The Black Surreal

Curator's Note

Recent music videos by African-American artists have frequently featured an aesthetic which could be described as the Black Surreal, a configuration formed by the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the deathly.

On one hand, these videos contain images which could be variously described as imaginative, unbelievable, spiritual, phantasmatic. Sometimes these images are suggestive (Kendrick Lamar’s doppelganger impressions in “God is Gangsta,” Drake’s omnipotent celebrity in “God’s Plan”) and sometimes literal (Young Thug’s myriad doppelgangers in “Best Friend,” or the elevated plane Joey Bada$$ achieves in “Christ Conscious”). They often indicate a skepticism towards the camera’s ability to represent reality, incorporating an ambivalence into the camera mechanism itself by simulating a damaged lens (The Underachievers’ “Packs”) or psychedelic VFX (A$AP Rocky’s “L$D”), or using unusual combinations of gestures, costumes, and props to create a kind of alien queerness (Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”; Janelle Monae’s “PYNK”). These videos manifest an idea of black life as transcendent, reaching towards something beyond conventional reality. 

This utopian sensibility is juxtaposed, often brutally, with its opposite: images depicting violence and death with almost journalistic detachment. Police, guns, riots, fistfights, illness, funerals, burned out buildings, wrecked cars, fire. Flying Lotus’s “Coronus, the Terminator” features the artist as Death’s harbinger in powder make-up and a white uniform. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” depicts two horrific, blood-splattering executions. A violent car wreck closes Lamar’s “LOYALTY.” If fantastic imagery reflects a hopeful faith in black art, then this streak of brutal realism channels its opposite - a sense of despair, futility, disappointment, and anger at the contemporary world.

While the Black Surreal is not by any means new, this contrast feels particularly vivid in today’s America. In these videos the viewer is unavoidably drawn into the violence on screen at the same time as they are offered the chance to imagine an alternative.

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