5 min read

Jesca Hoop's "Red White and Black"

in which I'm a mess

"Jesca Hoop released a new song and the video is a kung fu fight scene," texted my husband. "It is very strange. Worth watching on a big screen."

The big screen in question is the iMac on which he works; we don't have a television, and I work on a laptop. The song in question is "Red White and Black," which coincidentally I'd listened to that morning while making breakfast. But I hadn't seen the video.

I listen to music obsessively, in a way calculated to absorb it into my body and press the circumstances of my listening into me forever. Paradoxically, this means it's tricky for me to get anything from a song on the first go. My memory of this first listen was a texture of fluttering white gauze curtains, Hoop's voice ethereal with that edge of weird that's all hers, minor key turning to stone among feathers. I didn't remember the lyrics. I enjoyed it, and looked forward to listening more.

When I got home, Stu queued up the video for me, and I started watching it, and then I started sobbing and couldn't stop, and the last 10 seconds of the video were obscured for me because my eyes hurt from salt, a thing that keeps happening lately when I cry this kind of way, as if the Dead Sea's pushing its way out onto my cheeks. It hurts to cry, and I can't open my eyes, but the sobs keep coming.

Stu -- bless him -- was unprepared for this, and I think a little terrified by what was happening. I kept trying to explain, but my throat would just fill up with ocean and I couldn't, and anyway wasn't it obvious? Surely it was obvious.

Here is the video.

Hoop is dressed in a loose white suit with a black tie, playing a guitar, trying out a song, facing a window in a room with a door. The door is behind her. She hears an altercation outside, angry men's voices. She stands, sets her guitar down, looks out the window, but we don't see what she sees. She hesitates, turns away, as if she wants to get help, but isn't sure what to do. She turns back to the window, and the camera pans behind her -- a tall black woman wearing a black tank-top slashed in red appears in the room, clearly pursued, pushing the door shut against her pursuer. We are in Hoop's position, watching this happen.

In this moment I felt overwhelmingly the need to protect this new woman, wanted to urge Hoop into action. The pursuer makes his way in -- it is a man, then two men, in masks.

And the black woman -- played by the brilliant Alyma Dorsey -- throws one of them against the wall, and punches the other in the face.

She is magnificent. She is powerful. She says, over her shoulder to Hoop, as she fights, get out of here! Hoop is frozen, doesn't leave. Dorsey is fierce, and she holds her own, and she overcomes her attackers. She picks up the guitar, urges Hoop ahead of her out of the room to safety, and hands her guitar back. Hoop follows, stunned, and starts to play the song.

Throughout the video, Dorsey is foregrounded, the main focus; Hoop is a chorus, a background, and a witness to her battles.

I started crying from the second she started fighting, and I didn't stop. I don't know if it's because I saw where the video was going or not. It carried me along it, an undulating wave of heart-break and joy -- heart-break that she should have to fight, joy in her power, agony in the repetition.

Dorsey fights goon after goon after goon, mask after mask after mask. Sometimes she pulls the masks off at the end, drops them as if they hurt to hold. The fights are brutal, fists on skin, and beautiful, in that each strike has her whole body's weight behind it, the density of her muscle, her unshakeable core. There is a moment where Hoop joins in, using her guitar to push an attacker away; after that, Dorsey takes her by the hand, as they run together, towards the camera.

But at the 2:30 mark, Dorsey starts tiring. Hoop runs past her while she stops, seeming to need to catch her breath, but it's more than that; she doubles over with the need to weep. Everything about her posture is exhaustion and devastation and grief. All I wanted was to gather her up and protect her while she cried, while she shed her battle-mantle and wept over the endlessness of its necessity.

A goon approaches, and she instantly gathers herself and rises to punch him -- and the camera swivels around a pillar --

and when it emerges, Hoop, the woman she's been fighting to protect, the one who's been on her side, face to face, skin to skin, is wearing a mask.

I wanted to scream from the shock and betrayal of it, even as it had felt inevitable from a certain point -- maybe because the masks echo Hoop's face, maybe because I know how racism works. The camera circles again, and Dorsey, wary, has a mask on too, but different, checkered -- an attempt at self-defense, it feels like, as she holds her fighting posture, but then she takes it off, stares at Hoop, seems to speak something we can't hear, while behind her a goon is approaching swiftly, and we see only the back of Hoop's head as she suddenly takes off her mask and swings her guitar at him.

Hoop and Dorsey face each other again mask-less, and continue their flight together.

Everything after that moment was lost to my stinging eyes, but I could tell it was ending on them confronting yet more goons, always, a constant relentless advance of goons who want only to harm them. But their determination is renewed, and they're both on the same page, moving forward side by side.

Of this video, Hoop has said  “Red White and Black” is a poem, like a snapshot, set in post civil war USA when slavery was “abolished” and swiftly rebranded by the prison system. It’s a personal acknowledgement and willingness to join the conversation for change.

I read that afterwards. I appreciate Hoop owning her complicity, her whiteness, and the active need to divest herself of the layers of ignorance and fear and resentment that accrue with privilege, and her doing it so elegantly in this video, so honestly, so nakedly. I love that the video ends, not with Hoop saving Dorsey, not even with respite, but with a resolve to fight on, in solidarity. But that's not the image I'm left with, after it all: I'm left with what I see every day, in the news, on Twitter, in publishing, everywhere: a black woman fighting, fighting, fighting, on everyone's behalf, constantly, with only halting help at best and betrayal at worst, when all she wants to do is weep.