In their new music video for “New York is Killing Me,” Gil Scott-Heron and director Chris Cunningham turn popular characterizations of the Big Apple completely on their heads. The video, which was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan last week, has one simple message: it can be a cold, brutal place. But as a legendary artist, Heron’s bitter break up letter with the city has prompted some of hip-hop’s leading players to openly challenge its evils.
In this case, it’s a matter of cleverly mixed mediums that get the message across. Heron’s raspy vocals blend well with Cunningham’s visuals of alternating shots of the city, all in constant, dizzying motion. Subway tunnels, bridges, extreme aerial long shots of the city cloaked in darkness create a menacing mood for viewers. They easily conjure up feelings of destitution and grittiness for a city that over the past twenty years has become largely represented as the entertainment capital of the world.
When I first heard the track, I immediately thought of all the other highly-touted New York anthems. There’s Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and the recent Jay-Z-Alicia Keys collaboration “Empire State of Mind.” Those types of love letters contrast sharply with Heron’s gritty city journal. This is not a song about a glitz and glam New York whose “streets will inspire you.” According to Heron, it’s a lonely, cold, and bare city. For a die-hard New Yorker like myself, the song is a hard pill to swallow but once it goes down, it’s difficult not to sober up and realize how much this city’s inhabitants are hurting.
Of course, Heron knows a thing or two about overcoming struggles, and his words have inspired others.
Known best in the pop culture world for his spoken word poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Heron has become a hip-hop favorite tempting emcees like Nas and Mos Def to provide their own remixes to ‘New York is Killing Me.” Here’s Nas’ second verse that provide less abstract thoughts of the once enamored city. Nas spits:
And the gangs in New York are like wolves in sheep clothing Navy men off the ships in sidewalks strolling Ladies watching shopping stressing hard With maxed out credit cards and her depressing job Grey skies, anekatips winter’s cold US Open Tennis, charity dinners for the rich and old Giving nothing to the poor to strengthen their soul I can see why some get up and go, and move where it’s slow
And there’s plenty of unsettling realities in New York.
According the daily report provided by the Department of Homeless Services, there are 35,490 reported homeless people that are living in a shelter. Taking the point even further, 14,193 of those are children. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, in the past decade the rate of homelessness has reached near-Great Depression levels. And these numbers don’t include the many folks who go unaccounted for while living on the streets or in subways.
If one thing’s certain, it’s that Gil Scott-Heron is still aptly reading the pulse of America.