By Guest Contributor Naima-Ramos Chapman, cross-posted from Colorlines
In their new music video for “New York is Killing Me,” Gil Scott-Heron and director Chris Cunningham turn popular characterizations of the Big Apple completely on their heads. The video, which was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan last week, has one simple message: it can be a cold, brutal place. But as a legendary artist, Heron’s bitter break up letter with the city has prompted some of hip-hop’s leading players to openly challenge its evils.
In this case, it’s a matter of cleverly mixed mediums that get the message across. Heron’s raspy vocals blend well with Cunningham’s visuals of alternating shots of the city, all in constant, dizzying motion. Subway tunnels, bridges, extreme aerial long shots of the city cloaked in darkness create a menacing mood for viewers. They easily conjure up feelings of destitution and grittiness for a city that over the past twenty years has become largely represented as the entertainment capital of the world.
When I first heard the track, I immediately thought of all the other highly-touted New York anthems. There’s Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and the recent Jay-Z-Alicia Keys collaboration “Empire State of Mind.” Those types of love letters contrast sharply with Heron’s gritty city journal. This is not a song about a glitz and glam New York whose “streets will inspire you.” According to Heron, it’s a lonely, cold, and bare city. For a die-hard New Yorker like myself, the song is a hard pill to swallow but once it goes down, it’s difficult not to sober up and realize how much this city’s inhabitants are hurting.