Goolam Hassen – Race and Identity and the Celebration of Black Excellence: An Analysis of Animated Representations of Blackness in Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter’s The Story of OJ (runner-up)

2017 has been a particularly difficult year in terms of racial tensions in America, from Colin Kaepernick’s kneel during the National Anthem of NFL games to protest racial injustice in America in 2016; which seems to have snowballed in 2017,[1] to the deadly Right-Wing Nationalist protest that rocked Charlottesville, Virginia.[2] Race has always been a contentious issue, in fact the debates over race and representation, especially the representation of African Americans in the media in general, have been highly contentious for over a century (Barker, 2010). It is hardly surprising to Jennifer Barker (2010) that Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and The Frog received responses which were not all positive in terms of race representation. If one regards The Princess and the Frog as a controversial topic in terms of race representation worthy of investigation, then the release of Hip-Hop Artist; Producer; and Entrepreneur Sean ‘Jay-Z’ Carter’s animated music video entitled ‘The Story of O.J.’ (from his 2017 album 4:44) provides a far greater, and much less subtle extolment of the state of being black in Trump’s America. In fact, as this essay will argue, Disney’s representation of African Americans has historically been highly problematic – similarly true for some cartoons that emerged from the East Coast like Warner Brother’s Loony Tunes, and Disney’s Merry Melodies which were eventually pulled from circulation due to their pervasive use of anti-black stereotypes.[3] The animation that accompanies Jay-Z’s song draws on historic, contemporary and hybrid caricatures and exaggerations from which we can derive not only a critique on the animation industry’s silence on race, but which also provides a social critique on American society on the disjuncture in understanding the narrative of the Black experience in the United States. Furthermore, this essay will draw on the ideas of Negritude Thought, a fundamentally Black Existentialist Philosophy, to demonstrate Jay-Z’s move towards celebrating Black excellence through the influence of the Harlem Renaissance and his references to artists from that era like Nina Simone to nuance his rap commentary. As an early preface, Professor Asante (2010) argues that Jane Nardal and her sister Paulette Nardal were influential in Paris and in the Caribbean Basin. The Nardal sisters ultimately “introduced the Negritude people with the Harlem Renaissance people” in New York, illustrating the tenuous link between the expression of that era (Jazz) and the philosophy which it accompanied (Negritude). Carter attempts to celebrate artists from the Harlem Renaissance era, and exhibits the existentialists characteristics and themes of Negritude through his music. Using Animation as a tool and a lens, Carter provides an insight and a commentary on the black experience in the United States.

As a subset question, why do I find this interesting or worthy of investigation?

Dr. Cornel West (2002), in A Genealogy of Modern Racism explains that the

notion that black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West. The idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity remains problematic and controversial within prestigious halls of learning and sophisticated intellectual circles. The Afro-American encounter with the modern world has been shaped first and foremost by the doctrine of white supremacy, which is embodied in institutional practices and enacted in everyday folkways under varying circumstances and evolving conditions.

This point will be illustrated further in the rationale below, as well as throughout this essay.


Has animation been problematic in depictions of Africans? Richard King et al (2010) have noted that American animation has historically fed on blackness; from recycling caricatures such as Mammy Two Shoes in Tom and Jerry and the crows in Dumbo, and also inspiring characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny- even as black people were excluded from the production of the medium.[4]

Early Tom and Jerry cartoons that feature Mammy Two Shoes (the stereotyped black maid), come with a health warning when purchased on Amazon. The animations, it warns, represent “some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society… that were wrong then and are wrong now.”[5]

According to Pigeon (1997) as cited by King (2010), animated representation projected accounts of racial difference through blackface even after minstrel shows from the Vaudeville days had fallen out of favor. In fact, King (2010) strongly asserts that it is hard not to read the history of American animation as anti-black racism, perpetually produced for the pleasure of white audiences and the profit of largely white owned corporations.

To further emphasize the point of structural racism, Paul Wells and Christopher Lehman illustrate the tenuous link between Jazz, the flag-bearer of the Cultural Revolution that was the Harlem Renaissance, and animation. As King et al (2010) note:

If Wells (2002, 1) is correct in his assertion that animation, in common with jazz, the western, and the musical, is an art genre originating in the United States, then, as Lehman (2007, 1) proposes, the wildly popular form surely “owes its existence to African Americans.”[6]

The song The Story of O.J. by Jay-Z may very well be the reclamation of an African mode of existence- reclaiming/regaining the influence of Jazz on animation, with Jay-Z celebrating the moment with Nina Simone- this point will be discussed later in the essay. Furthermore, there is little to no evidence of any credit attributed to Africans in the production of animation in the United States,[7] which makes the release of this song all the more remarkable as Jay-Z is from New York and has produced this through his own corporations (Tidal and Rocnation). Jay-Z does this on two levels – as an iconic successful black man in America speaking on behalf of all Africans in the diaspora, and as a response to the whitewashed, sanitized version of America’s history both in general, and in animation. As a contemporary response to this culture of misrepresentation and silence within the animation industry, Sean ‘Jay-Z’ Carter employs the same aesthetics from the early black and white cartoons- further significant through a double entendre between the racial divide between black and white, and makes use of those old blackface representations. All the characters are exaggerated- a fundamental principle of animation- which highlights the strong points around which stereotypes and tropes were perpetuated in the late twentieth century animation at the degradation of Africans in the diaspora.

‘The Story of O.J’

 Jay-Z’s animated persona appears to be himself, but in blackface and in reference to the so-called Sambo caricature. Jay-Z thus takes on the character of Jaybo (a play on Sambo) – featured in front of the iconic Loony Tunes background. Little Black Sambo was originally a story written by Helen Bannerman in 1898 – a white Englishwomen, who writes about a dark-skinned child’s adventures with four tigers (Yuill, 1976). Fast-track to the early 1900’s, Wiggins (1988, p. 242) notes in his research that Sambo stereotypes, or caricatures were seen in cartoon drawings in newspapers of boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis from 1908 to 1938. According to Historian Joseph Boskin, the pervasive use of the Sambo caricature perpetuated racism in America (Wiggins, 1988). Boskin asserts that

Operating within a system that clearly rewarded Jim Crow policies, cartoonists sought a form that could express black buffoonery. Various styles merged in the decades before the turn of the century. Continuing the African connection, the majority of artists extended the form: lips were widened and rendered a rosy red; teeth sparkled with glistening whiteness; hair was nappy, short and frazzled; faces were glossy, atop bodies that were either shortened and rounded, or lengthened to approximate the monkey or ape.[8]

In the opening scene, Carter illustrates Brooklyn, New York, during a period which can conceivably be during the 1920’s, during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. With a sample of Nina Simone’s Four Women as the background music, a dance takes place in a 500-seat Burlesque theatre by what one online cultural critic argues is a representation of Saartjie Baartman ,[9] with none other than the diva herself, Nina Simone, on the piano. “Skin in Black, my skin in Black” are the first words from Nina Simone, which immediately draws attention to race. In the next sequential shot, Jaybo is on the Brooklyn bridge where he expresses the lyrical hook:

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

It is entirely imperative to discuss the N-word before an analysis of the lyrical hook and the rest of the song. Having a discussion about the N-word provides this essay with the necessary context needed for the references in The Story of O.J. While Jay-Z draws on representations from Jim Crow Laws and from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, many of the song’s references deal with America during slavery, and Carter’s use of the N-word is particularly poignant in this discussion of blackness, and racial tensions in modern America.

 Nigger/Nigga: Racial Epithet or term of Endearment?

The original term nigger has undergone various processes of change over time. These changes are inextricably linked to the social, economic and cultural factors that have contributed the development of the African American community in the United States (Rahman, 2012). According to Rahman (2012), Nigger appears to have entered the English language form borrowing from the word negro, or “Black”. The word was common to Spanish and Portuguese slave traders that used it to reference the dark skin of Africans. The online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Rahman (2012) notes, cites uses of the English form as early as 1574. What is particularly interesting is that the dictionary describes this early usage of nigger as ‘relatively neutral’ – despite the fact that the term found use within the context of the slave trade. Early examples suggest a benignly patronizing attitude that whites held toward Africans that assumed an inferiority which included a lower social, intellectual, and cultural development (Rahman, 2012). A 1608 entry in the OED describes the king and people of Sierra Leone as “Niggers, simple and harmless.” The mildly disparaging social meanings conveyed in early use by white people ultimately degenerated into an overt slur (Rahman, 2012).

According to Rahman, scholars find a relationship between the societal status of a group, and the likelihood that meanings of terms used to refer to members of that group will derogate. The derogation begins when shared stereotypes allow negative social meanings to attach to a previously neutral term (2012). As social, economic, and political events unfolded, nigger moved from its relatively neutral usage among white people to gain usage as an overtly hostile and abusive word meant to intimidate Africans in America and highlight their ascribed moral and intellectual inferiority (Rahman, 2012). In 1837, Hosea Easton, a free African American, wrote of the contempt and disrespect that inhered in the negative use of the word. He described nigger as “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon blacks as an inferior race” (Rahman, 2012). By the mid-1800s, this overtly dysphemistic (derogatory) use of nigger had become “a familiar and influential insult.” The pejoration of nigger into a racist dysphemism is directly correlated to an increase in the number of free African Americans in the early nineteenth century, as well as America’s Civil War which was a movement for the abolition of slavery (Rahman, 2012). An ideology developed that highlighted and intensified existing racist views; as a means of blocking African Americans from competing economically, nigger became a convenient term for indexing the subhuman characteristics being ascribed to African Americans through this ideology (Rahman, 2012). Rahman (2012) cites Frederickson’s (1987, p. 41) description of the way racism was articulated ideologically: “an articulate and aggressive racism which excluded the Negro from the society of competing equals without deporting him, by the simple and brutal mechanism of formally defining him as subhuman.” Abiola Irele (1965) argues that the African was in most cases drawn into the cultural world of the European, but was always fundamentally considered second class to the white counterpart. “While he [The African] was refused acceptance as an equal by the colonisers, his life and values had come to be ruled by the norms imposed or sanctioned”. Abiola Irele (1965) thus argues that the “African lived with the European in a state of symbiosis, but one of ambiguity.” The stereotypes and untruths related to the anti–African American ideology supported the pejoration of nigger into an epithet.

The second major form, nigga, developed within the slave community. The online OED shows the nineteenth century as providing the earliest instance of use of nigga. Before the nineteenth century, Africans did not count as humans; without acknowledgment of the humanity of the slaves, there was little interest in recording or publishing their speech. Thus, the first use cited by the OED does not necessarily reflect the beginning of use in the African American community. The OED’s earliest record may reflect the fact that the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, and other events of the nineteenth century created a climate where there was a greater interest in exploring the lives of African Americans (Rahman, 2012). Beyond that, if there were records containing the writing or speech of slaves before the first instance of the word nigga reported by OED, it is not certain that writers would have accurately captured its phonological characteristics. With the extensive media discourse that currently surrounds nigga, contemporary writers are aware of its salience, but without the knowledge and sensitivities of contemporary writers, transcribers in the past may have produced an eye dialect that targeted certain features perceived as characteristic of African American speech, while neglecting others, including the schwa ending in nigga (Rahman, 2012). Ex-slave narratives, for example, record the perceptions of a transcriber, but do not necessarily convey accurate representations of the features of African American language (Rahman, 2012).

Scholars believe that a non-pejorative variant of nigger entered the lexicon of African Americans early on, according to Spears (1998, p. 240) as cited by Rahman, (2012), the term was probably in use among Africans in America in “the earliest days of Anglophone America.” It is impossible to know exactly when a form of nigger entered the lexicon of African Americans, but certain known circumstances surrounding the experiences of the slaves from their arrival in America in the seventeenth century lend themselves to a likely explanation (Rahman, 2012).

Historically, Africans in America employed survival strategies within the context of an anti-society (Rahman, 2012). Rahman (2012) illustrates that anti-societies often form in situations where subjugated people covertly resist domination. Citing Morgan (2002:23), Rahman (2012) presents the view that anti-societies “typically emerge when those who dominate individuals require that the subjugated display an attitude that reaffirms the dominator/dominated relationship—in the presence of others—by verbal or physical confirmation (bowing of heads for example). An anti-society can give rise to a system of communication, a counter-language that serves the functions of everyday speech (Rahman, 2012). With constant awareness that their words could reach the ears of enemies, slaves fashioned their counter-language with English words and phrases that could have complex, multilayered, and often seemingly contradictory meanings that were decipherable only to insiders (Rahman, 2012). The inaccessibility that slaveholders had to the survival meaning made nigga a useful tool in the counter-language that developed within the context of the slave anti-society (Rahman, 2012).

Among slaves, the counter-language served two primary functions. While purposeful linguistic ambiguity could not necessarily shield intra-group communication from spies who might be among them, it did serve the pragmatic function of providing some protection for their conversations and plans from the slave masters. The counter-language also provided a means for slaves to project a social face that challenged and resisted the unjust domination that required them to “have the ‘attitude’ of someone who should be oppressed” (Rahman, 2012). For example, Rahman cites Cowen (2001) describing that through the counter-language, slaves were known to have covertly mimicked and ridiculed the slave master in his presence.

Within the anti-society, Africans developed an identity as survivors who had been displaced into an unjust situation where, as Kolchin (1993:154) asserts, “surviving in a heartless world assumes overriding importance” (Rahman, 2012). During the period of slavery, nigga became a term that Africans used to refer to themselves and companions in the struggle to survive. Using the term highlighted the identity of a speaker as participating in the culture of survival (Rahman, 2012).

Roots of present-day uses of the term in the African American community lie in the counter-language, where the term serves as a symbol representing the most salient aspect of slaves’ identity. This meaning exists to this day for African Americans who are not focused on the racist use of the term, but use nigga as a tool to project a facet of identity as a culturally aware survivor in the diaspora- in short, a term of endearment (Rahman, 2012). Nigga conveys meanings related to this facet of identity in a way that other, more recent ethnic terms of self-reference cannot (Rahman, 2012).

Solidarity Meaning

The solidarity meaning emerges through common understandings and shared experiences related to survival. While projecting identity as an African American who is conscious of survival in the diaspora, nigga may add a dimension to that identity by projecting an attitudinal stance that shows solidarity with another African American or with the African American community. This solidarity is generally based on perceptions of racial injustice. As noted, the range of events that have affected the African American community over time has led to a strong community solidarity, specific images and events may evoke memories of unfair treatment that are perceived to be common community experiences and that also lead to empathy with fellow African Americans who share in these perceptions and experiences (Rahman, 2012).

Hip-Hop Meaning

The core meaning of nigga can provide a foundation for the expression of a proactive and independent attitude founded in hip-hop identity (Rahman, 2012). Hip-hop identity itself grows out of the culture of survival of the diaspora experience. Here, the core social meaning underlies projection of an identity that directly and overtly rejects racist uses of nigger while declaring self-pride and independence (Rahman, 2012). Positive uses of nigga within the African American community do not constitute a new phenomenon, but in this instance, through the appropriation and reanalysis of racist meanings, young African Americans took ownership of the racist form of nigger, turning it to their own use as the nigga form (Rahman, 2012).

Opprobrious Use of Nigga

The core social meaning of nigga may also be overlaid with an attitude of disapproval or censure, where a speaker assumes the attitudinal stance of judge. Using the term in this way performs the illocutionary function of serving notice that another African American, has behaved in a way that does not conform to the norms or expectations of the African American community (Rahman, 2012).

Historicity may support the emergence of new meanings, but it may also be a force that constrains by restricting or impeding the shedding of old meanings and associations (Rahman, 2012). Due to the negative semiotic power stemming from the racist strand of the social history that the original word carries, contemporary uses of nigga may be accompanied by an unspoken subtext that derives from uses of the term as a racist dysphemism (Rahman, 2012). This opprobrious use of the term appears related to a coloring of the core social meaning associated with nigga by a weakening of the racially insulting meaning that developed in the nineteenth century.

While the racist use of nigger criticizes a presumed innate moral and intellectual inferiority of African Americans, the meaning under discussion is a criticism that comes from within the African American community that suggests that a behaviour of the referent lends support to racist claims of inferiority (Rahman, 2012). The expression that someone is “acting like a nigga” is similar to “acting a fool” [Morgan (2002) cited by Rahman (2012)], with the added dimension that it appears to sarcastically reference the racially insulting form nigger– that is, someone is behaving in an ‘uncool’ manner that gives credence to the racist concept of nigger (Rahman, 2012).

‘The Story of O.J.’ continued

To hearken back to the initial lyrical hook which prompted the investigation of the word nigga, what Jay-Z is trying to illustrate through this lyric is that the counter-language of the African American diaspora gave birth to meanings in the difference between being light skinned or dark skinned, or the difference between being faux or real, rich and poor, and even the most well-known analogy of the field slave and the house slave. In Jay-Z’s streamlined version, according to Adlakha (2017), in the lyrical hook; the line “still nigga” and the varying representations which it accompanies can be explained as Jay-Z referring to both people that lean in to their “Blackness” and those people who reject it, who are all part of the same continuum that exists within the shadow of racist cartoons- an extension of the same culture that produced white supremacy en masse through the degradation of Africans, but also celebrates the resistance to white supremacy (in the second last lyrical hook) through the representation of the Black Power fist of Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics (Adlakha, 2017). Furthermore, “still nigga”, is an allusion to the subhuman attribution inherent in the term by historical fact that the original term nigger was used by racist white people as a means to subjugate blackness. Jay-Z is challenging what it means to be black in The Story of O.J. by re-presenting the old graphic depiction of Africans from as early as 1908 cartoon strips to the early 1990’s cartoons- along with images of the cross generational struggle of the black experience in the United States. In understanding where the word ‘nigga’ originates from, illustrates the context that black struggle is rooted in a collective identity. This is also precisely why (and as an ironic motif) Jay-Z merely refers to the story of O.J Simpson, because of O.J’s desire to see himself beyond race. The reference comes from Sports Journalist Robert Lipsyte, who recalled an experience that O.J told him about at a wedding he attended.

“My biggest accomplishment,” Simpson told Lipsyte, “is that people look at me like a man first, not a black man.” Simpson tells Lipsyte the story of a wedding he’d attended with his first wife and a group of black friends. Simpson overheard a white guest remark, “Look, there’s O. J. Simpson and some niggers.”.] Simpson confessed to Lipsyte that the remark hurt – which however wasn’t the point, but that the point was to not be seen as one of the “niggers.”[10]

Sean ‘Jay-Z’ Carter has released Footnotes (originally on his streaming service Tidal) on the The Story of O.J. in which Carter and other celebrities speak about what it means to be successful and black in America. Carter argues that: “We tend to as black people, because we never had anything which is understandable, we get to a place and we just think we can separate ourselves from the culture” (Carter, 2017). Carter further argues that it is in this particular moment where someone like Orenthal James Simpson can get to a space and say “I’m not black I’m O.J.” (Carter, 2017).

The statement “I’m not black, I’m O.J” has been often misattributed to Simpson, but which is a statement with which he has since become synonymous (Adlakha, 2017), purely because it epitomises Simpson’s yearning to be seen above his race, especially in the context of the fact that even though Simpson was acquitted for murder, it was in his legal team’s claim that Simpson was targeted because he was a black man- a black man who committed murder and separated himself from his identity as an African America, yet played the metaphorical race card to avoid conviction (Coates, 2016).

Jay-Z represents this as a caricature of O.J. Simpson dressed in his football gear answering Journalists with “I’m not black I’m O.J.,” to which Jay-Z sarcastically responds “Okay.” Jay-Z entitled the song The Story of O.J , but discusses and discards Simpson in the very first verse to highlight that in a debate about race, you cannot remove yourself from your culture. It is almost as if Jay-Z is elaborating about what it means to be successful and black in America through the discourse of O.J Simpson, but Simpson separates himself from his race, and so the rapper leaves him out entirely from the rest of the discussion.

In the context of The Story of O.J., Jay-Z is embellishing the already stereotyped aspects of blackness – the exaggerated facial features of Africans, and also re-presents old stereotypes, as with Jaybo eating the watermelon, a stereotype popularized during the early 1900 newspaper cartoons (Wiggins, 1988). During the end of the first hook, Jaybo is sitting in a segregated bus, illustrating that structural racism was governed and implemented and law- specifically in the Southern States of America. It was through the Montgomery bus Boycott, the action of Rosa Parks to refuse her seat, as well as countless sit-ins that African Americans gained momentum in the fight for Civil Rights and equality during the 1960’s, and Jay-Z alludes to that era and the fight for equal rights through the representation of Jaybo in the colored section of the bus.

The following representation Carter depicts is the field nigga and house nigga (or field slave and house slave). Jay-Z utilizes a pop-culture caricature that re-presents Samuel L Jackson’s character Stephen from the film Django Unchained as the representation of the house nigga.[11] Here, Jaybo is depicted as a slave working the cotton plantations [read fields] where Carter draws himself analogically to “playing the corners where them hustles be” – a reference which infers that the “street corner” life is directly correlated to the life of a field slave. According to Clay (2003), stemming from the period of late capitalism in 1990s New York, Hip-Hop artists emerged with a new identity as Black Youth, and used the medium to advance their story of what was increasingly being defined as by “the hood, the block, or the corner” (Clay 2003, p. 1374). Immediately after referencing the street corner life, Carter makes a plea as Jaybo: “Please don’t die over the neighborhood, That your momma rentin’, Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood, That’s how you rinse it.” The representation of Black Angels with bullet holes ascending to heaven are slightly graphic but serve a necessary function in Carter’s commentary on black-on-black violence, and racial injustices perpetuated by police in America which has since been championed by the Black Lives Matter movement[12]. While Jaybo is walking through the vibrant streets of New York, his reference to momma may be a reference to Mammy Two Shoes, a reference that infers that the maid stereotype from Tom and Jerry is in this context somebody’s mother. A wave washes through the New York buildings while Carter discusses financial dexterity- highlighting the importance of owning private property.

After the wave flushes through the streets, Jaybo- driving a pick-up truck, is transporting the harvested bags of cotton, and seated a-top these bags is a young tribal African child that resembles the early depiction of Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (Yuill, 1976). Carter utilises the depiction of a tribal-like-Sambo child in two other shots pictured banging on drums hinting at the animalistic characteristics that were conveyed in early animated representations of Africans. Furthermore, Carter uses the banging of the drums metaphorically too, to enhance the emphasis of his lyrics. Jaybo then references his real persona, Shawn Carter, and shares some of his financial blunders. Speaking to his psychiatrist that is fixated on his own drawing, Jaybo considers how a building in Dumbo, New York, worth 2 million dollars years ago could be worth 25 million dollars today through gentrification: “Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.” This critique stems from the idea that gentrification has undisputedly destroyed beloved neighborhoods in New York at the hands of politically-connected privileged elites that have contributed to social injustices leaving communities worse off (Hymowitz, 2017).[13] The irony, according to Hymowitz (2017), is that gentrification has been seen as a positive aspect in developing ‘New Brooklyn’, and Carter alludes to this fact by referring to himself as Dumbo for not investing in Dumbo. Jaybo-as-Dumbo flies across cotton fields singing the second lyrical hook.

However, animated to the last two lines, “still nigga, still nigga” of the second hook is Huey P. Newton, leader of the Black Panthers- animated to the historic photo captured of him with a rifle and a spear in either hand (Fig 78 & 79). Huey P. Newton co-founded the left-wing Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, a social and political organization that took a militant stance to the plight of the African American community in America[14]. Newton’s militaristic rhetoric consolidated him as prominent figure in the Black Power Movement which accompanied the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

During the second part of the second hook a cotton bag is filled up; the cross that was erected during the first lyrical hook is set alight a-top a hill in Ku Klux Klan (KKK) fashion, while Jaybo sings the second part of the hook as a slave picking cotton in a field now full of slaves (Fig. 36). A Cotton Mill is depicted- the input is cotton, while the output is KKK members in their white hoods. According to Adlakha (2017) the representation of a slew of hood-wearing white supremacists as the output connotes that the cotton are the fruits of black labour, which in turn indicates the simultaneous processes of using slavery for profit, a system which ultimately ensured blackness was subjugated (Adlakha, 2017).

The next stanza begins with Jaybo sitting at the bar at the back of the Burlesque theatre and poses a question while money rains down: “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club?”, and proposes to answer with “credit.” Jaybo follows this question with another question that contains yet another loaded stereotype for which Carter received some criticism about anti-Semitism.[15] Jaybo asks, “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?” and as the face of a bill he answers “This how they did it. Financial freedom my only hope” as the tribal-like-Sambo child bangs on a drum. Jaybo then proceeds up a staircase of money only to refute ‘dying broke’ by illustrating how Shawn Carter is trying to accumulate generational wealth.

“I bought some artwork for one million, two years later that shit worth two millionas the tribal-like-Sambo child brings the banging on his drums to a crescendo literally and quite metaphorically too as Jaybo says “Few years later that shit worth eight million, I can’t wait to give this shit to my children.” Jaybo is thereafter depicted sitting in front of a stylized wooden slave house with his new twins in hand while referring to redistributing his wealth to his multiple children. Jay-Z then addresses his contemporary critics, “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine. but I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for nine-ninety nine” as Carter hints at his financial net worth, which is approximately $810 million according to Forbes (2017). According to Brown (2006), bougie is part of the African American English (AAE) lexicon and is most often meant to signify class (i.e bourgeoisie). Stemming from Karl Marx’s critique on Capitalism, Marx argued that Capital as the economic base in society ensured that a ruling class (the bourgeoisie) would govern over the working class (the proletariat) for the purpose of profit. Jay-Z is thus illustrating that even though he may be perceived as being part of the bourgeoisie, he attempts to be redistributive in his wealth; by providing a million dollars-worth of basketball games for a monthly fee of $9.99, by redistributing his wealth to his children, in the final scene where Jaybo-as-Dumbo flies over New York throwing money down for the kids, and by using The Story of O.J as a discourse which warms against the pangs of racism but fundamentally highlights the importance of financial intelligibility for African Americans on a personal level, and amongst the greater diaspora- a culture Carter is trying to encourage by also using the wealth stereotype of the Jewish community to draw parallels.

In the next line Jay-Z claims “I turned that two to a four, four to an eight” in reference to his entrepreneurial ability to generate money. Carter is then represented on a coin as a black founding father with the word ‘Liberty’ [Freedom] inscribed on the top. This reference is a powerful statement primarily because all the modern founders of the United States were white men. Jaybo transforms into a stamp that signifies the documentation of the song “The story O’ O.J.” as way to celebrate himself on a stamp. The first U.S stamp that celebrated an African America was a ten-cent Booker T Washington stamp that was issued in 1940[16]. Historically stamps were symbolic, and as a stamp Carter suggests that he turned his life into a “first week release date,” celebrating his achievements, and in turn celebrating Black Excellence.

A wooden ship is then sailing through rough waters, the scene cuts to Jaybo beneath the deck of a slave ship with slaves bobbing their heads to the beat of the music as Jaybo says, “Y’all out here still takin’ advances, huh?” in reference to buying on credit. “Me and my niggas takin’ real chances, uh.” Carter uses nigga here as a term of endearment and implies that the financial risk he faces can be equated to middle-class struggle. As Jaybo comes up a set of stairs and walks up to what in fact turns out to be the bow of a yacht called Oceans, the doors of slavery close behind him- literally and metaphorically, as Jay proclaims: “Y’all on the ‘gram holdin’ money to your ear, There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here.” This rebuttal from Jay-Z comes from a culture of rappers who have taken pictures (and hosted them on popular social network Instagram, i.e the ‘gram’) with large sums of money to their ears at it were a phone as a means to arrogantly display their wealth. This ‘disconnect’ which Carter refers to applies on two level; the first, a disconnect between the African American community and the ability to make wise financial decisions en masse; and secondly, especially since having walked straight out of what was a slave ship and onto a yacht connotes that Carter’s wealth is not slave money, there’s a disconnect in that the era of earning slave-driven profit has ended- a mild critique from Carter on capitalism itself.

During the final lyrical hook, Jaybo walks across the globe between iconic monuments, such as the Taj Mahal in India, the great Pyramids of Egypt, and even Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa swaying whimsically like classic Fleischer cartoons (Adlakha, 2017). A raised fist in gloves are shown- the gloves in this instance are not indicative of the animation industry’s early use of white gloves due to the influence of the Vaudeville Blackface/Minstrel shows,[17] but rather represent a black fist representing Black Power. The representation which follows is a full shot of the raised fist of Olympic Gold Medalist Tommie Smith, who along with John Carlos raised their fists in protest of American racial inequality during the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games (ajplus, 2017). For Emphasis, Carter represents Tommie Smith singing the last line of the penultimate hook: “Still Nigga.”

There are clips of Jaybo mockingly dancing about with KKK members, and one scene where a KKK member threateningly grabs his hands in a grappling motion. The animations that stand out in the final scenes are the slaves that are lynched as they make their way off a slave ship, followed by another scene where there is a ‘Sale of Negroes’ –  two adults and one child – nonchalantly taking place outside a grocery store while white pipe-smoking slave owners bid. Delivering the final line of the Story of O.J. is Jaybo, with a noose tightened around his neck and hanging from a tree: “Still nigga, Still nigga.” Black soldiers march across the globe with the U.S.A flag, as the curtains come to a close on the representation of Saartjie Baartman, and Jaybo-as-Dumbo flies through the high rise buildings throwing money down for the children of New York, emphasizing the redistribution of wealth.[18]

Negritude Thought, the Harlem Renaissance and their influence on Jay-Z’s Hip-Hop

The idea behind using Negritude Thought as an Afrocentric framework in the context of Jay-Z’s The Story of O.J. is precisely because as an African Existentialist Philosophy, according to Gordon (2000, p. 8) as cited by More (2010), Negritude exists in reflections rooted in black experience, on the boundaries of human existence and the utilisation of such reflections to challenges confronting Africa and African-descended people in Diaspora. Carter’s The Story of O.J. deals directly with these themes of Negritude. Furthermore, Negritude as an existentialist philosophy deals with issues of the emergence of black selfhood and black suffering, embodied agency, freedom, racism and liberation, in short, it deals with being-black-in-the-world (More, 2010). According to Abiola Irele (1965), a leading scholar in African Studies, Negritude can be seen as counter-movement away from white supremacy, which constitutes a symbolic progression from subordination to independence, from alienation, through revolt, to self-affirmation- themes which Carter represents in The Story of O.J. “By virtue of the historical fact of racial oppression, colonisation, and slavery, Africana philosophy raises questions of identity and liberation by focusing on the reality that African people are a black people and hence are affected by the significance of race and racism” (More, 2010).

The term Negritude was coined by one of its founders- Aime Cesaire, who during the 1920’s was a Martinique-Frenchman studying in France. Cesaire and fellow students used a mimeograph machine and essentially ran a publication- publishing poems and literary pieces as a means to express themselves, and called this movement “negritude”- which in English translates to “Blackness” (Asante, 2010). Furthermore, according to Asante (2010), Cesaire argued that Negritude was a revolt against the absolute persistent push of French culture [assimilation] that negated the existence of Africa and the African. Professor Assante (2010) further notes that “the revolt also leads us somewhere, it’s not just a dead end, it’s not just reaction for the sake of reaction. But that it leads us as Africans… back to ourselves. That is fundamentally the key idea of Negritude, that we go back to ourselves.”[19]

Like the literature and poetry that emanated from Aime Cesaire’s periodical L’etudiant Noir– the poetry, lyric or Negro Spirituals that emanated from the United States represent the earliest examples of black people’s indirect defense, through an art form, against the conditions of contact with the white man. Irele (1965) further explains that the spirituals appear in this light as a direct ancestor of the Negritude Poem – the lyrical note adopted by desperate slaves. Irele (1965) further notes that Langston Hughes illustrates the point that some of the Spirituals like ‘Steal Away’ were disguised as weapons of direct resistance. Irele (1965) continues to elaborate by stating that these acts of expression contain the first form of Negro religious expression, “elements taken from the dominating culture of the white master were adapted to the negro’s temperament as well as reinterpreted to apply to his situation.”

Due to the entrenched racism permeating white American society during the Harlem Renaissance, according to Williams (2002): “Jazz [as an art form] did not seem compatible with the ‘New Negro’ image of a dignified, sophisticated artist, proud of black ancestry and accepted by white America.” Williams (2002) further argues that Jazz simply needed ‘polish and a smart suit’ to make it an accepted part of the ideological movement which it accompanied. Williams (2002) notes that Jazz and the Blues were associated with a lewd conduct, which according to the black intellectual elite, would only perpetuate the idea prevalent amongst white people that black people were lascivious and primitive. This point is illustrated by Carter though the representation of Saartjie Baartman in the Burlesque theater along with Nina Simone and the Jazz tone. Furthermore, Williams (2002) suggests that a folk art worth celebrating was the Spiritual, loaded with dignity and religious yearning, and just as importantly, growing popular amongst white Americans and Europeans. Irele (1965) argues that the main concern of the Black Intelligentsia of the time was that of the black man’s racial consciousness– a ‘marginal man’ burdened with conflicting ethnic and national loyalties, nuanced by Colin Kaepernik’s kneel and Orenthal James Simpson’s refusal to be seen as a black man. It is also particularly why, according to Irele (1965), Negro Poetry, Jazz and Blues served an important function- “to differentiate the Negro and give him the sense of a cultural heritage”, in other words, create a sense of identity that is African American. An understanding can thus be concluded that Spirituals, Jazz and Blues were an art form most attributed to African Americans, and these forms of expression created an African American identity. In its contemporary form, Hip-Hop is a genre which also originated from the African American community, and The Story of O.J. is a nuanced example of an African American art form which celebrates the identity and history of the African experience in the United States.

The Story of O.J. can be seen in the light of these popular genres – a poem/spiritual through the influence of Hip-Hop, and Jazz through Carter’s continued reference to artists of the era and the celebration of their work. Furthermore, as a case study, The Story of O.J. deals directly with the themes of Negritude- re-presenting the counter-movement away from white supremacy, which also re-presents symbolic representations of the progression from subordination to independence, from alienation, through revolt, to self-affirmation. Sean ‘Jay-Z’ Carter does this through exaggerated imagery of slavery and the fight for civil rights through his nuanced rap and representations in The Story of O.J. This is not to say that Jay-Z has not embodied, or espoused, the ideas of negritude through his music before. The song Oceans (also the name of the yatch in The Story of O.J.) featuring Frank Ocean from the album Magna Carter Holy Grail addresses slavery, and uses the ocean metaphorically as a pre-trauma for African slaves’ experience in the United States. From the album Watch the Throne, Jay-Z’s Murder to Excellence addresses black-on-black violence and concludes with a celebration of Black Excellence, while Made In America (feat. Frank Ocean) encompasses the tone of a contemporary Spiritual. In fact, as a micro-argument of this essay, the song Niggas in Paris can in this context be seen as a reference to Aime Cesaire and the Afro-Caribbean French influence on the Americas. Furthermore, from the album Watch the Throne, Carter feature’s Nina Simone on New Day and Otis Redding on Otis. Carter’s fixation with using these iconic artists lay in the idea that their music was an ode to African existence during the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, Nina Simone’s song entitle Four woman tells the tale of four African American women with different skin tones- embodying four different racial stereotypes: Aunt Sarah, an enduring slave; Safrona, an unwanted mixed-race outcast; Sweet Thing, a prostitute presented as palatable to white sensibilities; and Peaches, an angry black woman carrying the weight of her parents’ enslavement (Adlakha, 2017). Sean Carter is thus very effectively nuancing various narratives of the black experience through The Story of O.J. while at the same time nuancing the tone of the Harlem Renaissance through the existentialist themes of Negritude. To reiterate, Professor Asante (2010) argues that Jane Nardal and her sister Paulette Nardal were influential in Paris and in the Caribbean Basin, and who ultimately “introduced the Negritude people with the Harlem Renaissance people,” ensuring the ideological movement (Negritude) was accompanied by a cultural revolution (the Harlem Renaissance).

Concluding thoughts

The imagery of hooded KKK members and burning crosses in relation to slaves being sold and the instance where Jaybo is hanged, those type of imagery fulfill a purpose. The representations of African resistance; of Jaybo in a segregated bus; the raised fist of Tommie Smith; the use of the Sambo caricatures; and the inclusive references to Dumbo; Loony Tunes and Mammy Two Shoes, are implicitly implied depictions of the way blackness was subjugated, and Jay-Z reproduces these images to invoke a level of consciousness on African Americans in contemporary society- that is to say that by historical fact black people were subjugated, and stereotypes in cartoon strips and animations further perpetuated the idea of reducing Africans to subhuman. Irele (1965, p. 510) argues that the “opening up of the African mind to certain dimensions of its own world which western influence had obscured appears to be in fact the most essential and the most significant element in the literature of negritude as the principle channel of the African Renaissance.” Shawn Carter is thus trying to channel and African Renaissance through some of his music.

Carter opened up the discussion about race representation in Animation on an unprecedented level through The Story of O.J., and through the creative fusion of Hip-Hop accompanied by historic and hybrid exaggerated caricatures, it can be concluded that yes, there were cartoons that emerged from the United States that were racist, furthermore, newspaper cartoon strips used Sambo caricatures from as early as 1908. The subjugation of blackness is not a new idea, and to echo the words of Cornel West (2002), the idea that black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West. Using the same black and white aesthetic, Jay-Z’s commentary addresses the fact that degrading stereotypes were perpetuated in American cartoons and animations largely produced by and for white interests (King, 2010). Carter’s critique on race is nuanced by imagery of slavery, resistance, and rooted in the use of the word ‘nigga’. The N-word went from being an arguably neutral term, to an overt slur, into a racial epithet. The term was reclaimed through slaves in the counter-language, and through the Hip-Hop generation that appropriated the word as a term of endearment. Jay-Z uses the opprobrious use of the N-word in the hook to illustrate that in the face of racial equality in America, there is a case to be made that African Americans are still second-class citizens, and that black people are still subject to the stereotypes that have been perpetuated for decades. The reference to O.J. Simpson highlights the fact that the African American struggle is rooted in a collective identity, in a collective consciousness, which is why you cannot remove yourself from your culture, from your race.

Appendix: Lyrics- The Story Of O.J.

Skin is, skin, is
Skin black, my skin is black
My, black, my skin is yellow

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga
I like that second one
Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
House nigga, don’t fuck with me
I’m a field nigga with shined cutlery
Gold-plated quarters where the butlers be
I’mma play the corners where the hustlers be
I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood
That your momma rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
That’s how you rinse it”
I bought every V12 engine
Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’
I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo
For like two million
That same building today is worth twenty-five million
Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo

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

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
Financial freedom my only hope
Fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke
I bought some artwork for one million
Two years later, that shit worth two million
Few years later, that shit worth eight million
I can’t wait to give this shit to my children
Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine
But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for nine ninety-nine
I turned that two to a four, four to an eight
I turned my life into a nice first week release date, mm
Y’all out here still takin’ advances, huh?
Me and my niggas takin’ real chances, uh
Y’all on the ‘gram holdin’ money to your ear
There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here, yeah

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga
Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga[20]

Goolam Hassen was born in South Africa of Indian descent. Aware of the post-apartheid nuances that shaped the race and class narrative of the southern-most tip of Africa, his lived-experience, coupled with his education drove the impetus for his research paper on the animated representations of Africans.


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[18] ‘redistribution of wealth’ stemming from John Rawls’ Egalitarian theory of justice. (1971).

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