From the first lingering close-ups of rebels in “No Church in the Wild,” it’s clear that Jay-Z and Kanye are on the revolutionaries’ side. Even when handkerchiefs cover the protestors’ noses and mouths, we see rage, suffering, and wariness pass through their eyes. They appear at once vulnerable— shirtless, dressed in street clothes—and heroic as they push against police lines and extend their arms out wide and slightly back, puffing their chests forward. That last pose is the universal sign for “Come at me.” The police do.
The police are the faceless apparatus of the state, their humanity buried beneath helmets and shields. They bear high-tech weapons. Their synchronized violence works like a machine. By contrast, the rebels’ tactics are chaotic—a police car on fire pushed through the barricades, a boot kicking against a hard plastic shield. The police have controlled power, which they use to control others. The rebels use their power to create disorder. Their anger burns. Everyone in the video is a man.
But what’s a revolution without specifics? That’s a real question, not a snarky rhetorical move. Without identifying details, it’s impossible to know whether “No Church” means to evoke Occupy Wall Street or Arab Spring or other recent uprisings. (The fact that the video was filmed in Prague lends it tones of the Velvet Revolution as well, although of course that revolution was nonviolent.)
Perhaps the scenes in the video are meant to stand for all revolutions. On principle, that’s fine — I don’t have a problem with metaphors. But I do have a problem with borrowing images that conjure up heroism and radical social movements without earning the right to them. For example: those Walt Whitman commercials make me tear up, because like many people in the target demographic I’m a sucker for that expansive, youthful, hopeful, scrappy, poetic version of America. So the ads have the effect they’re supposed to have on me. But at the same time, I know that Levi’s is making a cheap move with those commercials. They’re lifting beauty and poetry to sell me some jeans.
What this video does isn’t quite so crass, because I believe that while Jay-Z and Kanye obviously have commercial agendas they’re also concerned about art. I don’t think Levi’s cares about art one way or the other as long as I plunk down some dollars for pair of dark wash. But I do think the video is lifting revolution to sell me on Watch the Throne.
The irony of which is, I’m already sold. “No Church” is an amazing song. But it’s about the dark side of opulence, as the trailer for The Great Gatsby showed to great effect. If the video had gone more for class warfare and less for de-contextualized uprisings, it would have been a perfect match between song and story. Lyrically, Jay-Z and Kanye have both acknowledged the contrast between their current decadent lifestyles and the realities of poverty in America. How cool would it be to see a video that explored those tensions? As is, “No Church” gave me some goosebumps — but I don’t think the video deserved them.
For more on hip-hop in general and Kanye in particular, check out Melissa’s “My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Affair with Misogyny, Hip Hop, and Post-Feminism.”