JAY-Z and the Remaking of His Manhood
By Kevin Powell
Photo via WikimediaCommons/Mikamote. Cropped.
Woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my mind
Stayed on freedom
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah….
—Civil Rights Movement song
When I was a little boy my mother, ever-protective of me and the world outside of our ghetto windows—the criminals, the hustlers, the drug addicts, the winos, the adults who “messed with children” in inappropriate ways, the violence, those police who might kill us simply for being Black and, consequently, dangerous—would quote the Bible, in her own way, warning me, more times than I can count, that the truth will set you free, or a liar is a thief, or a lie will leave you dead, or something to that effect. My ma’s point, which I have hauled with me my entire existence, is that we must always fight for ourselves, for truth, always fight to tell our own stories, otherwise someone else will do it for us, often to our demise and devastation. Because the ghetto is not merely a sunken place savagely pistol-whipped with poverty, fear, hopelessness, despair. It is also an emotional space, a cataclysmic nightmare pretending to be normal; and if you live there long enough, a nightmare that becomes mighty difficult to shake, for no matter where you go there you are, trauma, pain, scars. Like I was there the first thirteen years of my life, in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, which I have learned, because of much movement and travel in my adult years, is no different than the poorest parts of Brooklyn, or Detroit, or Washington, D.C., or New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Miami, or Chicago, or Houston, or Seattle, or Los Angeles, or Oakland, or any other urban enclave one came name. The ghetto is the ghetto, and it is not merely about life when you are born and seemingly trapped there, unless you get fantastically lucky.
It is simultaneously about survival however possible, legal, illegal, spiritual, diabolical, whatever it takes to withstand the uninterrupted barrage of insanity that gets at you. Not like we are given a blueprint, a box full of tools, physical or mental, or otherwise, to navigate and negotiate the madness. For sure, we spend our lives looking over our shoulder. I know I do, in spite of everything. Because I am a Black man, because I am a writer, because I am an activist—someone inevitably hates you for one or more of these reasons. Thus, you spend your woke hours doing a “stick and move stick and move” as The Notorious B.I.G. once muttered. But you are eternally like those big bloated black rats my mother and I had in every single one of our tenement buildings, sprinting and squeezing from space to space, from hole to hole, and bumping into one wall or one object or another, hoping that you do not get killed, in some way, or kill yourself, so that you can make it to the next day. You are conditioned to believe that you are going to die young, before your time as the elders say, as one of my friends recently did, in his 40s, from a terrible and insatiable liquor habit, because it was the one thing, for him, that could dull the damage he had been conceived under as a fetus, quite literally, and what had circled and harassed him his entire short life, like a punch-drunk prizefighter slap-boxing with the devil. Slow suicide, I call it, when we are not able to be honest with ourselves, when we do things that destroy us, that destroy others, because we do not know any better, or because we just do not care, or because we have given up.
Add to that being a Black man drop-kicked into a globe dominated by a mountaintop of things White male-ish and rinsed in power and privilege, and your definitions of manhood, from certain kinds of White males, on television, in film, in popular culture, in your school textbooks—like everywhere—means you’ve got to figure out your own definition of manhood, which, in the main, is a bootleg definition of that powerful and privileged White manhood. Their power is your power, their privilege is your privilege, and their material possessions become your wet dreams, your aphrodisiac. You want what they have, not every White man but, yes, the ones with the power and the privilege, the ones who truly are the boss, the innovators, the superheroes, the saviors, the anointed and hailed rock stars. And if a poor Black male you hardly stand a chance if, like me, if, like JAY-Z, you inherited nothing except the color of your skin and a target on both your forehead and your back. And the ghetto you were given and in which you feel that you are stuck, permanently. For this is what American racism and American classism have wrought, what has been created, maintained, spread, like crack cocaine and the AIDS virus back in the day, coast to coast. Call it whatever you want to call it—ghettoes, inner cities, underprivileged populations—it doesn’t matter. What matters are the people who are trapped in these spaces, as I felt I was in the Greenville section of Jersey City, as JAY-Z felt he was in Marcy Houses in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York.
And what we children of the ghetto feel, without fail, no matter where we land, is a need to tell our truths, to clutch the spiked bloody hand of survival, to step to those who would try to injure us or otherwise box us in, and to do battle with them, and with ourselves. I would be straight lying to you if I said that despite twelve books and hundreds and hundreds of published writings and probably at least a thousand speeches across America and internationally over the past two decades that I still do not tussle ferociously with the dark shadows and long nightmares of my past. I do. The physical violence and uncontrollable bursts of raw rage are not there any longer, have been long gone, thanks to years upon years of therapy and my spiritual practices, but the internal wars go on around self-esteem, staggering bouts with sadness, with depression, and triggers sparked by mean words my mother hollers, even now, or thoughts about the tremendous emptiness I endlessly have because of my father’s disappearing act when I was eight. This leaves you, if you are a man, if you are a Black man, also struggling with issues of intimacy and self-expression, of trying to figure out, often with little help from others, how to be a man who is not a human lethal weapon, to self, to others.
And then there are the secrets. Those of us who were verbally abused, or beaten viciously at times, or physically and emotionally abandoned, or all of the above, like me. Those of us who might have been raped, or sexually assaulted, or molested. Those of us who cried loudly for that father love but our pops could not teach us to be men because they had no idea either. Those of us who did not tell the family secrets, or our own secrets, who wore the masks to cover up that trauma, to cover up that pain, to pretend to be what we were not, just to survive. And yeah how the wounded prey on and maim each other. Passed from generation, passed amongst each other like a bottle of liquor or a marijuana joint, I have since learned these many years later that this applies not exclusively to poor people in America, or working-class Black males in America, but also to middle class and mega-rich Americans of all backgrounds, too. Because we live in a nation, in a world, that does not encourage truth-telling, or honesty, or healing, or self-empowerment in a manner that is holistic, that is healthy. What is encouraged, supported, spread like the latest trending topic on Twitter, is rugged individualism and individual success stories that leave out the mean streets of life; what feels nurtured, supported, encouraged, is darkness, is dysfunction, is self-sabotage, is a culture of dishonesty and dissing of self and dissing and outing of others; and is a dependency on being so unwell that the unwell is celebrated or sensationalized or both, while those who are trying to sort through the bull____ and heal are considered, well, crazy.
And when you are labeled crazy, the price of the amusement park ticket is people trying to fix or distract you in some way. With the Lawd. With Jesus. With corrupt and crooked preachers and corrupt and crooked politicians. With prayer cloths and prayer oils. With that drug. With that liquor. With money. With unwise and irresponsible sexual adventures. With video games and television shows and movies and music that freeze your brain cells. With food that will one day give you diabetes or a heart attack or a stroke or cancer. With anything and everything that would, allegedly, take the pain away, and make you feel better. But those things are merely temporary Band-Aids; for the larger problem is that there is just no way to survive, and win, no matter who you are, in a way that is human, that is whole, physically, spiritually, emotionally, if you have not been taught how. I know I did not know, which is why I found myself, in my twenties, in my thirties, into my forties, yes, regrettably like those ghetto rats crash-landing into objects and walls and each other. Because you are forevermore in search of yourself, forevermore in search of a hero or shero, beyond yourself, forevermore in search of a meaning to your life, to your soul. And even the fortunate ones amongst us are not immune from the charade that is this thing we call life, Black or otherwise, as made in America.
We know why, if we ain’t afraid of the truth: Racism in America has worked so well, for so long, that it can proudly sit back in its leather recliner, kick its cob-webbed feet up, and watch us crush ourselves and each other, daily weekly yearly for entire lifetimes. The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves, because they have been taught well by the oppressor. It is the obvious that JAY-Z points out, light versus dark, rich versus poor, those with access to mainstream America versus those who do not, but it is also the meanness we see, today, on social media. The folks—White Black etc.—who make it their business to dis those they do not like, who they do not agree with, in the worst ways imaginable. I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a bit of this, and it stings, badly, especially coming from people Black like you. As I am sure it hurt JAY-Z as a child, as a young man, in these times, to be called “ugly” over and over because he has full African lips and an expansive African nose and does not fit someone’s hateful vision of what it is to be handsome or cute. Imagine what that does to the psyche of anyone: you are ugly because we said so….
So, when I came to JAY-Z’s thirteenth and newest album, “4:44,” I came with no expectations, but thoroughly intrigued by his marketing genius that had us wondering, for weeks on end, why “4:44” was plastered everywhere, who put these numbers there, and what did it mean, precisely? But then we found out it was JAY-Z: it was the time JAY-Z woke up to pen perhaps the most mind-blowing apology from a man to a woman ever heard in pop music history, as the title song. As an album “4:44” is as abrupt a departure from JAY-Z’s lyrical norm as “What’s Going On” was for Marvin Gaye. What they have in common are real-world events that forced them to stand nose-to-nose in the mirror in ways they never had before. For Gaye that included the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the riots and protests happening everywhere. There was the turbulent marriage to his first wife, the sister of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, where there was misery, where Marvin, as perhaps a somewhat misguided exit strategy, made explicitly sexual music that touted his affairs with other women, including a teenager. And then there was the tragic death of his beloved singing partner Tami Terrell. Marvin had no choice but to re-imagine and re-invent himself, else he might have perished far sooner than he did. “What’s Going On” was his plea to us, to himself, his rebel yell for help. We know Marvin never really got that help and by the time he was close to JAY-Z’s age his own father shot him down during one of their many heated arguments. The love-hate of father and son, the father blasting a son who had spoken very candidly about his depression and drug use, but could never quite get off that corner, dead at the hands of his father….
For JAY-Z it has been the symbolic and historic presidency of Barack Obama and the many doubts about that president’s allegiance to those Black like him; rampant, out-of-control police murders of Black folks (countless ones captured on video) and the siren scream of Black Lives Matter; the explosive and angry rise of Donald Trump’s America; the Black-on-Black violence in the Brooklyns of America; JAY’s father longing the father longing of far too many Black males in post-Civil Rights America; the prison-industrial complex that has gleefully gobbled up the lives of men from communities like JAY’s Brooklyn; and JAY’S now-admitted extramarital affair in spite of his stunningly beautiful and business-savvy wife being the most famous music icon on the planet Earth. This is a rapper, an artist, who has declared in his past lyrics that he did not know how to cry, that he had to let the song cry. But here we are with “4:44,” an album by a man, about manhood, one that feels like part of a trilogy that includes his sister-in-law Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” before it: Black folks, in an ecosphere riddled with racism, sexism, and toxic manhood, trying to figure ourselves out, and out loud. But “4:44” is its own unique thing, too, because JAY-Z, born Shawn Carter, had no choice but to eyeball his demons, alone. “4:44,” save some readily recognizable samples of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Donny Hathaway, is a minimalist magnum opus with only one producer, No I.D., one of Chicago’s pioneering hip-hop beatmakers. There are no major party anthems here, no ridiculously magnetic boom-baps for the sake of having that boom-bap. Think MTV’s stripped-down series “Unplugged” and that is “4:44.” You have to listen to the words because there really is no other option. It is clearly planned, it is a record, yeah, but it is also the autobiography of a 47-year-old man who has had everything except peace and truthfulness in his rollercoaster of a life.
For sure “4:44” is a breath-taking achievement, one that I have digested a few dozen times. It has elements of Public Enemy’s agitprop political manifestos, and Tupac Shakur’s smoke-y ‘hood sermons are there, too. You also can feel the force of N.W.A’s and Ice Cube’s anti-authoritarian middle fingers as well. Like always I marvel at JAY’s verbal imagination, as his boundless genius means he has never written lyrics down, like never; but it is also clear that Big Daddy Kane, my favorite rapper ever, and one of Brooklyn’s finest, has been a continuous influence on JAY-Z’s diverse vocal stylings. JAY was there with him, unknown, when Kane was the mega-star, and in the pantheon of BK hip-hop legends it is Big Daddy Kane, The Notorious B.I.G., and JAY-Z, in that order. Little wonder that JAY has, time and time again, referenced or vocally sampled Kane or Biggie wordplay in his own lyrics. He is forever a student of his art form, and what JAY-Z has given us with “4:44” is a blueprint on how to make a hip-hop album in the second decade of the twenty-first century that is a message to the masses, a confession of an ex- abuser of people, an apology to his wife, his sister-in-law, his mother, all women, while never quite losing that ego-centered palm grip he has had like forever on his private parts. He is vulnerable, yes, but he is also, in a word, free, fighting for his freedom, on his terms. Money don’t buy you freedom.
And money can’t buy you love. What money does for JAY is give him access to the therapists most will never be able to afford or see, the Soul Cycle spin classes he pops up in when in Los Angeles, and a circle of influential and deep-pocketed friends, including men, to bounce all this ish off of. He wants to get saner, better, because, I believe, JAY in his heart not only wants us to get saner, better, but also because he suffers from the same survivor’s guilt that any of us who have escaped the ghetto carry around, including me. Like why me, God, and not my man over here, or him over there? When you hear JAY spit, on the 2011 track “N_____ in Paris “we ain’t even ‘spose to be here,” if you are from where we are from, you overstand, as we say, immediately. Like from the gutter to Paris, like why, like how? And you find yourself engaging in the trappings of that success because no one ever bothers to tell or warn you that the entertainment industry, like the concrete jungle many of us have fled, is as hazardous as any ghetto could ever be.
I was shocked, like for real, the first time I listened to “4:44,” because I have long had an ambivalent relationship with JAY’s music. I am a fan, yeah, because half of my life has been lived in Brooklyn, and there is mural-like Brooklyn pride and swag. I am a fan, yeah, because I always want to see another brother succeed who comes from where I come from, who has survived what I survived. And I am a fan, yeah, but my emotions have been all over the place because of this record. Every listen I hear different things, feel different things, see different things, in JAY-Z, in myself. But I remain conflicted, too. I mean it has always been evident that he is super-talented, that no rapper has ever had the career run as him, solely as a rapper. The running joke has been that a hip-hop artist was lucky if they are able to squeeze two or three albums out of a career, and if they did not diversify from there into other business ventures, then their career was over. Like Queen Latifah. Like MC Lyte. Like Will Smith. Like LL Cool J. Like Snoop Dogg. Like Ice Cube. Like The Roots. All began making songs, all do many other things now where rhyming on records is no longer their primary thing. Hip-hop has been said to be a young person’s game, a game where we are so fickle, so easily persuaded, like sheep, that it is pretty impossible for any rapper to survive beyond a few years of glory because the next big thing is waiting to exhale.
Given that JAY-Z’s first cd hit us in 1996, and it is now 2017, 21 years and 13 platinum solo albums later, he has shattered that notion, and then some. Jigga really is the Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan of hip-hop, that rare pop culture action figure with crazy crossover appeal and a multi-generational and multi-cultural fan base. He really is hip-hop’s Grateful Dead all by himself, able to tour whenever he feels like it, knowing that legions of diehard admirers will flock to his shows. He really is hip-hop’s Frank Sinatra, that rare artist not only able to make hit record after hit record, but a shrewd business, man, trafficking in several entrepreneurial lanes, dabbling in entertainment, sports, artist representation, technology, real estate, wherever JAY, like Sinatra before him, can expand and amplify his throne.
What I have felt listening to “4:44” is a range of emotions, as I have lived through and written about many of the same things. The poverty. The violence. The absent father. The single mother struggling to be whoever and whatever she is. The inability to commit to relationships, fully. I have never been a cheater in the way JAY-Z indicates he has, but before my very recent marriage, to an absolutely amazing woman, my relationships with women, through the years, have been a great adventure, to say the least. As JAY-Z says, not like we were given the skill sets to handle any of this. And success in whatever form does not equal maturity for us men. If anything, it entrenches us in the dysfunctional behavior, toward ourselves, toward each other, toward women. We in essence become successful damaged goods, cheating on women, lying to women, beating on women, wounding women. It makes sense to me now, when I think back to that infamous elevator video of JAY-Z and Beyoncé and Solange, two things: why Solange was so angry. And why Beyoncé stood there, motionless and indifferent, as her sister kicked and punched at JAY-Z on that elevator. Like he had it coming. Women, Black women, love hard, and when you burn a woman, a Black woman, you are going to feel their wrath, hard. Thus, Solange’s album. Thus, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” Thus, all the women who challenged me when I screwed up, as a young man, as my wife does. I believe in my heart of hearts that most Black women, without fail, love Black men, want to see us heal, evolve, grow, often to their own detriment and mental health. But I also hear, loudly, as I criss-cross America, as a speaker, as an activist, as a writer, that there is a great fatigue with waiting for us men to get it, to grow up. This juvenile behavior, in our 20s, in our 30s, in our 40s, even into our 50s and 60s, has got to end. The stunted growth has got to end. The excuse-making has got to end. That limbo area between being men and being boys must end.
As I have heard in my travels boys play all the time, men know when to play. This is perhaps why many are referring to “4:44” as “grown-up hip-hop” or “adult hip-hop.” I respectfully disagree. I feel “4:44” is a portrait of an artist who has made a conscious decision to reject the material trappings of success first, for his own sanity and spiritual health, and, second, and equally as important, for the sake of his love for his wife and children. Must it have been humiliating and humbling to have your wife openly sing about what happened on her last album, while you have to sit silently, as a man, and deal with it? One can only imagine that. But I also do not have to imagine how my mother reacts, to this day, when my father’s name is mentioned, because of the hurt she feels, the unreconciled anger, the way she felt, as Beyoncé did, similarly wounded and discarded, as if her life, and her feelings, did not matter? There was no “Lemonade” for my mother. Which is why I overstand the massive reaction to that album, and the excellent short films that accompanied it. People can say whatever they want about Beyoncé, but she too was growing, stretching, as a human being, as a woman, as a Black woman, as an artist, and serving notice to everyone, including her husband, what is and what is not acceptable. Whether Beyoncé is a feminist or not is none of my business. Neither is it my business what she and JAY-Z have decided to do together, as a couple.
This is not the first famous marriage or partnership where there has been infidelity, nor will it be the last. Yoko Ono once told John Lennon to leave, to go do what he had to do, and after a year or so of doing so, he came back and was a different sort of man. The tragedy, of course, are the sacrifices both famous women and not famous women, like Yoko, like Beyoncé, make for the sake of the love of a man. But that is their choice, not ours. JAY’s responsibility, Lennon’s responsibility, is to not ever take for granted again these women who love them from the depths of their souls. To understand that manhood is not, in fact, power, privilege, sex, rock and roll, hip-hop, violence, ego gone wild, material things, money, any of that. That manhood should be about love, peace, nonviolence, respecting women as our equals, because they are, that manhood is about being honest, about being open, available, exposed. As JAY-Z struggles to be on “4:44,” as John Lennon struggled to be, many times in the last years of his life, where he owned up to having been a “hitter” who violently beat women, including his first wife Cynthia, because he was, as JAY-Z admits about himself, downright ignorant about what it was to be a man.
The first time it dawned on me that JAY-Z was a major star was in the late 1990s, after the killings of Tupac and Biggie, and while I was in the midst of my own downward spiral with liquor and violence and a grudge match with low self-esteem in the aftershocks of those unsolved murders. I stumbled upon a party in New York City, it may have been a New Year’s Eve joint, and the vast majority of the attendees were White. And their soundtrack was one JAY-Z song after another, and they knew every single word to every single song. I thought I was dreaming, because the hip-hop I had grown up with, that I had known, even during my years as a writer for Vibe, had largely been populated by the African American, West Indian, and Latino communities who created the culture in the first place. But something had shifted, mightily, and this thing, this energy, now belonged to everyone. Pop goes the culture…. I was both proud and mortified. Proud because Jayhovah, one of the many nicknames he calls himself, had come up from the ghetto, had escaped a life destined for an early death or prison, to become, as he put it, the best rapper alive. And as we know, the life options for the products of our environment are perpetually reduced to these three things: be a rapper, be an athlete, or be a criminal in some form.
But I was also wary of JAY-Z because of the things he was saying, how apolitical much of his music was, how visibly comfortable he was with the word “nigga,” how comfortable these White folks at that party were, and many parties I would roll to in the years to come, with all the foul things JAY was saying about his own people. It was as if he consciously, purposely, dumbed down his lyrical content to meet the masses where they had been pushed to, with no regard for anything except his own power and money and pleasure principles. We saw a tease of awareness, like when he would wear a Che Guevara tee shirt or a red, black, and green wristband (the colors of Black liberation) during performances, or when he boldly detailed police racial profiling on his high-voltage song “99 Problems,” but otherwise JAY-Z chose to be silent, invisible, to not rock the boat of the America that was embracing him. This was maddening to many, particularly as he built, brick by brick, what was Blaxploitation on record, mind-spraying the most graphic tales about drugs, violence, and super-sized ego boosts, while pushing forth an assembly-line montage of racist, sexist, and materialistic lyrics, with no remorse whatsoever. Save his Roc-a-fella and Roc Nation inner circle, there seemingly was no community for JAY-Z, at least not in his music, it was just him against the world.
But obviously something has been lying dormant since the 1990s. JAY-Z and I are not that far apart in age, and we grew up in the same eras, the soulful 1970s, the crack madness of the Reagan ‘80s, the Golden Era of hip-hop that saw the explosion of socially conscious rap by acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, as well as that muscular political statement by N.W.A with “F____ tha police,” to this day the most concise and unapologetic anti-police brutality record ever made. So, JAY-Z was not mad uninformed, I do not believe. I believe he made a deliberate decision to sell the music that would be permitted by the powers that be. Because, to my thinking and observations, hip-hop culture, by the late 1990s, had not only become the dominant art form in the world, but also a threat, as it not only woke up the poor people of color who midwifed it, but it was reaching far beyond its ghetto origins to the suburbs, to White America, to an entire multicultural universe. I believe, in my gut and in my heart, that hip-hop was intentionally re-directed, and made to be, well, mostly stupid and directionless, the balance once present was water-hosed and coon-danced away, and it was split into two—hip-hop culture versus the hip-hop industry. Hip-hop culture, led by those poor people Dr. King warned us not to forget at the end of his life, was about life, about hope, about communities making something from nothing, about winning on their own terms; but the hip-hop industry, as it ambushed and surpassed and transplanted the culture, peddled mayhem, beefs, turf and coast wars, drugs, guns, violence, and hatred and a despicable disrespect for women and for queer people, and a kind of reckless and irresponsible disregard for life, in particular the lives of Black and Latino folks most affected by this shift.
JAY-Z was the right artist at the right time to emerge in the midst of this chaos and confusion. He did not have to pretend to be from the streets, he really was. He did not need a ghostwriter because, lyrically, JAY-Z is as gifted as they come with unwritten wordplay that is a cross between Brooklyn barbershop and ball court banter, the hell-fire comedic bursts of Dick Gregory or Chris Rock, and an uncanny ability, like the writers Richard Wright and Chester Himes before him, to convey the everyday realities of the forgotten America. Keeping it a hundred, that is what has kept me listening to JAY from the jump: he is the people’s poet, as Tupac Shakur was, as Kendrick Lamar is, and even without the fearless social justice vocal bombs of ‘Pac or KL I could always count on JAY to say something that made me respond with Damn.
But be that as it may, my activist life and my woke-ness around American and Black American history would not permit me to ignore the many ways the hip-hop industry, led by the creative cleverness of JAY-Z, was no different than the minstrel shows concocted in the 1800s, which became the most powerful and most visible entertainment in America for a century. Think excessively Blackened faces because Black was ‘spose to be ugly, perpetual mockery of thick lips and large noses, mumbled words trapped and loosened from the mouths of racist White entertainers and self-hating Black entertainers who saw Black folks as the running joke of these United States. It made White people a fortune, this industry of minstrelsy, and some Black people got paid, too, but that damage persists to this day….
Good hair versus bad hair
Bloods versus Crips
East Coast versus West Coast
Black Americans versus West Indians
Dominicans versus Haitians
Your block versus my block
Your project versus my project
City folks versus country folks
Your fraternity or sorority versus my fraternity or sorority
This Civil Rights leaders versus that Civil Rights leader
Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga….
And no different, either, from those many Blaxploitation films of the 1970s: over and over, with exaggerated facial expressions, exaggerated words, our bodies, our spirits, are lives, depicted as oversexualized, violent, dangerous, with no morals whatsoever. Shuffling, jiving, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Black mammy this or Black buck that, bugged out eyes, scared Negroes even scared of they own shadow; macks, pimps, whores, so super fly that we could possibly be nothing more than that presented to us, like the greasy fast food spots that overwhelm every inner city in America. The hip-hop industry, determined to put the balance and diversity of the Golden Era firmly in the rearview mirror, was simply doing it all to one hot musical track after another. JAY, like the drug dealers he and others were before they went legit, was crafty enough to peep the supply and demand game perpetuated by the music industry, and he flipped it. I got memories of what heroin and crack did to my people, excruciatinglydreadful memories. And I am clear what the hip-hop industry has done to my people since the late 1990s, mad clear. Be it a drug or entertainment, if it is meant to hurt and destroy, it will. And those who participate in it, on whatever level, wind up having blood on their hands, too. That means all of us—
JAY-Z got out of the drug game and it now seems he is trying to escape from the hip-hop industry, too. He knows it is a sham, as demonstrated by his harsh criticisms of it throughout “4:44.” He knows it a sham when he says they will probably kill him for saying all of this. Well, yeah, strange ish happens to truth-tellers in these parts. And JAY’s truth is about power, who has it and who does not, and why. Cannot be mad at the boldness of JAY-Z’s positions. As we say, he has earned the right to say whatever he wants. For a myriad of reasons, few rap artists ever make the kind of money JAY-Z has made, and never will. But if you come from nothing, financially, spiritually, and your one shot to make a name for yourself is to denigrate you and people who look like you, that you have to sell your soul to the devil, you are going to do it. Poor people do not want to be poor. This is the crux of what I felt JAY-Z was doing before “4:44”, a very sordid dance with the devil, benefitting himself, his small circle around him, and hardly anyone else. Yes, I knew that he was quietly supporting Black Lives Matter with monetary donations. Yes, I knew about his foundation, his support of Barack Obama, and other charitable things. But because I am from the same ghetto as JAY-Z I also know that history of local drug dealers who sell death and devastation to the people daily weekly monthly yearly while also providing them with turkeys at Thanksgiving or children’s toys for Christmas. The criminal-minded amongst us know that we as a people have sunk so low and are so desperate for help that they can say or do anything to us, and we will be happy with the crumbs, even as they are killing us and our communities, then showing up at our funerals to offer their respects to our families—
But I also believe that people can change, I truly do. “4:44” is in the nakedly confessional tradition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets. It is a man facing the many devils inside himself with the very first song “Kill Jay Z,” a trembling open letter spoken in the third person where he concedes his sins, and offers up a laundry list of how he has ducked and dodged himself. I mean, the man once more admits shooting his own blood brother and how cray cray it was to stab Un Rivera. There are echoes of the landmark rap album “De La Soul is Dead” within the tune “Kill Jay Z,” or, even, the Black church. That we have to be born, again, to have a different path, and sometimes we have to discard our old lives and our old identities without fear, without hesitation. “4:44” is part lecture, part spoken-word performance art, as if it were battered and fried right on the asphalt outside the Nuyorican Poets Café. Think Malcolm X coming back from Mecca saying he will work with anyone who is about justice and no longer calling White folks devil; think Martin Luther King, Jr. breaking ranks with scared Negro leadership and condemning the Vietnam War.
This is what this Brooklyn boy named Shawn is doing with “4:44,” shocking the world, and himself, and attempting to be a new he, even if he is not quite clear how, or why as yet. “4:44” makes me think once more of that other otherworldly pop icon I mentioned earlier, The Beatles’ John Lennon: shaving the hair from his soul, trying to make peace with his fame and success, and how that fame and success blocked him from being a whole man, a different sort of man. John never got to speak with or about his mother in his music except in sheer terror and anxiety and wounded-ness. But there is JAY telling us, forthrightly, that his mother is a lesbian, been a lesbian, who, like him, had been living in the shadows, hiding her true self for much of her life. It is remarkable to hear a man who has spouted anti-LGBTQ lyrics say he loves his mother no matter what, regardless if that love is with a him or a her; to hear him speak plainly about his mother who, like him, living a life that is not completely her own, that was once fake, manufactured. Equally remarkable to hear that mother speak, at the end of “Smile,” calmly, confidently, as she reads her personal emancipation proclamation on a song by her son, arguably the most famous hip-hop artist in the world.
As I have listened to “4:44” over and over again, and hear it blaring out of cars and SUVs, on the subways, at restaurants and cafes, it is quite clear this work of art has struck a deep nerve. Even the hatred for JAY-Z and this album are real. Some are referring to him as going soft or corny, as this work being gimmicky, as him being “controlled by Solange and Beyoncé.” I have been there, and I am still there. When I pushed an ex-girlfriend into a bathroom door in July 1991, my life changed forever. I apologized to any and all, over and over, and apologized to her many years later, and feel as if I have been living a non-stop apology with what I say and do as it regards women, including my mother, ever since. I simply did not know any better, and that is what I am hearing with “4:44.” JAY merely did what he knew, did what he saw. Even if it meant suppressing any political and social thoughts he may have had along the way. And the fact that he spends so much time on the album talking about financial wealth, financial literacy, about ownership, says that he still, in the main, thinks money is the great equalizer, that hyper-capitalism is the only true path to freedom. While I certainly never again want to experience the kind of horrific poverty I have endured in my lifetime, I also think what JAY is missing is that all the money and material possessions and property in the world mean nothing if you are also not actively engaging your community, your people, the people who have purchased all these millions of records of yours. And there is a way to talk about economic empowerment without constantly rubbing one’s things in the faces of those of us who do not have what you have. That is the other corner JAY-Z, to me, needs to turn. There is nothing wrong with having wealth and privilege, if that wealth and privilege are tied to a sense of humanity, if that wealth and privilege are used to uplift those other than yourself and your immediate family.
No, I am not into that celebrities need to do this and that with their money talk. What they do with their money is their personal business. Nor have I been duped into believing that just because someone has a huge platform that means they automatically are a leader. No, you cannot be a leader if you do not read and study and travel in a way that makes you accessible to the very people you claim to represent. What made a Tupac Shakur threatening, for example, or makes a Chuck D of Public Enemy threatening still, is that they were very much of the people they were rapping about, on the streets and in the communities with them on the regular. That cannot really be said about JAY-Z, at least not yet. As Bono said, giving money to causes is charity, no matter how well-intentioned. Anyone can do that. But if you are serious about social justice then you join the people, in the trenches. Like Paul Robeson did. Like Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Nina Simone and Bob Marley and Fela did. As Susan Sarandon, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen, and Rosie O’Donnell do. That is when you truly become a different type of artist, one who understands your greater calling beyond one album or one movie or one television show or one video.
And we need Black artists, specifically, who think like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who are as forthright as Miriam Makeba and Jesse Williams, who take stands, whether we agree with all of them or not, like Lauryn Hill and John Legend. “4:44” is clearly influenced by these types of artists, as I hear elements of them, and of The Watts Prophets, Arrested Development, Camille Yarbrough, and Sonia Sanchez across the ten tracks. But we also cannot pretend that “Black capitalism” is new (it is not), or talk about money, about capitalism, without also having a very serious critique of capitalism. Ghettos exist because of capitalism, on purpose. The “old Brooklyn” JAY rhymes about is gone because of greed and gentrification, fueled by the nastiest aspects of capitalism. In our ghettos everywhere we see fast food restaurants, liquor stores, churches, rent-a-centers, check cashing places, bad food options, food desserts, little to no places at all for our youth to exist and thrive, diabolically, because of capitalism capitalizing on the misery of the people. There is something wrong with any society where a handful of us get to “make it” and the rest of us remain stuck in that misery, living check to check, EBT card to EBT card. It is not merely a case of one person working harder than the rest. Most people I know work hard, but still nothing. There has to be an even more honest convo about how some who are wealthy got their wealth, and hold on to that wealth, on the backs of the rest of us.
So, it is one thing for JAY-Z to scold us about being smart with our money, about not wasting it on dumb ish. I endorse that public service announcement. But it is a whole other thing to talk about power, who has it, and why, and who does not, and why. JAY alludes to this when he references the fight over Prince’s estate and name-checks Black attorney Londell McMillan, and also when he name-checks White music mogul Jimmy Iovine. He is right: why should White people get to automatically own what we Black folks build and create like it is no big deal? He is right: why do some Black folks participate in the selling out of their own people, their own creativity, with seemingly no remorse? As JAY-Z rapped these words I immediately thought of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa Oklahoma, and the history of Black folks doing for self in the face of an obnoxious racism and segregation. I thought of Black folks from both the South and the Caribbean who, in our history, have supported each other financially, put together formal and informal economic cooperatives and lifelines for each other, owned things big and small, who have made a way out of no way. That is why there was no need for JAY-Z to fall into a very unwise stereotype as it regards Jewish sisters and brothers around wealth and credit.
If JAY was reading more books, or people around him were having far deeper dialogue with him, he would know to name-check Black Wall Street, and Madam C.J. Walker and Reginald Lewis, America’s first Black billionaire. Part of being free, to me, is also having knowledge that is rooted in self, not the history and value systems of people who are not you. So even as JAY waxes poetic about legacy and Black excellence throughout the album, his lack of knowledge of his own history remains striking. White people, no matter who they are, have never been and never should be the litmus test for Black possibilities. We need to look to ourselves, and know ourselves. This is what ultimately separates “4:44” from, say, the work of Public Enemy or KRS-One or Tupac Shakur or Nas. You can find them referencing Black sheroes and heroes all over the place. As they should have, and as we should. It is not an either or to me. I love Black people and I love humanity, all people. But financial empowerment alone does not mean freedom if your mind and spirit are not truly free as well.
Legacy legacy legacy legacy JAY says on the final track of “4:44,” as he converses, lovingly, about what he wants to give to his daughter, his new twins, his family. Yes, Legacy legacy legacy legacy but if Malcolm X, while sitting in prison for seven long years, could read book after book and make it a point to become a student of history, of life, in a manner that would permit him to become an intellectual giant and a magnificent spokesperson for the forgotten, then JAY, with all the luxuries and amenities he has at his disposal, including those therapy sessions he references and those Soul Cycle spin classes he loves, has a responsibility to do the same. No, I do not expect nor want rappers, or singers, or athletes to be the leaders of our communities. Most are simply not qualified to be leaders or spokespersons in that way, unless you happen to be a genuinely well-rounded and well-read renaissance person like, say, Paul Robeson, or Sam Cooke, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. However, if you are going to step out there and say something, then you do need to be as prepared as possible. Otherwise you leave yourself open to folks wondering why you are talking about Jewish folks, or calling little people “midgets” on “4:44” like it ain’t no big deal. Either you are going to go all the way with the transformation of self, or you are not. Either you, we, are for love and equality and justice for all people, or we are not. Ain’t no in between, especially not in this age of Trump—
So, we need to also say that “4:44” is a community public therapy session because JAY was publicly embarrassed by that elevator episode with Solange, and by Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” The album is both an action and a reaction. An action because he is doing inventory on his entire life. A reaction because you wonder if JAY would have made an album like this had Solange not stepped to him on that elevator video that went viral, if Beyoncé had not so audaciously made a record like “Lemonade.” Moreover, he lands where many of us men land when we are not happy in our marriages: we are doing it for the kids. We say things like what JAY says, that I never thought about how women feel or how I treated women until I had a daughter myself. What he, we, need to understand, is the crux of the problem itself. That sexism, and our definitions of manhood, never consider the lives of women and girls, except as appendages to who we are. What women said to me when I was younger, what my wife says to me today, is that we men need to consider the humanity and equality of women on the regular, not merely when it is convenient for us. There has to be a vigilance to ending the sexism Beyoncé speaks of on “Lemonade,” and that burden cannot fall squarely at the feet of women. JAY-Z, you, me, we, need to be able to say sexism. JAY does not even say the word once on “4:44.” As teachers of mine like bell hooks and Eve Ensler and Gloria Steinem and my mother have said, in their own ways, what we men and boys do to women and girls daily weekly monthly yearly—many of us our entire lives—will not end until we make a sustained and unafraid effort to make sexism end.
Otherwise, just like Beyoncé ’s father cheated on her mother and JAY-Z cheated on Bey, some man at some point could do something that violates Blue Ivy. This is the thing we’ve got to come to understand, if we are serious. That we’ve got to remake manhood all the way, not just part of the way. What I was given, what JAY-Z was given, was patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, violence, a hatred and reckless disregard for women and girls that gives us a false sense of power and privilege that not only hurts and destroys women and girls, but us, too. All the money and fame and success in the world does not erase toxic manhood. Rather, as heard on “4:44” and from the person in the White House right now, it actually exacerbates the twisted behavior.
Like America itself and everything before it, hip-hop has always been a male-centered and male-dominated culture. America’s so-called founding fathers matter-of-factly left out any mention of women. Women in America have only had the right to vote for less than one hundred years. Women are told what they can and cannot do with their bodies, by men, when it is their bodies, not ours. Violence against women and girls is at epidemic proportions, in America, globally. You cannot constantly refer to women in disparaging ways in your words and deeds and that not be a reflection of how you really feel. You cannot be a famous Black public intellectual many of us have heard of, who routinely espouses how much he loves Black women, but is so terribly addicted to sex, to cheating on his wife, that from coast to coast it is common knowledge this man’s hypocrisy and infidelities, as he is more or less the R. Kelly of Black scholars luring younger women with the spoils of his fame and access. I have witnessed women and men both enable and make excuses for this man, the way we make excuses for the legions of those who live dirty and blatantly contradictory lives while our eyes are wide shut.
So, they go on, refusing to do the self-therapy JAY-Z is trying to do on “4:44.” And the list of famous men who’ve engaged in this toxic manhood is a virtual Who’s Who. Say their names…. Pablo Picasso, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, some of the Kennedy men, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp, Rob Kardashian…. Clearly JAY got busted, as we all do, eventually. Clearly many of us men never get the memo that things like sex, violence, drugs, alcohol, money, and ego are the main things that destroy men of all backgrounds over and over. JAY, it seems via “4:44,” nearly destroyed his marriage, his family. As someone who just got married myself I think daily, my flaws and all, about how I treat my wife, how I speak with her and to her, and I think about something her grandfather said to me a couple of years back when I asked how he made a marriage of over 50 years endure: “I made a commitment.”
Jarring, weighty, real, those words spoken by that grandfather have rung like a freedom bell in my ears ever since. I made a commitment….
But it is hard, I admit, to make a commitment, if, as a man, you feel few have made commitments to you in your life, in this dog eat dog world. That is why what JAY lays out on “4:44” is all the more valuable. Because we men are not encouraged to be honest, to be vulnerable. We are encouraged to lie and cheat, as evidenced by all the men (and women) of the Trump administration, and quite a few of those masquerading as financial geniuses on Wall Street. It is hard to say if JAY is now a feminist, or if his wife is, either, for that matter. Only they know who they are, not those of us who gaze at celebrities as if we know them when we do not. What I see and feel are two Black folks who had no idea, a decade and some change ago, that, together and apart, they would be this wildly successful, this wildly famous, and this wildly rich.
If I may, feminism means women and men are equals, yes, but to my understanding it also means that women have the right to do whatever the heck they feel, on their terms. So if for Beyoncé that means working it out, via “Lemonade,” via her pushing JAY on “4:44,” with their public art, and in private, too, the contours of their relationship, then that is her right, their right, and, frankly, none of our business, whether they are public figures or not. Do I condone cheating in a relationship? No, especially because, in my lifetime, I have been cheated on, and I have cheated. I do not like how it feels either way, the spiritual filthiness of it all, and it is not something I would do to my wife, now, ever. I think if someone cannot commit, if someone cannot be honest, if someone is addicted to sex, then one should not be in a relationship. But this is my journey, my path, not JAY-Z’s. He is figuring it out, aloud, for himself, on “4:44,” the way Malcolm X was figuring out ish in his autobiography. The way Marvin Gaye was figuring out ish on “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get It On” and “Here, My Dear.” The way John Lennon was figuring out ish, post-Beatles, until his untimely murder at age 40.
The above said, a step is better than no step at all. As it is an important first step, that public apology from JAY to Bey; it says that we are indeed human, at least some of us, that at least some of us have the ability to empathize and feel for what women go through. Because I do believe that “4:44” is the album JAY has had in him for a very long time. And fact is rappers in their teens and 20s have said many of these same things going back to folks like Melle Mel, Slick Rick, The Geto Boys, Outkast, others. What JAY has done, what any great artist can do, is to capture the energy of our times, and to transcend those times. That is what makes “4:44” a game-changing achievement, in spite of the flaws. He has become, as we say in activist circles, a young elder, a master teacher, no question, and I am sure there is no way that JAY could make a song and ridiculously uncomfortable animated video like “The Story of O.J.” if he were not at least somewhat familiar with the history of minstrel shows, Malcolm X’s classic 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots,” and the Last Poets “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” But also telling that JAY centers himself in the video as Jaybo, as in Sambo, virtually declaring that he too has allowed himself to be used, the way Stepin Fetchit and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and a roving army of Black entertainers have been used, then and now, just to make a dollar, and to get closer to and inside the big house.
If we say we despise these Black men and Black women who have denigrated and disrespected themselves for White America, for fame and money, why is it then all good that JAY-Z has been calling us niggas, over a symphony of hypnotic rhythms, for the past twenty years? Is casting himself as Jaybo in “The Story of O.J.” animated video an admission that he has played an undeniable role for White America for two decades, and now wants to be free? Well, that freedom might begin with letting go of the word nigga once and for all. Cannot be free of someone else’s big house if you still publicly use the master’s words to describe yourself and your people. Because there is a mad thin line between self-love and self-hate, and it begins with our very fragile self-esteem, whether we are light or dark or rich or poor or real or fake. Because wherever you go there you are. And, to me, it is bugged irony “The Story of O.J.” song sampling Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a feminist psalm by a person who spent her life resisting being a nigga, or a nigger, or a nigguh, to the point where it drove her off the edge. You wish someone would give JAY and all rappers a copy of Jabari Asim’s book “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” so whether JAY or Drake or Kanye or a mumble or trap rapper you at least know where the word came from. Save the children, Marvin Gaye said to us, not teach the children to call themselves niggas through your music…. Nothing wrong with ignorance, but definitely something wrong with enthusiastic ignorance. JAY is not ignorant, we know this. Loaded with melancholy throughout, you feel on “4:44” that there is almost a resignation that in spite of all of he has accomplished, JAY-Z understands, plainly, how he will forever be viewed by some because of the color of his skin, and because of where he is from. Because that is the truth. JAY-Z does not want to be O.J. Simpson, or Michael Jordan for that matter, either, Black men who have done whatever they can not to appear to be Black, or too Black, terrified of losing the favor of White America.
We know what happened to O.J., and the jury still shadows the calculated movements of M.J. because it is clear he ain’t totally cozy wearing his dark skin color on the daily, no matter how much money he has earned. It is when I sink into songs like the O.J. one, like “Marcy Me” and “Family Feud,” that I get, finally, he is a man, a brother, Shawn Carter, trying to figure out how to pivot, next. Like his athlete brothers LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, it is about controlling his own destiny. I feel the exact same way. Black people did not survive capture and kidnap in Africa, the middle passage, slavery, segregation, second-class citizenship, to be slaves or suckers or butt-kissers to someone else our entire lives. We want to self-determine for us by us, which is really no different than what Stokely Carmichael was shouting 50 years ago with those two little words, “Black Power.”
But no matter the color or context of power it has to be rooted in love, in responsibility and, yeah, in commitment. Took me three long weeks since the release of “4:44” to work through all my feelings about JAY-Z, and I am sure this is just the beginning. I do not know if JAY is the best rapper alive, but he certainly has been the most fascinating one for a very long time, and he is not going anywhere. I feel “4:44” is JAY-Z’s true masterpiece, a work of art we will be discussing and debating for years to come. Without saying any names we’ve watched a lot of myth-making and half-truths and outright lies happen lately with hip-hop, on television, in movies, in media interviews. Now that hip-hop is the dominant music and culture around, that will only continue, as it has with jazz and rock before it. I wonder, I am not going to lie, how much truth JAY-Z is telling, and if, also, he is attempting, in 2017, and in the aftermath of the episodes with Solange and Beyonce, to bring a different image of himself, as an artist, as a man. Only JAY knows what is truly in his heart, only he knows the depths of his own soul, as I know mine. There are no tools for any of this, no blueprint, we make it up as we go along. That is why it was not lost on me when he rejected, on “4:44,” some of the older men before him, for cartoonishly taking selfies on social media, like Al Sharpton, for hanging themselves with their own rope, like Bill Cosby.
Not lost on me, either, that JAY talked about those who did not help him, because that father hurt remains, even though he is a father himself. This album seems to be his coming out party, his attempt to help those behind him, his way. It makes you want more, seriously. Like imagine if a JAY-Z and other male musical artists and male athletes could spend some quality time with men like Byron Hurt, Antonio Tijerino, Jackson Katz, The Good Men Project (from who I borrowed part of the title for this piece), Joe Samalin, Charlie Braxton, Ed Garnes, Charles Knight, Juan Ramos, and others I can name who have been doing this work around self-examination, around remaking manhood long before “4:44.” Imagine if these artists and athletes were far more connected to those on the frontlines of social justice, the way it was in other times, and the way it ought to be. Imagine if “4:44” were not merely an exciting and brilliant musical moment, but also the start of a movement to truly march manhood toward peace, love, nonviolence, and respect for women as equals.
Finally, I say be you, Shawn Carter, be the man, the Black man, you ‘spose to be. It is your choice now where you go from here. Do you continually evolve, as an artist, as a man, as John Lennon did, as Stevie Wonder did? Or do you get derailed or remain stuck, as it happened to Marvin Gaye, unable to leave and turn even more corners? Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude, said Frederick Douglass, said the Bar-Kays, said somebody. And we been known freedom ain’t free. At the end of it all only you, JAY-Z, know what will truly set you free—
Kevin Powell is the author or editor of 12 books, including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood, which is being adapted into a feature film. You can email him, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter, @kevin_powell
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