How Jay Z’s Latest ‘4:44’ Video Tackles the Realities of Being Black

Footnotes for "The Story of OJ" features Kendrick Lamar, Chris Rock and a compelling argument for how complicated race still feels today.
July 4, 2017, 3:53pm
Photo by Rich Thane via Flickr

You can tie yourself in knots thinking about blackness today. To be black in the US, in the UK, in South Africa, in France – these experiences all mean something slightly different. Yes, a particular strand ties those realities together, starting off spooled in a heap somewhere in the past when people invented the idea of racial hierarchy, racial categories and the absolutely nonsensical yet intoxicating lie that the amount of melanin in someone's skin directly links to their personal characteristics. But here we are, in big old 2017, still coming to terms with the legacy of European colonialism, white supremacy in the European colonies and – as far as an American understanding of blackness goes – slavery.

Watching Footnotes for "The Story of OJ", the new clip off Jay Z's 4:44 album, you get the sense that Jay's been turning over those ideas in his head recently too. He's obviously addressed race in his music before, whether in the knowing wink of racial profiling in the "99 Problems" traffic stop, or slinging his arm over Kanye's shoulder to shout out black excellence on Watch the Throne's "Murder to Excellence". But this latest eight-minute video, featuring candid sit-down snippets of interviews with everyone from Chris Rock, Kendrick Lamar and CNN's Van Jones to Mahershala Ali and Michael B Jordan goes further. It pushes back pretty defiantly against the idea that we live in a post-racial society where black people should just 'stop talking about race' until it magically goes away. But watching these conversations, spliced with the cartoon visuals from "The Story of OJ", it's clear we have to work through this all rather than brush it under the rug.

Using OJ Simpson as a template for someone who thought he could transcend race – before his blackness mattered most in his infamous 1995 criminal murder trial – the clip runs through the personal experiences, or anecdotes passed down by family, of the men interviewed. They all circle back to how it feels to move through the world as a black person. It's interesting to see comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah featured too, who grew up of mixed heritage in South Africa at a time when his parents' interracial relationship was illegal under the racist apartheid regime's police state. As someone who's also of South African descent, I've always lived with the understanding that our experiences in South Africa and those of black Americans were similar, sure, but not directly alike. Case in point: Noah isn't considered "black" in South Africa at all. But since one-drop rule logic persists in the US, the American bounds of ethnic identity draw themselves in their own way there.

Like I said, you can start to tie yourself in knots. Watch the video above, either as a 44-second snippet or in full if you're one of those people who got a brand-new email address for a free month on Tidal this time around.

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(Photo by Rich Thane via Flickr)