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Jay-Z’s 4:44 Moves Black Radical Thought Through and Beyond the Classroom

Trump’s America exposes a fundamental truth—that black lives will be sacrificed to the alter of white supremacy even after the white supremacists retire their hoods. This is not a new lesson. Jay-Z has been telling us so for all of these years. So, I asked my students to listen, closely.

As a scholar and educator of Afro-pessimism—perhaps the greatest form of black optimism— I have found that Jay-Z’s music and politics offer me a useful pedagogical instrument for moving black radical thought through and beyond the classroom.  Afro-pessimism at once mourns the gratuitous suffering black people must endure and professes the gratuitous freedom they might enjoy. It’s a both/and kind of theory, and Jay-Z is its most high-profile celebrity spokesperson.

No cultural producer has been so prolific in his responses to structural antiblackness, in song and in prose, as Jay-Z. His music teaches us to read more closely for how the “criminal justice system stalks black people”—for example, in “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” Jay-Z “[flips] the Latin phrase that is considered the bedrock principle of our criminal justice system, ei incumbit probatio qui dicit” in which “the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies”—at the same time as his music teaches us to listen for the sound of black suffering, in beats that break and hold to reveal movements within movements that are “lived underground, in outer space”.[1] Indeed, Jay-Z’s stylings invite a poetic correction to the antiblack grammar of this world. His music video for the title track especially invites students to think about the movement of the body in song and to think about what identity and difference mean.

While the critical black theorists I assign, like Frank B. Wilderson III, Jared Sexton, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman, teach my students to think robustly about the black feminist argument that black lives don’t, or more precisely, can’t matter—save an epistemological crisis that rearranges how and what we know—it is Jay-Z who teaches them to see, think, and feel this theoretical argument practiced as culture, as the daily, quotidian operations of the world.

Jay-Z’s title track in particular incorporates Spillers’ and Hartmans’ critiques of structural antiblackness and its gendered effects to make a statement about black love as a revolutionary and fugitive possibility. The video borrows its collage style from artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016) and its clips, including sightings of Spillers (at minute mark 5:05) and Hartman (at minute mark 2:29) from Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder than Death (2013). Not only are Spillers’ and Hartman’s persons cited, but their corpus is taken up in movement, too, in conversation with the choreographed stylings of Brooklyn-based performer Okwui Okpokwasili, who engages with their work to imagine that pain and pleasure of racial blackness in bodily movement, that is to say, in and as a black feminist movement.

I see “4:44” doing more than just lamenting the love and commitment that Jay-Z owes to Beyoncé but can never deliver in a manner that is worthy of her; it is also or especially about the fungibility and (im)possible fugitivity of racial blackness. Jay-Z incorporates black radical thought literally and allegorically; his critical merging of the high theory to which Afro-pessimism, as a literature which interrogate humanism, modernity, and its discontents, responds, and the ‘low’ culture that caricatures hip-hop has moved the conversations in my Black Lives (Don’t) Matter class through and beyond the classroom, to think about space, time, and ontology, or the nature of being, which is fraught for black persons in space and time.

Consider the stanza: “We’re supposed to laugh ’til our heart stops/ And then meet in a space where the dark stop/ And let love light the way.” Here, love is the actualization of a freedom dream that is yet to come and which has not yet arrived—perhaps, which necessarily cannot arrive but, when it does, will be explosive, which is to say, will be an ‘excellence’ (he elaborates in “Legacy,” the album’s final track, dedicated to his children) that will save us all, so that “someday we’ll all be free.” Jay-Z’s is a politics of “[taking] those moneys and [spreading them across] families” to create a “society within a society” in which we take care of each other, which he modeled with a personal contribution to disaster relief in Puerto Rico last September.

The future according to Jay-Z is capacious, and in being capacious, is the Afro-pessimistic future of black feminism. In an echo of the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement”, this future privileges racial blackness first, last, and only, and in doing so, makes room for all other articulations of difference—as Jay-Z enumerates them in “Legacy”, “Muslim, Buddhist, and Christians”, and as he reflects in “Smile,” same sex attractions and identifications.

This is what it would mean to inhabit the break Jay-Z describes: “a space where the dark stops” and love instead “lights the way”. As a visual album, 4:44 does some heavy lifting, reflecting in song and images that racial blackness stands outside of and disrupts human recognitions and protections. The post-humanism Jay-Z invokes as the new materialism whereby black persons are proscribed from ontological (i.e., human) resistance is the stuff of chattel slavery’s afterlife, in which black persons are not recognized as human but as the human’s constitutive Other.

The black post-human (i.e., robot) in the video for “4:44”, shown intercepting a 1985 interview with Jean Michel Basquiat—in which Basquiat laments being made a spectacle by media reporters—therefore reflects, “I am having an existential crisis here. Am I alive? Do I actually exist? Will I die?” (minute mark 5:40). The rich tapestry Jay-Z creates by layering a critique of the human atop imagery about the possibilities of black feminist bodily comportment, atop beats that themselves break, prolonged in the message that love is the way out/through, into the gratuitous freedom that is our Otherwise is the call for a radical pedagogy of miseducation.

What if going to college meant listening to Jay-Z’s music, examining his music videos as one would close read a text, and even—as my students at our small Midwestern liberal arts college experienced on December 5th—going to a Jay-Z concert? What Jay-Z has given my students is the ability to think about space, including their campus space, time, and being differently, precisely because of how he curates movement in sound and in image, as the performative enactment of black study in the world as on white campus spaces that must be undone.

In the hour of Trump’s America, we would be wise to remember Jay-Z’s lesson: that all freedom pivots on a gratuitous black freedom that is a non-human freedom, and which will save us all.

M. Shadee Malaklou is an Assistant Professor of Critical Identity Studies at Beloit College, where she teaches the upper-division theory course Black Lives Matter. She is also a Mellon Faculty Fellow of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Expanded Poetics in the Department of English at Concordia University in Montréal.

Notes. 

[1]. Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism” in InTensions Number 5 (Fall/Winter 2011) 28.

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