Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

4:44

TAGS: None

My Facebook has been hopping up and down with the track The Story of OJ on Jay-Z’s new album 4:44,  talking about how ‘adult’ he’s become, and now having watched it about half a dozen times, I can’t help but wonder if this is as ‘woke’, politically speaking, as Jay-Z gets. I mean, its message is pretty straight-forward, if a bit disjointed. For starters, these lyrics are as beat-it-into-you as possible:

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga /
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga /
Still nigga, still nigga

This is a great zinger:

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

And the visuals of the music video are a send-up of the racist cartoons that were household comedy for half a century (and themselves animated versions of racist caricatures of a century before that), but then the second half of the piece seems to be a suggestion not for Black people to uplift themselves but for rich Black entertainers to invest their money, leading to possibly the weakest and most controversial lyric in the piece:

You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit /
You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it

Forgetting the obvious anti-Semitism of the second line for a moment (as well as the fact that “credit” doesn’t rhyme with “did it”), and forgetting the stereotyping involved for the comparison, it also flies in the face of, well, the message of the first half of the piece. If the first half is saying, “no matter what you do or how you conduct your life, you’re still Black in the eyes of greater society,” then how do Black people go about emulating Jewish people?

Sure, there are similarities in two historically disenfranchised people that has resulted in a surfeit of them falling to certain employment categories – entertainment being a common one – for lack of other options, but an obvious schism of cultural assimilation and the ability to do such is a great part of Jewish-American history: In effect, Jewish people, at least in New York City, have breached that barrier and become white. German Ashkenazi came in and Anglicized their names, inter-married and adopted the habits of the dominant culture, turned around and discriminated against their Eastern European counterparts for being “backwards” and sticking to their Lower East Side and Brooklyn shtetls… basically, what literally every persecuted minority in the United States has ever done, including my own heritage of Irish and Tsalagi peoples.

The difference is how society reacted, and it really helps to have a white face: The Irish became white, the Cherokee did not despite continued protestations that they are, and Blacks never can. The extent to which Americanized Jewish people have become white is clear in the age-old Borscht-belt joke about only being “Jew-ish.” There is no such thing as Black-ish. Hell, in this political climate the DuBois double-consciousness question as to whether one can truly be both Black and American comes back to the fore, as it seems the entire country is aligned in erasing the history of our first and only Black President.

Of course, the second line could also just be a more base reference to the stereotype of Brooklyn Jewish landlords, which is itself a controversy that has flared up many a time when it comes to race relations in New York. It’s certainly a topic that’s been played with at least in passing by other Black artists from Brooklyn, such as Spike Lee, though the lyric may not be a conscious attempt to reference such. That said, this lyric –

I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood /
That your mama rentin’ /
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood /
That’s how you rinse it” 

– suggests this man has never heard of redlining. I know he’s heard of Urban Renewal, for he grew up in the Marcy housing projects, but suffice it to say this shit is systemic.

The first line about strip clubs, by contrast, is pure Chris Rock, which means it’s pure Bill Cosby and plenty of Black comedians before him: The only problem is, yeah, you can save money when you can earn money, and you can’t earn money if you can’t get a good job. One of the major aspects of the disenfranchisement of a people is that merit alone doesn’t land you work: Connections do, and breaking into an industry is hard if you don’t have an introduction – and that’s assuming you have the right skin color – else you’re just likely to see a lot of doors slamming in your face.

Every lyric that follows is about investing,  which when coupled with a rich Black entertainer’s criticism of another rich Black entertainer – and let’s forget the cruel and cynical position that in order for a Black man to get rich he’d better be great at writing lyrics or an even greater athlete – rings hollow.

TAGS: None

Leave a Reply

© 2009 Big Smoke. All Rights Reserved.

This blog is powered by Wordpress and Magatheme by Bryan Helmig.