Increasingly, the music video format offers a platform to video artists whose work is usually played on loops in sparsely populated gallery spaces. Beyond those white walls is a YouTube-driven visual culture where songs serve as housing for far-fetched world-building. Recently, the artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa collaborated with Kanye West for his song ‘Wash Us In the Blood’, a commentary on police murder of black people. The video splices together found and filmed footage and animation to create a visual collage, adapting the methodology used in Jafa’s well-known film Love is the Message, The Message is Death from 2016 (which he set to Kanye’s gospel-inspired track ‘Ultralight Beam’, creating in effect an unofficial music video). And last year, for musician Solange’s visual album When I Get Home, multimedia artist Jacolby Satterwhite used 3D animation – partly inspired by drawings his mother made during schizophrenic episodes – to create a black Southern take on the Panathenaic Stadium, hovering over Houston’s Third Ward. Solange herself directed and choreographed plenty of the visual sequences in the 41-minute film, and has, over the last several years, developed her own visual art practice around and within her music.
Yet the artists playing most compellingly with the music video form are often those without the star power or connections – limited resources, while not ideal for any artist, usually offer productive challenges in short formats. In 2012, the photographer and film-maker Khalik Allah released a music video for Masta Killa’s ‘Things Just Ain’t the Same’ before going on to direct and shoot his feature films Field Niggas (2015) and Black Mother (2018), which cross between visual art, documentary, and polemic. And Klein, a musician, artist and producer from London, collaborates with other young film-makers and artists she meets – usually on the internet – to concoct entire visual worlds, set to her deconstructed experimental electronic-meets-R&B tracks.
What connects these artist-directors is not merely a desire to operate within the mass media construct of the music video. As artists who comment specifically yet not strictly on blackness and diaspora, Klein, Satterwhite, Solange, Allah, and Jafa are able to develop styles and rubrics that don’t seek to define or determine blackness but rather refract and refine its endless expressions. Specifically, Klein and Allah do so by looking not to obviously impressive or ostentatious black expressions, but to the subtle, small, and everyday, building a connective tissue between tiny gestures and chance encounters. To situate these explorations in short and sound-shaped forms is to position them in the mass market space which black artists have historically determined and directed: the music industry.
Klein’s videos play with emotional drama and digital communication; there’s also plenty of stunting – or showing off – as not just an action, but a mood. In ‘Cry Theme’, directed by Klein and Chantal Adams, Klein, dressed in a flowing orange dress, and a tall man in a tan suit stand in the dark, and alternately turn to smile squarely at the camera. In ‘Claim It’, directed by Klein and Nicolai Niermann with editing and visual effects by Niermann, Klein’s friends stand around a cake, again in the dark, this time with candles lit, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. Then the frame freezes as her friends’ faces morph into her own; the rest of the birthday party proceeds with frame freezes and skips, Klein’s face grafted on to her friends’. For ‘Runs Reprise’, directed and choreographed by Wade Dwyane Jones and photographed by Sekou Abineri, the frame is filled up with the bodies of black dancers in white T-shirts, smoke rising and blue lights flashing around them. And for ‘Brother’, Klein’s entirely self-directed and most narratively conventional music video, a young black girl in a white dress runs through the woods, a baby in white holds on to the fingers of her mother (played by Klein), and again we are enveloped in darkness, smoke, and blue light as a circle of black men in headpieces dance around a fire with Klein.
Allah’s work, especially his photography, is also interested in the colour blue, in the way it is absorbed and reflected by dark skin, creating a feeling of both reverence and harshness around a subject. It’s a kind of light that counters the sharp yellows of the shops, subways and apartment halls that are prominent in ‘Things Just Ain’t the Same’, and is found in the clubs, streets at night, and other public-private spaces where people come alive. In the video, blue also settles in as dusk comes, with whispers of the moon descending over a young black boy dancing in the park. Black is blue, as the song goes, yet the meaning of blue is constantly up for interpretation. What blue or the blues was to one generation or group or individual, even if all black, is not what it is to the next.
In How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007), the art historian Darby English argued that there are ways to look at work by black artists beyond their ‘blackness’, which is to say, without constantly centring the rubric of race and by instead affirming the major role postmodernity, for example, plays in the work of contemporary black artists such as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, William Pope.L and Isaac Julien. It’s a fair though not-so-straightforward task to contextualise black artists beyond their blackness alone, because just as they may work within broad and interdisciplinary traditions, there is no smooth or definitive way to disentangle these inquiries from their specific contexts – or the ways blackness is and isn’t centred in various discourses. Like English’s subjects of study, both Klein and Allah are obviously informed by postmodernity. Yet while their work does not emanate exclusively or even primarily from blackness, because of where the work is located – physically, in terms of the communities and the industries involved, and even psychically, in terms of the specific experiences and emotions encountered – blackness emanates from it. And it’s this entanglement which is centred in the work of many black artists working within the music video form. In music, blackness is inescapably at the centre, and the best work never takes it for granted.