Central to the success of modern musicians is the cultivation of entry points into a given body of work, be it an album, a mixtape or an entire anthology. One might argue that, by now, overwhelmed music consumers are forced to pass on artists who don’t at least make a modest attempt at producing something you can see alongside something you can hear. It’s competition for the senses, and the first one to capture the big two tend to have sticking power. Such is the modern music video’s job; more often then not they act as “companion” pieces only and provide very little additional insight and, not by accident, serve in a big way to frame for the viewer an image of the artist in a controlled way.
Owing to typecast roles within (but certainly not limited to) the hip-hop genre, there develops a shorthand of available identities that are readily drawn upon when it comes time to explain a musician. More media-savvy listeners let this pass with a knowing acceptance that sometimes, that’s all that’s required: Show me what I expect of an inner city thug, or of a Southern gangster, big ballers, or an incensed poet. We understand these archetypes and maybe even find a lazy comfort in their existence. New creative ground can’t be broken all the time as long as the act of creating something (anything) visual to gain exposure trumps the creation of something with artistic value that would, one might hope, explain or even expand narrative as opposed to image or image-types.
In short, a lot of music videos are low on concept and high on personality-crafting, and hip-hip especially is not immune to this. That’s why it’s arresting when something like Tabi Bonney’s video for “Nuthin’ But A Hero” comes along and reminds us that music videos can carry a payload of additional message and intent without which we would miss the full scope of an artist’s work. Bonney’s video strikes this writer as an important moment in both hip-hop and, more specifically, D.C.’s historical timeline for several reasons: One, its subject matter goes beyond the typical for most videos in its genre; two, its story arc easily resonates regardless of race in a city and nation where race remains a prevailing issue; and three, it’s an authentic and, although an arguably incomplete, a collection of current features of the cultural identity of D.C. that no one has yet organized and presented in such a succinct, accessible way.
For that last reason alone it should be seen as one of those unintentional but brilliant creations that musicians, artists and historians might one day in the future return to and dig around in for insight - much like a time capsule.
In thinking about Tabi’s video for “Nuthin’ But A Hero” as more than a vehicle for the song by the same name, let’s dive into some of the facets of it that make it matter.
Considering the premise for “Nuthin’ But A Hero,” it stands in stark contrast to typical hip-hop narratives that tend to make music videos derivative and more or less parody. Divorcing the track from the video is admittedly difficult but let’s make an attempt at what the video might have looked like in less capable hands. The track is ostensibly the familiar story of an artist’s ambition to ascend to stardom and shake off the hangers-on. Not everyone can make it, but there’s success at the end; Tabi’s going there and making it true by describing it.
Flash to Tabi in slow-motion, riding in a limo, staid and cool-as-a-cucumber in the success he’s obviously always had coming to him. Was there any doubt? Or maybe we join him after midnight and witness his “view from the top” from a suite in the W Hotel. Point is, it would have been easy to portray Tabi being the superhero he talks about; for bettering his station in life through hard work, or for besting all other artists, or simply for his swagger. All of those would have earned a passing grade. But the video turns the track on its head; instead of predictable images of Tabi’s largesse, we’re shown a story about the earnest attempts of a young female activist to change habits on recycling.
And I can’t stress how hugely significant this is.
For the early-20s to mid-30s set, of which Tabi is a member, concern and doubt have crept up as a generation is realizing it’s going to have to take control of a world and country thath our parents may not have treated so well. Although it’s not known if Tabi feels this way, what can be surmised is that he’s no stranger to the constant effort on behalf of his fellow citizens working for a change – some for the nation, some for the world and some just for the District. Considering that D.C. is probably home to more non-profits than any other city in America, the fact that D.C. houses the current seat of world democratic power and has been historically one of the focal points of progressive, urban activism, that’s a lot of people every day expending energy toward goals above and beyond their own self-concern. And D.C. should finally celebrate that.
When the tired subject of city-superiority on the East Coast comes into question, lets stop apologizing and reframe the D.C.-NYC comparison argument with the new question Tabi poses: Can the Big Apple lay claim to being the city that tries like hell to help the world? No, it can’t. In fact, despite overwhelming contributions to music, specifically hip-hop, New York City is so steeped in its own hard-knock, self-centered pursuits that it looks like D.C.’s older brother who left home to make it big but never came back to help its dying grandmother. Whether we agree as a nation on the individual points of how our democracy is conducted and its effectiveness, you cannot deny the monumental efforts and almost singular goal of those working in the social change sector in D.C. In terms of who makes the daily effort, it’s the District working for everyone on behalf of everyone, and respect is owed to its every day superheroes.
And why does a D.C. “superhero” make such a fuss over a plastic bottle in Tabi’s video? Because although the metaphor of a recyclable bottle might be old-hat within the debate over how to save the world (an issue that D.C. still takes seriously despite how postmodern that may feel to the rest of the country) it’s still something you should do. It’s real. It’s a starting point and rallying around a starting point is what change-makers do best.
It’s the simplest metaphor I can think of to describe what it’s like to start a dialog on changing anything because not only is the need for change sometimes obvious, but it’s also easily discarded for lack of glamour or speed or whatever. A superhero knows the odds are stacked against him but finds the courage and strength needed to make a difference, even if it means time or hard work. In Tabi’s case, it’s devotion to his craft; in the case of an activist, it’s the sustaining of energy toward the issue at hand.
Tabi’s video also skillfully comments on some lesser-recognized developments in the discussion of race in the District and United States as a whole. The decision to make the activist who interacts with Tabi an African-American woman is a suitable if not purposeful nod toward the obvious, positive shift in U.S. race-relations, identity politics, and the undeniable and increasing role African-Americans are playing and have played in the history of this country.
Not to simplify things too much, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of opinion by outside observers on the efforts taken by black leaders of the past century tends to be that more focus has been placed on race than anything else. That same observer might mistake hip-hop to be yet another form of this single-note expression by missing the fact that the pride celebrated through its participation is but one option of the many current social expressions blacks have at their disposal. It may not be too much to posit that, having reached a time when an African-American is president, it’s also a good time to reiterate to this nation and the world that black folks do and have always cared about issues larger than race. Getting back to the video, the female activist might be so far removed from race concerns that she’s thinking ahead to landfills, global water issues and sustainability. You know, shit that matters (Mos Def’s “New World Water” ring any bells?). In which case, it should come as no surprise that this conversation finds an outlet in this video, except maybe for those who need the education Tabi’s pouring out like Dasani.
Perhaps one aspect of “Nuthin’ But A Hero” that needs closer examination is the bike tour given by Tabi’s crew, as it presents a D.C. that’s only existed largely within the last 10 years or so. Tabi’s point seems not to tell the history of D.C. or comment on the obvious and justifiable problems residents have had with the changing face of the city in the last decade, but it does matter that what is depicted is the effects of a rapid invasion of D.C. by young, affluent newcomers.
History saw D.C. transform into a predominantly black city, and scratching away at the surface uncovers a layer of latent animosity toward meddling by outsiders due to the effects of drugs (see: Cornel West Theory’s “Hustler’s Boogie“) and more or less long-standing neglect by politicians.
The contrast provided by the typical white experience in D.C. couldn’t be starker as it tends to be one of existence within smaller walled-in communities, upward mobility despite deteriorating surroundings and a recent trend toward “Distrophilia,” which can be described as a feeling of having personally contributed to the saving of the District or the elevation of the city to a level of positive opinion within the eyes of the nation. This great energy is often misdirected and mostly amounts to the improvement of the arts and other select offerings that remain inaccessible to large numbers of D.C. residents; an essential, and by no means ironic, white-washing of the problem. Tabi bikes through D.C. impeccably dressed, showing us new construction, new architecture and new condo development and in this way showcases the efforts D.C. has taken to improve some sections of the city (NoMA especially).
But, like the architecture especially, this exemplar of “‘fine urban living” is largely facade because D.C. still refuses to deal with issues like access to fair housing, education concerns and the need to revitalize neighborhoods in a way that retains their unique character and vibrancy of culture without pushing out the existing population (Columbia Heights is one such example).
Without recognizing that the city has at least two populations, D.C. has arrived at a place where one group of socioeconomically disconnected residents have set the District on a course toward a series of events the other wasn’t prepared for, letting the District go to hell while national affairs are conducted. In other words, Tabi looks fly on that fixie but he only need go a couple blocks out of frame before he starts looking out of place, a fact that might have been omitted in an attempt to err on the side of positivity.
Less important but still significant to the video is the marked increase in bicycle culture in the District, an international phenomenon, and depictions of the city beyond that of a tourist perspective – what might be called a “Brownstone Awareness” (here’s to you New York Avenue and alley-looking-suspiciously-like-Bloomingdale). Overall, Tabi’s video can be enjoyed on a number of levels by those who want to connect with the accessible superhero plot, or for those who want to dive deeper into the circumstances within which the video was created.
“Nuthin’ But A Hero” is less about communicating something intentionally image-based and more about Bonney literally becoming a traveling tour guide, a conductor through which the unique arrangement of social and historical conditions he faces can easily flow.