“We past the time when prettiness make anybody life easy.”
– Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
The myth of the American dream persists. A unique experience among peer nations, an American life is one that must be lived in constant juxtaposition to a book of cultural narratives. If there was ever a time that the American dream existed in America, it is certain now that it has survived for centuries only in prayer, whispered with hands over hearts, to a civil religion that administers merciless vengeance upon sinners and non-adherents.
Though we may never feel the rapturous embrace of the American promise, those of us left behind must pretend to believe, or we will face the consequences. The retribution for living outside the book ranges from estrangement and ostracism to brutality and death. Those that cannot live the American dream are forced, sword above neck, to languish in the space between myth and reality.
In this limbo, the hustle begins. In the airless purgatory we quickly learn that there is nothing to be gained on earth by playing by heaven’s rules. Locked out of the American economy, we created our own, selling our sex, selling our drugs, selling our art, filthy as the clay on our craftsman hands. All of these things were offensive to the angels, and when we could no longer be ignored, they reacted by making a cartoon of our struggle, making it fit for consumption, but never acceptance.
This is the space most often portrayed in art created by minorities in America. It is in this space, where survival itself is a vulgarity, where the holy thing to do has always been to stay still and die, that we have created all of America’s beautiful things. Barred from beauty, we created our own beauty in our criminalized motion: the profane grace of the minority existence.
“We past the time when prettiness make anybody life easy.”
The best song released last year, ILoveMakonnen’s “Club Goin’ Up on a Tuesday,” blooms in purgatory. In the song, and in the music video for the song’s remix, titled “Tuesday,” and featuring Drake, Makonnen and director Ian Goodwin put a funhouse mirror to the American narrative. Makonnen reverse-engineers the American machine, making the American dream into a grotesque cartoon. He abstracts it, forcing the boundaries apart until it becomes something so inclusive that it includes selling molly and defying the terms of your parole.
Even before the music video, there was a strange unifying quality to “Tuesday.” Makonnen’s persona resonates with a lineage of jesters—Soulja Boy, Lil B—who joyously contest the pop music formula. Offering ugliness without apology, they mock a musical world whose aesthetic demands grow more polished by the day. Though they’re often dismissed as gimmickry, these artists simply cram an unfiltered stream of consciousness into their work without concern for sanding down the edges, leaving the seams bursting with an unashamed charisma. What’s made ILoveMakonnen’s hit inviting to so many is that it strikes at the intersection between an intimacy—the song feels rough and strangely small–and an appeal to the plurality so powerful it might have permanently changed one of the days of the week. It feels like the club banger you might write for your friends, probably because “Tuesday” was written without the expectation that it would have the audience it does. It sounds as likely to show up in your inbox as on a dance floor.
The video takes that unexpected warmth and amplifies it into something that’s almost touching. Putting its focus on lyrical themes of the agony and ecstasy of work, the video’s sense of community sprawls out of the confines of the club, highlighting the song’s duality by shifting between shots of ILoveMakonnen and Drake mobbing in the club to vignettes of people mouthing along to the song in private moments of work and pleasure. Over these images, the two sing about punctuating a labour of love by going hard and not holding back. In these episodes, working men sit alone in dark offices and sing, a man sits at home on his iPad and sings, a father records his daughter playing and sings. In all of them, the director celebrates the joy in life’s most mundane moments. In this parable about the bliss of working hard and reveling in earned celebration, even the celebration becomes a part of the routine. Somehow, it’s okay.
For 4 minutes and 45 seconds, Makonnen reanimates the lifeless husk of the American dream, and turns it into his own unsightly joke. He leaves its death wounds hanging open: Makonnen sings of ignorant parole officers and slinging Molly to get by, but the spirit of the thing lingers despite them. “Tuesday” speaks of a work ethic defiant to the false purity of the American narrative, one that is immersed in drugs and sex and excess. Within that defiance, it finds a unity by exalting the smallest moments in America, becoming gentle in its empathy. Even on the dance floor, the bouncers and the bartenders, the club’s unsung heroes, sing along in the midst of their flow. The day of the week and your physical proximity to the club become irrelevant. Anyone, at any time, can have the club going up on a Tuesday.
“We past the time when prettiness make anybody life easy.” Half a century ago, Ras Tafari Makonnen championed African unity, even as he lived in England, forced by Mussolini into exile from his own kingdom. In Jamaica, men and women listened so devoutly they forgot to hate their hair. They forgot to hate the way it curled, twisting it further into dreads that conquered shoulders, then backs, then arms, then hands: an empire on every head. They wove it into a banner and hoisted it high, hailing him as the Messiah. They created a faith like a flamboyant Christianity. A decade ago, they told me stories about Anansi, the spider who won his way through every day using trickery and deceit. It was only in America that I learned to think of him as the villain. In a moment when it has become difficult to find beauty in any products of compliance, when holiness has become sickly sweet, when sin has become virtue, in the tradition of embracing temptation, the mockery ILoveMakonnen makes of the American civil religion is a beautiful blasphemy.