So maybe: … I knew the video was deep, but I didn’t know exactly how deep until PopMatters broke it down for me.

The full weight of the James Brown sample is made clear in the video for “Fallin”, which opens with Keys sitting at a solo piano and closes with Keys visiting her incarcerated boyfriend. While jailhouse visits have become an all too common occurrence in black popular culture, the video deepens the significance of these visits as a busload of mothers, girlfriends, wives, and baby-mamas travel from an urban center to the kind of rural community — think of the north country in New York State — where new prisons, along with the compulsory K-mart and Home Depot, often get constructed. While the primary discourse about the prison industrial complex centers on the unprecedented incarceration rates of black and Latino men, the video flips the script to highlight the equally unprecedented incarceration rates of women of all colors and black women in particular. Footage of the women and children traveling on the bus explicitly invokes the temporary “imagined communities” — to use Benedict Anderson’s term — of families “torn apart” by the absence of a patriarchal figure. Thus the pastoral scene of “men” working in the field, evoking the image of southern chain gangs and the presumable emasculation of black masculinity that the realities of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation heightened, are meant to re-inforce the oppressive nature of prison labor.

Ironically the video reveals that it was in fact a group of women who were working in the fields. This becomes dramatically clear when the women in the field raise their heads and sing along with Keys “I Keep on fallin’ in love with you,” suggesting the ways that female incarceration rates are deeply imbricated in the efforts of these women to protect men who are likely involved in illicit activities. The best example of this widely circulated case of Kemba Smith who was incarcerated as an accomplice to her drug dealing boyfriend despite not having an active knowledge of his illicit activities. (Smith was later pardoned as one of Bill Clinton’s last midnight moves, moves in which he inexplicably failed to pardon Leonard Peltier.) The video’s ability to make these ironic claims is buttressed by the use of James’s Brown’s “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” sample countering the general misconceptions about the increasing high rates in which black and Latino women are incarcerated and subjected to hard labor. The video offers one of the rare occasions when an artist and video director, in this case Chris Robinson, are in sync aesthetically creating a new object d’art that stands beyond the original track, bringing a new depth of meaning and passion to the original song.

Leave a Reply