Now let’s consider the video:
Before the song even begins, there’s a prologue of Wyclef receiving a Mission: Impossible-style briefing on a Sony VAIO handheld. It’s the UX490N – cutting edge in the fall of 2007, comically large in 2010. Note the perils of using cool new technology in your videos, hip hop producers.
It’s never made clear whom Wyclef is working for. It’s clearly an organization (they assign “missions”) with some international interests (they’re taking interest in a girl who might be deported). The speaker has an accent that’s difficult to place, but they don’t sound conventionally American. And we don’t know what importance this refugee girl has to the organization. All we know is that Wyclef has been working for them for a long time. “Your mission is a difficult one,” the anonymous patron says. “It always is, sir,” comes Wyclef’s reply. He’s seen a lot of how the world treats immigrants. He’s cynical.
We then cut to a cinematic opening: a long tracking shot through the fences of an Immigrant Transition camp, somewhere on America’s borders. Interspersed in other corners of the frame are aerial shots of the camp: tents dwarfed by seas of humanity. Wyclef has already inserted into the camp, disguised as a refugee. He narrates his thoughts in his head while jotting down notes.
As the song begins, we see shots of life in the refugee camp. People hang laundry on improvised clotheslines. Young men gamble a currency they’ll no longer need over cards or dice. Immigrants eat, horde or trade cheap rice. It’s hot, crowded and confusing, but still humanity goes on.
Note that we see Wyclef’s face every time he delivers the line, “Where my money at?” The first time, it’s accompanied with this sidelong glance – a callback to the cynicism Wyclef displayed in the prologue. The second time, Wyclef uses the thumb-and-index gesture that signifies folding money the world over. The third time, one of Wyclef’s neighbors (who has no other role in the video) turns around and delivers it to him. One’s reminded of a musical, where the lead acknowledges a nameless member of the chorus who aids him in the refrain. We’re all part of telling this story.
As the chorus comes up and Akon takes over, Wyclef sets his guitar down and steps outside his tent. He watches Aya, the girl he’s been sent to rescue, as she waits in the food line. Though it’d be well within the bounds of cinematic tradition to have Wyclef (the special agent) watching his target at the same time as Wyclef (the singer) sings a song in the background, the video doesn’t go that way. When Wyclef’s singing, he’s not doing anything else. When Wyclef’s doing something else – taking action – he’s not singing.
This tells us that the song is not merely a soundtrack to the story – but that the song is the story.
(But I thought this was about a prostitute who couldn’t be saved! Not an immigrant who can. Stick with me)
Akon takes his verse next. Though these lyrics are largely about strippers and their pimps, the imagery is far different. A crowd of protesters crush the fence outside the Immigrant Transition camp. Presumably these are relatives of some of the imprisoned refugees. Or maybe they’re just concerned parties. The camera focuses specifically on a few faces, though: an old woman, an old man. This isn’t civil disobedience by rowdy youth: these are people with a lifetime of experience behind them. It’s the wisdom of the elders all over again.
As Akon auto-croons the words “… finger on the trigger …”, the guard squeezes off a blast of water from his fire hose.
Then Aya’s dragged into an office tent.
ICE Officer: Have a seat. Passport.
(she hands it over)
ICE Officer: Aya Bongo?
ICE Officer: You’re being deported.
ICE Officer: Transportation will come and pick you up in 24 hours.
Aya: What do you mean?
ICE Officer: Gather your belongings …
Aya: What? There’s no way!
ICE Officer: Hector, get her out of here.
Aya: No, no, no! No!
ICE Officer: Done. Next!
Obviously, this exchange doesn’t take place on the album track.
As Aya is being dragged out of the tent, a chant rises up in the background – not necessarily in connection with her fate, but not out of place at a refugee camp: Libertad! Libertad! Libertad! This is another reference that every hip hop fan should place immediately:
Again, this is part of the song’s trend of calling back references to hip hop classics. Every gangsta wannabe from 1986 to the present knows the story of Scarface: how Tony Montoya climbed to the top, lost everything he had and died in a hail of gunfire. Wyclef’s video evokes that story with the refugee camp and the chants of “Libertad! Libertad!” Every hustler wants to be the guy who makes it out of the refugee camp. No one wants to think about the women left behind.
After learning that she’ll be deported, Aya takes a desperate action: she torches the HQ tent inside the camp with a Molotov cocktail. Such an act won’t keep her from being deported. In fact, it might upgrade her status from “deported” to “arrested.” But she has nothing else in her life. The hostile country to which she’s going to be sent back holds nothing for her. The U.S. won’t have her. She intends to go out in a blaze of desperation. After throwing the improvised firebomb, she sinks to her knees, ready to be arrested.
But that’s not her fate yet. Wyclef swings in and scoops her up. An ICE guard tries to stop them, but Wyclef overpowers him, as well as several reinforcements. He grabs Aya by the wrist and flees with her in the night. To be continued … the video promises.
So what’s the story here?
The song “Sweetest Girl” and the video for “Sweetest Girl” are both narratives about women trapped in no-win situations. The prostitute described in the song has spent her whole life on a losing proposition. Aya, in the video, has no recourse to defend her from being deported. But in the video, the “Sweetest Girl” gets help. Wyclef and his secret agents have been watching her all along. They descend from the darkness to save her.
So is the “Sweetest Girl” at the mercy of benefactors? Does she have to wait for a patron to come down out of heaven to save her?
Not necessarily. And here we have to key in on Lil’ Wayne’s one good lyric:
And so she runs to the pastor
And he tells her there will be a new chapter
But she feels no different after
And so she asks him: ‘where my money at?’
“Sweetest Girl” promotes the philosophy of existentialism – the idea that there is no supernatural reward waiting for the just or eternal punishment for the wicked. All we have in life is what we do and what is done to us.
The “Sweetest Girl” can’t trust her pimp to protect her: all he wants to know is ‘where my money at?’ The cops won’t protect her; she keeps getting pressure from them. She’s not going to find a man who’ll lift her up out of the struggle, not as bruised up and scarred as she is. And Jesus, frankly, ain’t coming. So her only alternative: violent action that upsets the existing power structure. Set fire to the ICE tent.
Note that Wyclef only dashes in to save Aya after she’s thrown the Molotov. Wyclef knew that Aya was being deported at least as early as that afternoon. He could have taken her out then. He’s been keeping his eyes on her the entire time: he had to notice her emptying a bottle of vodka, filling it with kerosene, lighting a rag, and walking toward the command tent. But he only saves her after she’s thrown the bomb. Why? Because the narrative requires Aya to take action. Wyclef doesn’t save her. By her action – a symbolic act of destruction – she saves herself.
“Sweetest Girl” was the debut single off of Wyclef’s album Memoirs of an Immigrant. Wyclef and Akon are both immigrants themselves – one from Haiti, the other from Senegal. Lil’ Wayne, though a New Orleans native, saw his homeland washed away in the aftermath of Katrina. He’s very much a refugee in his own land. So these three refugees assimilated themselves into the dominant culture of their new land and borrowed imagery from as many sources as they could: Brooklyn hip-hop, the West Coast sound, Dirty South hip hop, the films that inspired gangsta rap and, of course, the Odyssey. In doing so, they painted a picture of one of the forgotten figures in hip-hop: the women hustling on the street corner. The single mothers working and conning to feed their children. The immigrants working demeaning labor to build a better life for the next generation. Every woman without hope.
Of course, they also made a song that earned them a good bit of revenue. Cash rules everything around us, after all.