The best music videos about city life – from U2 to Beyoncé

From the streets of Los Angeles to the beaches of Rio, here’s our pick of the most memorable videos depicting urban life in cities around the world

  • What have we missed? Share your suggestions in the comments below

There are plenty of songs about cities and city life, but what about the role cities play in music videos? Sure, some just place the singer/band in a cool “urban” setting and that’s it – but others focus on the nature of city life, the peculiarities or the character of a certain city or neighbourhood.

In among this genre are the glittering celebrations of cities (Nicki Minaj’s ode to her hometown, Port of Spain, in Pound the Alarm) and the snapshots of daily realities (It Was a Good Day by Ice Cube). We often see cities featured that aren’t the artist’s own (which can sometimes result in “travel porn” – I’m looking at you, Coldplay); but then there are the examples when someone focuses on their own city and tries to reveal something powerful about it.

This is just a small selection, of course, informed in part by my musical tastes (judge as you must) – so please do share your own suggestions in the comments below, or on Twitter using #citymusicvideos.

Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack, Los Angeles

Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack

In Massive Attack’s 1991 video, singer Shara Nelson is seen striding along six blocks of West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles at sunset. Widely hailed as the first music video to be shot in one take, we follow Nelson as she passes various characters of Los Angeles going about their daily lives (a kid playing with a toy gun, a homeless woman, a man on a payphone, a butcher carrying a carcass, an old couple kissing). Although it captures what seems like an unremarkable street scene, the video portrays that particularly urban feeling of being surrounded by people and yet not engaging with them at all: here, Nelson becomes the detached observer of modern city life.

Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve, London

Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve

Whether The Verve were paying homage to, or gently mocking, Massive Attack’s video remains debated, but in their 1997 video for Bittersweet Symphony, the band’s frontman Richard Ashcroft is seen strolling down east London’s Hoxton Street, completely oblivious to and bumping into those around him to the point of farcical rudeness. Like the Unfinished Sympathy video, this captures the daily life and characters of a neighbourhood, from roadworks and delivery men to elderly shoppers and street market debris. Hoxton Street in the late ’90s was just on the cusp before the area underwent rapid gentrification and hipsterisation, so the video has become a kind of historic snapshot.

The “walking down the street singing” genre is, of course, one that’s been used repeatedly since. Michel Gondry’s twist on the idea for Kylie Minogue’s Come into My World saw her repeatedly walk around a Paris neighbourhood, and Joanna Newsom strolled through the New York streets for Sapokonikan. Coldplay also used the idea for their video Sky Full of Stars, shot in Sydney – but instead of rudely knocking people over like Richard Ashcroft, Chris Martin smiles for mobile phone pictures from adoring fans. Well, times move on.

Blue by Beyoncé, Rio de Janeiro

Blue by Beyoncé

Possibly one of the most joyful music videos of all time, Beyoncé’s Blue – an ode to her daughter, Blue Ivy – is set on the streets and beaches of Rio de Janeiro (with additional scenes filmed in the Brazilian state of Bahia). Rio may be in the headlines right now as this year’s controversial Olympic Games edge closer, but Beyoncé’s 2014 video exudes pure positivity (rose-tinted, perhaps): from dancing couples in a neighbourhood restaurant to playing football with a group of kids in a park. The city’s defining features are there – the beaches and mountains, the carnival dancers – but so too are the local details and characters, from shopkeepers and builders to barbers and nuns. Most of all, though, the video focuses on the city’s children, dancing and playing in any street, beach or doorway they can find.

Dadra (دادرا) by Zeb and Haniya, Lahore

Dadra (دادرا) by Zeb and Haniya

Pakistani pop duo Zeb and Haniya described this video as “an exploration of Lahore’s past, present and future”. It was released ahead of schedule in March of this year as a tribute to the victims of a deadly explosion in the city. The video itself shows us scenes of the city as experienced from a car – from night-time traffic jams and the loneliness that accompanies them, to the busy daytime streets full of people shopping and trading. It’s largely a vision that sees the city today as one dominated by vehicles and pollution, but as the video is interspersed with images of Lahore’s colourful, verdant past, it muses on the impacts of urbanisation.

Not Giving In by Rudimental ft. John Newman & Alex Clare, Manila

Not Giving in by Rudimental ft. John Newman & Alex Clare

Rudimental’s video is loosely based on the story of Filipino world breakdancing champion B-boy Mouse, who grew up in a slum neighbourhood in Manila where he learned to b-boy (a tale reminiscent of our story of 15-year-old Vikram joining the SlumGods crew in Dharavi, Mumbai). The 2012 video for Not Giving In follows two brothers around their slum neighbourhood as one turns to crime and the other masters the art of b-boying. Big sweeping shots over the cityscape draw attention to the stark difference between the modern high-rise downtown in the distance and the neighbourhood the story unfolds in, demonstrating the inequality of a developing city. Ultimately, though, just like B-boy Mouse’s success, the story is one of hope. A writer on the B-boy Spot said of the video:

For me, growing up as a kid in the poor neighbourhoods of Mexico City, this video touched me. It hit home in many ways. Breaking and hip-hop culture was created in ghettos by kids that had nothing, and were told would achieve nothing. For once we had a chance to prove ourselves. Many of us always talk about how breaking and Hiphop culture saved our lives, we finally have a visual to our stories.

Losing You by Solange Knowles, Cape Town

Losing You by Solange Knowles

For Solange’s 2012 video for Losing You, we’re taken to an unnamed township on the edges of Cape Town, with a group of Congolese “sapeurs” striking poses, sipping tea and playing croquet. Solange drew inspiration from Daniele Tamagni’s photographs of sapeurs in Brazzaville, the city where the movement originated and where the singer initially wanted to shoot the video. The glamour of Solange and the sapeurs is set among the daily lives of residents in a poor township, in a juxtaposition that some have taken issue with but others believe subverts traditional representations of African society. As well as the parties and antics of Solange’s elegant group, we see daily life in the township unfold: a barber with a hand-painted pricelist shaves a man’s head; a woman operates a sewing machine in a makeshift tailoring shop in a shopping container; children play in the street.

A Better Tomorrow by Wu-Tang Clan, various US cities

A Better Tomorrow by Wu-Tang Clan

Released in December 2014, two years after the Black Lives Matter movement had been established, Wu-Tang Clan’s video uses real footage from some of the movement’s peaceful protests and vigils on city streets across the US, particularly following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent grand jury decisions not to pursue charges against the police officers involved.

The band stated the video was created “in the hopes of inspiring change and promoting unity throughout the world”. Almost two years after its release, the movement for a “better tomorrow” persists, in the wake of more victims of police brutality. Peaceful demonstrations of protest and solidarity on city streets – both across the US and elsewhere in the world – continue.

Where the Streets Have No Name by U2, Los Angeles

Where the Streets Have No Name by U2

The “rooftop video” is a genre in its own right (see Oasis’s Supersonic, opposite King’s Cross Station in London) but U2’s contribution sees the band seemingly grinding a city to a halt. Staged on the rooftop of the Republic Liquor store in downtown LA in 1987, the filmed performance became a city spectacle, attracting crowds as radio stations notified people of the event taking place – though as we hear in the video, some radio presenters warned fans not to go as it was “not one of those delightful neighbourhoods”.

Go they did, though, and we see hoards of people and nervous LAPD officers as the authorities warn the production crew of the chaos the band are creating by pulling this stunt on a “major thoroughfare”. Of course, the band play anyway, and the police succeed in shutting it down – though the confrontation was apparently “overly dramatised” and the whole thing planned. Adam Clayton said “the object was to close down the streets. If there’s one thing people in LA hate, it’s streets closing down, and we’ve always felt bands should shake things up.” Here, then, the music video itself becomes a way of revealing the tensions of disrupting the rules and regulations of a city.

Nairobi by Johnny Vigeti ft. Abbas and Sati, Nairobi

Nairobi by Johnny Vigeti ft. Abbas and Sati

At once a celebration and a truthful portrayal, Bottomline Kenya called Johnny Vigeti’s video “an ode to the city in the sun, warts and all”. The video, shot in 2015, takes us on a drive through the Kenyan capital, observing Nairobi in brief glances through the window – of people walking at the side of the road, construction projects and workers, traffic, street life and various neighbourhoods. Interspersing these images we see a view of the city from the rooftops, as all the details get pulled together into one busy metropolis and skyline.

See Me by Tei Shi, Bogotá

See Me focuses largely on Bogotá, the Colombian capital where Tei Shi’s Valerie Teicher spent most of her childhood. The video, filmed in 2015, drifts between the verdant countryside overlooking Bogotá and scenes from around the city itself, musing on the contrast between natural and man-made, rural and urban. Teicher’s nostalgic vision of Bogotá takes us from statues covered in graffiti in the middle of the road to the grand architecture of the Colegio Mayor de San Bartolome in the city centre; she walks through empty streets and bustling neighbourhoods, sees kids playing in a square, and sings in an empty family restaurant overlooking the rooftops.

99 Problems by Jay-Z, New York

Released in 2004, Mark Romanek’s video for Jay-Z takes us to Brooklyn, in a wired-yet-woozy vision that centres on Marcy Houses, the public-housing complex in Bedford Stuyvesant where Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) once lived. The video explores life in high-rise public housing and a relatively poor neighbourhood, but also the particular experience of being a black man in a US city, as Carter depicts himself pulled over and targeted by police.

Shot in black and white, the video swerves us around everyday Brooklyn, from the iconic Brooklyn Bridge to a record shop; from a basketball court to a city diner. MTV said the video – which includes a biker gang, breakdancers, prison inmates and fighting pit bulls – showed “an uglier, bleaker side of Brooklyn”, while the New York Times deemed it “both a celebration and a disparagement of Brooklyn iconography”.

Rather Be by Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne, Tokyo

Clean Bandit’s video for their 2013 single Rather Be features Japanese actress Haruka Abe as a chef living in Tokyo. We follow her daily life in the city: getting up, leaving the house, shopping at the Tsukiji fish market, working in a restaurant, riding a scooter home, going out in the evening, walking the brightly lit streets at night, and taking the metro. Although the narrative is based around the hallucinations she has, the video is an immersion in the Japanese capital and everyday urban life there.

Royals by Lorde, Auckland

Set in the outskirts of Auckland where Ella Yelich-O’Connor (Lorde) grew up, the video for Royals captures the ennui of suburbia: silent roads of detached houses and groups of bored youths. Specifically designed to show the “real” life of teenagers, as opposed to a mythical party-filled lifestyle, the video – released in 2013 – depicts young people waiting at a train station, going to an amusement arcade, hanging around in empty sports halls and sitting at home. See, city life isn’t necessarily exciting.

Better days by Outlandish, Copenhagen and London

Outlandish, a multinational hip-hop trio based in Denmark, focus their 2013 video on a day in the life of a minicab driver, a familiar character for many – especially with the rise of companies like Uber. The video follows the taxi driver through a varied succession of customers, highlighting the bizarre relationship between driver and passenger as his demanding customers ignore him, snap at him, argue among one another, start getting intimate in the back seat, or shout and scream en route to a party while asking him to turn the music up. When the working day is done, the only thing our protagonist can do is escape the chaos of the city to find peace.

What have we missed? Share your suggestions in the comments below or on Twitter with #citymusicvideos


Francesca Perry

The GuardianTramp

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