Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.
– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
On February 2, 2020, I, like millions of people across North America, watched the NFL Super Bowl LIV. While some watched for the game, the commercials, and/or the halftime show, I tuned in specifically to catch the Pepsi Zero Sugar commercial featuring two Grammy Award winning Black female rappers/singers/songwriters: Missy Elliott and H.E.R. They had teased the commercial a week prior, showing a clip wherein the artists perform a version (co-produced by Timbaland) of the Rolling Stones’ 1966 sitar-driven hit “Paint it Black.” And so, as a scholar of Black musicians’ (including Elliott’s) engagements with South Asian music(ians), I greatly anticipated seeing the full commercial when it aired during the Super Bowl.
The commercial opens in a red-colored dystopian future society.1 As a combination of acoustic and electric guitars play the Stones’ “Paint it Black” motif over the scene, viewers see columns of people wearing identical red latex and white suspender uniforms, donning identical frozen smiles, and marching in formations that recall a military-style parade. But instead of guns, everyone holds red cans with the word “COLA” written across them (an obvious allusion to Pepsi’s rival Coca-Cola).2 The camera pans to H.E.R. who begins to sing the opening line, “I see a red door and I want it painted black,” and then watches her soda transform into a black matte Pepsi Zero Sugar can. The music stops, H.E.R. takes a sip of the new drink, and as the music resumes (this time a violin replaying the motif accompanied by programmed drums), H.E.R. breaks rank. She runs past everyone, jumps through and shatters a red wall, and enters a black-colored new world. The music shifts again to programmed drums, H.E.R. is now in an all-black outfit and starts singing “Red ain’t it for me/ Black all black only.” Soon after, a lavender-haired Elliott and a group of other Black women—each in a different black outfit— approach and greet H.E.R., and while a sitar plays the motif, Elliott re-sings the “Paint it Black” opening line. The music changes again into a more robust hip hop track with Elliott rapping lines like “I paint the red door black/ Dance floor black/ I’m in my own lane/ Unapologetic and I do my own thang;” and the beat during the rap comprises syncopated drum patterns, heavy bassline, and a sitar. During all of this, H.E.R., Elliott, and Black and Asian people dance in unison (to Sean Bankhead’s choreography). Elliott and H.E.R. close the commercial by drinking Pepsi Zero Sugar and singing “I see a red door and I want it painted black” and “No colors anymore, I want them to turn black,” respectively.
H.E.R. and Elliott’s performance of “Paint it Black” belie facile readings that frame their version as a remake of the Stones’ original, wherein its structure and meaning is nominally altered and thus largely kept intact. Instead, H.E.R. and Elliott employ the black aesthetic practice of what Jason King calls “reconstruction,” a restructuring of “the original in ways that reorient both the melodic and lyric foundations…as well as its performative cultural and political effects.”3 At the outset of the commercial, the guitar’s replaying of the “Paint it Black” motif and H.E.R.’s replication of the original’s opening line might suggest a cover, and given H.E.R.’s Afro-Filipina background, raises the trope of Filipinx and Filipinx American musicians as colonial imitators. But then H.E.R. “flips the beat.”4 The music’s shift to a stuttering drum–programmed sound marks what Daphne Brooks calls a “black sonic marronage” that facilitates H.E.R.’s escape, her fugitivity, her flight out of the red world and into a sono-geographic counterpublics of blackness—reconstructing the Stones’ original from a song about a man mourning the death of his lover to a site of Black worldmaking.5 Elliott and H.E.R.’s lines about being “unapologetic” and desiring everything “all black,” within the space of an imagined Black world that centers Black women, refuses the liberal logics of assimilation that H.E.R. first inhabits in the red world to instead create and curate an alternative world made possible by and as Black sociality.
But it would be a mistake to read this reconstruction outside of racial capitalism. Indeed, the Pepsi logo is featured in the commercial as the imagined Black world’s moon. I am also reminded that we are currently witnessing institutions, including Pepsi, co-opting the language of Black Lives Matter and further extracting Black labor as a means to mask—to paint it black/to paint it, Black—the logics of anti-blackness that structure their existence.6 This blackwashing is indicative of the double movement of containment and resistance of the popular about which Stuart Hall warns.7
And yet, I want to hold on to the possible world that Elliott and H.E.R.’s reconstruction of “Paint it Black” opens up, especially when we consider the placement of the sitar in the song. It is with the sitar that the sonic exceeds the visual, and it refuses the totalizing reach of Pepsi’s co-optation of a Black world.8 While the Stones version opens with a sitar, the reconstructed version delays and defers the sitar play to H.E.R. and Elliott. We hear the sounds of the sitar when Elliott and other Black women greet H.E.R. and when they collectively dance, signaling a welcoming of H.E.R. into the refuge of this Black world. In so doing, this reconstruction of “Paint it Black” becomes part of a black genealogy of sound that I’ve elsewhere called “the other side of things:” the imaginative spaces and worlds that Black musicians express and enact through and with South Asian artists, instruments, and/or sounds.9 It is the other side of things’ promise of (an)other worldly possibility that directs H.E.R.’s flight to, and that the reconstructed sitar helps organize joy in, a new world of Black social life. It’s a world that doesn’t need to be painted black because it is one that is Black.
This is one of four essays from the twelfth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 12.2 / Billy Porter’s Met Gala entrance / Victoria Rose Pass
b.O.s. 12.3 / this is an artwork/this is for you/you are a community/you are my material/this is a prison/leave when you want / Tina Post
b.O.s. 12.4 / All Colored Cast / Shana L. Redmond
Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.
Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.
- The color scheme and layout of this scene recalls the “Emerald City Sequence” from the film The Wiz. Coincidently, Missy Elliott and Timbaland interpolated some of the music from the “Emerald City Sequence” for Elliott’s 2008 song “Shake Your Pom Pom.”
- This opening is also a dig at Coke’s advertising history, and how it privileges conforming to norms of household organization (i.e., “family values”) and colorblindness. It’s a history that Pepsi has tried but, as I explicate later in this essay, failed to position itself against. Thanks to Kevin Murphy for this point, and others, in this article.
- Jason King, “Any Love: Silence, Theft, Rumor in the Work of Luther Vandross,” Callaloo 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 426.
- My use of “flip the beat” signals the work of Christine Bacareza Balance, and her argument that Filipinx and Filipinx diasporic musicians’ renditions of U.S. and Western pop songs are disruptive reworkings that “produce new affiliations, politics, and ways of thinking” that are rendered unimaginable in the original recording. See Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). On another note, and extending the Filipinx connections in the Elliott and H.E.R. Pepsi commercial, the ad also showcases a new tagline for Pepsi Zero Sugar, “That’s what I like,” an obvious reference to the 2017 hit of the same name by the Hawaii-born Puerto Rican Filipino singer Bruno Mars.
- Daphne Brooks and Roshanak Kheshti, “The Social Space of Sound,” Theatre Survey 52, no. 2 (November 2011): 332.
- I’m especially thinking of a few instances where, following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and (to a lesser extent) Tony McDade (and others): 1) Various institutions sent out empty “racial justice statements;” 2) Pepsi announced that they would be donating $400 million over five years to “lift up Black communities and increase Black representation at PepsiCo;” 3) Companies and organizations requested Black employees and/or consultants to supply readings and run workshops; and 4) Instagram and Facebook users posted black panels as a (reductive) means of showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. And lest we forget, Pepsi’s 2017 commercial with Kendall Jenner is also tied to these more recent co-opting logics. Released on the 59th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the commercial exploits mass protests against the police killings of Black men and women (at the time of the commercial, the most recent high-profile murders were Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, and Deborah Danner) as well as the actions of Black celebrities who stood in solidarity with such protests (like NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the U.S. national anthem and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and Indiana Fever players kneeling and making public statements against police violence). Such exploitation manifests in the commercial as it: 1) reroutes the racial specificity of anti-blackness to a liberal language of universality and equality; 2) visually removes Black people from political protest; and 3) infamously replaces Black protestors with white people like Kendall Jenner, who eventually offers a police officer a can of Pepsi as if soda is the panacea that quells the violent thirst of white supremacy.
- Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular,’” in People’s History and Sociality Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London: Keagan Paul-Routledge, 1981), 227–40
- I want to thank Miles Parks Grier for helping me think through this argument as well as other points in this essay.
- Elliott H. Powell, Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020). Elliott creates such an imaginative space in the music video to her 2001 tumbi and tabla anchored hit “Get Ur Freak On.” Indeed, while the visual landscape of this alternative all B/black world in the Pepsi commercial might recall Elliott’s 1999 video for “She’s a Bitch,” its South Asian elements actually index “Get Ur Freak On.” It’s also worth noting that while Elliott has appeared five times during the Super Bowl (the 2020 Pepsi Zero Sugar commercial, 2018 Mountain Dew/Doritos commercial, 2016 Amazon commercial, 2015 halftime show with Katy Perry, and 2002 Reebok commercial), all of her musical performances have been South Asian inspired (“Paint it Black” for Pepsi Zero Sugar and “Get Ur Freak On” for the Mountain Dew/Doritos commercial and the Katy Perry halftime show).