Jay-Z’s 4.44 album has sparked some long overdue conversations.
The reference to the ‘Sambo’ archetype in the video for ‘The Story of OJ’ raises some significant Socio-Political cultural questions. The ‘Money phone’ and ‘Book phone’ challenges that came out of the song were fun, but its time to get into the conversation the song was actually meant to spark.
This is one of those times I was going to do a piece, but I found something well written in the course of my research, so I’ve reproduced it and shared it here with my own addition on the rise of the ‘Omni-Cultural Sambo’ because Hip Hop now transcends Race, and so any imitation or portrayal of negative behaviour associated with Hip Hop eg. overt Consumerism can no longer be viewed as purely ‘Black’….Peep it:
The Story of O.J.
Jay-Z’s latest album 4.44 rejects racial transcendence, while promoting Black business ingenuity. With songs such as “The Story of O.J.,” Jay-Z disavows the belief that mainstream success transcends blackness. When Jay-Z says, “O.J. like, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’ . . . okay,” Jay-Z dismisses rich and famous celebrities who deny their Black heritage.
Although Jay-Z’s 4.44 acknowledges America’s capitalistic history of enslavement and the tragic stories associated with Black celebrity, he promotes Black ownership as the dominant means for authentic financial freedom in America.
Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga
O.J. like “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” . . . okay
In “The Story of O.J.,” when Jay-Z says, “Light nigga, dark nigga,” he’s reminding Black folks, don’t get ahead of yourself. Regardless of your skin tone, in America, your Black skin defines how people see and treat you. To further reiterate the unification of Black identity, he speaks to every Black person, regardless of his or her economic status, as a “poor nigga, field nigga.” Jay-Z repetitiously raps the word “nigga” as a means of connecting Blacks of every economic classification. Then, by quoting a line, “I’m not black,” reportedly spoken by O.J. in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, O.J: Made in America, Jay-Z’s sarcastic response is “okay.”
Despite O.J.’s best efforts to pander to white society, O.J.’s talent didn’t grant him superhuman status or allow him to move beyond his own blackness. O.J. didn’t own himself or control his good guy image, which was manufactured for the benefit of entertaining whites on and off the football field via product endorsements. And, not only did O.J. fail to transcend race with his running back success, but he had no sense of personal identity beyond the cheers he received on the field and the white approval he ravished and craved. To Jay-Z, O.J. was a “field nigga” who played himself, since he was unaware that he was the property of America’s favorite pastime, football, and the men who owned this brutalizing game.
By alluding to the rise and fall of O.J., Black ownership of image, self, and property is a running theme in 4.44. Nevertheless, due to the slavery roots of American capitalism, African Americans have a complicated relationship with ownership. But, Jay-Z’s socially conscious album, 4.44, refuses to sidestep the complexity of America’s wealth and the systems and institutions that built it. With his video, “The Story of O.J.,” a cartoonish image with dark skin, large eyes, pronounced lips, and white gloves appears. His name is Jaybo, which is an allusion to a caricature of blackness, Sambo, found in lyrics, folk sayings, and literature. Ironically, Jaybo raps Jay-Z’s lines, in an attempt to re-appropriate this exploited archetype of the lazy but happy Black slave, which was historically promoted by pro-slavery apologists in American culture.
But, to Jay-Z who is worth $810 million, according to Forbes, Blacks must engage in the painful process of ownership. To have an authentic stake in this country, even if you’re rich or famous, if you don’t own yourself, like Prince says, figuratively speaking, you’re nothing more than a slave. Building more wealth for the men who own your name, your image, your Black ingenuity, is modern-day exploitation. In other words, if you’re not in legal possession of everything you’ve created and acquired, building wealth to pass on to the next generation won’t occur, because you own nothing.
Jay-Z reminds us that Black ownership of name, image, brand, and property is the only way to achieve financial freedom. Yet, due to our slave history, Jay-Z’s message is clear; even with economic freedom, we should never desire to escape our blackness, because we should never desire to escape ourselves even for supposed racial transcendence in America.
Sylistic Themes & Cultural Significance
Sambo Archetype Imagery
The style of the cartoon used in the music video is a direct nod to the racist minstrel animations of the early 20th century where many black stereotypes that continue to pervade culture originated from.
The clip centers on a character named “Jaybo,” a tweak on the “Sambo” character from the children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo, a reference that’s long-running shorthand for racist portrayals of African-Americans in the media.
Jay-Z will hit the road this summer in support of 4:44.
Meanwhile, its important to appreciate that a lot of the ‘backward’ behaviour that Jay-Z criticizes in the song eg. ‘Balling’ is synonymous with Hip Hop Culture. However, the adopters of Hip Hop Culture are no longer solely ‘Black’ anymore. Therefore properly understood, the song is a critique of the composite multi-ethnic ‘Hip Hop Sambo’, who in reality is a product of today’s Omni-Culture transcending Race.
Peep the links below for the History of the Sambo Archetype as part of America’s Jim Crow Legacy, Rollingstone’s Review of the Jay-Z Video as well as our previous article on the nature of today’s Omni-Culture.
We also recommend the documentaries ‘The Rise & Fall Of Jim Crow’ and ‘The Origins of the Sambo, the Coon and The Mammy’ on our YouTube Channel’s ‘History & Politics’ Playlist.
Keep it locked for another installment of ‘Guerilla Funk’ as well as an announcement on another exciting collaboration we’ve got to bring you and stay at the cutting-edge of ideas and evolution of the African Continent and the World at Large.
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Links & Credits
History & The Sambo Archetype: http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/coon/
Culture Lounge YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD0SW5w3aLXj7B3npFLlGug/playlists