Kodak Black on Race in America

Many know Dieuson Octave, the up-and-coming nineteen year old rapper from Pompano Beach, Florida, by his stage name, Kodak Black. Kodak became popular after his 2014 single “No Flockin,” but he has released four mixtapes and one studio album since 2013, and he’s worked with other big names in the hip hop scene (including DJ Khaled, Rae Sremmurd, and French Montana).

On February 16th, 2017, Kodak released a new music video for his song “Tunnel Vision.” The lyrics on the track refer to “the system” that “wanna see [Black Americans] in the penitentiary,” and the video is a striking and personal representation of racism.

The video begins with two men fighting on the ground, outside, in a rural area. The title and credits of the song are displayed, and we see Kodak Black standing in darkness with a burning cross behind him. A cheerful tune begins as the camera focuses on a white man driving a jeep and wearing a red “Make America Hate Again” hat – clear references to the KKK’s tradition of burning crosses in order to terrorize Black communities, and to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. This video forces us to consider the reality: currently, in America, the people in power have cultivated a rhetoric that allows for overt and violent expressions of racism. In November, right before the presidential election, the KKK publicly supported Donald Trump and explained that the way to “make America great again” was to return to its original “White Christian Republic.” Hate crimes against the black community followed: a black church was burned and painted with the words “Vote Trump,” graffiti has appeared in parks, schools, and on streets with messages such as “black lives doesn’t matter” and “go back to Africa,” and threats of violence were made against Black university students through social media.

The symbols present in “Tunnel Vision” remind (or persuade) us that racism is still very present in this country. The first two lines of the chorus are: “Lil Kodak, they don’t like to see you winnin’ / They wanna see you in the penitentiary.” “They” is used in reference to white people, and “you” is Kodak himself; the lines explain that the dominant white structures of government and market actively oppress the Black community by funneling (or tunneling) youth into jails and prisons. This is really complicated, and many scholars have examined the ways in which Black Americans are hurt by our “criminal justice system” – but Kodak’s “Tunnel Vision” is not aiming to explain or solve this issue. Rather, this song is an artistic expression of these issues and reveals a personal investment in this reality.

In the video, the man wearing the “Make America Hate Again” cap also wears a jean jacket with the confederate flag on it. He takes a gun out of his car and points it toward an unarmed, defenseless Black man. To our relief, the gun jams and the two men fight unarmed; as they fight, we see the anger of the man who was targeted and understand how outraged he is to have been so unjustly and unreasonably violated. The rest of the video goes back and forth between the men fighting (with an American flag in the background) and Kodak Black rapping and dancing with friends in front of burning crosses. The video ends when the man who had to defend himself grabs the American flag and wraps it around the neck of his attacker – then a young girl sees them and yells “Stop!”

As a staged fight, this moment can be interpreted in many different ways. I read this moment as a point in which nonviolence is no longer a viable option for resisting racism, and violence is necessary for survival. Notably, the man defending himself uses the American flag, which his attacker believes he is representing (by wearing the confederate flag jacket), to protect himself. This moment allows the man on defense to take the power from his oppressor and use it in resistance. Furthermore, we often omit the significance of the labor by enslaved people in the construction of America. We revere the founding fathers and our presidents and congresspeople while ignoring the enslaved Africans and African Americans who provided the labor that made this country flourish. By using the American flag to strangle his attacker, the black man is taking ownership of his place in America.

The lyrics in the song are also an important part of this story. Kodak sings, “My mama told me: ‘Boy make a decision!’ / Right now I gotta keep a tunnel vision,” illustrating the importance of his focus and drive. He must keep focused because he faces countless obstacles in his path toward success; the main obstacle is institutional racism. The following line is: “They sending all my homies on a mission / And I ain’t tryna miss out on these millions.” Again, “they” represents the white people in power. The singer sees that members of his community, the African American community, are funneled toward a “mission,” ending up in the penitentiary; however, he doesn’t want to follow that path – his goal is to achieve economic success and therefore attain the power associated with money in our capitalistic society. Later, speaking about his romantic interest, he reveals, “She want me to save the day, but I ain’t got a cape.” This indicates that while he is able to resist oppression by becoming financially successful, he feels that he cannot affect real change and be a hero for the ones he loves.

The final lyric I want to point out is: “Codeine in my liver, rockin’ Balenciaga demin.” Codeine is a cough medicine, often referenced in rap music as a recreational drug, and as with any drug it is known to have harmful effects (particularly, codeine is a depressant and can cause breathing problems, and it is addictive). Within the context of this song, I understand the reference to codeine as an indication that while the narrator of the song aims to resist institutional racism and accumulate wealth, drugs are still a part of his life that help him deal with everyday racism and the lack of opportunity for black Americans. Balenciaga is an expensive Spanish fashion brand, and it is interestingly juxtaposed to the comment about codeine. It’s almost as if the narrator wants to admit that codeine is a part of his life, but does not want to dwell on that fact; instead, he is reminding us that he is making enough money to afford high end clothing (denim pants cost $495).

“Tunnel Vision” is currently (as of March 28th) ranked number 6 on the Hot 100 Billboard, indicating that audiences are really enjoying this song. I hope that while we enjoy it, we also aim to understand Kodak’s story, the significance of racism in politics, and the inequalities in the “criminal justice” system. Hip hop has always been a vehicle for resistance and it is important to recognize that and not reduce this art form to just a collection of “bangers” or “slaps.”

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