“Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga. Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga. Still nigga, Still nigga.”
On June 30, 2017, Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) released his 13th studio album 4:44, arguably the most personal and socially conscious album of his career. Subscribers to his online streaming service, Tidal, are privy to music videos for the songs on the album. They also have access to a series of documentary film shorts directed by Neal Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006). These mini-documentaries consist of interviews with Jay-Z and various famous black men about the themes explored in the album. In the following article I will analyze the social commentary provided in the music video and the accompanying mini-documentary, Footnotes to “The Story of O.J.”
The Curious Case of Jaybo
As social studies teachers plan their curriculums for the upcoming school year I would strongly suggest that they take a look at the music video for “The Story of O.J.”. This dynamic four minute animated film provides a narrative of race relations in America often ignored in our classrooms. If you log on to Tidal and click the film a screen appears with the film’s title and a blackface picture of Al Jolson in the top right corner. The film starts with the title appearing over a cotton field. It then cuts to an introduction of the film’s fictional protagonist Jaybo. If you are old enough to have seen the Loony Tunes cartoons you remember each of those shorts beginning with Bugs Bunny appearing in this circular image under the Loony Tunes title. Well, imagine Jaybo replacing Bugs. As the song starts Jaybo appears, dressed in a tiny fedora hat that is too small for his head, and a turtle neck shirt tucked into his baggy pants. He is wearing white gloves. Jaybo has a wide nose, big ears and lips, gapped teeth, and resembles a monkey in the face. The film juxtaposes images of Jaybo rapping (in Jay-Z’s distinctive voice), with images of blacks chained on a slave ship, blacks picking cotton, and assembly lines of Ku Klux Klansmen. There is a scene in a burlesque club featuring a jazz band, a singer resembling Nina Simone, and an audience of giddy black men cheering on an exotic dancer who has the physical features of the infamous Hottentot Venus.
Throughout the video Jaybo transforms himself into various representations of the African-American experience. We see him on the Middle Passage, picking cotton, eating watermelon, hanging from a lynching tree, sitting in the colored section of a bus, confessing to a therapist, recording music, driving a fancy car, and on board his own yacht. Jaybo, at times, appears in the form of the “field nigger” and the “house nigger”. He wears a Klansmen uniform in one scene and superimposes himself into the famous portraits of black power icons Huey P. Newton, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith in another. As Jaybo raps about financial empowerment in the song’s final verse he walks up a staircase of $1 million bills. During this portion of the film the camera cuts back and forth between JayBo and a scantily clad black child in a jungle banging on a conga drum to accentuate the beat.
The music video satirizes racism in Walt Disney, Looney Tunes, and The Story of Little Black Sambo. Disney World may be the happiest on Earth, but its film studio has a history of rampant racism dating back to World War II. The animated film Dumbo (1941) about the flying elephant with the big ears features a group of black crows who speak in “street jive” and southern slang. The head crow is named Jim. Jim and his boys are dim-witted, lazy, loud, and ratchet. But, they can sing their butts off:
“I seen a front porch swing. Heard a diamond ring. I seen a polka dot railroad tie. But I’ve been, done, seen about everything when I see a elephant fly.”
Jay-Z references Dumbo in the song and has Jaybo using his huge flapping ears to fly over a cotton field. Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book The Jungle Book was racist too! The film’s protagonist Mowgli meets a group of apes in the jungle. Similar to the crows in Dumbo, the apes speak jive or Ebonics and resemble black minstrels from past decades. Louie, the king of the apes, is fat, lazy, and a good singer:
“Oh-ho-ho, ha-ha-ha. Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee. Yuk-yuk-yuk. If you wanna see some strange behavior. Take a look at man.”
Looney Tunes is also guilty of perpetuating racism. In 1968 a group of cartoons, The Censored Eleven, were banned from syndication due to their use of racial stereotypes. A 1948 cartoon entitled “Mouse Cleaning” had a sequence with Tom (Tom and Jerry) in blackface speaking to a character named Mammy Two Shoes. “No, ma’am. I ain’t seen no cat aroun’ here,” said Tom.
I am surprised that neither Disney nor Looney Tunes ever made an adaptation of Sambo. The name Jaybo is a derivative of Jay-Z and Sambo. As a teenager growing up my dad would tell me stories of how his kindergarten teacher would read the story of Sambo to his class and have the children play with a Little Black Sambo puzzle. The Story of Little Black Sambo was published by Scottish author Helen Bannerman in 1899. The book’s narrative was about Sambo, a very dark skinned South Indian boy, living with his parents Black Jumbo and Black Mumbo. Sambo is cornered by four tigers who steal his belongings. The story ends with Sambo recovering his stolen items and the tigers being reduced to butter which his mother uses to make pancakes for the family. Although Bannerman claimed that her book, which was based on The Jungle Book, was not meant to be racist the Sambo character became associated with racism. Langston Hughes characterized the Sambo tale as “pickaninny” storybook (pickaninny is a racist depiction of a dark skinned black child).
Sambo became imbedded within American culture. Not only were schoolchildren like my dad indoctrinated with Sambo’s tale, the book inspired a chain of restaurants – 1,117 locations in 47 states. Sam Battistone, Sr., and Newell Bohnett founded the original Sambo restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, on June 17, 1957. Their menu consisted of pancakes for 40 cents and a full breakfast for $1.25. As the chain spread across the nation restaurants hung up murals on their walls with images of Little Black Sambo. Waiters wore t-shirts with the image of a “nappy-haired, big-lipped, grinning Sambo digging into a huge pile of pancakes.” In 1976 the restaurant chain had annual earnings of $380 million. If you click on the website you can find the menu, hours, contact information, and Facebook page for the Santa Barbara location. The Mama Mumbo special (two eggs and four Sambo pancakes) is $10.50.
The larger issue at play with these racist cartoons satirized in Jay-Z’s video is that generations of white Americans were being indoctrinated with these racial stereotypes from childhood. Likewise, generations of black children were taught to think of themselves as being inferior. They were taught that dark skin and nappy hair were shameful distinctions. Therefore, it is not surprising that some blacks, who benefitted from decades of civil rights activism, would turn their backs on the African-American community and “the culture” the moment they overcame and were accepted by whites. These individuals believed that they could transcend their race.
Made in America
As Jaybo begins rapping an image of a football player in a University of Southern California (USC) uniform running down a field appears on the screen. As the player removes his helmet we see the smiling face of Orenthal “O.J.” Simpson.
“O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay”
ESPN’s Academy Award winning documentary film, O.J.: Made in America (2016), depicts O.J. Simpson’s Shakespearean tragedy as the story of a black man whose Horatio Alger story was based on the myth of transcending race to gain white people’s approval. O.J. wanted to be an American hero, not Sambo. As a Heisman trophy winning running back at the USC, he was the most famous collegiate athlete in the nation. Dr. Harry Edwards, founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, recruited O.J. to take part in a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics. According to Edwards, O.J.’s response to joining the movement was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”. This counter-revolutionary attitude made O.J. a godsend for white sports fans and white businesses looking for an African-American to pitch their products.
According to Joe Bell, a childhood friend, O.J. was seduced by white America from the time he arrived on campus at USC in 1967. For many of the white students on campus O.J. was the first black person they met. His success on the field allowed O.J. to feel immune from the reality staring him in the mirror; that he was a black man. The cheers of his adoring white fans at USC drowned out the cries for black power and erased all memories of Jim Crow. Bell says that O.J. went from poverty to driving down Rodeo Drive in convertibles with “fineeee” white women. When O.J. entered the NFL he told a reporter that the only agenda he was concerned with was his own. He wanted to completely erase all hints of blackness and be viewed solely as an American citizen. Whites could easily accept him without being reminded of slavery, Jim Crow, or Sambo cartoons. “You think of Willie Mayes as black, but not Bill Cosby,” O.J. told a reporter. In 1978 O.J. Simpson was chosen to headline a new commercial for Hertz rental car. He appears in the commercial running through the Newark International Airport trying to catch his flight. Frank Olson, Hertz CEO, explained his reasons for selecting O.J.
“For us, O.J. was colorless. None of the people that we associated with looked at him as a black man.”
O.J. Simpson became Chevrolet’s first black pitchman, a movie star, and commentator for Monday Night Football. He hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live. O.J., a 1985 inductee into the Pro football Hall of Fame, created a blueprint for future black athletes and entertainers (who craved mainstream white acceptance) to follow. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Derek Jeter followed that blueprint to the bank. At one point NFL icon and activist Jim Brown accused Kobe Bryant of falling into this trap.
Television series’ such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, House of Lies, and Empire have given us examples of elite black men who appear to be completely out of touch with their blackness. Will Smith mocked his cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) for his lack of cultural awareness. For example, when he and Will were unfairly arrested by a white police officer on suspicion of stealing a Mercedes Benz, Carlton is oblivious to the reality of racial profiling. He is quick to accept culpability for their encounter with the law; even though their only crime was driving while black in a nice neighborhood. After they are freed Will tries to teach him that his money and education will never change other people’s prejudgement him solely because he is black. Keep in mind that this was the same era as the infamous Rodney King beating and L.A. Riots. How could Carlton not be cognizant of the existence of implicit racial bias?
Don Cheadle’s character Marty Kaan on Showtime’s House of Lies had a seven figure salary, a white ex-wife, a white baby mama at the job, and an ample bevy of white women in and out of his bedroom. He too is racially profiled and responds in a similar fashion as Carlton. He scoffs at his militant brother’s suggestions that he press charges. On FOX’s Empire, hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) criticized his eldest, Ivy League educated, son Andre (Trai Byers) for what his desire to transcend race:
“They will accept your money, Dre, but they will never accept your black ass. I don’t give a damn how many white women you marry.”
Andre was wrongly arrested by two racist white police officers. He refused to press charges because he believed that his Ivy League education and position as the chief financial officer (CFO) of a publicly traded company entitled him to justice in the legal system. He was sadly mistaken. O.J. Simpson was also mistaken when he thought white America would always have his back. As soon as he was accused of murdering his white wife and her companion, he became just another nigger. On June 20, 2017, O.J. was paroled after serving nine years at the Lovestock Correctional Center for committing armed robbery in 2008.
Fortunately not all successful black men follow the O.J. Simpson model. NBA superstar LeBron James routinely uses his platform to speak on racial and social inequality. After his Los Angeles home was vandalized with racist graffiti in late May 2017 he spoke out on the scourge of racism in America. LeBron reminded anyone who was listening that class still does not trump race. He also evoked the memory of Mamie Till’s decision to have an open casket funeral for her son Emmett to show the world the tragic consequences of hate. LeBron’s comments did not sit well with Jason Whitlock, FOX’s conservative sports personality. “Racism is an issue, but it’s primarily an issue of the poor. It’s not LeBron James’ issue. I think it is a disrespectful inconvenience for LeBron James,” said Whitlock. “LeBron needs to quit embracing his victimhood because he’s not a victim and it’s a terrible message for black people.”
Whitlock, a 50-year-old black man, went on to accuse LeBron of teaching black youth to see themselves as victims of injustice at all times. The problem with Whitlock’s argument was its historical inaccuracy. Rich blacks are immune from racism or discrimination? I am sure that Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Bill Russell, Hank Aaron, Prince, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., James Blake, Spike Lee, the Williams sisters, Beyonce, and the Obamas would all beg to differ. Unconsciously, Whitlock was instructing LeBron to play the O.J. card. I guess LeBron should have just acted like it was some silly kids fooling around rather than a bigger societal issue. Thankfully, King James is “woke” enough to realize that he has a platform to raise awareness on problems faced by voiceless, less fortunate blacks.
LeBron was not featured in Footnotes to “The Story of O.J.” but his comments could serve as a precursor to the mini-documentary. Footnotes is a companion piece to the song and music video for “The Story of O.J.” It features grainy clips from interviews with some of the most influential and wealthy African-American male celebrities speaking candidly about race. Footnotes begins with CNN contributor Van Jones describing the unspoken benefits of white privilege. He reminisces on his days at Yale University Law School. While he was studying hard to get good grades he was not invited to his professors’ homes or mentored to become future Supreme Court clerks like his white classmates. Comedian Michael Che, the first black co-anchor of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, says racism cannot die overnight because it is in America’s DNA. It has been learned and passed down from one generation to the next. I would add that we can point back to racist cartoons and children’s books for ingraining these beliefs in the grandparents and parents of Generation Xers and millennials.
“Being black in America is like being in a tiny compress box anchored at the bottom of the ocean with 10,000 pounds of pressure on you at all times.”
-Michael B. Jordan
Comedian Chris Rock states in the film that he does not foresee racism ending in his lifetime. He shares a story of his mother’s childhood in South Carolina. She lived in a town where blacks were forced to get their teeth pulled at the veterinarian’s office because whites did not want their dentists to use the same tools on niggers. Rapper Kendrick Lamar reflects upon seeing a black man killed and police officers harassing his mother, for questioning them about the man’s death, when he was only five-years-old. Moonlight’s Academy Award winning actor Mahershala Ali argues that black men are taught to walk around in the world playing defense out of fear of having their bodies snatched. He made similar comments in a cover story interview with GQ earlier in the summer. He confessed that some whites still clutch their purses if they do not recognize him. (http://www.gq.com/story/mahershala-ali-moonlight-and-america)
Trevor Noah, the South African host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, admits that fame gives some blacks a key to enter mainstream America. Remember the scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing when Pino (John Turturro), the racist pizza delivery man, explains to Mookie (Spike) that he can love Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy because they are black, but they are not really black. They are black, but they are not niggers. These famous blacks can remain in this exclusive club as long they play by the rules. Noah says that key can be taken back – e.g. Bill Cosby, Tiger, or O.J. – if they forget their place. So how does a black man achieve success and express his manhood without selling out? Will Smith and Jay-Z have the answers:
“What I put in my head was going to create my life. So I knew really young that if I thought of myself as somehow less than somebody else, I was going to build a life that was less.”
Both Will and Jay point to self-confidence. They believe that blacks must be willing to see themselves as being just as good as the next person. They do not have to deny their race or acquiesce to individuals who do not see them as equal. Will Smith was named by Newsweek as the most powerful actor in Hollywood back in 2007. His films have grossed over $7.5 billion. Jay-Z confesses that he has always had a defiant attitude. He became a drug dealer because he saw that the game was rigged against people who had his same hue. Music allowed to him to become one of the world’s most powerful, legitimate entrepreneurs. He is unapologetically black in the presence of white folk. In spite of his wealth, Jay-Z realizes that he has an obligation to give back to the African-American community. He does this in the form of college scholarships, producing documentaries on mass incarceration and implicit bias in policing, and making films like Footnotes to “The Story of O.J.”. He believes that ownership, not just wealth, allows him to make his own rules and maintain his integrity. In some ways he is building off the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Jay-Z, who has a net worth of $810 million, imparts the secrets to wealth building in “The Story of O.J.” Kylie Patterson and Xavier Buck call him hip-hop’s version of financial guru Suze Orman.
“You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it. Financial freedom my only hope. I bought some artwork for one million. Two years later, that sh_t worth two million. Few years later, that sh_t worth eight million. I can’t wait to give this sh_t to my children. Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine. But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars-worth of game for $9.99.”
In closing, the music video and companion documentary to Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” provides powerful lessons on the African-American experience and race relations. The music video, with the curse words removed, could easily be used in more secondary and college classrooms to foster discourse on the subject matter. It would not surprise me to see clips from the video displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in the near future. The companion mini-documentary, Footnotes, can be used in not only classrooms, but also focus groups, church meetings, and barbershops/salons to engage people in conversations on social responsibility, blackness, and wealth. The actual story of O.J. provides a lesson on the dangers of being ignorant to the past and culture and failing to see value in uplifting the community that birthed you. O.J. thought he was providing a blueprint for transcending race; in actuality, he was dining (for a season) with the tigers that threatened to eat Little Black Sambo if he refused to surrender his belongings. Transcending race was the abdication of a sense of self and history.
“It’s going to take for the way showers to do it and then not get to that point and turn into, ‘I am not black, I’m O.J.”