A Semiotic Analysis Of “Land of the Free”

By Evan Murray


“Land of the Free” is a song on the 2017 album “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” by Joey Bada$$ that focuses on racism in America. Joey is a 25-year-old rapper from Brooklyn, New York who has a history of making music confronting racial injustice in America. The song and its accompanying music video touch on many problems faced by Black people in America. The music video uses a lot of strong imagery and symbolism such as the recurring use of the American flag or police officers who are also KKK members to call these problems to attention, specifically institutional racism. “Land of the Free”, through its lyrics and imagery, confronts Murray 2 racism in America and highlights the importance of creating a better life for the future of America through educating the youth and political reform. “Land of the Free” was released to the public on January twentieth 2017, Joey’s twenty second birthday and the day president Donald Trump was inaugurated. The song came out a few months before his album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, which included many songs speaking about racial injustice alongside Land of the Free. The timing of the release certainly was not accidental; Joey chose to release it on a day that symbolized a change in his future.

Taking a closer look at the song’s music video allows us to gain some extra insight on Joey’s message and what he is trying to accomplish with the song. The video matches up with the song for the most part and is not as disconnected from its lyrics as some music videos tend to be. In the opening shot of the music video we are presented with a wide barren landscape seemingly in some sort of desert, this setting symbolizes America as a whole, and maybe more specifically what America is like for Black people. The static landscape is quickly disturbed by a blue truck driven by Joey Bada$$ drifts onto screen kicking up dust. I think this is meant to symbolize Joey trying to create change and disrupt the status quo. The truck has an American flag made of red, white, and blue bandanas, which are often associated with gangs which could symbolize the conflict in America as being almost gang like. We then see Joey in front of 8 other Black adults arranged in a V formation who all have their hands chained like prisoners. These chains are symbolic of the problems faced by Black people in America simply because of the color of their skin, they’re being treated like prisoners despite having done nothing wrong, it’s like saying “guilty until proven innocent”. We then see the same group walking in a circle around Joey, all chained together moving in a cycle. This could be seen to represent “the system” which is Americas institutionalized racism. We see a few more shots of just Joey typically with Murray 3 the American flag mentioned earlier, the more something is shown on screen the more importance it is assigned, this is done to reinforce the importance of its symbolism. We then see a great example of when the lyrics and visual sync up to add value to one another when Joey is talking to a group of Black children. “Can’t change the world unless we change ourselves” is what he says to the children, highlighting Joey’s view that in order for change to occur in America Black Americans must work to better themselves. He is teaching this to the kids, showcasing the importance of educating the youth. The next few shots alternate between the group of children and the adults, highlighting the contrast between the two. The adults are all wearing Black and are still in chains, but the kids move freely and all wear white. The adults are currently being subjected to the effects of institutional racism in America and are held back by it. But the children are still unchained running around and playing, symbolizing hope for their futures. The music video continues this trend for a while, continuing to showcase the contrast between the two groups and showing previous elements from the video such as the flag and the drifting car again to highlight their importance. We also get to see some close up shots of both the adults and children’s faces, symbolizing that these people are not just part of a group, they are all individuals and should be treated that way not defined by their common characteristic, the color of their skin. We again see the adults chained walking in a circle around Joey, but this quickly cuts to the children running freely in joy around a tree. This represents a new cycle in America, one of prosperity not suffering.

Coming to about the halfway point in the video we are introduced to a new group composed of white men in positions of authority. They are first introduced in a scene that portrays a stark conflict between the Black adults and themselves, with Joey in the middle. The scene is a very wide shot drawing attention to the landscape, a barren area representing America. Murray 4 And the implied conflict between the two groups is representative of the larger conflict in America specifically focusing in on police brutality towards African Americans. We see the adults lined up cowering in fear as the police officers aim their guns at them. This to me is symbolic of the distrust many Black people have for the police in America due to the repeated offenses and mistreatments towards African Americans at the hands of the police. They are afraid of the people who are meant to protect and serve them because they have failed to do just that. The police begin shooting at the Black men and Women who are lined up like a firing squad and end up killing about half of them in the process. We then see Joey step into the center of the conflict where he is seemingly unaffected and able to block the bullets, protecting the rest of the adults. This is saying to me that Joey does not want to allow himself to be controlled by the system and by fear and he wants to also protect those around him. Syncing up with the change in tone of the song we cut to a shot of Joey at night standing in front of a burning cross looking up at the sky. A burning cross has long been a symbol of hatred and a tool to promote fear, specifically used by the KKK to harass Black people. This shot is able to say a lot without doing too much, The burning cross is representative of racism in America, and the shots lighting makes Joey appear as a silhouette, illustrating that he could in fact be anyone who is in a similar situation. The next time we see the burning cross we see four men in white robes presumably KKK members standing next to it. Through the next few shots, we see images of both Joey hanging from a noose and him standing in front of the burning cross dancing. America has a dark history of public hangings used to instill fear and set a precedent of harsh punishment to those who opposed authority, mainly directed towards African Americans. We then see that it begins to rain, putting out the fire on the cross, symbolizing the rejection of hatred and racism in America. Joey wants to send the message that we can not let racism win, and we must try to put Murray 5 out these “fires” wherever possible. We then see the KKK members removing their white hats revealing them to be the same police officers we saw earlier. I think this scene corresponds best to the lyrics of the song going, “Three K’s, two A’s in AmeriKKKa” this to me is representing how intertwined racism is with America and its history. Which is evidenced by the fact that our modern-day police force originated with the runaway slave patrol. And we still have not done away with all the racist practices and policies of the police forces past. This is the most evident example of institutional racism Joey showcases in the music video and is what most of the video is building up and working towards. Introducing these characters earlier and involving them in a conflict adds value, it means more when you see them after they have done something terrible on screen, allowing the video to not only enhance the lyrics but tell a story by itself. Some of the final few shots showcase one of the Black men from earlier getting back up off the ground after being shot, a symbol of survival and victory against oppression. We also see Joey once again running around with the children as they smile and play happily during the daytime again closing out the video on a happy and hopeful moment. Joey chooses to end the video on a high note to show that they can fight back and changing their lives for the better. It also portrays that Joey teaching the children was important and effective as they have a good end result.

Land of the Free is a song focused on addressing the racial injustices faced by Black Americans today. Its lyrics along with the visuals of the music video touch on many specific issues in our society and what we must do to overcome them. Joey Bada$$ wanted this song to inspire change in America specifically through the hands of the younger generations and to highlight the importance of activism and educating the youth. His song is a great example of the value art offers to society and the impact it can have on many. 

Works Cited PRO ERA. “Joey Bada$$ – ‘Land of the Free’ (Official Music Video).” YouTube, uploaded by Joey Bada$$, 6 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeQW9Cg8qs&ab_channel=GoodMusic.

Virginie Scott, Jo-Vaughn. “Joey Bada$$ – LAND OF THE FREE.” Genius, 20 Jan. 2017, genius.com/Joey-bada-land-of-the-free-lyrics