The-Dream's "Black" is a complicated, yet essential civil rights song
Overnight, a man whose fingerprints are all over pop hits from Beyoncé, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Britney Spears dropped a consciousness bomb. The timing of "Black" makes it an artistic pièce de résistance in the ongoing dialogue regarding L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling -- the latest figure in the not-at-all-new culture of intolerance and bigotry. (Want yet another from pro sports? Take this former Twins owner.)
R&B superstar producer/songwriter/performer Terius Nash, better known as The-Dream, has tapped into something raw on the piano and marching band snare-imbued "Black." Referencing Marvin Gaye's classic "What's Going On" directly in its lyrics and overall tone, the song's accompanying video is a slideshow of both horror and hope regarding civil rights movements throughout history.
"Never be impressed with a man with no message," Nash -- not without his own current struggles -- sings at one point. Meanwhile, an unsettling rogues gallery of Cliven Bundy, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Joseph Kony, and Sterling flashes across the screen. (Nash himself stays out of the video completely.)
To be clear, "Black" makes no claim to hold the answer, and it's not just a "feel-good anthem." If anything, a video that binds together imagery of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Chicago gang violence, and Pussy Riot is a reminder that our world's trials of class, race, gender, and belief often occur in separate chambers.
"Black" is a kernel of something, though. "You got me feeling real black right now" is its refrain, and we eventually come to understand that Nash is referring to a blackness that wraps up ethnicity and a lot more.
The video closes with these words:
"Black isn't just a color. Black isn't just a race anymore. It's a feeling and a place from which one feels isolated by the world of the governing elite. Classism is the new racism. This is what black feels like."
Several listens to the song haven't made its message any easier to pin down. It's an exceedingly complex and fraught proposition to wrap so many injustices brought down on different groups into one narrative.
Plus, hearing it from The-Dream -- someone who writes for other voices all the time and has steered from political statements in his work -- it's easy to wonder if this song was originally intended to come out of a different mouth.
Timing's everything, though, and "Black" in this form is worth a couple of your minutes right now.
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