“A Media Certified Celebrity Leader”: A Comparison of Drake’s God’s Plan and Cesar Chávez in the Chicano Movement

By Maura Kostelni (’22)

“What matters most in politics” has historically “[gone] unrecorded”, and we see this through footage in Drake’s God’s Plan music video and analysis of the footage of the Chicano movement found in Randy Ontiveros’ No Golden Age: Television News and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement (2010) (2). Drake’s God’s Plan complements many of the claims made in Ontiveros’ piece about the Chicano movement: how the media sensationalizes issues and disregards context, how the media stresses that “the market rather than collective action is the best remedy for social and political injustice”, and how the media perpetuates figureheads of movements (2). In this paper, I will analyze the footage Drake pairs with the lyrics to his song God’s Plan to illustrate how modern media, here a music video, oversimplifies issues of poverty, resistance, and Drake himself into a one dimensional savior figure. This simplification occured in the 1960s as well because news networks simplified and even ignored the complexity and rich history of the Chicano movement.

The media reduced Mexican Americans in the Chicano movement to both threats and victims. Ontiveros demonstrates how the media framed the Chicano movement as a menace. “Limited coverage of Chicano/a activism was bent both aurally and visually toward the police interpretation of events over and against the perspectives of Mexican Americans” (2). For example, “on August 29, 1970, an estimated 25,000 mostly Mexican Americans assembled together in East Los Angeles to protest the Vietnam War” (2). This planned peaceful assembly ended up as a clash against the police. While the three major news networks gave this event only “passing coverage”, they “oriented viewers toward the police point of view” (2). Mexican Americans were visible “only as an undifferentiated mass” (2). No counternarratives were included. When the news networks covered the Chicano movement, they chose to frame the Chicano movement as a violent, divisive movement. This “very narrow filter” framed “Chicanos and Chicanas…as threats to the integrity of the nation”, and ignored the history of discrimination, illegal takeover of land, and pain that the United States subjected the Latinx community to (2). The context of the Chicano movement did not play into the dramatic Black/white binary, so news networks did not see the movement as important. While “African Americans through their persistent exclusion [had been] central to the founding mythologies of the United States”, Mexican Americans and the Chicano movement remained “detained at the border of the nation’s racial imaginary, sometimes included but more often excluded from the stories and images that make up the dominant history of the United States” (2).

Drake’s God’s Plan music video conveys a story that contributes to the dominant history of the United States. It also aligns to the reductive treatment of issues of poverty and recognition, issues that the Chicano movement sought to address. The video itself involves Drake handing out money (like paying for everything at a grocery store for a group of people and handing out a mountain of wrapped Christmas gifts) in Florida. The first six frames of the music video involving people are African American people. First a child sits on the steps of an apartment. Next, an old man with a cane rests on a shopping cart outside of a graffitied supermarket. Then, a group of men lounge together at the outside of an apartment, snacking and looking down at the camera. The video then pans to a middle-aged woman in jeans and a long sleeved shirt who stands in front of what appears to be a garage door. The final two images are a closeup of an elderly, toothless man smiling, and then a middle aged man flexing to the camera, saying “yeah, yeah”. Then the music begins. This choice could reflect how, just like in the 1960s and 1970s, news network’s footage focused on the African American civil rights movement because of “narrow institutional considerations” (2). Newsmakers knew that “the [B]lack civil rights movement would make for captivating because the story they were telling could be sutured into the nation’s psychosocial drama of [B]lack versus white, freedom versus slavery” (2). Drake’s video plays into this same psychosocial drama that lasts even today. With the first frames of Drake’s music video, it is clear that the music video’s focus is primarily Black and white.

The Latinx population first emerges in the chaos of the grocery store. Next, they are part of the large horde of people that Drake walks by and dances with. Assuming that the whole music video is in Miami, Florida, it is curious that the music video only portrays Latinx in crowd situations. Coverage of the Chicano movement in the second half of the 20th Century was very similar to Drake’s music video. “In most coverage of [the 1960s and 1970s], Chicano/a bodies are filmed with a long shot or a medium-long shot, if they are recorded at all” (2). The way Chicano/as were filmed placed “the viewer…at a literal and figurative remove from Mexican American subjects and [the viewer] sees them not in their individuality but rather their collective pathologies” (2). Drake’s video’s reliance on pan shots plays into this emphasis of the collective rather than the individual. This analysis is in no way to belittle the representation that Drake gives to African Americans in his music video. Instead, it seeks to illustrate how the coverage of the God’s Plan video plays into issues of coverage that Ontiveros explains in No Golden Age. The Latinx population remains, even in a modern video that seeks to uplift the impoverished and underrepresented, excluded.

Drake’s music video for God’s Plan also grossly oversimplifies the struggles of people mistreated by dominant powers in the United States. This includes both African Americans and the Latinx population. In No Golden Age, Ontiveros notes how “commercials are easily overlooked, but they too played a part in shaping how the Chicano movement was received during the sixties and seventies and how it has been incorporated within the dominant historical memory” (2). Advertisements “made for a sharp contrast with the images of political unrest” and “to identify instead with the seemingly apolitical life of the commodity” (2). Television’s reinforcement of this juxtaposition of rebellion with commodities trained the viewer to “make careful distinctions between the imagined unruliness of the street and the no-less-imagined safety of the domestic sphere and its consumer logic” (2). Mirroring this, “political institutions in the United States were increasingly making the same distinction, responding not to activism using the public space to demand recognition of their rights, but to private corporations” (2). As a result, viewers are compelled to think that “the market rather than collective action is the best remedy for social and political injustice” (2).

Drake’s music video reflects this thought process. Nearly two minutes into the video (1:55), Drake surprises a Black mother and son. Standing above them as they sit on the sidewalk, Drake puts his hand on the mother’s shoulder. In a very paternal manner, Drake hands the mother and son a thick stack of cash. The camera then zooms in on both of their responses: tears.. Next, at 2:59, there is what appears to be another Black family sitting on the same sidewalk. Drake again surprises the family, steps down to their level, and extends a hand full of cash. The family responds by clapping, laughing, and rejoicing. There are also tears and hugs. This happens at least two more times in the video. Giving a few families cash is obviously a short term fix. It is not a solution, but the video perpetuates the narrative that “the market rather than collective action is the best remedy for social and political injustice” (2). Drake does not back activism and does not stand with protestors. Instead, he swoops in from above, surprising families with stacks of cash and a wide smile, like a benevolent god. There is no hint that money will not solve people who are struggling, just like how there is no history of struggle in the music video. All the video achieves is the devaluing of struggle and issues like institutionalized racism and poverty by presenting and perpetuating the idea that money is the answer.

Ontiveros’ No Golden Age also pauses to analyze television’s transformation of César Cháves into the “only Chicano/a activist recognizable to a broad public” (2). This illustrates how the media often simplifies movements and assigns them to a singular person. With the power of the camera on him, Cháves was transformed “into a global icon and advanced what had been an almost quixotic quest for farmworker justice” (2). Before this, the camera had often all but ignored Mexican American activists who “fought against the Taft-Hartley Act and in support of school desegregation, affordable housing, and equal employment opportunities” (2). Up to the 1960s, “this news brownout did not keep Mexican Americans from organizing, but it did have an impact. Chicano/a organizations of this era faced tremendous obstacles in establishing themselves and often had to shut down because they lacked the cultural and political capital that media attention sometimes delivers” (2).

Chávez and his grape strike, however, was the first strike that news networks covered. The “scenes of humble farm workers walking in the hot Central Valley sun made for good television” (2). “Network coverage of the pilgrimage helped the farmworkers win their first major victory, a contract with winemaker and liquor distributor Schenley Industries” (2). As Chávez and the farmworkers continued to organize and strike, television transformed Chávez into “a media-certified celebrity leader” (2). Realizing the power that the spotlight gave him, Chávez “found creative ways to exploit the media” (2). The most prominent example of this is when Chávez transformed his fast for la causa in 1968 into a “national media event” (2). Chávez also played into stereotypes and performed the role of “the humble Mexican” (2). Chávez’s actions illustrate how he understood the media’s attraction to the dramatic and to the simplification of people into heroes. By strategically engaging with media tropes, Chávez cemented himself and his cause into the mind of history.

With his music video God’s Plan, Drake seeks to establish himself as “a media-certified celebrity leader” (2). Celebrities and influencers are everywhere in today’s world. Society idolizes them, criticizes them harshly when they make mistakes, obsesses over them. Drake uses his music video to introduce and to assign a narrative of unbridled generosity to himself. He becomes a savior to people in need. Immediately, his immense wealth is on display when a black screen states that “the budget for this video was $996,631.90. We gave it all away.” (1). The video then heads straight into images of poverty that contrast starkly with the nearly one billion dollars that have been reserved for the production of a 5:56 minute music video. Drake’s actions and his portrayal in the music video illustrate how “television viewers are drawn to characters who are paradoxically exceptional in their persona and common in their outlook” (2). Drake himself is obviously a celebrity. He even acknowledges his fame in God’s Plan by rapping “Might go down a G.O.D., yeah, wait / I go hard on Southside G, yuh, Way / I make sure that north side eat” (1). He tries to captivate his audience, however, by making himself appear common in his appearance and outlook. 

In the video he wears an unassuming black sweatshirt and black pants. He also inserts himself into the daily lives of people by going to a grocery store at 0:58 and he descends from the top of the University of Miami building to hug a student and give her a scholarship at 1:16. When he approaches families to give them money, he ends his intervention by sitting beside them. This gives the impression that Drake’s outlook is the same as the people he sits beside. With these actions, Drake exploits the media to further the narrative he seeks to present. He wants his fans to love him and see him as a generous celebrity, but also a normal person, which is a paradox. Drake’s actions in a music video that brings the political issue of poverty into the spotlight illustrates how he twists the political issue into one that furthers his own agenda. This agenda is to convince the over 1,075,823,291 viewers of the God’s Plan music video that Drake is a charitable hero who is also down to earth. In reality, all his lavish spending does is perpetuate the narrative that the rich can just sweep in and patch things up by handing out cash. This is an artificial act that does not dig deeper into activism or policy.

Ontiveros ends his piece positively, reiterating that while the Chicano movement did not receive the coverage that it deserved, “the explosion of online media such as blogs, social networking sites, and video sharing sites is fast eroding the enormous influence that the networks have over the reception of new social movements in the public sphere” (2). It is important to note, that while Drake’s music video had an enormous influence and was viewed over one trillion times, it presents a simplified, superficial, and very similar narrative to the one that the news networks in the 1960s and 1970s presented about the Chicano Movement. Changing institutionalized racism, inequality, and poverty needs to go deeper than the fleeting 5:56 minute music video that illustrates Drake sweeping in to save lives. Both God’s Plan and No Golden Age teach that it is important to not look at political priorities and issues through the narrow lens that they are presented in.

Maura Kostelni is American Studies major. Her essay was originally written for Professor Korey Garibaldi’s American Studies course ‘History of the Book.’

References

  1. Drake. “God’s Plan.” YouTube video, 5:56. 17 February 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpVfcZ0ZcFM.
  2. Ontiveros, Randy. “No Golden Age: Television News and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.” American Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2010): 897–923. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40983441

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