At the 38-second mark of Kendrick Lamar’s video for his single “Element,” something magical happens. The camera lingers on a small boy lying in a verdant field, while a junebug he holds from a string crawls on his forehead. With its muted colors and soft lighting, it is a serene, arresting image that stands apart from the rest of the video, which shows men either fighting or preparing to fight.
It is also a direct recreation of Gordon Parks’s classic 1963 photo, Boy With June Bug. Throughout the video, there are other homages to Parks’s work, including the photos Black Muslims Train in Self-Defense, Chicago Illinois, 1963; Ethel Sharrieff, Chicago, 1963; and Untitled, Alabama, 1956, the last of which comes from Parks’s series “A Segregation Story.”
Paired with Lamar’s searing lyrics, these images show the complexities and contradictions of black boyhood in America: the moments of quiet repose, innocence, and grace juxtaposed with shocking, disorienting bouts of violence.
Kendrick Lamar, “Element,” directed by Jonas Lindstroem and The Little Homies, via Vevo.
And Lamar is not the only music artist who is pushing the music video form to new levels of self-expression. We’re currently in the midst of an upheaval in black cinema, where the kind of provocative and challenging images that director and cinematographer Arthur Jafa has tasked himself and his contemporaries with creating can be found in videos by artists such as Lamar, Solange, Beyoncé, and Kamasi Washington.
Each of these artists has been using the power of this medium to create imagery that reflects the multifaceted interior lives, as well as the sociopolitical lives, of black people. What makes these artists’ videos stand out is their experimentation with form; their commitment to weaving a visual narrative that doesn’t always directly correspond with the lyrics; and their invocation of images that draw from the rich history of black visual artists, including photographers, painters, and filmmakers.
In the meditative, expansive 14-minute short film for jazz musician Kamasi Washington’s “Truth” (2017), there is a segment that recreates the 1954 photo Ellington Session Break by Harlem artist Roy DeCarava, the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. As the song proceeds, the camera pans deeper into the scene, so that we can see the musicians move and live within the frame in a way we couldn’t with a still photograph.
It’s thrilling and touching to see this modern jazz musician connect with one of the pioneers of jazz, Duke Ellington, while also paying tribute to one of Harlem’s greatest artists and documentarians.
Beyoncé and Solange have also paid homage to the work and legacies of black artists and filmmakers in the visual components of their critically acclaimed albums Lemonade (2016) and A Seat at the Table (2016)—as well as collaborating with Arthur Jafa for their respective videos.
Four of the videos for Beyoncé’s Lemonade, “Pray You Catch Me,” “Love Drought,” “Forward,” and “Freedom,” contain several scenes inspired by Julie Dash’s 1991 classic film Daughters of the Dust, which traces the story of three generations of women in the Gullah community of coastal South Carolina who prepare to migrate to the mainland during the early 1900s. The film is a tone poem that celebrates the aspects of West African culture that the Gullah people fought to preserve, and the nuance that characterizes it can be seen throughout Lemonade.
The intro to the video for “Love Drought” also shows a lone woman dressed in a long, 19th-century-style dress, her back to the camera, her figure dwarfed as she faces the Superdome Stadium in New Orleans. This powerful image of alienation and longing bears a resemblance to the artist Carrie Mae Weems’s 2006 “Roaming” series, which features Weems’s figure with her back to the camera as she gazes at various landscapes and edifices throughout Rome.
Beyoncé, "Love Drought", via YouTube.
Solange’s masterful video for “Cranes in the Sky” (2016), meanwhile, also references Daughters of the Dust, while her video for “Don’t Touch My Hair” (2016)—directed by the artist herself with her husband Alan Ferguson—features a group of men in matching green sweatshirts and wavy brown wigs, a recreation of the painting Complication (2013) by Ghanaian-British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
These videos are tinged with a muted color palette and decidedly feminine aesthetic that flies in the face of generic music video tropes—including quick jump cuts, product placement, and overtly sexualized women.
The video for Jay-Z’s “4:44” (2017) also eschews these gimmicks in favor of truly surprising images and editing choices. Directed by Elissa Blount-Moorhead, Arthur Jafa, and Malik Sayeed of TNEG Studio, the eight-minute video cuts between two dancers, Storyboard P and Okwui Okpokwasili, and a collage of viral images of black life as Jay-Z confesses to his failings as a husband.
Film Still from Arthur Jafa, Love is The Message, The Message is Death, 2016. Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/ Rome.
We see a boy singing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” (1965); disturbing footage of police brutality; the 2014 protests in Ferguson; footage of Eartha Kitt and Jean-Michel Basquiat; a rare live performance of Al Green; and Jay-Z and Beyoncé dancing on stage together while never touching or looking at each other directly. The work echoes Jafa’s approach to Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2017), a video collage set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” (2016).
It distills the joy, pain, and beauty of blackness—and shows how intertwined black pain and black creativity can be.
When it comes to a diversity of thought and imagination, the film world has been relatively slow to evolve, even with great talents like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Gina Prince-Bythewood helming big budget films for Disney and Sony Pictures.
But thanks to the insistence of these musical and moving image pioneers on honoring the legacies of artists who have come before them, the most evocative and challenging images of black life today can be found in another medium that’s being consumed by mass audiences: the music video.
Cover image: Still from Kendrick Lamar, “Element,” directed by Jonas Lindstroem and The Little Homies.