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Art and Activism Come Together In “Chains”, Usher and Nas’s New Interactive Video On Police Brutality

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I was tempted to describe “Chains”, a new interactive music video by Usher Nas, and Bibi Bourelly, addressing the toxic mix of anti-Blackness, law enforcement, criminal injustice, and state and private prison enterprises ripping at the seams of America this millennium, as a protest song. Until I remembered how much putting any form of Black art and protest in the same sentence aggravates my radical and aesthetic sensibilities. So, we’ll just skip that part.

Released through Jay Z’s fledgling music streaming service Tidal, and featuring a succession of profiles of high profiled victims of state violence, “Chains” is an attempt to (1) raise the consciousness of fans and (2) urge them to action. It bid site visitors to #DontLookAway from anti-Black policing by innovative means. How? The only way fans and music lovers could listen to the song is by giving Tidal permission to activate their webcam and, using facial recognition technology, make sure they kept their full attention on the eerily slow moving images of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, and others appearing on the screen.

Drop, jerk, or wander your eyes, and the music stopped.

Trust. I went through the process. The tech was on point.

Don’t Look Away was available free of charge for three days. Which means it ended yesterday.

According to Tidal, all proceeds from the song will be donated to “Donor Advised Fund administered by social justice organization Sankofa.org.”

Reportedly, Usher will perform a live version of this song at Tidal’s charity concert this week in Brooklyn.

Listen, I’m not certain that the tendency to look away from the innocence of pre-brutalized black and brown bodies has been the main culprit behind state-sanctioned murders of Black lives. American history shows otherwise. That record is full of black horror stories of White perpetrators and bystanders alike looking directly at, not away from, black bodies.

Still, true as this is, when artists dare try in some way to bring awareness to these issues, particularly in an era that celebrates celebrity egos and fabulous lifestyles insulated from the masses, we cannot but be willing to make some mention of it.

That is to say, whether the efforts of these artists to shrink the space between art and activism are effective or not, we should — must — look at that too.

Antwan is an educator, cultural critic, actor, and writer for Wear Your Voice Mag (WYV), where he focuses on the dynamics of class, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. Prior to joining the team at WYV, he was an adjunct professor in the African American Studies Department at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, where he taught African American Literature. He has traveled the U.S. and U.K. showcasing a fifty-five minute, one-person play titled Whitewash, which focuses on the state of black men in the post-civil rights era. Antwan received his B.A. in English and Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and M.A. in African American Studies from University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and NAACP theater nominee.

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