“Wyclef Jean” and the Question of Music Video Authorship

Curator's Note

Who is the “author” of a music video? The director? The artist? Both? Some artists have favorite collaborators. Take Childish Gambino and Hiro Murai, who most recently teamed up on “This is America.” In other cases, the artist-director relationship can border on the contentious. This was the case with director Ryan Staake’s January 2017 video for Young Thug’s “Wyclef Jean.” Rather than abandon the project when Young Thug didn’t show up for the shoot (or, more accurately, showed up hours late and didn’t get out of the car), Staake turned “Wyclef Jean” into a self-reflective documentary/music video about everything that went wrong.

At times Staake seemingly mocks the song, for instance using a bouncing ball to highlight some particularly vulgar lyrics, but the song remains the central sonic focus. If anything, the story Staake tells through title cards interspersed with footage from the doomed shoot (and a few reshoots) only increases Young Thug’s mystique. This might be why, to Staake’s surprise, the record company decided to release the video despite the mishaps. One of the most unusual music videos of the year, “Wyclef Jean” garnered a million views within 24 hours of its release and won an MTV VMA for editing.         

“Wyclef Jean” is not unique in pulling back the curtain on media production, but it raises particularly pointed questions about music video authorship. The video’s frank portrayal of the realities of music video production highlights the precarity of the director’s work in a largely freelance market. As Staake told Rolling Stone, directors are usually blamed when things go wrong: “If an artist is late and it fucks up your whole day, tough shit… I've been left with a remaining invoice at the end of projects because the client just walks away.” However, the media framed the video as a clever save on Staake’s part, thus valorizing his work, potentially over Young Thug’s. By representing “Thugger” as a diva, Staake simultaneously lionizes the rapper while delegitimizing his contributions to the video. And yet, Young Thug is literally a structuring absence in the video, sometimes appearing as a dotted-outline in shots and referenced throughout. Staake and Young Thug clearly didn't hit it off like Murai and Glover, but "Wyclef Jean" still advances both artists' careers. So who really made “Wyclef Jean” successful? Perhaps this question is better left open than answered.


Very interesting post, Laurel! It's definitely fascinating that the absence of the artist in the video still becomes a looming presence that serves as a precariously absent center for the content. I appreciate especially what you point out in the irony of the absence as well, namely that Staake's production while poking fun at the frustrations also reinforces a certain social cachet for Young Thug. I think it's interesting too that Staake did stick with some of the content originally planned by Young Thug. Obviously there wasn't much direct collaboration due to the absence, but might this be a sort of symbiotic relationship? On the one hand, the video is clever in its response. On the other, were the video for, say, an amateur band or struggling artist, it probably wouldn't have received the same attention. Might this further complicate the question of success? Again, I really enjoyed your post on this video.

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