Donald Trump has now added to the condemnations of Snoop Dogg’s latest music video, in which the rapper points a toy gun at a clown named “Ronald Klump” and pulls the trigger, firing a “bang” flag. “Can you imagine what the outcry would be if @SnoopDogg, failing career and all, had aimed and fired the gun at President Obama?” he tweeted. “Jail time!”
The indignant reaction to Snoop’s satirical video for “Lavender (Nightfall Remix)” is the latest example of how politically themed art can double as a prop for whatever side it’s opposing. The controversial scene comes toward the end of the clip as the culmination of a storyline that imagines a country populated by clowns and “doggs.” Snoop and directors Jesse Wellens and James DeFina went out of their way to signal that they were working in the realm of satire, fantasy, and cartoonishness, but the shock value of pulling a trigger on a presidential lookalike can’t be denied. The video has certainly succeeded at drawing attention—but more for its ability to confirm preconceived partisan narratives than for anything it actually said.
In the video, a clown dad, played by the actor Michael Rapaport, eats breakfast with his clown family in his clown home, where past-due bills plaster the fridge. On his way to work, he is pulled over by a clown cop. The dad happens to have his young son’s squirt gun in his briefcase; the sight of it leads the cop to shoot him, triggering a spray of glitter instead of blood. Another clown films the incident, which then makes the news. There’s an allegory here, but it’s not exactly the expected one—both the victim and the cop are white, and the onlooker is black.
We then cut to a press conference at “The Clown House” where Ronald Klump, in a red tie and orange face paint, is making a speech. Chyron: “RONALD KLUMP WANTS TO DEPORT ALL DOGGS.” Later we see Klump with a car full of clown henchmen in burglar’s black apparently about to engage in some sort of strike operation (deportation? drug bust? harmless clown fun?). Snoop Dogg picks up a gun and interrupts that mission, firing the “bang” at Klump. From there, it’s mostly Snoop partying with Harley Quinn lookalikes while Klump stands in chains; at one point, Snoop refuses to share his blunt with Klump. The video closes with a cartoon commercial of an animated dog gunning down clowns who are chasing him for his Snoop Loops cereal.
The video has attracted far more attention in the Trump-sympathetic political media world than it has in the music world. The chatter has partly been over the idea that Snoop is inciting violence; as Marco Rubio told TMZ, “The wrong person sees that and gets the wrong idea, you can have a real problem.” But perhaps as much attention has gone to the idea that Snoop is illustrating liberal hypocrisy about peace and civility—hence Trump’s tweet. What the coverage hasn’t seemed particularly focused on is what Snoop might have been trying to do artistically. On Fox News, the Democratic strategist Richard Fowler was scoffed at when he tried to interpret the video as an anti-gun statement. On Fox Business, an outraged Maria Bartiromo shouted “What’s the point?” without any follow-up attempt at actually answering the question.
Talking to Billboard, Snoop portrayed the video as an all-directions expression of frustration at “police, the president, and just life in general ... The whole world is clownin’ around.” He also explained that when he releases something new he doesn’t “expect or look for a reaction,” adding, “I just put it out because I feel like it’s something that’s missing. Any time I drop something, I’m trying to fill in a void.”
Critics are right to say that big blowback would have met a video like this about Obama. Just as blowback met the rocker Ted Nugent when he said he’d risk his life and freedom to stop Obama’s re-election, or when former Trump New York campaign co-chair Carl Paladino wished Obama would be infected with Mad Cow disease. Trump’s mention of the “jail time” Snoop would have received under Obama might be a reference to some publicized enforcements of U.S. Code Title 18, Section 871’s ban on presidential threats, including the case of the army clique suspected of planning a coup and the Brooklyn ISIS sympathizers alleged to have talked about a suicide mission against Obama.
But there are significant differences between Snoop and those examples, and even between Snoop’s video and something like Paladino’s comments. For one, Snoop is an artist making a piece of art. For another, he doesn’t actually say he wants the president to die.
The Obama years were obviously not lacking for fights over the propriety of vitriolic, murderous expressions against the president. Many such expressions were rooted in a conspiracy-world version of him, whether the racism of birtherism or the more general belief that liberalism is a long-game plot to destroy America. Snoop’s video vents at Trump’s actual policy positions, from immigration, to law enforcement, to the war on drugs. That Snoop’s life and art have been influenced by such issues over the decades may explain the video’s vividness, though it doesn’t inoculate him from criticism for using an inflammatory allegory of assassination.
Whatever his intentions, the entire episode feels familiar. At the Women’s March on Washington in January, Madonna said she had thought about blowing up the White House—but also said she knew the sentiment was wrong and that she disavows it. In doing so, she did what artists often do: air their honest reactions to the world. But her comments seemed to catch on more with her political opponents than her allies—because they provided an opportunity to portray Trump’s critics as wackos. The same thing appears to be happening now. Artists certainly have a right to make explosive, exploratory art. But now, especially, such art can serve ends they may not want.