It's been a while since Beats by Dre has given us advertising worth talking about. But "You Love Me," from agency Translation, and directed by Melina Matsoukas, restores its briefly glorious reputation in a way that practically defies the laws of physics. We have whiplash.
Check it out below. It features Naomi Osaka, Lil Baby, Bubba Wallace and Janaya Khan. It was directed by Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), written by Lena Waithe, and with music by Solange Knowles.
"You love Black culture ... but do you love me?" There is so much vulnerability locked in that question, posed by narrator Tobe Nwigwe. It is direct and convicting—something that cuts through politics and fights, and forces you to look in its eyes.
In his treatment of the ad, Fast Company's Jeff Beer cites a moment in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing when a racist pizza guy called Pino tries to rationalize the difference between his love of Black celebrities and his disdain for Black people. "They're Black, but they're not really Black," he says of his icons. "They're more than Black. It's different."
Behind that statement are a lot of basic assumptions we can't let rest on Pino's shoulders alone: that Blackness is somehow bad, or inferior, and that when you're Black and successful, there's a certain desirability to the idea of somehow transcending Blackness.
That's not an uncommon sentiment, however much we'd like to be better than that. To really understand where it comes from, it's key to accept something critical: The United States isn't a pure meritocracy, where a few people happened to draw generations of crap cards. It invented the concept of race, legislated it into reality, seeded it out into the world, and cultivated the infrastructure for a tacit caste system that remains with us to this day.
"The use of inherited physical characteristics to differentiate inner abilities and group value may be the cleverest way that a culture has ever devised to manage and maintain a caste system," writes Isabel Wilkerson in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
Whiteness is at the top of our system, and Blackness at bottom. What makes you white or Black has been mindfully defined, and occasionally enjoys revision to suit the dominant caste. But the tenets of caste literally cast us in an exhausting, complex play: In addition to making ends meet, or achieving whatever ambitions we have, we struggle, at varying levels of visibility, to separate ourselves from caste's lowest rung—at least psychologically—while ingratiating ourselves with its highest.
Of particular interest to "You Love Me" is how caste impacts entertainment.
"Making enslaved people perform on command also reinforced their subjugation ... Forced good cheer became a weapon of submission to assuage the guilt of the dominant caste and further humiliate the enslaved. If they were in chains and happy, how could anyone say that they were being mistreated?" Wilkerson writes.
"African-Americans would later convert the performance role that they were forced to occupy—and the talent they built from it—into prominence in entertainment and in American culture disproportionate to their numbers ... Even now, in a 2020 ranking of the richest African-Americans, 17 of the top 20—from Oprah Winfrey to Jay-Z to Michael Jordan—made their wealth as innovators, and then moguls, in the entertainment industry or in sports."
There's a reason Pino cites Prince, Magic Johnson, and Eddie Murphy for his poisonous example: For generations, entertainment has been among the few areas Black people could dominate without severe social consequences. And while success is gratifying, there is a quiet sense, too, of knowing you are reinforcing caste norms, which tighten around you.
It is telling that "You Love Me" comes out on the heels of so much strife. The grief of Black Lives Matter, and every Black life lost with impunity this year, is a subtext that vibrates under our skin amid election news and rising Covid death tolls, which disproportionately affect minority communities. The ad goes on to unpack its first question with a tired frankness. And the entertainers we admire are portrayed not in all their spectacle, but as people in their own spaces—pensive, skeptical, staring you down.
"All men are created equal? That's my favorite part," Nwigwe smirks. "You hate us so deeply, but you're still so impressed. Why can't you see there's history in our skin? You built this country on our backs."
It is hard to watch the work without dealing with the question Pino himself can't face: There is an inherent, cruel and violent hypocrisy to being able to love and consume Black culture, while sitting out the Black community's oppression.
"You love my culture ... but do you love me? What a world that would be," the ad concludes.
"You Love Me" represents Beats' ambition to return to the culturally relevant advertising of its heyday. Since joining the brand in 2019, CMO Chris Thorne expressed a desire to resurrect that brand voice while focusing on Black communities.
"What Beats did early on is kind of unmatched, and that really is the goal, to get back to that powerful voice," Thorne tells Fast Company. "I think there was a real opportunity for Beats to go back to its roots a little bit, have that powerful voice again, stand up for what it believes in, and really [have] the permission to be one of the strongest brand voices out there."
Early this year, Beats created the Black Futures program, which connects students from historically Black colleges and universities with opportunities in filmmaking.