Rihanna's American Oxygen Video - Define American

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Rihanna's American Oxygen Video

What is American Oxygen?

by Maria Cruz Lee | Engagement Director, Define American

If the goal was to create a relevant and timeless piece of art, Rihanna and her team has succeeded.

I’m convinced; We have more allies than we know.  I add to that list: Darren Craig, Jeff Nicholas, J Jonathan Craven, Alexander Grant, Candice Pillay, Sam Harris, Alex da Kid, Ciarra Pardo, Nathan Scherrer, and of course, Robyn Rihanna Fenty.

Define American is a media and culture organization focused on the power of story to transcend politics — elevating the conversation on immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America.  So of course I was all up in my feels when “American Oxygen” came out on Tidal. (It caught my attention between multiple, manual replays of the Queen’s “Die With You” video.)

There’s more to the romanticized view of the “American Dream.“  I can see why the theory bloggers and magazines are knocking it, because on the surface, “American Oxygen” isn’t catchy.  Something so thought provoking won’t be catchy, because it takes time to process meaning.

The video highlights significant moments in our country’s history, mixed with images of current social justice movements, and individual “Americans.“  I’m drawn to the song and video, because it digs deeper into the different layers of this conversation.

Let’s root it in Rihanna’s own immigrant success story:

  • She was born in Barbados, growing up in a household affected by drug addiction and poverty. 
  • She utilized her talent and when provided an opportunity, worked her way up to the A-List.
  • She had a fascination with American pop culture, aspiring to be “the black Madonna.”
  • Rihanna wasn’t born into a world of privilege, but now as a superstar, she’s able to use her fame to address topics that matter to her.

There is so much more to “American Oxygen”, but my point is — the video is something to dissect.  That means, regardless of how people feel about the song, there is a conversation happening about the context.

“I think it means so much more being sung by Rihanna — specifically by a black female immigrant in the United States.” – Sam Harris, X Ambassadors (via Billboard)

I for one, applaud Rihanna for going broad and releasing a video that makes people scratch their heads and dig a little deeper about how we Define American.

—— gifs by @_michaelconti | Digital Production Manager, Define American


Rihanna draws a visual link between her route to the US and the route of refugees, showing their spinning rafts in the water. While many people associate unauthorized immigration with crossing the US-Mexico border, many people migrate to the United States legally, by overstaying a tourist, student, or expired worker visa. The Pew Research Center estimates that 4 to 5.5 million, or 36% to 50% of all undocumented immigrants enter legally, with inspection.


Rihanna’s own personal story of self-improvement from Barbados to Connecticut parallels the motivations many have when coming to America: the desire to improve their lives. American culture is pervasive around the world, and it is what causes many to believe that their potential can be unlocked by coming here.

From People: “When I left Barbados, I didn’t look back. I wanted to do what I had to do, even it meant moving to America.“


Referenced often is the theme of harsh economic realism. Images of spaceships, football games, and corporate America are contrasted the hard, unheralded labor that many undocumented immigrants turn to to make a living. It draws more attention to the fact that, for as much as undocumented immigrants are maligned as “hurting the economy,” American companies make upwards of $400 billion gross annually off of their labor, according to a 2006 estimate.


Immigrants, as generations before embody this country. Their rates of learning English, starting a business, and identifying as “American” indicate that they are integrating at the same rate, or faster, as earlier generations of European immigrants have.

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