“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Slippery phrase, this. Pharrell Williams doesn’t ask you to believe that happiness is the truth in order to participate. You need only feel that the comparison is possible, that happiness is close enough to the truth to be comparable. And they are. I feel like happiness is the truth insofar as the truth sometimes is elusive and happiness sometimes feels made up and both happiness and the truth sometimes feel right as rain. “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.” How can you not clap along? It’s easier to clap than to admit by not clapping the doubt in our hearts. The song makes us happy by asserting that we are. Like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but without the imperatives. But much more effectively, too, because it allows you to chose being happy, even if you don’t actually know what being happy is or means. You can be happy like “a room without a roof.” That sounds like a ruin to me. A happy one, I guess. Our desire for happiness is so powerful and the song’s projection of happiness so compelling that there was a while there when “Happy” was everywhere.
I have heard Williams’ new single, “Freedom,” only one time on the radio, though I wish I could hear it more often. Like “Happy,” it also asks us to ponder things we may not easily explain, but unlike the earlier song, in which not knowing enabled feeling, in “Freedom” not knowing keeps us from experiencing the transcendence contained in the concept of freedom. Moreover, not knowing in “Happy” enables a sense of belonging, while knowing in “Freedom” entails a joyous surrendering of particularity, something much more challenging in our modern episteme.
The song is located centrally in what Paul Gilroy calls the dissident cultures of the black Atlantic. Its call for freedom resonates with the cultures that were born in the fires of racialized slavery and its macabre aftermath. Cultures that responded to that terror with expressions of dignity that affirmed the humanity of black people and encoded resistance to the brutal racial realities that have continued in the modern system to the present day.
Gilroy also reminds us that one of the perverse effects of the racial regime in which we live is that it constricts the full humanity of everyone. Echoing Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gilroy suggests that by continuing to deny the humanity of non-white peoples, Europeans and their white descendants have made themselves more inhuman. The struggle for freedom from racial oppression, then, is a struggle to free all people from the grip of the particularity of racial identity and the hierarchies constructed from those identities.