Jay-Z’s video for “The Story of OJ”, the opening track of his new album 4:44, is a powerful commentary on the history of race relations in America. The animated clip uses vintage-style cartoons to explore old black stereotypes and their prevalence today – much like the famous montage from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled – while discussing culture, generational wealth, and transforming success into stability in a system pitted against black people.
The statement chorus of the song traces the political struggles of black people in America – from colourism that persists in societies today, through to the classifications of slaves years ago – as Jay-Z raps, “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga. Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga. Still nigga, still nigga.” Arguably blurring the distinction between the historically racist use of the N-word and its modern re-appropriated use within black communities, Jay-Z uses “The Story of OJ” to sit amongst the stereotypes his community faces and offer advice and solutions.
In the video, directed by Jay-Z himself with Mark Romanek, the rapper employs a host of racially-charged caricatures and references to blackface and minstrelry to break silences on topics of slavery, therapy, and money. Here are a few of the most important ones from the video.
This one is pretty clear from the outset. The black and white title sequence flickers and a character called Jaybo pops out of the trademark Looney Tunes circular backdrop. Beloved as Looney Tunes is today, it was a product of its time, often instilling racist stereotypes through its portrayal of ethnic minorities, whether that’s the Mexican stereotype in the character of Speedy Gonzales or an actual depiction of Uncle Tom, the famous tale of a ‘used slave’ that has now become an allegory for misplaced racially-motivated obedience, in 1937. On re-airing, most shows have had to be ruthlessly edited to be deemed suitable viewing in the modern day.
In Jay-Z’s video, Jaybo walks down the street while the sky is lined with black angels in halos. This also references an earlier troubling 1937 musical short by Warner Bros called Clean Pastures, where black people are caricatured as gamblers and drinkers with exaggerated features – but also lazy angels who fly around fatigued, recruiting people to take to heaven. And Warner Bros wasn’t the only studio perpetuating the oppression of black people in their animations: Fleischer Studios regularly featured minstrels and crying black ‘piccaninnies’ in their shorts, Walt Disney was famously both racist and anti-semitic, and Walter Lantz proudly exploited the black body as a subject of toil for economic gain.
“The Story of OJ” shares some similarities to the controversial film Coonskin, directed by Ralph Bakshi in 1975. Both films use ‘blaxploitation’ – the 1970s genre that centres around the exploitation of black people through stereotypes in film – as their form to astound their audiences to attention. Bakshi’s film attempted to subvert the popular consciousness with profanity and offense, and was understandably met with divided opinion (although it’s gained a cult following in subsequent years). But the appropriation of these vicious stereotypes to highlight the embedded racism within them is mirrored in “The Story of OJ” video to a marginally less abrasive degree.
The ‘Jaybo’ character seems to be a direct riff on the Walt Disney character ‘Dumbo’, star of the animated film made in 1941 (it likely doubles as a play on the controversial Little Black Sambo character, as well as a reference to the area of New York City). The film featured a notoriously racist depiction of black people as crows in the story, speaking in stereotypical African-American vernacular and painted as poor and uneducated. If that wasn’t enough, the lead crow was also called Jim Crow – a pretty overt reference to the racial segregation laws of the same name present in America in the 19th century. Jay-Z’s character at one point physically becomes Dumbo and flies towards the camera while rapping about his own financial successes, in an ultimate power move against racism.
SCRUB ME MAMA WITH A BOOGIE BEAT
In this shot, we see Jaybo tackle a racist trope head on. Armed with a huge watermelon slice, Jay-Z’s character digs into what has historically been considered a stereotypically ‘black’ food to eat. Jaybo bites into the fruit, flinging seeds carelessly as he continues to rap. The reference here originates from a short called “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat” made in 1941 by Walter Lantz, portraying African-Americans in an extremely negative light. The video accompanied a song about a laundry woman from Harlem – who also makes an appearance in Jay-Z’s video, dressed as a maid, scrubbing clothes in a basin – that became a hit despite protesting by the NAACP on its release. Footage from the offensive video also surfaces in Spike Lee’s 2000 satirical film Bamboozled, exploring blackface and its cultural implications through the story of a black man trying to produce a minstrel show on his television network to escape his contract working with a racist boss.
As we’re led into a smoky burlesque club, a character with a likeness to Nina Simone tinkers away at the piano. The singer’s voice, from the composition “Four Women”, is chopped and distorted continually in the background. Her presence both on the track and in the video are deliberate: an extremely vocal civil rights activist, Simone and her music have remained a symbol of political defiance and unashamed blackness. During her career, she refused to be reduced to a mere source of entertainment for the privileged and crafted intelligent and heart-breaking music. “Four Women” itself explores the stories of four characters affected by the racism through tales of anger, prostitution, rape, and slavery at a time when such political subjects were incredibly taboo.
In amongst Jay-Z’s literal embodiment of the very stereotypes that seek to oppress him – as a slave picking cotton, a drug dealer working a corner, an armed black militant, and even a KKK member – he also includes a huge number of references to those who sought to empower throughout history. He recreates the famous moment from the 1968 Olympics where American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos took to the podium and raised their gloved fists in salute and solidarity with the Black Power movement. The progression feels particularly chilling when paralleled with a following scene of three black people on a similar podium, only this time being sold as slaves, naked and chained.
Follow Natty Kasambala on Twitter here @nattykasambala