Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rihanna's "Hard" Video: Supporting the Afghan Surge

Over the past year, I've heard my MERIP comrade Moustafa Bayoumi give the same, great, paper twice, at last year's MESA (Middle East Studies Association) conference, and at this year's American Studies Association (ASA) conference. It's entitled, "The Race is On: Muslims and Arabs in the American Imagination," and I hope it's published soon. He argues that, since 9/11, the formerly mostly invisible Arabs and Muslims in the US have become massively visible, and increasingly, racialized. And racialized in a particular way: associated with blackness, and hence, turned into a social problem.

At the same time, Bayoumi argues, "African Americans have emerged in popular culture in recent years as the leaders of an American nation and an American empire." Moreover, he says, " this image often revolves fundamentally around the idea of black friendship with Muslims and Arabs, a friendship not among equals but of a modified projection of American power." To simplify, then, the long and venerable tradition of African-Americans opposing US imperialism is increasingly abandoned in favor of a civil rights position of actively participating in all aspects of US life, including US imperialism. Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama: all faces designed, or used, to make our empire acceptable, at home, and abroad. (Of course it's not just "faces." It's active involvement and even policy determination.)

And so we come to Rihanna, whose new "Hard" video I found shocking, even though I was very familiar with Bayoumi's argument. But no doubt it's my residual and very out-of-date expectations that African-American popular culture should somehow be oppositional that makes me outraged at how pro-imperialist Rihanna's vid is. And how it deploys so many signs of "coolness" to push the imperial agenda.

I would like the song a lot if I had not seen the vid. Now I cannot listen without seeing it. Militaristic and battlefield scenes (which are made to look like they are shot in Iraq) serve as a kind of runway for Rihanna, where she can display various outfits and demonstrate her "hard"-ness. "Yeah yeah yeah, I'm so hard," she sings over and over again in the chorus.

Rihanna appears in various outfits and scenarios.

In bright red lipstick, in GI fatigues, as if on the set of a GI-themed porn shoot. Her mouth ready to receive...what?

More is revealed, and we see black tape over her nipples. At least that's what it looks like at first glance, but then we notice it's actually over a low-cut, skin-colored tank top. The tape over nipples stunt was done recently by Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. But I think it was Wendy O of the Plasmatics who was most famous for this look.

Rihanna is also shown as if she were the commander, inspecting her unit of (all-male) troops who are in formation. Here she looks like classic Grace Jones.

Later we see Cmdr Rihanna before "her" troops, shouldering a heavy weapon. If you watch the vid (and you must) you'll notice that this outfit includes a bikini bottom showing off a very shapely booty.

Here, she looks something like Nona Hendryx in '83-'84, when she was all about that sci-funk look. I saw Nona in concert back then but can't find a good photo of what she looked like. The outfits looked aluminum. This is more or less it.

Garbed in her sci-fi gear, "hard" Rihanna strolls through the desert, unconcerned by the explosions going off around her.

We also see Rihanna with bandoliers over either shoulder. And without them, but in the same outfit, atop a pink tank. Between her legs. Really hard, a for-sure phallic female here. I guess the pink tank makes it feminine. And the Mickey Mouse ears on her helmet--is that supposed to be funny? If so, it's about the only element of humor in the vid.

And there is the Madonna-esque outfit--the bronze bikini top. In which Rihanna is variously displayed strutting atop a sandbagged position with some GIs.

Or lying supine.

There are other outfits whose referents are less clear to me. Rihanna plays poker with the guys in this one. And she wins. Because she's hard. "And my runway looks so clear," she sings. "But the hottest bitch in heels right here."

Here, she's wearing a camouflage/net thing. And her weapon.

This outfit, which appears towards the end of the vid, also escapes me. A leopard-skin Prussian looking helmet? And the black banner she is waving?

Young Jeezy appears in the video with a guest rap. He's in GI gear, smoking a cigar, but he is much more relaxed in his poses. He's already hard, just puffing on the blunt.

In case it wasn't clear, the video also clues you into the fact that this is the Middle East, and probably Iraq, that we're in. The Arabic script is sort of passable. This last word here reads raj'iun, or 'returning.' An important slogan for the Palestinians.

As I read this vid, it all adds up to an articulation of support for the upcoming Afghanistan surge. The militaristic poses make Rihanna look hard. Alternatively, they help make her look freaky and kinky. At the same time, she, by her very presence on the battlefield, makes the US military invasion of Iraq/Afghanistan look sexy. And bloodless. There are no 'bad guys.' There are no civilians in the desert. No one gets injured. It's all fabulous.

The US military and African-American r'n'b and fashion and sex are all in synchrony here.

I cannot imagine Grace Jones ever performing in such a blatant display of support for US imperial adventure. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, African-American musicians like Nas, Outkast, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, George Clinton, Raphael Saadiq, Missy Elliott and others came out to express their opposition, as part of Musicians United to Win Without War. (They signed an ad that appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 26, 2003, among other things.)

Where is the "cultural" opposition to the Afghan surge?


Unknown said...

I'll get back to reading this entry more closely, just one thing I wanted to bring your attention i the arabic.

راجعون, the arabic word on the wall is part of the expression "انا لله و اتا اليه راجعون" meaning "we all belong to Allah and verily to him we shall return"

It's usually written on the walls of houses where people would have just passed away. It's arabic and islamic etiquette for what to say when you hear about a death.

this expression is ofcourse very prevalent in Iraq and Palestine and every arabic country involved in war or civil unrest, where death is a common occurrence.

wallahu a3lam

Anonymous said...

very nicely said, iraqiguy! I was going to comment the same thing, that the phrase on the wall is actually a very from the Holy Quran.