Music

H.E.R.’s Gimmicky Corporate Protest Songs

H.E.R. performs at the Rock in Rio music festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 5, 2019. (Ian Cheibub/Reuters)
Insipid political ads, presented as Millennial pop ‘justice’

Even the stage brand “H.E.R.” that’s used by singer Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson is a gimmick. The acronym stands for “Having Everything Revealed,” and if that lack of wit doesn’t tell you all you need to know, her pedantic political songs will clinch the point. Like a female John Legend, Wilson represents R & B’s decline into ersatz, derivative “soul” and pious tendentiousness — all three apparent in her Oscar-nominated song “Fight for You.”

Wilson’s would-be anthem uses current social unrest as a gimmick. It was written for the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, just as Legend’s song “Glory” was made to order for the ahistorical social-justice movie Selma. Both gimmicky tunes abuse the indoctrination of black youth made famous in the 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, further confusing the pop audience that cannot distinguish between political principal, historical misrepresentation, media manipulation, and their own generational restlessness.

Born in Vallejo, Calif., and raised in the socially conscious Bay Area, 23-year-old Wilson hits a new low for activist-advocate pop in “Fight for You,” taking advantage of recent flashpoints from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd and twisting them into Black Lives Matter blather. “Fight for You” typifies the bewilderment that overtook black America when President Obama left office without improving their real lives. (A Kalorama for everybody!) Instead, Obama’s saying “Trayvon Martin could have been my son” set off the hysteria of false empathy that has resulted in a perverse cultural phenomenon: the denial of black excellence in favor of deifying lawbreakers and criminals who met pathetically predictable ends. Their martyrdom offers the next-best salve to an ineffectual POTUS. “Fight For You” speaks the inchoate, yet inarguable zeal of hyped-up black protesters who cannot rationally explain the reasons for their agitation.

Justice, a word that has lost all meaning, doesn’t explain rioting for violent and materialistic revenge. Wilson dissolves this corrupted concept of “justice” into her song’s amorphous rhythm-and-rhyme. Ray Charles’s movie theme for 1967’s In the Heat of the Night was as socially anxious as it was erotic — a tossed-off bluesy masterpiece that elevated the movie. But “Fight for You” shares the same petty, crippling conceit as Judas and the Black Messiah. The stifled imagination of that film and of H.E.R.’s music video sees black people as trapped in a closed society. Fabricated scenes of police aggression mix with borrowed documentary footage of Sixties protests.

Wilson’s dream of a fascist police state is exactly what Kanye West controversially called “a choice.” In visual terms, the Fight for You video presents black life as a form of self-enslavement, self-criminalization — especially when lawbreakers are adopted as icons. In the video, Wilson portrays a girl who respects her father’s old-fogey religious imperatives yet nonetheless rebels. This privileged brat who never experienced the bygone offense of being denied the right to vote or sit at a lunch counter doesn’t appreciate what it means to rebel.

In musical terms “Fight for You” (a mélange of Janet Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and Prince) is unoriginal. Wilson mimics her musical forebears the same way many of her generation mimic political forebears — without comparable talent and with a different shallow, conviction. She’s merely commercial, which, for the hip-hop era, is the only conviction: In the video, the slogan I Am a Revolutionary is stamped on the bottom of shoes just like Spike Lee’s old “X” baseball cap that advertised his movie Malcolm X.

Wilson’s “Fight for You” is a sequel to 2020’s “I Can’t Breathe (Will anyone fight for me?)” — a paean to both George Floyd and Eric Garner. The childlike vocal emulates Janet Jackson’s chirpy faux-revolution spiel on “Rhythm Nation” but trades that song’s powerful dance momentum for Wilson’s usual draggy melody line. This is protest through a cannabis haze. High on its own righteousness, which Wilson confuses for tear gas. The names Ahmaud Arbery, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Delrawn Small, Walter Scott are brazened along with other unspecified deaths. But how many are gang-related? How many show Wilson’s understanding of urban sociology? She chirps “genocide” but doesn’t really seem to know the meaning of the word. She offers no gang-war eulogy such as the ones that made Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez” so effective and Boyz n the Hood a classic.

Check Wilson’s insipid lyrical thought process:

“You think your so-called ‘black friend’ validates your wokeness / And erases your racism? / That kind of uncomfortable conversation is too hard for your trust fund pockets to swallow / To swallow the strange fruit hanging from my family tree.”

Replete with the exacerbated Billie Holiday reference, this is corporate protest, with video images courtesy of Vice News. Wilson seems indifferent to how black political movements have been hijacked. (A duet with Fiona Apple of Apple’s self-flagellating race equity song “Shameika” would make for a hilarious, fatuous showdown.) She doesn’t analyze Antifa’s usurpation or the mainstream media’s exploitation. She’s either ignorant, or part of the ruse — but can’t see that she is. That’s how hegemony works.

“The only solution / is a new evolution / we can’t take it no more / when they knock on your door / are you ready for war?”

Does Wilson realize she’s being used? (That moniker H.E.R. is as senseless as the new gender-free pronouns “them” and “they.”) She must think that making movie theme songs and music videos that are really political ads sponsored by biased film and record companies is progress. H.E.R.’s modish anger is the mildest corporate sell-out.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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