In today’s age of the Infinite Scroll, listeners are becoming desensitized and disengaged with art. But artists like Vince, Frank, and Leikeli47 are fighting back by manipulating imagery to challenge and confront your perspective head-on.
Empathic listening is an active form of consideration that allows you to immersively engage with what you’re hearing. It’s an idea often reserved for conversation, but a capacity for empathy is a trait that bleeds into our ability to interface with stories told through history or art.
I learned it when I walked into class as a sophomore in high school and a teacher was lecturing about the slave trade. I left on a Monday with a stack of papers to read, dates to memorize, and vocabulary words to make sense of. But when I returned the next day, the formerly neatly organized classroom, filled with fluorescent and natural light alike, was dark, and desks were pushed to the sides. Our teacher told us to put our backpacks on our desks and come sit in a tiny square he had taped off on the floor of the room. 20 students squeezed into this box, uncomfortable and shifting listlessly. He started lecturing, “the way you’re sitting isn’t nearly as bad as it was for Africans packed into ships and sent across the Atlantic Ocean.”
That’s the most visceral experience I’ve had in a classroom. The resonance of human history often boils down to how much we connect to the story as individuals. Some of us have a greater capacity for empathy, for feeling the turmoil of being crammed into a boat and taken from everything familiar to you.
Our capacity for empathy is directly correlated to how willing we are to engage. And our willingness to engage is intricately connected with how much content we’re trying to consume.
In 2018, technology has flooded our lives with content. Caught up in the mire are musicians who champion an artform of brutally raw self-reflection. And yet, more often than not, we overlook the content they’re giving us. In our musicians, we seek images we can connect with, images we can consume, and we seek them with a lens reserved for dispassionately skimming pages in high school history books. We could understand their lives and humanity if we tried, but the overwhelming quantity of content in front of us makes it too easy to just continue flipping through the pages.
There is a distance between artist and consumer that has always existed, but grows wider as we demand more visibility from our artists. Our viewership isn’t passive, it’s an active choice. A choice that fuels our presumption for more content, more access to an artist’s life. While our gaze is intently casted upon artists, their music and their lives, the distance from their personal struggles gives us a comfort that allows us to consume and move past a piece of art before having to actually consider them.
Some artists recognize the danger in allowing consumers to wield influence with a comfortable and unchecked gaze. These are the artists who sit us down and lecture us while we’re crammed together in discomfort on the floor of a dark classroom. Leikeli47 makes us question what exactly matters to us by simply hiding her face. Vince Staples does it by holding a mirror up to us; forcing us to evaluate the luxury with which we listen and watch the horror stories his raps make plain. Frank Ocean’s entire mystique, and more specifically his video “Endless,” give us an image in the rawest, most human, way—the mundanity of human experience.
As consumers we run wild, like children in a McDonald’s PlayPlace. We run unchecked, overwhelmed, and unattentive, but these three musicians find ways to sit us down and make us take stock of the fact that we’re gallivanting on uncleaned equipment, that we need to wash our hands before we eat. We need these reminders. Without them we might not ever truly understand what it is we are being given.
Leikeli47: What’s Behind the Mask?
Google Image search “Leikeli47.”
No seriously, go ahead do it.
All you get are images of a woman with her face wrapped up in bandanas or some other mask. Occasionally, she is positioned next to another female rapper, like in this image next to Rapsody:
But more often than not she’s stylized as a mysterious figure, who goes to great lengths to hide her face—and the rest of her identity—from the prying public eye.
And yet her 2018 LP Acrylic is a tour of the hoods she calls home. She drives through streets and points out windows where moms and aunties sell candy to keep single parent households afloat. Turning a corner, she parks in a nail salon and waits for the neighborhood “plugs” and “anonymous looters” to deliver their wares: anything from the latest bootleg DVD’s to panties and Polo. While sitting in the chair, she recalls falling in love on the subway to work, somewhere near Hoyt and Schermerhorn, reminiscing on times when it wasn’t childish to airbrush a boyfriend’s name on her nails. The specificity of these experiences makes her anonymity confounding.
Though she has shown love to the Brooklyn and Virginia neighborhoods she calls home, her stories carry an air of generality. The nameless nail salons that serve as vital hubs of Black Female life on Acrylic are replicable in any city where Black people have been cordoned off and separated by some insidious combination of the stench of past segregation and a lack of opportunity to move up and out.
Leikeli47’s mask is as much a way of concealing her identity as it is of making her a singular figure in rap. Behind that mask is the woman who was born into these nail salons and hoods. The woman unwilling to let this world that demands so much consume her image. The woman who won’t allow her rapping prowess to be filtered through her appearance. In a culture that attaches so much weight on image and perception, Leikeli’s mask is an act of cultural subterfuge, one that lets her message be specific to the her we’ve never seen and general to the experience of all those people she stands in for.
This mask is my cape. I tell people that all the time. I also just wanted to keep it fun and fresh. It’s just like you said though, the mask keeps the focus on my music. It helps me with performing, too. I was definitely a very shy kid growing up in New York.” – The Fader (2015)
The mask is more than the cape; it’s the cowl. It hides her identity while giving her the freedom and the courage to make music. It harkens back to the power of MF DOOM’s mask or Ghostface Killah’s masked start on early WuTang cut “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.” But unlike these two male rappers, the shroud serves to hide her from the public’s sharp eye for women.
2018 saw an explosion of female rappers living femininity in whatever way they saw fit. Rappers from Cardi B to Noname to Cupcakke stretched the net of female rap wider than it has been, increasing the rap world’s bandwidth for female voices. Female rappers have made headway over the last few years by defying expectations, and living their own lives authentically. Leikeli’s mask is her way of acknowledging this task; defying the world’s desire to see her and judge her for her appearance. Like DOOM and Ghostface before her, she just wants us to hear the music.
In her music video for “Girl Blunt”, Leikeli posts up in an environment where images are of utmost importance, a roller rink. She dresses and moves as everyone else around her, in an environment illuminated with the pinks and blues of a late-night skate, but Leikeli peers at the camera through a makeshift bandana-mask like she does everywhere else. She raps and weaves with bravado and feminine confidence, the kind born out of surviving the hoods of her native Virginia and Brooklyn. But really, in the roller rink, the focus isn’t so much on a person’s face, it’s really on their talent; how well can you skate?
We read words and listen to songs all the time, but we also race to fit images and faces to these stories. Leikeli47 is a mysterious orator because she documents history—openly and honestly—but never lets us see her face. She bares all of her that matters in her creations, and she leaves us wondering “why does anything else matter?”
Vince Staples: You Wanna Have Fun?
One time, circling the block (The block)
Lil buddy got murdered on a flock
Two times, you know how we rock (You know how we rock)
You know who we knocked on, you know who we socked”
A white middle school aged kid slams a MacBook with guilt and runs out of his room—littered with hip-hop posters—at the beckon of his mother. He’d gotten most of the way through a virtual tour of Vince Staples’ home in Long Beach, California. Vince himself was the tour guide, moving with the Google maps car as it documented scene after scene of life on the block.
The kid sat in the comfort of his home and watched as fights broke out, people were arrested after stealing bikes, and a day in the neighborhood unfolded like any other. All in a day in Vince’s life. This is the scene captured at the end of the music video to “FUN!”, the E-40 featuring track from FM!. It calls attention to the voyeuristic appeal of hip-hop, the curiosity it inspires in every viewer, and the disconnect between lifestyles of consumers and artists.
Rap isn’t necessarily an insulated experience, and to be a rap fan doesn’t mean you have to have experienced everything happening in the songs you enjoy. Recognizing the difference in perspective and opinion, and being willing to embrace that dissonance is a central tenet of art. No creator and consumer share the exact same experience; to be a good consumer is to engage in the stories presented to you in their entirety.
On FM!, Vince teamed up with Kenny Beats—producer extraordinaire who scored Rico Nasty’s noxious album Nasty and Key!’s 777—to give fans what they wanted: for Vince to come down from the “high-brow artistic pedestal” and “techno beats” of Big Fish Theory. With the help of Kenny Beats, Vince obliged.
In reality, we got Trojan Horse’d.
After Big Fish Theory, fans began asking Vince to rap over traditional rap instrumentals, imploring him to ease off the unfamiliar and give us something fun. The fun instrumentals we wanted—and received—were full of striking critiques which induced self-examination.
On “FUN!”, Vince gave us what we wanted, but he forces us to grapple with how exactly it is something so seemingly joyous can be born out of so much pain and violence. He recognizes how his image is perceived, so he invites us into the storm of his chaotic life with a music video that escorts us onto the tour bus , and then throws us off.
And this isn’t the only time Vince has used images to hold the inherent disconnect of music consumption to task.
Summertime ’06 standout “Senorita” received a music video that turned a walk through his block into a slaughterhouse for family consumption in an amusement park. As Vince walks through the neighborhood, a group of people led by a tattoo clad preacher march towards the boundaries of the glass container housing them, all while members are picked off one by one with gunfire. The lone survivor of the death march is the leader, and he gets to the end of his enclosure to see a comfortable family of three staring at him, and the death they just witnessed, with enjoyment holding the corners of their mouths in smiles.
The music video to “FUN!” just adds color to the imagery in the black and white “Senorita.” It’s Vince’s way of confronting the hypocrisy of rap’s consumption. We sit like unaffected patrons of a church, hum to the hymn of the Future-sampled verse in “Senorita” and sway to the incantations of “FUN!”; the imagery is the sermon Vince knows we need before we leave this church.
We listen to deeply personal music and then we expect visuals that convey the joy the music seems to have. Vince Staples holds a mirror up to our gaze and forces us to look at ourselves, to critique why it is we are voyeuristically enjoying the lives of people that are struggling and enduring pain.
Frank Ocean: How Much Frank is Enough?
I’ve asked the question “when is Frank Ocean going to release more music?” more times than I would like to admit. It feels like a rite of passage in being a Frank Ocean fan. The seemingly infinite wait between Channel Orange and Blonde dragged along, and was eventually illuminated by one of my all-time favorite Twitter follows @DidFrankDrop. The question was simple, and the answer was…simpler.
Until it wasn’t.
When Frank released Endless and then shortly followed it up with Blonde in 2016, I’m not exactly sure the world was ready. Timelines, forums, and any other communal space lit up with the same chorus: “Frank Ocean released an album.” We had been asking for more of Frank, in any capacity, and he obliged, by giving us more of himself than he ever had. Not just in music, but also in the imagery of Endless, the video/album that prepared us for Blonde.
Selectivity is something that’s important for a public figure, it helps allow them to curate a perception that’s vital to their art and who they are perceived to be. Few figures wield selectivity and secrecy as masterfully as Frank Ocean. Without great effort, it was nearly impossible to stay up to date on Frank’s everyday movements (although the most dedicated found a way). Frank Ocean moved like a gnat in your bedroom at night, just before you go to sleep, mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds on your phone: you really don’t know where he is but he pops up the only place you are looking when you least expect him. And so, with his 2016 releases he popped up the only place he could, in our music libraries. When we least expected him.
Endless was his response to our clamors for visibility. As we urged and pleaded Frank to come back, he was working, like the rest of us. Our yearning desire was just to get more Frank, and he obliged threefold.
Endless features Frank Ocean building a staircase in the middle of a warehouse. It holds intimate shots in black and white as it captures three Frank’s working in unison, in the mundane uniformity of everyday life. This is Frank’s grand statement that he is a real human who wakes up everyday, builds, comes home, and returns to the same fate the next day.
We all wanted something spectacular from Frank. We wanted him to reappear with music that struck our cores like the pleas on “Bad Religion” and built the growing dynasty of Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange, and Frank established the triumvirate with Blonde. But he used Endless to present himself as more than musical royalty. He responded to our demands for more Frank, by giving us three times the Frank we could expect in the humblest of settings.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a rock up a hill every day, and once he nears the top the rock rolls back down for him to begin anew. Albert Camus rewrote Sisyphus as a hero whose eternal act of revolt is in his awareness of how futile and absurd his working existence is. Sisyphus is content, and Camus writes that his contentment in the face of daily futility is heroic.
Frank Ocean shows up to work. Building a staircase to nowhere in the middle of a warehouse. When he finally finishes, it disappears, and we see Frank start anew. Soundtracked with his own voice there’s a self-aware contentedness in Frank, he sees and understands that he will always work, but he finds the joy and the motivation in it.
Endless, as a whole, is a video that forces us to consider our humanity in ways that approach the Sisyphean struggle of working to exist. When we as fans asked for more Frank he delivered. He gave us three versions of himself, all showing up to work each day. In the human experience of mundanity Frank walks us through an existentialist crisis, an image we hadn’t yet thought to apply to our musical royalty.
What Do You See Now?
It’s not without intention that all three of these figures are Black. The Black body is one of the most misinterpreted and misused throughout the whole of human history. At times stolen and enslaved, at others misrepresented and segregated, and in others relegated to closed off spaces to have their art and cultural contributions denigrated and then poached. So, to center Black figures in music as figures who are manipulating the gaze on their art is important. It’s giving the reins to a class of people who had all of their power stolen from them. It allows them, me, us, to question the infrastructure governing our creations.
Leikeli47 asks us whether we’re willing to engage in the art alone and why we clamor for access to the whole of an artist’s life, Vince Staples asks music fans to consider what it is we’re ingesting, and Frank Ocean makes us question when exactly we’re going to be ready to reconcile our own humanity with the humanity of our favorite musicians.
These subversions of stereotypical images push innovation and create narratives worth engaging in as fans. The question becomes how strongly will we engage, and how much will we allow these lessons to push us?
I can’t answer those questions for anyone. Only you can.