When you are a white rapper who decides to make the title of your second hip-hop album an epithet for the liberation of slaves, well, I’d say you’d better know what you’re doing.
Ronnie Dylan seemed to take to the task with an appropriately heavy hand, especially considering the weighty subject matter of his album in question: Manumission. I met Ronnie for coffee about a week ago at the Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to discuss not only his new record, but his new music video for the title track which, upon first glance, features the unsettling — but not atypical in American pop culture media — image of a wilderness “savage”-type character portrayed by a young man with brown skin. Naturally, I found the video and the title of the album to be at perfect odds with each other and figured there must be some deeper explanation for the choices made in the video.
Based on my and Ronnie’s conversation, I’ll say this: I don’t believe the very earnest, and very young rapper consciously placed the image in his video as a way to express either, 1) an outwardly exuberant hatred of brown people, or 2) the very opposite: a subversion tactic meant to stimulate a meaningful conversation about race among people who are prone to picking up on these types of images (that whooshing sound you just heard was me raising my hand). If, however, that is what the video accomplishes, even among a handful of Ronnie’s friends and fans, then it’s certainly a happy coincidence.
Ronnie admitted to having picked up on the potentially troubling imagery after the casting and production of the video had started. He decided to move forward with it as a sort of extended metaphor for the “rap game;” a way to echo the sentiments of certain white rappers trying to break in to an artistic craft traditionally dominated — and created, of course — by black and brown people. That’s a convenient and troubling answer to explain away what was probably just a case of latent prejudice, a curse bestowed upon us by this country’s history and suffered by every single person reading this post.
The video ends with the protagonist (a young white male) donning the “tribal” markings of his hunter, and taking up spear to fight against the “savage.” Thus the hunted becomes the hunter, and our hero finds courage where once there was cowardice. The outcome of the encounter is left ambiguous, but that doesn’t really matter. In any resulting scenario, here we have a white character who will find some varied degree of redemption through the actions (nay, the very existence) of a person of color. Mainstream pop culture — especially film — is fraught with this trope, the only product of which is white people feeling pretty good about what they’re viewing because it speaks directly to their guilt or bigotry (and perhaps both at once).
It’s fine for characters of color to remind white protagonists of their burden through these fictional narratives. What’s not okay are these trending chronicles in which PoCs liberate whites of their burden through some sort of philosophically or spiritually redemptive act. Yes, white people have hard lessons to learn, but the last thing they’ve ever needed was to be granted freedom.