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How Jay Z Uses Racist Imagery To Tell The Story Of Oppression

Will we ever truly transcend racial differences?

Years after playing things low-key in 2013 Magna Carta… Holy Grail, hip-hop legend Jay-Z shook the world in 2017 with an album that has been regarded by some critics as his magnum opus. One of the most powerful comebacks to the rap game in the last decade, the vigorous album goes by the cryptic name 4:44. Along with it comes a video to promote its first single, and it’s a ride you can’t afford to miss.

The song’s name is called “The Story of OJ,” doing a wordplay between the 1954 best-selling book by Anne Declos, The Story of O, with the name of the seventies football star who, in the nineties, became the figure for one of the most controversial and heated trials in the history of sports. The theme of the song stems from a quote from the now imprisoned footballer, who, as a college player, allegedly said: “I’m not black, I’m OJ.” So in a way, Jay Z’s verse circles around the idea of how regardless of individual success, racial relations will always be present. We're reminded of Kanye's "All Falls Down" where he implies that owning a luxury car doesn't change the color of one's skin. The questions here is why does Jay-Z make these allusions? Is he telling the African-American community that changes needed to overcome oppression cannot be fought by a single individual?

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At first glance, the video for “The Story of OJ” looks like a depressing parade of stereotypes under a veil of a 1940s black and white cartoon. It takes place in the city of New York, where the narrator is a cartoon Jay Z designed in the style of Little Black Sambo, aptly named Jaybo. In his journey we see a never ending cycle of oppression, reminding us of the myriad ways the African American community has been treated for centuries. "The Story of OJ" is a tour de force that on the one hand denounces the past and also shows how racist constructs and painful stereotypes are dragged across the years and resonate in this day and age.

At the start of the video, we see Jaybo standing against a grayish background holding a watermelon. This is an upfront reminder of the stereotype of the Southern black person who loves the fruit, later on in the video he gobbles it up and spits the seeds. The way he casually exposes this image sends chills down your spine and makes you feel uncomfortable, is Jay Z trying to make the audience raise questions on why he is caricaturizing black culture? Why is making use of these stereotypes that have been handed down for centuries? It is perhaps a pessimistic point of view he is trying to send across to his followers. The black community cannot free itself from stereotypes if it expects change to come from a single individual.

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The lyrics of the song are based on another composition of racial denouncement, “Four Women” by Nina Simone. It cyclically refers to a single idea: to achieve real freedom as a black person, it’s not enough to be successful professionally. You can’t escape the color of your skin, just as you can’t overlook the centuries of exploitation this community has suffered. No matter how many artworks you buy, how many cars you own, you cannot fully escape from racial scrutiny. No matter how hard we sometimes would like to forget the past, Jaybo recalls the haunting history and struggle in this black and white world he weaves. We see slave ships and markets, the hideous KKK lynchings, and the segregated buses of the Jim Crow era. The video feels like a slap in the face to recall the injustice suffered by the black community in the US.

It’s a call to stand against racial oppression and to recognize that, regardless of personal advantage, there’s no way you can turn your back away from history. Despite OJ’s claim, black will always be black and it will carry with it its history no matter how many try to efface it or appropriate it.

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