The prosperity code in Jay-Z’s 'The Story of O.J.' video and its ironic edutainment
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Opinion

The prosperity code in Jay-Z’s 'The Story of O.J.' video and its ironic edutainment

While I must apologize for being late to the discussion about Jay-Z’s music video, The Story of O.J., in part because I am not an actual Jay-Z fan but after now having seen the work I feel it imperative that I add my two cents about it for whatever it’s worth.  Jay-Z’s music video The Story of O.J. offers itself as a biting form of ironic edutainment where beneath the surface of animated caricatures of blacks rendered in nostalgic black and white images that recall the once popular short subject cartoons of black people that once played before the feature-length movies pre-WWI and up until the popular success of the television medium.  The music video, The Story of O.J. seems like a comic rendering of Donald Bogle’s famous book, “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks,” but the music video actually re-appropriates and repurposes the racist caricatures of black folk that one would find hidden in the animated film archives of all the major White controlled Hollywood studios.

The most notorious of these cartoons is called ‘The Censored Eleven’ which is a complication of racist cartoons made under the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies production label by Warner Bros. Many of these ‘Censored Eleven’ cartoons are available on YouTube under their original titles like: “Coal black and de Sebben Drawfs,” “All This and Rabbit Stew,” and “Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears”. These cartoons that we now see as clearly racist were a preeminent part of the film program that accompanied feature films in movie theatres across the country prior to the American Civil Rights movement.  After the Civil Rights Movement, such racist cartoons were an embarrassment to the so-called liberal and White controlled movie studios. Most of these cartoons have been buried in the film archives and hidden away from public view as a gesture of racial sensitivity even as black actors are cut out of films in production today and black filmmakers still have to struggle to get even modestly budgeted films made and shown today.

Yet within Jay-Z’s music video ‘The Story of O.J.’ all of the racist signifiers of black caricature and inferiority that were represented within the racist cartoons of the Pre-Civil Rights era are seen without filter or apology: Big wide lips, pig-like noses, the eating of Watermelon, Bug eyes, the black female ‘Hottentot’ stripper, the overweight Mammy, drum beating black jungle cannibals, black cotton pickers and even a jive talkin’ buck named ‘Jaybo’ as an animated caricature of Jay-Z the rapper himself. And yet there are several surprising images of subversion, resistance and reciprocity that challenge a reading of the video as a mere re-appropriation of a racist past, but instead count towards what I see as Jay-Z’s repurposing of the signifiers of black caricature and inferiority to put forth a powerful, even didactic, message of the collective power that black folk could wield by wearing the mask of caricature and inferiority to keep White folks deluded while we uplift ourselves economically right under their noses.  This is blackface minstrelsy with the purposeful mission of black economic liberation.  Of the many images of subversion, resistance and reciprocity in the music video we see the images of a conveyor belt full of white hooded KKK members where one pulls his hood off to reveal himself as black; the image of a black power fist that becomes part of a larger image of a black figure in the same pose as those black athletes who raised the black power fist during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City; a reference to a Picasso cubist painting with the caricature of Jay-Z as the subject; a reference to Huey P. Newton’s iconic pose in the “Peacock” wicker chair; the Jay-Z caricature as Disney’s ‘Dumbo’ flying over a cotton plantation; slaves in chains coming out of a slave ship; and black slaves on the auction block. The video ends with the Dumbo caricature flying high over the blacks in the streets below as he rains money down upon them.  The final shot of the music video has the Jay-Z caricature flying on a rocket ship out of the earth’s orbit and offscreen into space.

It would be the highest point of facile and reactionary black respectability politics to simply call the music video an homage to the racism of the past.  No, there is something else at work within the Jay-Z ‘The Story of O.J.’ music video.  Something that happens in other art forms where blacks have practiced that is often obscured by the blindness of black respectability politics.  black respectability politics being, of course, a set of attitudes, expectations, behaviors and ideological viewpoints that are based upon the notion that White supremacy and the systems and structures it controls are essentially fair and accessible to black people as long as we act in a certain non-threatening way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way and give deference to Whites so that they might one day come to treat us with the same dignity, respect and humanity that they treat themselves.  The most important of all the black respectability codes is that when a black person is stopped by the police for any reason or whim, the black person must willingly, unequivocally and totally submit themselves to police authority.  The respectability code tells us that blacks must submit themselves in such a way that laying down on the ground spread eagle and offering one’s genitalia for unencumbered fondling- while taking any punches or kicks from the officers with silence- while answering every question no matter how grave or trivial from the officer is a guarantee against being murdered by that police officer and that such submissive conduct would not be considered outrageous, but instead something to be proud of because you kept yourself alive while your rights as an American citizen were being violated.  The perfidious illusion of black respectability politics is that it aides in allowing so many black people to sacrifice the lives, livelihoods and the dignity of other black people to preserve the delusion that one day Whites will treat us as equals if we just don’t give them a reason to kill and mistreat us.  But as we see everyday, they don’t need a reason to kill and/or mistreat us and the very few blacks who are treated near equal pale in comparison to the many who are not treated as such.

Returning to that something else that is happening in the Jay-Z ‘The Story of O.J.’ music video perhaps we should consider that the negatively coded stereotyped figures of ‘The Tom, The Coon, The Mulatto, The Mammy, and The Buck’ can be used to critique White supremacy rather than merely support it in visual representations created by artists who are critical of the dominant ideology of White supremacy.  That is to say, the stereotypes of blacks that were created by White supremacy are often re-appropriated and repurposed by black artists like Jay-Z to critique White supremacy and its systems and structures by using the stereotypes as a common signifier (known to both Whites and blacks alike) that can be recoded with a double meaning: one that Whites know and use to continue the oppression of the blacks and another from which black folks can learn to liberate themselves from White oppression. It is through this double coding that a stereotype is made whole.  The Buck might mean one thing in the matrix of White oppression and another thing in the matrix of black liberation.  The Mammy might appear as the servant to White domestic needs, but from another perspective, she serves as a spy observing the intimate machinations of White power and reporting back to those within the black communities preparing for liberation.  Dave Chapelle’s Clayton Bigsby, the black and blind KKK member who hates “niggers” was laughed at by White people because his existence seemed absurd, but the character was laughed at by black people more so because his existence seemed to be true.   These double coded meanings by black artists can cause controversy as well.   

Consider, for example, the brief controversy created by the lyric within the song,’ The Story of O.J.,’ that was considered anti-Semitic when Jay-Z says,” You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?” Extracted from the lyrics which surround it, yes this single verse itself could be considered anti-Semitic as it seems to express a long-held falsehood and stereotype about Jewish people and money.  But if we place the verse back within its lyrical and visual structure we can understand it as a form of dialectical persuasion:  

“What’s more important than throwing money away at a strip club? Credit.”

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“You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.  Financial freedom my only hope.  Fuck living rich and dyin’ broke.”  

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When placed back in its lyrical and visual context we can see that Jay-Z is using the tension of meaning between what is said and what is seen to instruct those blacks who might’ve heard such beliefs into a deeper way of thinking about how to financially overcome the White controlled system that oppresses them.  We see the Jaybo character sitting at the bar at a strip club as the ‘hottentot’ stripper dances and money can be seen raining in the background when he speaks the question he asks in both verses.  The answer gives us two different images: one of the ‘hottentot’ underneath a sign that says,” Credit,” and another of the Jaybo character inside the image of a one-million-dollar bill that he snatches off the screen and places in his pocket.  The first lyric is an observation of how the wasteful behavior of ‘throwing money away at a strip club’ obscures one of the key oppressive techniques within the White controlled capitalist system: Credit.  Moreover, throwing money away at the strip club is not the most productive means of acquiring the ‘hottentot’- but establishing credit is a more productive and permanent way to get the ‘hottentot’.  While this may appear to be the most male-centered way of being critical of a capitalist system, what interests me here is how Jay-Z used the image of the ‘hottentot’ to direct the attention of the male viewer to a message about one of the most oppressive techniques of capitalism for black people: Credit scores.

The second lyric about Jews and their total ownership of property in America is a certain falsehood, but it is a persistent falsehood that Jay-Z uses as a “dog whistle” to get the attention of those listeners who have at least heard of such a falsehood even if they don’t actually believe it to demonstrate that if such a falsehood were true,” This how they did it.” The image that follows is of the Jaybo caricature snatching money with his own face on it off of the screen and putting it into his pocket which is a visual reference to Jewish immigrants and the founding of Hollywood. (e.g., The Wonsal brothers who founded Warner Bros., Harry Cohn the co-founder of Columbia Pictures, Vilmos Fried aka William Fox founder of the Fox Film Corporation that became 20th Century Fox.) On the surface this might be considered anti-Semitic but it is really the re-purposing of a falsehood to instruct and illuminate what blacks should be doing to not live rich and die broke: that is to take control over the production, distribution and exhibition of our own images.

Through the re-appropriation and repurposing of racist stereotypical imagery the Jay-Z music video ‘The Story of O.J.’ becomes a form of didactic instruction concerning how the conservation of wealth can be used as a means of black liberation from White oppression.  It is in this way that we can consider Jay-Z to be the rap manifestation of a prosperity preacher: a prosperity rapper, if you will.  Instead of twisting biblical scripture to provide a form of financial instruction to a willing and hopeful middle class church congregation, Jay-Z as a prosperity rapper takes the negative stereotypes and imagery of Hollywood’s hidden past to recode it as a form of financial instruction to a willing and hopeful congregation of black rap music listeners of various class statuses.  The question of whether or not the prosperity that Jay-Z raps about can actually be a form of black liberation can be held back for the moment so that we can appreciate the critique of White supremacy that runs concurrently with his prosperity message.  The many qualitative variations of the epithet

“nigga” that form the refrain of the song,” The Story of O.J.” all end with the same matter-of-fact conclusion,” Still nigga.” And it is from this conclusion about the inescapability of being a “nigga” in a White controlled America and its systems and structures is what actually allows Jay-Z to use these stereotypes in both images and words as a common code that he then proceeds to recode and repurpose to carry his prosperity message.  We should always try to be sensitive to black artists who might recode and repurpose concepts, symbols and language thought solely the providence of White supremacy by checking to see if there is a dual code at work where meanings can be different depending on the racial filter through which one might look at the work.  Those who trade in black respectability politics are often unwilling or unable to see the other side of the code because the message conflicts with their ideology of submission and control.    

While it is easy to celebrate Jay-Z and his accomplishment with this music video as both a repurposing of negative imagery and a critique of systemic oppression, we must caution ourselves from being seduced into believing that financial wealth and material prosperity will save and protect black people from the multiple overlapping systems and structures of White supremacy.  The prosperity message whether from a preacher or a rapper should always have the disclaimer: The accumulation of wealth is only one step towards black liberation not the end goal and that wealth in and of itself cannot save your soul.

Watch ‘The Story of O.J.’ video below:

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