Black Men In The Urban Jungle: A Semiotic Analysis of Two Music Videos

Synopsis

The music video is an interesting cultural text that contains a unique constellation of meaning, given its technical and stylistic features. Using the semiotic analysis developed by Saussure and Barthes, the various orders and degrees of meaning can be peeled back from the multiple and diverse images of the music video’s for Afrika Shox by Leftfield, and Sunday Bloody Sunday by Saul Williams. These signs and significations relate to themselves, other images in the video itself, and the wider cultural context of the viewer and in which these signs operate. Multiple political and social meanings can be teased out through this semiotic analysis which highlights the importance of a readers, and a cultures, overall paradigm in the construction of meaning within these cultural texts.

The music video is a unique modern cultural form. As a communicative text operating in the realms of mass media and popular culture it is made of up numerous visual, aural and technical facets, which like in a TV advertisement, pack its short running time with meanings both explicit and implicit. These numerous facets can be analysed as a collection of symbols and codes which relate to each other, the viewer, and the wider culture in which the text operates. As such the ‘meanings’ that are encoded in the music video are dependent on a shared understanding of these signs and codes. By the nature of the music video’s form itself — its use of non/narrative and editing etc. — it allows for multiple perspectives, a freer more flexible nature of identification/interpretation (Aslinger 2005) and encourages the idea of a more active viewer (Smyth 2006:438).

The music videos for the songs Afrika Shox by Leftfield featuring Afrika Bambaataa[1] and the U2 cover Sunday Bloody Sunday by Saul Williams[2] share some interesting features. Both feature a black male “character” situated in an urban setting; both feature an identifiable narrative and while musically and lyrically they are quite different they both can be said to communicate on some level, the themes of political/racial tension.

Applying an analysis of the semiotic features of these clips leads to an exploration of how different types of meaning are produced and into an exploration of how the viewer/audience constructs/decodes these meanings.

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Afrika Shox (AS) is set in the CBD of a big urban modern city. From a dark alleyway staggers a black man in an army jacket and shorts with no shoes. He looks disorientated and sick, stumbling around the crowded city streets. As he walks around panicked and delirious, parts of his body are knocked off and shatter like clay, while people stand and watch. In a car park there are some breakdancers dancing. A dancer knocks part of the black man’s leg off and it shatters. The black man eventually trips over and shatters his arms, and the car park attendant, played by Afrika Baambaata, comes over to him and asks if he needs a hand. The video ends with the black man hopping out of the car park and being hit by a taxi, smashed to dust.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (SBS) is set on the outskirts of a big city. A bearded homeless man washes windows and lives in a squat with other vagabonds next to busy highway. Cut throughout the video’s images of his everyday life are shots of Saul Williams as “Niggy Tardust” singing and performing the song in front of rubbish heaps and with a young black girl. City workers invade the homeless man’s squat, and he is hit and restrained when he resists. He staggers along the streets and is hit by a car. Eventually he meets one of the men who cleared out his squat out and they become friends. They meet a woman who helps the homeless man get an officer’s navy uniform. The homeless man, dressed like this, proceeds to approach and clean the windscreen of a police car, watched by some fellow vagabonds, his friend and the lady. The video ends with a shot of Niggy Tardust and the black girl looking into the camera.

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Semiotics is a structural model for understanding the creation of meaning in human communication. Its main concerns are the relationship between a sign and its meaning, and the way these signs are combined in shared codes and systems (Friske & Hartley 2003:23). In order to explore the meanings of these videos a brief explanation of the semiotic theories of Saussure and Barthes needs to be given. Saussure’s defined a ‘sign’ as made up of the signifier; the physical object/picture/sound as we perceive it, and the signified; the associated mental concept. Meaning is created through signification—the relationship between the signified and reality. The two elements of a ‘sign’ in this analytical construct work in tandem and are man-made and culturally specific; that is not ‘natural’. Human perception is made up of the signifieds which are the mental concepts we use to divide reality up and categorize it so that it can be understood. (Friske 1990:45)

Barthes expands on this notion by positing different orders of signification (Friske & Hartley 2003:25). For example the images of tall buildings that begin AS, in Barthes first order, merely denote “tall building” but in his second order they connote a feeling of ominous imposition and power by the way they have been shot; low camera angles and the high contrast dark colours. When a sign moves beyond mere representation and carries cultural meaning it is part of this second order, as such this second order is where the interactions between the sign and the user/culture are more active (Fiske 1990:91, Friske & Hartley 2003:26) These cultural meanings which are involved in second order signification form part of what Barthes’ calls myths, which are chains of related concepts with which a culture conceptualises and understands something. (Barthes 1973:52, Fiske 1990:88). In the opening shots of SBS images of homeless people sleeping next to huge highways with cars speeding past, activate the myth of “homelessness/homeless people” in modern urban western capitalist society – its indifference and their powerlessness – only to subvert and challenge it through its next four minutes,[3] while the main character of a homeless man himself is a (metonymic) symbol for not just all homeless people but more generally the marginalized, powerless and the ‘losers’ of the world system.

These organizing myths are themselves organized into a broad coherent structure, the boundaries of which serve to organize and interpret objective ‘reality’ so that it can be understood and dealt with. Barthes calls these societal/cultural mythologies or ideologies and they are his third order of signification. (Friske & Hartley 2003:30) Like his myths, they are ever evolving and changing as the social and cultural needs of one alters and morphs the shape of the other; that is they are “dynamic systems continually evolving to meet the needs and practices of their users.” (Friske & Hartley 2003:41) AS’s inclusion of breakdancers and Afrika Baambaata himself active certain myths within the wider mythology that constitutes and identifies hip-hop culture and the ways in which it identifies and makes sense of itself.

On one level AS’s video can be seen like one of the members of Leftfield see it as;

“a black comedy; it’s a send-up, really…I mean it’s ridiculous, the guy walks around and bits of his body drop off – it’s not to be taken seriously. You could say it was a reflection on society, that nobody is willing to help him until the end, when Afrika Bambaataa says, ‘Do you need a hand?’ and he hasn’t got any” (Melody Maker 1999)

Here it is nothing more than an interesting and creative promotional video for their album, but as a cultural text you can indeed say it is a reflection on society. The black man is a metonym; his image is a symbol of black people as a whole. Metonymy, making a part of reality standing for the whole, and connotation (already mentioned) are important ways in which signs carry meanings (Friske 1990:95). Connotative meaning is second order signification where a sign signifies values, emotions and attitudes, and is “essentially the way in which the encoder transmits their feelings or judgment about the subject of the message” (Friske & Hartley 2003:28-9) The modern city, shot in ways which connote alienation and dread, is a metaphor for modern society and AS communicates how his society is hard on its black population, literally crumbling its citizens. The white businessman who inhabits this city and who so easily breaks the black man’s arms is a metonym for the white urban elite, and their willful ignorance of the black struggle, shown when the white man, shot from below with a top light throwing his eyes in shadow, expressionlessly turns away from what he has caused.

The images of the all white breakdancers are a metonym for the appropriation of black culture by white society, while the black man looks on (is eyes with a white film on them) they don’t see him; he is invisible. Afrika Baambaata is the only one who sees and acknowledges him, offering him ‘a hand’, as he lays helpless on the floor, linking his actions in the real world as an African American community leader in New York. Indeed there are “a multiplicity of extratextual discourses beyond the visual image which help constitute any particular song’s meaning.” (Herman 1993)

AS was filmed in and around the World Trade Centre and Wall Street, the Financial District of New York, and for American’s its image of the WTC Tower are culturally and socially tied into a whole range of myths and ideologies. Operating at this level the visual and lyrical tension of the video take on added significance in the light of the 9/11 attacks, so much so that it leads one viewer to comment that it feels

“horribly bent with this pre-millennium tension, echoing off the city buildings. I know it’s already supposed to be there, but it feels much more immediate, like you’re watching the day before the planes are coming, and you know they’re coming” (Holy 2007)

Taking it one step further Afrika Bambaataa’s lyrics reference his belief that the true date of the millennium was one year too early (Select Magainze 1999) transforming the video into a potentially powerful prophetic cultural text.

The image of the black man in AS activates the myth of the Vietnam War with its choice of clothing and silver army dog-tags with which he is given. He is a metonym for black and/or all Vietnam Veterans and his sickness (the ‘voodoo curse’ of the video director’s original idea[4]) as it plays out visually through the narrative signifies their treatment and the price they had to pay in the war. Afrika Bambaataa’s help makes him an ‘urban witch doctor’ with positive connotations that are signified by his bright colourful clothing and how he is shot (from below looking down).

Being a cover of one of a well known song by a well known band, a viewer of SBS is immediately influenced by these ‘extratextual discourses,’ or what Goodwin calls the ‘metanarratives of the star-text’ in relation to the cultural signification of well known pop/rock singers and bands (Herman 1992). In fact Saul Williams consciously uses the social/cultural signification of the original song, a political anthem about the stupidly of violence in the name of arbitrary division in Ireland, by applying it to a different context; the brutality and violence that permeate a divided society[5].

SBS opens with a prologue which plays on filmic conventions to connote associations that give the video a story/fable quality; violins and hand drawn text ‘presenting’ the tale. As previously noted the video’s imagery “taps into visual associations that exist prior to the production of the clip itself, in the internal sign system of the audience,” (Goodwin 1992:58) in order to subvert them by showing the homeless man becoming friends with one of the men who destroyed his community of outsiders, as opposed to reacting violently. In fact they actually get together in order to challenge the true problem of society — the division itself — symbolized by the metonymic image of the police, the group that patrols and enforces these divisions. In the scenes where the city workers evict the vagabonds, the images of them using white plastic gloves and wearing dark sunglasses, uniforms, bullet-proof vests and helmets connote their human detachment from the consequences of their actions, while as a group they are a metonym for ‘state power’ and its merciless intervention. The homeless man is only able to confront this power after he is given a navy officers’ uniform, which in this reading is a connotative symbol of respect and pride; things he can acquire only through the help of other people. His window washer is another signification symbol for it has a golden crucifix attached to it which can be read as a metaphor for religion or spirituality. The homeless man washes windows with this tool for a living; that is he uses his spiritually to get by and interact in and with the world, as opposed to a gun (and the way of life it symbolizes). It is also the way in which he confronts and challenges the system by using it to clean the police car window and in the process getting payed and a receiving a ‘salute,’ however mocking, from one the cops who respond to his ‘new attire’ (i.e. his community created pride and respect). SBS also activates other signifiers of spirituality; the first thing the viewer sees/hears is the homeless man saying the words “forgive them lord, they know not what they do” quoting Jesus Christ’s first words on the cross. This activates the powerful myth of religious tolerance and humanity that ultimately is the videos over arching meaning in this reading. In line with Saul Williams’s creative oeuvre, the video’s narrative tries to highlight the inherent polarities that sustain Western capitalist society and refuses to participate in the positions established by society. In its refusal to play by the polarities of hegemonic discourse there is a cognitive and ethical strategy that “transcends the system’s analytic categories and/or stands them on their head.” (Kumar & Curtin quoting Taylor 2002:359) The video is literally altering the culture’s representational mythologies by showing other possible relations that go beyond those of power/powerlessness. Saul Williams’ performance in the video as ‘Niggy Tardust,’[6] while referencing the persona of the album, also serves to link the lyrics to the chaotic and fast paced narrative, with Niggy Tardust acting as our storyteller and narrative stabiliser, without whom the fractured nature of the video (its numerous fast cuts, edits, and montage of images) would obscure a viewers reading of SBS. Saul Williams as Niggy Tardust is the “stable central presence” of the video (Goodwin 1992:97)

These explorations of meanings in AS and SBS have in numerous different ways shown how the meaning of any ‘sign’ interacts with external aspects of the culture. Audiences/readers do not “construct meaning from media texts at will, which would deny the salience of hegemonic or preferred meanings that emanate from cultural institutions and are inscribed in cultural artifacts and texts.” (Herman 1993) This is another way of Barthes’ mythologies/ideologies in operation. Both AS and SBS encode various levels of oppositional/negotiated readings which a video for Brittany Spears for example, does not. How these work can be revealed by semiotic analysis and show that the music video’s hybridity, its disjunctive, overwhelming use of music, lyric, and image, its fluid representation of space, all encourage a complex variety of readings and rereadings, quite apart from its function as an advertisement for a certain album/band (Smyth 2006:437). It also indicates its variety and “constant transformation, not only of stylistic components, but racial, sexual, and ethnic representation…and the culturally constructed but shifting meanings of these modes and representations.” (Smyth 2006:440)

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[1] Leftfield were a UK duo who specialized in ‘leftfield’ electronic music in the 1990’s. This song was from their album “Rhythm and Stealth” from 1999. Afrika Baambaataa is one of the founding fathers of hip-hop music and culture, a DJ/vocalist and community leader.

[2] Saul Williams is a pioneering hip-hop rapper/poet/actor/musician. This song is from his 2007 (online) album “The Inevitable Rise And Liberation of Niggy Tardust!” (The physical album released in 2008)

[3] more accurately SBS challenges the mythologies of homelessness and power, as explained in the next point.

[4] “the idea was based on an image…[of]…this guy who looked a bit like a Vietnam vet or something. I’m not sure, but I just had this image in my head of New York at dusk and this zombie staggering down the street. It had something to do with Voodoo. Like maybe he has done something bad and had some kind of curse put on him…” (Bangs 2003)

[5] Saul says when he first heard it as a young man “I wasn’t familiar with the massacre in Ireland that the song refers to, but I easily aligned it with my experience as an African-American and recognized it as a revolutionary song.” (Spinella 2007)

[6] Niggy Tardust is a play on David Bowie’s famous character Ziggy Stardust who challenged people’s notions of sex and gender categories in the 70’s. Saul’s use relates to racial divisions/binaries.

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force

Saul Williams as Niggy Tardust

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aslinger, B (2005), Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (book review), The Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television, No. 56, Fall 2005, p. 73-74

Barthes, R. (1973), ‘Myth Today’, in Evans, J. & Hall, S. (eds.) , Visual Culure: The Reader, Sage Publications, The Open University, p.51-58

Bangs, L. (2003), Interview with Chris Cunningham, The Work of Director Chris Cunningham: a collection of music videos, short films, video installations, and commercials (DVD & Booklet), New York Palm Pictures, Directors Label Series,

Friske, J. (1990). Introduction to Communication Studies (2nd Edtion), Routledge, London & New York.

Friske, J. & Hartley, J. (2003), Reading Television, Routledge. London & New York

Goodwin, A. (1992), Dancing In The Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

Herman. A. (1993), Fear of Music, Postmodern Culture, Vol. 4, No. 1, September 1993 (review essay)

Holy, K. (2007), “Leftfield: Afrika Shox”, from Director File Website, (accessed 25/04/08)

Kumar, S. & Curtin, M, (2002), “Made In India” In Between Music Television and Patriarchy, Television & New Media, Vol. 3, No. 4, Novmeber 2002, p.345-366

Select Magazine, October 1999, Album review, (accessed 2/5/08)

Melody Maker, August 1999, “Leftfield: Set to provide a national ‘stealth service’, Magazine Article and Interview with Neil Barnes, Leftfield Online, (accessed 2/5/08)

Smyth, J. (2006), Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetic and Cultural Context (review), Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 23, p.437-472

Spinella, M. (2007), Hip-Hop Poet Saul Williams Covers U2 Anthem, Spinner.com, (accessed 28/04/08)

Sunday Bloody Sunday (video), Directed by Jordan M. Alberts & James Mathers

Afrika Shox (video), Directed by Chris Cunningham

(C) 2008 The Author

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One Response to “Black Men In The Urban Jungle: A Semiotic Analysis of Two Music Videos”

  1. […] Black Men In The Urban Jungle: A Semiotic Analysis of Two Music Videos […]

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