The Lovecraftian circus that is the 2016 presidential race introduced yet another horror to the proceedings last week, when the preview for Mary J. Blige’s Apple Music talk show showed the r&b superstar singing Bruce Springsteen to Hillary Clinton. Sporting Edna Mode–esque coke-bottle glasses and a blunt blond bob, sitting in a sun-drenched room accented in ecru and eggshell, Mary J. held the former Secretary of State’s hand while serenading her with a rendition of Springsteen’s “American Skin,” a song about a police shooting. “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life,” she crooned, accompanied by a drum track played on an iPad.
It would have been easy to assume that we’d finally slipped into a dark new dimension, a demimonde of dead-eyed political operators and opportunistic streaming television from which there is no escape or reprieve. But the sunlight streaming through a window in the background suggested that the Earth was in fact still revolving around a yellow sun, and Twitter quickly meme-ified the uncomfortable interaction. No, this was reality.
The Clinton campaign has had trouble courting the suite of voters that swept Obama into office in 2012: black people, Latinos, millennials. since the start of the race. Recent findings by Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher confirm as much: Hillary has been underperforming in battleground states, in part because of anemic numbers in those three groups. Similarly, in March, a Council on American-Islamic Relations study found that 78 percent of Muslim voters ages 18 to 24 preferred Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton.
Given the bizarre logic of the current political season, then it perhaps makes sense that we would find a clip of nine-time Grammy-winner Blige singing at the presidential hopeful circulating on social media after last Monday’s presidential debate. During the segment’s opening sequence, we glimpse Clinton’s cynical purpose for agreeing to it. Blige says of her viewers, “They’re waiting to see who she really is, so they can embrace her.” One assumes the “they” Blige refers to are the young black and brown kids who grew up on her hits like “Real Love” and “Family Affair,” precisely the group of people Hillary is so desperately trying to lasso into her coalition. In other words, people like me.
Unsurprisingly, the interview was centrist pabulum. (Mary J., bless her, did not actually sing one question to the presidential nominee.) They talked motherhood, faith, and feelings, focusing on women breaking down barriers. The duo were sometimes charming, but ultimately banal: two successful women who became national figures in the same year, 1992 — Blige with her first album, Clinton as First Lady — commiserating over long journeys to the top.
Watching dramatic close-ups of Clinton issuing vague promises of trickle-down feminism to an innovative and accomplished black singer in what seems to be a luxury resort did not make me a more eager Clinton supporter, nor did the interview interrupt her campaign’s track record on ham-fisted recruitment efforts targeting young voters of color. Last December, a blog post that compared new grandmother Clinton to a staffer’s abuela inadvertently launched the hashtag #notmyabuela on Twitter. Later that month the campaign generated a logo that styled the Hillary “H” as the seven candles of Kwanzaa. And in an April appearance on the Breakfast Club, Clinton proclaimed that she, too, carried hot sauce in her bag — an apparent riff off Beyoncé’s freshly released pro-black anthem “Formation” that spawned weeks’ worth of mocking memes.
In the Blige interview, Clinton misfired again. She sidestepped Blige’s question about protecting black people, one of the only pointed political questions of the thirty-minute interview — despite Apple’s goofy teaser — and arguably the most important to the potential voters this stage-managed farce was aimed at. To be sure, Clinton did mention systemic racism, but only once; she explained that she “particularly wants white people to understand what it’s like” for black parents to worry about their children being targeted by police. But Clinton, perhaps unwilling to repudiate the law-and-order voting bloc mobilized by the myth of the superpredator she herself helped furnish, squandered the moment, speaking only generally about gun violence and getting guns “out of the wrong hands.”
Millennials have made entire movements that have percolated into national political discourse, Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives chief among them. Yet Hillary refuses to fully engage with what is perhaps the most politically engaged demographic in generations — never once has her campaign suggested that the “wrong hands” might be the police. As in this interview, Clinton’s appeals to the young black vote have been as transparent as they are shallow.
Blige was trying to claw something meaningful out of Hillary. To the moderates and Republicans alienated by Donald Trump, Clinton’s response to Blige’s performance might have demonstrated her qualifications for the job: professional, experienced, diplomatic. But for the rest of us, the young people of color whose lives will hinge on how Clinton would answer the almost-daily provocation — will you let them keep killing us? — it looked like deadly indifference.