Drake’s music video for “God’s Plan” is arrogant
Americans don’t like kings. So why are we OK with this?
The first few seconds of Drake’s music video for “God’s Plan” tell you that they originally had a budget of nearly a million dollars, but they decided to give it all away. Over the next few minutes, Drake and his friends do a bunch of good deeds: they pay for everyone’s food at a grocery store and deliver toys to a group of children. They also donate to a woman’s shelter and scholarship fund, but the more spontaneous acts of charity are served up as the most emotional.
The video’s been criticized as a self-serving PR stunt: real charity happens behind closed doors. That’s all true, but it misses the larger point. There can actually be a lot of value in performing good works on camera. Kindness inspires kindness, and if you have a solution to a problem, you can be justified in trying to encourage more people to join you.
But the thing is, giving away money to random people is not a solution to a problem. At least not in the long term. And like it or not, Drake is positioning it as a real solution to real people’s problems. Even in a music video, that counts as a form cynicism — even arrogance — that says a lot about how Drake and a lot of really rich people see America. For starters, it takes for granted that inequality isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Drake’s video reminds me most of a uncomfortable Youtube series I once stumbled upon. It stars a famous young Indian actor. In each video he waves a wad of 1,000 rupee bills (1,000 rupees is about $15) and then walks around the city handing money to (real life) beggars. In one clip he asks an old woman if she believes in God, and hands her a bill when she says yes. In another, Honesty Always Pays, he awards two bills to a rickshaw driver in an old-fashioned morality test. He often says “God sent me for you.”
The videos have hundreds of thousands of views and supportive comments. When I saw one, my first reaction was: is this what hope looks like in India? Is life so desperate for some people that a celebrity handing out money is their idea of salvation?
My second reaction was that the video strikes an uncomfortable chord for a different reason: the actor really seems to relish the role he’s cast himself in, a benevolent, judging God.
In America, this kind of paternal attitude usually rubs people the wrong way. We’re the country of self-government and individualism. Our motto is “teach a man to fish”, at least on paper. Candidates for Congress stump on bringing power back to their neighborhood, and foundations tie grant funding to things like jobs added and ‘opportunities created’. Even on the left it’s taboo to talk about handouts.
It probably all goes back to the idea that, at least in theory, we don’t like kings. Last year Mark Zuckerberg learned this — by accident — when he stumbled over a line. He took a tour of America, posing with farmers, mechanics, tractor owners, and tagging them in his posts. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. One parody showed Zuckerberg offering $10,000 to an elderly newspaper publisher if he’ll eat one of his papers:
He had a good laugh at that. “Why are you laughing?” I continued. “Eat the paper. Eat it or I swear to god I’ll buy your newspaper and turn it into an anime fanzine…I’m a billionaire, you think anyone will stop me?”
It took him 42 minutes to eat that paper. For 42 minutes I had total power over that man. I’d never felt more alive.
That’s what Mark’s trip was really about. He looked over America and saw that he had conquered it — whether he meant to or not. The most charitable way to look at his trip was as an honest effort to learn about the people over whom he suddenly held immense power. To most people, it just looked like a monarch going out to bless people with his presence.
Universal basic income: when paternalism becomes policy
Back home in Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg is far from alone in this regal attitude. San Francisco and other coastal cities are becoming more and more distant from the rest of the country. The 2016 election was at least in part as a rejection of elites. The types of elites didn’t matter: Washington politicians, Wall Street traders, San Francisco tech titans: at a certain point, they all just look like men in suits.
The problem is that the men in suits are starting to believe the narrative that capitalism has winners and losers, and that the victors have a responsibility to take care of the rest.
Look at the biggest political idea to come out of California in recent years: universal basic income. As Ross Baird writes in Silicon Valley’s Unchecked Arrogance, the seductive idea has been catching on fast. The founder of Y Combinator is financing a UBI study in Oakland, giving $1,000 monthly to 1,000 families for five years. UBI’s proponents call it a “social vaccine” that will cure poverty.
The merits of UBI aside, it says a lot about how that part of the world sees the rest of the world. A survey last year found that most tech entrepreneurs favor redistribution without regulation, a quirky mashup of political views that doesn’t align with either political party. It’s the UBI attitude in a nutshell: we do whatever we want, and then we give enough away to keep people happy, so they don’t storm the gates with pitchforks. A public contraceptive. A social vaccine.
Drake’s not a bad guy
I know that Drake doesn’t really think he’s solving inequality by giving away toilet paper and Christmas presents. He’s trying to do something nice, make a music video that will brighten someone’s day and inspire more acts of charity.
It’s a nice sentiment, but I think the video does more harm than good. Drake is like the Indian actor in that series: he’s positioning himself as a benevolent, almost God-like figure, an American king. He asks you to believe in the power of luck, the power of charity, the power of Drake — maybe one day you’ll be in that grocery store when he arrives with a megaphone. Maybe, if it’s part of God’s plan.
Giving away money to random people is not a solution to a problem. Drake doesn’t need to be an activist, but if he’s going to dance around the edges of politics with a video like “God’s Plan”, he should be more careful about the message he’s sending.
We don’t like kings in America, and we’re not British, but the British do use a term that sums up this video and the concept of UBI: noblesse oblige. In the rigid British class system, almost no one ever really rises above their class. The rich take care of the poor, it’s just understood. But the term noblesse oblige in English means ‘obligation’. The charity doesn’t come from a place of empathy: it comes from a place of pity, even guilt.
H/T to Ross Baird and Coey Lopez Booker for help with this article.