Sampling the Land and the Trappings of Empire: Jaden Smith’s Moving-Image Settler Aesthetic

Jaden Smith’s music video Fallen (directed by Miles Cable and Jaden Smith, USA, 2016, 4 min and 39 sec.) staggers and then collapses face first into settler-imperial iconographies of occupation. In the video, Smith–the actor, musician, model, and self-proclaimed living “Icon”–apprehends space and time through the hip-hop aesthetic practice of “sampling”–creating soundscapes from loops of previously recorded music. However, contrary to the once-ubiquitous form of hip-hop production, the video’s “cacophonous” visual sampling practices, which draw on genre Western and hip-hop popular culture, distort any semblance of an original, as Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd would argue. Fallen instead transforms the Indigenous homelands of Southern California into visual and sonic terra nullius cathected to the wounds borne of an overflowing and perhaps breaking heart. Critical Indigenous analyses, however, allow us to see beyond what Macarena Gómez-Barris theorizes as “extractive modes of perception,” by revealing how affective structures of settler-imperial occupation visually remap Indigenous homelands as discursive and material “resources” to be possessed by nonnatives.

The lead single from Smith’s first full-length studio album SYRE (2017), Fallen narrates Smith’s sonic persona falling in love with an unnamed female character. The video was co-directed by Smith, who has spent more than a decade behind the camera and was eighteen years old at the time of its release. The video opens onto a lifeless frontier colony that is reminiscent of a Western movie set, a tourist attraction, or both, as in the case Southern California’s Joshua Tree-adjacent “Pioneertown.” Fallen declares its temporality and location as “Calabasas 1867” in yellow, Wild-West-style font. Yet the video unfolds a mashup of times and spaces, where history begins with colonial occupation and pop-culture symbols signify Smith’s affective states. The locations for several of Smith’s SYRE music videos look suspiciously like Joshua Tree, California (for instance, “George Jeff,” “Icon,” and “Watch Me“). However, if we take Fallen at its word, the video erases the Indigenous Chumash lifeworlds that are currently occupied by the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, roughly twenty miles northwest of downtown, and claims the homelands through Smith’s embodied performances and settler geographies.

Fallen cuts between Smith stumbling through the colony, coughing and vomiting black liquid, and Smith dancing, while a white settler, who resembles the murderous man-in-black character from the HBO series Westworld (2016-2018), observes his performances. For instance, Smith dance-walks down the colony’s main thoroughfare as he sings of Hennessy (a mainstay of hip-hop significations), bell hooks’s African diasporic feminism, and his lover’s surprise at his reading choices: “In my soul, you penetrate, I need your energy / Your vibrations make me levitate, sipping Hennessy / Reading bell hooks/ she just sayin’ / I’m surprised you do.” A large pastel-pink sign that reads “Trapper” in black text is visible in the background, affixed to a structure resembling a saloon. Although the sign “trap” has a long history in the narcotics economies of Southeastern North America, and a longer history of violence in North American extractive and settler colonialism, in recent hip-hop parlance, “the trap” refers to a place where drugs are sold, and a “trapper” is a dealer. Over the past decade, the sign has helped spawn a new subgenre of hip-hop known as trap. The subgenre trades in narratives of drug dealing, corporeal violence, and hetero-patriarchal sexuality as well as toxic masculinity. Sonically, trap is characterized by meticulously programmed high-hats, deep kick drums, and layered synthesizers. Fallen attempts to distance Smith from the racialized misogyny and violence normalized in contemporary hip-hop by portraying him as a “woke,” “emo” trapper in love who name drops bell hooks.

In constructing a “woke” trapper, Fallen nevertheless follows settler-colonialist lines of flight into what is perceived as unclaimed space. Applying sonic hip-hop production techniques of previous eras to the moving image, Fallen samples the land by photographing, filtering, and editing it into picturesque spaces filled with Smith’s emotions as well as his own private colony. The cloudless sky glows pink against the wooden, colonial edifices and surrounding desert hills. For example, as Smith sings on a hilltop, he vomits, falls to the ground, and writhes in the dirt. Kid Cudi’s album Man on the Moon (2009)–a touchtone of introspective hip-hop–rests on a vintage record player and comes in and out of the frame. The color palette reflects the song’s “angelic” sonics (as described by the track’s producer, Travon “IQ” Thompson), Kid Cudi’s album art, and Smith’s emotive verses: “I’m dying on the moon, and I just need you.” Fallen thus transforms the land into a pastel moonscape filled with Smith’s sensations of non-native hetero/sexuality and settler belonging.

By recalling histories of extractive colonial violence in North America, Fallen’s “trapper” significations also map Smith’s embodied settler sovereignty onto the colony and the Indigenous homelands it attempts to claim. In the video, Smith wears a military-style khaki vest and a fringed sash–presumably made from nonhuman animal flesh–that moves as he dances. Beginning in the sixteenth century, British, Dutch, French, Spanish, Russian, and later Unites States colonialisms in North America were propelled by extractive trades in nonhuman animal lives and bodies, or “fur trapping.” As Western Shoshone historian Ned Blackhawk argues, this trade became a violent structure through which colonial biopolitics cut deeper into Indigenous human and nonhuman lifeworlds and expanded imperial sovereignties. In Fallen, Smith, therefore, becomes a trapper-rapper-cowboy hybrid who asserts his place on the land, inhabits his own colony, and trades in emotive, settler visual culture, rather than nonhuman lives.

Through this figuration, Fallen also recalls histories of African-diasporic settler colonialism in Western North America. African-diasporic cowboys, in fact, constituted large portions the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century settler subjects who participated in the extractive ranching economies of the North American “West.” Jaden’s father, Will Smith, embodied such subjectivities in the extravagant disaster of a film Wild Wild West (1999). By locating Jaden on occupied Indigenous homelands through another imagined Wild West, “Fallen” recreates eighteenth- and nineteenth-century settler colonialism in southern California. As historian William David Estrada notes, nearly half of the settlers recruited by the Spanish empire in the late eighteenth century from New Spain to populate the Los Angeles colony were of mixed African-diasporic and Indigenous ancestry. Smith, whose dreadlocks hang over his eyes, thus becomes an eighteenth century African-diasporic settler as well as a twenty-first century suburban trapper who takes possession of Chumash homelands.

The song might be sonically pleasing to those with an ear for when trap production meets youthful melancholy, and it makes some attempts at well-meaning social commentary: “heard a brother just got shot because he stopped on the wrong curb.” The music video, however, is a colonialist pastiche that lacks a clear referent but is, nonetheless, shaped by settler structures of feeling. In Fallen, land is devoid of meaning and merely waiting to be possessed, sliced, and (re)assembled to create new and old colonial worlds, or as Smith sings, “what’s the difference from the future and the past?” Yet Fallens colony is nearly lifeless and the blood-vomiting Smith declares he’s “dying.” Perhaps Fallen also hints at a colonial collapse? In place of Smith’s settler affects and uncertain futurity, we must, instead, perceive and enact decolonial spatialities and temporalities where Indigenous human and nonhuman lifeworlds flourish relationally.

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Ho’esta Mo’e’hahne

Ho’esta Mo’e’hahne (Southern Tsitsistas and Hinono’ei) is the scholar in residence in the Indigenous Nation Studies program at Portland State University. Ho’esta holds a BA from the University of Oklahoma and a PhD from the University of Southern California. Ho’esta’s work examines the politics of Indigeneity and settler-imperial occupation in North American representational culture.