By Eileen Sepulveda |
While standing at the bus stop on a wintry, windy night scrolling down my Spotify librería and clicking on the most recently played, Rihanna is at the top of my list. Besides being a big fan of most of her albums with her bold, sassy lyrics and sexiness, she is truly one of my favorites. While being warmed up with tracks like “Bitch better have my money” and “Work,” I’m taken back and suddenly calmed by her single “American Oxygen.” I listen to her words and find that it’s not the same pop/hip sexual tone that I’m used to from Rihanna. There is something about this particular song that makes me see Rihanna in a different light. It seems as though she is sitting right next to me at the bus stop, connected with my urban lifestyle, connected to my struggle as a minority living in the melting pot we call America. So I stand there silently taking in some of my own American Oxygen.
As some seem to mute y callar los issues of discrimination here in the US, one well-known artist by the name of Robyn Rihanna Fenty voices her own experience of not only being an immigrant coming to America to pursue the so-called American Dream but to voice her own feeling and acknowledgment of how America still struggles with discrimination. In her song “American Oxygen” the lyrics are relatable as we all have struggled in some way pursuing the American Dream. “Chasin’ this American Dream / We sweat for a nickel and a dime / Turn it into an empire.” Sure the young girl from Barbados has had her taste of success here in America, but she uses her fame to discreetly reveal the ongoing struggle against racism we are facing. She discusses the fight for change and the fight for A “New” America, one where we can live in peace and embrace the diversity that makes America survive. “This is the new America / We are the new America.” As she tells us to “Breathe out, breathe in American oxygen.”
Rihanna’s song can be seen as a response to the recent tragedy involving NYC police officer Daniel Pantaleo and Eric Garner, who was brutally murdered by a chokehold on July 17, 2014. It is surprising to hear Rihanna discuss such a political and controversial message. Thousands of Americans were still trying to comprehend the horrific death of Staten Islander Eric Garner when Rihanna released her single on April 14, 2015, ten months after Garner’s death. “American Oxygen” describes the loss of oxygen due to Eric Garner’s strangulation as he begs for his life. The song is also based on her own experience as a Barbadian immigrant “chasing” the American Dream. As a music icon she is aware of the many issues of discrimination. In the video published by YouTube, Rihanna stands in front of the American Flag showing her pride to be an American. But as the video progresses we see the torment of being a minority in America and why the ongoing issue of racism still continues.
If listening to the song sends a subliminal message about the struggle for survival in America, the video shows how the chains of racism continue to choke the very “breath out” of our juventud. “American Oxygen”’s video is provocative and at times a reality check to all Americans. First we see Barack Obama being sworn in, followed by the raising of the American Flag by US soldiers. Then, as Martin Luther King graces the screen fighting for equality, the struggles of exploited Mexican immigrants flood the screen. Protesters march passionately holding signs reading “I can’t breathe” at a NYC Black Lives Matter rally. “The song means so much, and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint one specific thing” comments co-writer Sam Harris. From homeless veterans to Mexican immigrants trying to cross our borders, the video is a bold attempt to reveal the truths of discrimination and the struggles of minorities in America.
Music is known to soothe and warm the soul but it can also be used to send out an important message to millions of listeners and viewers. Some might move “American Oxygen” by Rihanna to the bottom of the list on their Spotify Library because it might not provide the sassiness that they’re used to getting from Rihanna’s music. But just like the song, we tend to push racism in America to the bottom of the list; maybe we rally a little about it, but then we just move on to the next track.
Eileen Sepulveda studies Creative Writing in the English Department at Lehman College. She has been writing poetry since the age of 13 and has always been inspired by her urban upbringing in the Bronx. Besides her love for writing and reading, her hobbies include cooking for her family and friends and taking train rides in New York City.