“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club?” – a kick-ass music video, that’s what. When we think of hip hop videos, more often than not we think of absolute excess: Bikini-clad girls sat beside shimmering pools, dollar bills raining down in endless streams, and enough gold chains to make even Tim Westwood uneasy (top marks for getting a Pimp My Ride UK reference into an essay about racism in America!). So when a rapper releases a music video that makes a genuine political statement instead of reveling in self-indulgence, it comes as an inspiring breath of fresh air. Most recently, this mantle has fallen to the likes of Kendrick Lamar and his videos for ‘Alright’ and ‘HUMBLE’ – and for an excellent commentary of how Lamar collaborates with directors in ‘ELEMENT’, check out NerdWriter’s latest video on the subject.
But with the release of his latest album, 4:44, Jay-Z has waded into the fray with a music video that is as eye-opening as it is disconcerting, with the images that accompany ‘The Story of O.J.’ perfectly discussing the crippling ongoing effects of racist discourse within America. It’s immediately jarring hook – “Light N***a, Dark N***a, Faux N***a, Real N***a, Rich N***a, Poor N***a, House N***a, Field N***a… Still N***a” – exposes the intra-racial distinctions that were enforced upon black communities by whites as a form of internalised oppression, and how these distinctions survive today. It is the difference between the “rich” and the “poor”, between the “real” and the “faux”, and how it seems the label of “rich” can only be achieved by being “faux”, that separates the likes of O. J. Simpson from African American communities- “O. J. like: ‘I’m not black I’m O. J.’”.
However, the video also asserts that no matter how ‘black’ people distinguish themselves within their communities, no matter whether they attain financial, academic or artistic success, white Americans still view their ‘black’ compatriots as black first and foremost. ‘Success’ becomes synonymous with ‘White’; ‘Black’ becomes the defining feature of an inability to achieve success. And through the music video for ‘The Story of O.J.’, Jay-Z gives us a history lesson, connecting the awful racism of America’s not-too-distant past, with the inherent, institutionalised, less-visible racism of the ‘liberal’ present.
“Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.”
What first strikes you about ‘The Story of O.J.’ is its cartoon imagery. We often view cartoons from behind a veil, associating them with childish subjects, trivial alternate realities where the events that happen within that fictitious space bear no impact on actual society. But when Jay-Z’s character peeks onto the screen in the video’s opening seconds, with the name ‘Jaybo’ (a reference to the racist term the ‘Sambo’) written underneath, the veil falls. It is an uncomfortable realisation that the following four minutes are going to be a difficult watch. This has the effect of making you more than a little bit apprehensive of the video; I know I certainly felt a peculiar tension when I first opened it on YouTube, having never heard the song before. The combination of offensive images with inflammatory lyrics, in such an apparently trivialised cartoon format, makes you ask yourself the question: “Is Jay-Z using these images for the right reasons?”.
Ultimately, the answer is yes. Jay-Z restricts us to an extremely uncomfortable space where we are forced to face a number of even more uncomfortable truths. The offensive visuals are not an attack but an honest illustration. What’s important is how we react to them, whether we hide behind a screen of ignorance and dismiss them as purely inflammatory propaganda, or whether we accept that the reason we feel uncomfortable is not because the video is purposefully distressing but because the images are reflective of a reality we are all too quick to designate as a relic of the past and not as an ongoing symptom of today’s society.
All the racist and supposedly ancient stereotypes are exaggerated: the black mama with hips three times the size of her waste; the black musicians with long, lazy arms and huge, expressive lips; the hysterical onlookers going wild at the strip club. There’s a sense that this would have been acceptable pop culture not too long ago, and it’s horrifying. The minstrel, Disney-esque black face caricatures are especially disturbing considering how influential Disney remains in our society – a harrowing reminder that we can be exposed to controlled images without even realising it. But by adopting this minstrel form, Jay-Z does something more than what Houston Baker defines as ‘Mastery of Form’ or ‘Deformation of Mastery’. The stereotypes aren’t simply adopted in order to gain a platform – Jay-Z already has a pretty big platform – and neither are they completely rejected in order to establish an alternative truth. Instead, Jay-Z reclaims the minstrel form and exposes its sinister historical roots to a world audience. In the process, he shows how the form itself is representative of an inescapable poisonous oppression that continues today.
“I bought some artwork for one million. Two years later, that shit worth two million. Few years later, that shit worth eight million. I can’t wait to give this shit to my children.”Towards the latter stages of the video, director Mark Romanek and Jay-Z begin to incorporate a succession of powerful historical photographs with a cartoon twist. The inclusion of these images, immediately recognisable to most, within this animated form serves to show how ‘The Story of O.J.’ is an ongoing struggle. The minstrel depiction of Nina Simone performing on stage at the Burlesque club; Jay-Z picking cotton and posing as Tommie Smith raising a black gloved hand atop the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games; the African child shivering naked on the slave block, ready for auction: these images span the length of African American history and suggest how hard success has been fought for. All the characters appear on a stage of some sort, and while there is a world of difference between the slave block and an Olympic podium, the connotations of white exploitation are inescapable.
Because of this, a lot of emphasis is placed on the importance of the White World’s reaction. There were many hostile responses to Smith’s gesture in 1968, as many regarded it as a demonstration of Black Power. Likewise, many commenters have seen ‘The Story of O.J.’ as overtly hostile to White Americans. The truth is very difficult to hear, and even more difficult to see, which is why resistance against white norms throughout history has often been easily dismissed as provocative instead of constructive. This is the further struggle against racial oppression: not only fighting oppression, but proving that that struggle is a legitimate one. Likewise, the portrayal of a factory receiving cotton and producing KKK members on the other side is yet another illustration of how African Americans are fighting an impossible battle. The KKK may be practically extinct, but the philosophies it was built upon survive in the systematic state of inferiority that African Americans are cyclically placed within.
But most harrowing, is the image of Jay-Z hanging from a tree as a crowd of white onlookers observe the scene in apparent detachment. While visual references to Tommie Smith and Nina Simone are specific, the lynch victim remains nameless, a decision that speaks to the true extent and horror of a lynch culture that murdered countless, unnamed African Americans. And what makes this image truly devastating is the inclusion of a young, white boy smiling a wide grin at the camera as Jay-Z swings in the background. It is this dissonance between horror and joy that perfectly illustrates the link between racism and the disconnect from human life.
“Y’all on the ‘gram holdin’ money to your ear. There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here.”
The historical aspects of the video are accentuated by its rejection of colour. Set completely in black and white, ‘The Story of O.J.’ appears to reflect on a past and a culture that we no longer inhabit, and it’s true that we feel a significant degree more disconnected from black and white photographs than ones in colour. As such, it’s easy to look at the history of the American civil rights movement through black and white photographs and think of it as an issue of the past that has been overcome. But this is not true. Racism and hatred survive today, insidious prejudices that crop up even in the most liberal minded of society. And it is only artwork like ‘The Story of O.J.’ that effectively challenges the modern forms with which institutionalised racism exists. By adopting a colourless palette, Jay-Z blends the past with the present, effectively showing that little has changed in society because people are too ready to accept that things have changed or, at least, have changed far enough.
“Financial freedom my only hope. Fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke.”
My final point focuses not on any single element of the music video but how the music video itself operates as a symbol of success for the black artist. It’s interesting to take into account what Trevor Noah says in ‘Footnotes to ‘The Story of O.J.’’:
“Success is still in many ways a synonym for white, and when you attach ‘successful’ to the black man, there’s a little key that’s been given to you that gives you access to the white world. The key can be taken away, but at least you have a key for the time being”.
The music video seeks to avoid the trap that O. J. fell into: the idea that success can only be achieved at the sacrifice of ‘black’. Jay-Z instead tells us that it is possible to be black and successful in America, and that this ideal is something successful black Americans should strive to prove true.
I have since listened to this song without the music video, but I have found it impossible to separate my audial reception of the song from the visual aids it leads you to desire. The song itself is good enough to warrant obsessive listening, and that slightly disturbing yet nourishing warped sample of Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’ is haunting to the point where you still hear it where you least expect it. I have been powerless to stop myself from watching it every night before bed, with every re-watch exposing some new, ugly truth.
The story of ‘The Story of O.J.’ is not a pretty one, but it is one that deserves to be remembered for what it’s worth.
Houston Baker Jr., Mastery of Form and Deformation of Mastery – http://blogs.cofc.edu/modernism/mastery-of-form-deformation-of-mastery/
‘Footnotes for the Story of OJ’ – https://listen.tidal.com/artist/7804
Red Pill and Blue Pill- The Truth about the Story of OJ and Jays Message about Money – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBCWLEOwDKY
Music Video Directors – http://humanhuman.com/articles/music-video-directors
Elders React To ‘The Story of O.J.’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Mv5ugGxJeY