When I wrote that the music video merits a million critiques, it’s worth saying that it’s already prompted myriad written responses. Most that I’ve seen have approached the piece, which both screams for and elides analysis, with a run-down of the ‘hidden symbolism’ packed into it. Examples? Oh, you know, the horseman of the apocalypse riding through the background; SZA’s cameo as the Statue of Liberty; guns shot and promptly whisked away, wrapped in red cloth like holy books; the (at least) triple-meaning of ‘This a celly/ That’s a tool.’ I can’t grapple with everything Gambino does – but I hope that this line will serve as a jumping off-point. To see the whole, zoom in.
Those 6 words contain multitudes. Centuries of vicious oppression coalesce in a line delivered with something like flippancy: institutionalised systems of thought, legal loopholes and hangovers, the reflection of the not-so-distant past in the deeply felt ‘now’ and, perhaps, some recourse to technological progress to usher in the societal equivalent. So – celly as ‘cellphone’, ‘cell block’; tool as ‘utensil’, and as ‘gun’. The surface meaning of the line, then, is that mobile phones (more specifically, their cameras) are becoming instrumental in the fight for black people’s equality. This isn’t news in itself: most people with an internet connection will have seen one or more videos online, shot with an iPhone or similar, of a confrontation between a white police officer and black members of the public. The footage is frequently shocking, although I realise that’s a naïve comment from a white girl in the UK who will probably never have to worry about being thrown against a car by a sergeant – let alone fear being shot by one. Personal privilege aside (if that’s possible), it seems undeniable that these videos have stepped, front and centre, into an ongoing conversation about race in America and beyond. A camera in almost every pocket at any given moment might sound problematic, but it also forces a kind of objectivity into disputes about attitudes and actions which find their ancestors in (more explicit) systems of white supremacy, i.e., imbued with a poisonous and calculated subjectivity. These structures have long painted voices of black victims as those of criminals, propping up a system which birthed its own prejudice like a snake eating its tail. Now, the cannibalism is there to see in full HD – and for a world fixated by visual content, these videos are hard to look away from.