking like a troupe of no-nonsense Black Panthers.
It goes without saying that Beyoncé’s choice to use a music video to protest social injustice is certainly not new. Here are a few examples of videos that showcase the black social-justice movement in its beautiful glory.
1. Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone”
I can't lie—all of the hoopla caused by “Formation” made me wonder whether folks were just gushing over it because it’s Beyoncé. I mean, the video does benefit from timing, since we’re smack dab in the middle of a civil rights resurgence of sorts. But you can’t love “Formation” and not drool over the imagery in Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone” video.
Set in South Africa, the video shows remnants of the country’s bout with apartheid, black photography like you’ve never seen and joyous black people dancing in native prints and attire. The celebrating feels revolutionary in and of itself. At the very end, a beer bottle is thrown at a sign that reads “Europeans Only” in Afrikaans—the language spoken by apartheid’s white ruling group of the same name.
Check out this video of Janet Jackson speaking about how the video came to be, and Joni Mitchell speaking about why she loves the video so much, too.
2. Common’s “The People”
In this video, shot in Chicago during then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Common takes us to the streets of the city’s South Side as he gives daps, pounds and hugs to everyday people. You get the sense that none of the mingling is planned, just a famous rapper walking around his hometown, showing unrehearsed, unpremeditated love to black Chicagoans, all the while staying true to the title of the song.
The ordinariness of the video, coupled with snapshots of one guy wearing a T-shirt with Obama’s face on it, and the song’s Marxist-esque lyrics, make this golden.
3. Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us”
The lyrics to this song already speak to the idea of justice so vehemently, and the video followed suit. Michael Jackson shot the video in Brazil and is defiant throughout as black Brazilians march in the street, beating on drums and chanting the chorus, “They don’t really care about us.”
In the opening scene, Jackson appears defiant in a guard’s face. The video was shot by Spike Lee.
4. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”
The opening shots of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” may remind one of Ghostface Killah’s lyrics “four in the bed, two at the front, two at the head” from his song “All That I Got Is You.” Black Americans living practically on top of one another, in cramped conditions. The perils of the inner city were becoming more apparent at the time (1971), and Gaye captured the frustrations that black Americans felt.
5. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”
A black man is slammed on the ground violently by a police officer, and then the officer shoots him as the man runs away. That’s how this video opens up, perhaps the most visible re-enactment of why the #BlackLivesMatter movement came to be.
In the video, Lamar floats through Compton, Calif., showcasing the city's African-American community. At one point, he has four police officers holding up a car that he and his friends are sitting in—a reference to the interesting relationship between blacks and the city’s law enforcement. In all, the song is an optimistic cry that in the end, and through it all, black Americans will always prevail.
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Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features video interviews with scarily insightful people. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.
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