Tune in and turn up

The undisputed highlight of the music news cycle this week has been the drop of a new and improved music video for “XO Tour Llif3,” the breakout hit from one of 2017’s breakout artists, Lil Uzi Vert. While the initial animated clip was enjoyable enough, Uzi brought out the big guns for the live-action revamp. With Virgil Abloh in the director’s chair and cameos from The Weeknd and Nav, the video’s release – regardless of its content – is now an event.

Of course, its content just happens to be exceptional. Abloh’s characteristically revisionist viewpoint leads to some truly visually-stunning tableaus, from Uzi strolling down a dreamlike, lavender-hued hellscape to bloodied vampire women captured with frightening realism on handheld camera. And no Abloh production would be complete without a few pieces of OFF-WHITE; the sparkly top worn by Uzi in the majority of his sequences is a real scene-stealer.

There is, however, one stylistic feature in particular that draws the eye more than any other. Accompanying each line of the song are sets of mirrored Arabic text in bold yellow, ostensibly used as subtitles translating each of Uzi’s bars. As a colleague of mine and I first viewed the video, it was our first point of discussion. “That’s an interesting choice,” I remarked, “a fairly loaded one.” “Wonder if they’re even accurate though,” she replied, “it probably means nothing.”

Sadly, that exchange proved to be prophetic. The FADER has published a report that proves that none of the captions, not a single one, pertains to anything being said on screen. Even worse, it does not pertain to a meaning at all; it is simply gibberish, random assortments of Arabic letters mashed together as if someone composed it by smashing their hands on a keyboard, as the below images show:

via The FADER
via The FADER

Many were quick to point out the irregularity of the Arabic on screen when it first released, but a vocal corner of the internet believes this choice to be intentional. They have insinuated that the decision to mirror the text is one that represents black magic, a theory that certainly gains traction when weighed against the plethora of demonic, supernatural imagery that fills the video’s brief runtime.

Unfortunately, this was also debunked by The FADER. The publication obtained emails from the music video’s co-director Alvin Sonic that reveal a few key points of interest. It seems that the video’s creative team arranged consultations with Arabic-speakers to provide a workable translation for Uzi’s lyrics, but they ultimately decided not to use them. Sonic wrote that he was even approached by someone fluent in Arabic who pointed out that the video’s text was wildly incorrect, but Sonic wrote it off. He “loved” that it was “wrong,” a sentiment he punctuated with a fire emoji.

This is disappointing for a variety of reasons. There is of course cultural appropriation at play, but that is an issue which does not need any further analysis than what has been done many times over; simply put, it commodifies oppressed people and should be avoided, don’t do it. It is also disheartening to think that this is yet another example of the careless, fetishistic use of ‘exotic’ Eastern iconography that pays little mind to its intended purpose (see: anyone with mistranslated tattoos of Asian characters or the use of henna at music festivals).

Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

But what really makes Uzi, Abloh et al’s decision to use nonsensical Arabic text sting is the sheer amount of tone-deafness at play. In a political and social climate where Muslims are being murdered in the streets solely for being Muslim, is it really necessary or appropriate to trivialize their written word to such an extent? In the America of 2017, are elements of Islamic culture really something we should be plumbing for our own artistic whimsy? Even worse is the knowledge that it was wilfully done so. Uzi’s creative team took the time to procure an accurate translation only to toss it away for no reason other than aesthetics.

It should go without saying, but this is really not okay. Lil Uzi Vert, Virgil Abloh, Alvin Sonic and the rest of their team managed to create a captivating piece of art with “XO Tour Llif3,” one that does indeed deserve praise. But that does little to explain away a decision that is careless at best, shameful at worst. It is a reductive element of the video that could easily have been omitted, or at the very, very least, presented correctly. All of them should know better.

For more of our opinion pieces, read our take on how Taylor Swift has become the Cersei Lannister of pop music right here.

  • Cover Image: Christopher Polk / Getty Images
Music Editor
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