Why does JAY-Z present a parade of racist images in his two newest videos for “4:44” and “The Story of O.J.?” The latter purposely crams as many as possible into its four-plus minutes — we get the Sambo character, the watermelon eating, the caricaturishly oversized lips, the cotton picking, the Hottentot Venus, the Aunt Jemima, the African baby, the pickaninny, the auction block, the Klan, the human beings in chains and on and on, until I feel like I’m drowning in it. I normally recoil from these sorts of images. They trigger me. But I love “The Story of O.J.” I feel like it’s a video of empowerment. What’s going on that makes them add up to something powerful here, when it’s so painful to see these images in other spaces?
“The Story of O.J.” works in the way Kara Walker’s extraordinarily powerful visual art works. Walker creates images from slavery — truly grotesque scenes painted on white walls in one shade of black as if seen through shadows. I never miss one of Walker’s shows because I’m always blown away by her mind and because her art performs a feat I love. She reaches into our collective memory and takes control of these painful images. And as she uses them to tell a story, I can’t help but be blown away by her brilliance as an artist. Her talent empowers me. Her courage to speak of this pain and make sure we remember it empowers me. Her ability to get these painful works into museums and galleries, that too empowers me. We have a genius Black woman authoring the story and as she tells it she speaks of herself, and that story is thrilling.
JAY-Z, in his video, is also taking control of those images. He’s using them in his own project to speak about his view of the world and how far we haven’t come. And critically, he’s implicating himself in all this. The Sambo character is a stand-in for Jay — a way to say he too cannot escape living in the colored section; he too cannot transcend race. He is one of us. Thus these painful images are offered in the sense of community and the sense of binding us together, saying: this is part of who we all are, even now. Let’s not forget because we cannot ever transcend it.
Except this: JAY-Z pulls the rug out from under his own game, and by video’s end, Jaybo wins. He starts to gain momentum when we see a representation of Tommie Smith’s fist at the 1968 Olympics, then he’s walking through the world with ease. He’s gone global. He dances in front of Klansmen but not for them — a victory dance signifying his freedom and their impotence. We see him walk through the hull of a slave ship teeming with chained up people then burst through a door to reveal he’s now on his own yacht with a squadron of white male servants. Yes, toward the end he gets lynched, which is hard to watch even though Jaybo is a cartoon, but after that, in his final moments, we see Jaybo flying over the hood, making it rain money on all the boys and girls. And thus JAY-Z has redeemed the character. He was downtrodden at the beginning, unable to transcend race, but at the end he’s winning. And to see Jaybo win in the end is to rescue him and us, too.
In the “4:44” video Jay is playing a different game. Here we get a rush of negative images but they’re almost always paired with an image of brilliance. It’s the duality of Blackness — the agony and the ecstasy — side by side. We get Beyoncé floating in water like an angel, then slaves bending before a master completely humbled, then modern day Black women walking freely down the street. The video mixes grainy found images with highly stylized ones. It’s all about clashes. Someone cries about being wrongfully charged then suddenly we’re in an extraordinary street dance scene. We see strippers onstage then a man crying in prison clothes then Lauryn Hill rocking a show then police beating a man bloody. We get joyous laughter beside a horrific car crash. Is this a representation of what their relationship felt like or an internetish montage of images? I don’t know. I think it’s a visual tone poem about Blackness itself, with JAY-Z using his video to make a larger statement to say there’s great joy in Blackness and there’s great pain. We are both. That’s our yin and yang.
Jay and Bey, of course, are a yin and yang. The narrative about them centers the video. We see two great dancers in gorgeous shots circling each other as artistic renderings of Jay and B. The man wears a Yankee hat and a gold chain, the woman a nice dress. It all seems to build toward the moment when the Jay figure gives his chain to the Beyoncé figure. A beat later the video slows to reveal her all but hanging herself with it. Is that how Beyoncé feels he did her? Or is that how Jay feels he did her? Maybe both?
Late in the video they are onstage, dancing while Al Green’s classic love song “Judy” covers them. It’s a sweet, quiet song. Bey comes toward Jay and they lock into a rhythm — dancing together, their bodies in harmony. They’re one. At that moment the relationship seems perfect. And the sound of Judy is so soft that it feels like a private moment. Of course it’s not — they’re onstage and when the sound cuts it’s to the crowd screaming along to “Drunk In Love.” It’s as if their private moment has suddenly become public. But perhaps it was never private to begin with.