OPINION: Lessons from Rihanna
'Every breath I breathe / Chasing this American Dream / We sweat for a nickel and a dime / Turn it into an empire / breathe in this feeling / American, American Oxygen'
I have had Rihanna's new single American Oxygen on repeat for a week. The lyrics narrate the story of immigrants who have made their way to the United States, fuelled by the promise of a better life, and chasing the elusive American Dream. What could have been yet another simple endorsement of this ideal and its narrative fantasy is complicated by a video that signals what is beneath the surface of that dream.
The video is politically charged, punctuated by numerous iconic moments across American history and the present day. With multiple images of Martin Luther King Junior, the black power salute, juxtapositions of both Wall Street and the Occupy Wall Street movement, and past marches and demonstrations shown next to Ferguson protests, it reveals a dream that is more complicated than the easy 'you can be anything at all in America' narrative. It shows the costs paid by those who struggled to open that dream, and American identity, to all, and the present-day struggles that remain, occupying the same space, time and breath as the American Dream.
The video and the song complicate each other - signalling many questions, but offering no answers. The two seem to wrestle against each other, revealing two sides of the proverbial coin that don't sit easily together, but are necessary to tell the whole story and unpack the meaning of citizenship and belonging, and the real cost of packing your life into a suitcase for the promise of a better life, somewhere else.
It is estimated that up to 920 people died for this promise while seeking refuge on 19 April this year. They travelled across the Mediterranean Sea with the hope of landing in Italy and having their lives take on an entirely different colour, feeling and reality. An estimated 219,000 people made their way across those waters last year, and already, around 1,776 people have lost their lives to different permutations of that dream. NBC reports that some pay up to $1,000 to make this dangerous journey across the seas. Closer to home, at least seven people have died, most eking out a living selling cigarettes and other small goods, finding that the simple promise of a better life in another African country does not tell the whole story, or reveal the darker side of that dream.
New places of rest are not always welcoming to some, as while state borders might be imagined, who is within and without, and the politics that determine this, has real impact and meaning in determining what life looks like inside their boundaries. To think about what it means to belong to a country - to be a citizen - one has to consider what it means to not belong, and the invisible borders created around who is an 'insider' and an 'outsider'.
After a day that holds so much metaphoric and symbolic power in this country, 27 April, I wonder what still complicates the narrative of citizenship and belonging and what the meaning of being a citizen is for different kinds of South Africans, stratified along so many different, invisible lines. Nationalism and patriotism, often going hand in hand with democratic ideas, are not simply positive ideals.
The underbelly and negative side of 'the nation' reveals articulations of 'us' and 'them' that still divide a 'united' society. As Gugulethu Mhlungu argued in this week's City Press, there are numerous layers of violence beneath the rainbow nation and its concept of unity. There have been many incredible, significant gains that have been made since the first vote on 27 April, 21 years ago, but we have to make sure that we always tell the whole story, not simply the good or bad parts, in taking stock of who we are, where we are, and where we would like to go.
The most politically charged line of American Oxygen is the repetition of 'We are the new America', which appears to argue that America is a nation of immigrants who have changed the image and idea of 'Americanness'. As we marked Freedom Day, I wonder, if we unpack the many layers beneath the surface of our own dream of total, complete freedom, underneath it all, who is the new South Africa, and what have we become?
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler