FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail