It's a chilling social statement from a musician better known for talking sexy: Prince's video for the song "Cinnamon Girl" depicts an Arab-American girl detonating herself in a crowded airport terminal on what looks like U.S. soil.
Featuring Keisha Castle-Hughes from the movie Whale Rider, the four-minute clip opens in a stylized urban schoolyard, rendered in pen-and-ink and stylized gray watercolors drawn by artist Greg Ruth. A group of teen girls reacts with horror to the whining roar of jet engines that fades into the opening notes of the song. When it becomes clear who's responsible for what we presume is a Sept. 11-style terrorist attack, classmates of Castle-Hughes' character torment her for her ethnicity, and she flees for home, only to find her parents covering over the Arabic script on the sign outside the family store. Someone has scrawled "terrorist scum" on one of the store's windows.
"Cinnamon girl mixed heritage/Never knew the meaning of color lines," Prince sings. "9/11 turned that all around/When she got accused of this crime."
Intercut with straightforward scenes of the singer and his band playing on a blasted, war-torn landscape, the video shows Castle-Hughes donning traditional dress and headscarf and videotaping what appears to be a statement of martyrdom. In the next scene, she's back in Western garb and arriving at the airport. Perhaps for emphasis, the camera lingers on the U.S. passport she shows to airport officials.
Then she's standing in the terminal with a detonator in her hand. She closes her eyes and presses down on the red button with both hands. The perspective shifts outdoors as flames rip through the glass-paneled front wall. It's only for a moment, though, and then the scene reverses itself to the moment just before Castle-Hughes hits the button. Is it a fantasy?
Prince isn't saying, according to his publicist, Ronnie Lippin.
The video's director, Phil Harder, offered a few details in a phone interview Thursday.
"It began with just talking to Prince about the current political situation in our world today, and I really mean in our world, not just our country," said Harder, 42. "And this long conversation really sparked this idea with a sentence. He said, 'As long as people keep labeling other people as terrorists, it seems like we'll always have terrorists.'"
The video is Castle-Hughes' first project since Whale Rider in 2002. Harder said the New Zealand resident, who is part Maori, was perfect for the role because of her expressive face.
"When you do a music video, it's kind of like making a silent film. There's no dialogue," he said. Harder said the video is "definitely not literal," but he prefers to leave the ending open to interpretation to spark dialogue.
"That's what Prince was really interested in, ... getting people to talk about these issues," Harder said. "I sort of interpret it - and this is just one interpretation - like, how far can the imagination go when your whole world is constant violence when you're that young? It's definitely not literal. The whole point is getting people to talk about it."
The video is available online for now on Prince's paid fan-club Web site, www.npgmusicclub.com, and at AOL Music. VH1 plans to screen the clip Monday at a weekly meeting held to determine which videos the music channel will add, a spokeswoman said. MTV wasn't sure whether the video had been submitted, but a spokesman said it also wouldn't review it until next week.
Eric R. Danton is rock critic for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.