Rihanna’s new video is a surprisingly powerful statement on immigration

Rihanna’s new video is a surprisingly powerful statement on immigration
Image: Roc Nation Records
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The music video for Rihanna’s latest single, “American Oxygen,” became available on YouTube today, Apr. 16—and the thinkpieces have already started to roll in. Not typically known for her subtlety, critics seem to have missed the video’s underlying message: immigration and its relation to the American dream.

It’s a stylistic hodgepodge, perhaps purposefully so: the singer strikes sultry poses against a striped and star-spangled backdrop, intercut with archived footage of president Obama’s inauguration, a football game, Occupy Wall Street protests, the smoking Twin Towers, Martin Luther King Jr.’s open casket, screaming Beatlemaniacs.

“American Oxygen” is basically a montage of general Americana. It’s being called “politically charged,” a “history lesson of a music video,” even “patriotic;” though a few critics have ventured deeper.

Over at Jezebel, Jia Tolentino points out an intriguing contradiction:

“‘American Oxygen’ is interesting to me as another example of America’s particular brand of fat stacks populism—the way everyone wants to be rich and also disavow it. Eighty-seven percent of Americans call themselves middle class in some way; Rihanna made a song and a video about The People but then blocked it off for a week on Tidal, the streaming service so obviously out of touch that a member of Mumford and Sons called its ringleaders a group of ‘new school fucking plutocrats.’”

But the most interesting detail about “American Oxygen” has to do with Rihanna herself. The singer was born in Barbados, and only came stateside in late 2003, after being discovered by the American songwriter and record producer Evan Rogers. Lyrically, “American Oxygen” is very much an immigrant’s story:

“Oh say can you see, this American dream?
Young girl hustlin’
On the other side of the ocean.
You can be anything at all
In America, America.
I say, can’t see,
Just close your eyes and breathe.”

The accompanying imagery, however, boasts slightly more nuance. There’s a subtle theme present in the stock footage selected. A number of men, presumably migrant farmers, sit atop the roof a moving train as it cuts through dusty scrubland. Cuban refugees cling to a pair of inflatable rafts, bobbing in a choppy sea. A trio of Mexican men skirt the bank of the Rio Grande. A border guard aggressively pulls another out of the water. Dark masses of people disembark from ships docked at Ellis Island.

Of the studio footage, the most powerful image is that of Rihanna wearing a parachute. Blasted with gusts of wind, she inhales this “American oxygen.” The same air fills the parachute behind her, and as it billows out, she finds herself unable to move forward. She falls to all fours and attempts to crawl, fighting the drag.

The message is clear: the life of the American immigrant is full of contradictions. To embark for the United States, illegally or with visa in hand, as a strawberry-picker or a pop-star, is an endeavor fueled by hope. But new arrivals often face intense social push back.

Despite thematic contradictoriness, “American Oxygen” ends conclusively. “This is the new America, we are the new America” she sings over the last few seconds of stock footage. The video cuts to Rihanna, now parachute-less, gazing intently into the camera. She tilts her head in a mildly defiant, almost challenging way, but her expression is gently resolute. “We are the new America,” she refrains, with a casual flip of the hair before walking off-frame. Conversation over.