By: Liqin Chen and Natalie Kumeh

The Overview:

Written by rapper Jay-Z at 4:44 in the morning, many believe that the song “4:44” is one of his best songs. Released on June 30th of 2017 as part of the album “4:44”, it’s honest and extremely personal in that Jay-Z expresses his regret and apology for cheating on his wife Beyoncé and not supporting her when she needed it. He believes that “4:44” is fitting for his album and that it is one of the best songs he’s ever written. While he did write the song at 4:44 in the morning, 4 is also a special number for the couple since both were born on the fourth day of the month, married on April 4th, and have ‘IV’ matching wedding tattoos. Even though Jay-Z never explicitly stated the song was about himself and Beyoncé, the lyrics and music video are enough hints to show that it is directed towards their relationship. In a way, it is a response to Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade” as he discusses his mistakes and shows heavy remorse for his actions toward her and also towards his daughter. While the song was written by Jay-Z, there was heavy influence from producer No. ID and plenty of other African American singers featured in the song’s music video. Not only does it have clips of figures such as Hannah Williams and the Isley Brothers, footage of Jay-Z with his wife Beyoncé and daughter Blue Ivy, and other scenes of the African American community that feed into the overarching theme of love and relationships in the African American community.


Fig. 2., Jay-Z,Beyonce, and Blue Ivy at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards., usamagazine.com, February 1, 2017, image owned by Kevin Winter on Getty Images, https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-moms/news/beyonce-and-jay-zs-daughter-blue-ivy-is-so-excited-to-be-a-big-sister-w464413/

Historical and Cultural Context:

Seeing as “4:44” is a rather personal song, the timeline of the world surrounding the date of the release of this song is hardly relevant. The only details from any events that occurred at or around the time of the album’s release have to pertain to Jay-Z himself and/or his family.

Well over a year before the release of the “4:44” album, we can see a catalyst for this specific song in the album.  “Lemonade” was released by Jay-Z’s wife, Beyoncé, and it was clearly addressing the unfaithful actions of her husband and allowing her listeners to hear and begin to understand her feelings towards this major event in her life and marriage. With this cheating scandal floating in, out, and around Jay-Z and his expanding family, it makes sense that he would finally tackle this issue head-on by apologizing to his wife and daughter for his mistakes.

Jay-Z addresses his shortcomings throughout their relationship in this song including his absence in the trials endured by Beyoncé after her stillbirths. Even more recently in the couple’s timeline is the “rumor” of Beyoncé giving birth to a set of twins still raging and awaiting an official confirmation in the weeks leading up to the release of ‘4:44’. The first lines spoken by Jay in the song address the fact that it took his kids for him to see that his errors cannot go on without acknowledgement and correction.

When Jay is speaking on the beginning of his relationship with Bey, there is strong reflection of the stigma in black cultural relating to how men should treat their women. If they are seen showing too much affection or “lovey-dovey’ instead of acting tough, they are talked down upon. In other words, it can be heard in the way he chose his words that there is a society that makes it hard for men, especially black men, to truly soften up for a woman to the public. He even mentions how instead of asking for Beyoncé to become his girlfriend or start a more serious relationship with him his words are “don’t embarrass me”. This shows that he was more worried about how she would affect his image than how she feels or how he plays a part in their new relationship too.

All these years later, after a marriage and children Beyoncé and Jay-Z are still in that relationship but now the tables have turned, and he has embarrassed her with his infidelity. In an interview with the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, Jay-Z confesses that neither ‘Lemonade’ nor ‘4:44’ were planned come across as personal or related to their marriage as they were. Along with that, the music the other created made them uncomfortable, but they were still very proud and respectful of each other’s works. This speaks volumes about the underlying strength and love that lies in their relationship.

Themes and Styles:

“4:44” is unique because it is an extremely personal topic that Jay-Z raps about: his relationship and infidelities with his wife Beyoncé, not showing signs of shying away from his mistakes.  As a result, the lyrics are very intimate and reference specific events between the two of them. While it is a rap song, chorus music from Hannah Williams & The Affirmations’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak” mixes in with Jay-Z’s own lyrics to express the themes of love and relationships.   Through the meaning of the lyrics and the glimpses of the couple’s lives and other African American artists in the music video, Jay-Z’s song offers an insight into marital relationships of the African American community, while at the same time celebrating the art and culture that has developed in contemporary culture.   

Fig. 1., Music video by Jay-Z performing “4:44”, Youtube.com; Aug. 1, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSkA61esq_c


The somber, almost slow pace of the song takes the listener back to the past where Jay-Z admits “Look, I apologize/often womanize” and opens up about cheating on Beyoncé and being unable to have the feelings and attitude of a father, as well as what he did wrong and acknowledging the hurt he caused Beyoncé.  In the beginning of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s relationship, there were many rumors of Jay-Z cheating on Beyoncé and these rumors were also addressed by Beyoncé herself in her album “Lemonade”. It’s not an upbeat or energetic song, but rather fittingly a very apologetic and serious song.

Additionally, the commentary in the beginning of the music video by Eartha Kitta talking about love sets the undertone for the rest of the music video to focus on relationships and love.  Kitta argues that there should be no compromise in love, and while relationships are “wonderful,” they should be earned, not compromised. This calls out to honesty in relationships so that both sides can open up to each other fully, especially when there is conflict.

Conflict from Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s relationship is hinted at in “4:44”.  There are specific scenes from their lives mentioned in the song, such as the rift and separation in their marriage partly due to Jay-Z’s increasing fame and wealth. “And all this ratchet shit and we more expansive/Not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions/Or sleep with our back turned/We supposed to vacay ’til our backs burn” references the fame and wealth gained by “more expansive” and “mansions”.   Known as a power couple, they are one of the highest paid celebrity couples due to the success of their song and also their businesses. It is expected then that this would be a very happy couple, since nothing seemed amiss in the eyes of the media, yet “supposed to be vacay ‘til our backs burn” and “sleep with our back turned” hints at a different reality. In a happy marriage, couples usually sleep together and vacation or have fun together; the opposite ideas reinforced in the song evidence an unhappy marriage.

In the present, the song moves toward Jay-Z’s worries of never being forgiven for his mistakes since he not only cheated on Beyoncé, but he also apologizes “for all the stillborns cause [he] wasn’t present” to support her and ease her pain when it was found out about the miscarriage.  Most everyone knew that Beyoncé was pregnant with twins but suffered a miscarriage, which saddened her greatly. He regretted “letting [her] down everyday” and apologizes for “running away” in the past; now he has matured and learned from his mistakes, and the song reflects that development. Jay-Z confesses “I suck at love/I think I need a do-over” and worries over his actions’ impact on his daughter Blue when he wonders “And if my children knew/I won’t even know what I would do” and thinks he “would probably die with all the shame.”  His daughter is young now and can be shielded from media rumors and bad news in the press, but she will grow up and likely find out about what he did and her parents’ relationship; Jay-Z worries about her reaction to this and its effect on her growth. Being a father, he now has responsibilities to both his wife and his daughter.

Seemingly a personal subject at first glance, “4:44” calls out to African American men in relationships, especially for them admit and learn from their wrongs and not hesitate to ask for forgiveness, and to become better husbands and fathers for their wives and children.

Critical Conversation:

This song is something the public was not expecting from an artist like Jay-Z, even after his wife opened up about her struggles with their relationship after his infidelity. So naturally, with the public being in shock and awe there is a lot of analysis surrounding the lyrics and the production of this song.

There are some critics who admired the telling of both sides of the story from Beyoncé and Jay-Z. They were surprised by the openness but taken with the honesty and how this scenario changes the societal norms for surrounding social communities. According to Brittany Spanos, author of an article on the Rolling Stone, both Beyoncé with ‘Lemonade’ and Jay-Z with ‘4:44’ “redefine black love” and “completes a raw yet dignified portrait of black love and fame in modern America”. The importance of this viewpoint falls to the young black community which may use black celebrities such as Beyoncé and her husband as models of what “black love” should or should not be. Whether or not they were content with how this couple choose to use this episode of weakness in a relationship to strengthen their bond, they did form an endless amount of opinions that will consciously and subconsciously shape their lives.

Although the public is the main audience of his song, there are people that are much closer to the project that had many opinions about his song. In the eyes of these people that are closer to Jay-Z and the song, such as No I.D, it was about time for Jay-Z to open up about not only the scandal surrounding his marriage but his marriage and general.  No I.D is a well-versed producer who helped artists such as Kanye and Drake create singles that moved their audience while also being responsible for other artists such as Jhené Aiko and Vince Staples getting their start. No I.D. was also the only producer on the album 4:44, when in today’s day and age, it is more common to have multiple producers on one album. The producer said that “I knew he wanted to [say those things],” when speaking about Jay-Z and his openness about his relationship in his new music. He continued with “I don’t want to take credit for what he wanted to do in the first place. I helped push him … Meaning: You wanted a Picasso, but why? You’re with Beyoncé, but what is that really like? What’s the pressure? What’s the responsibility? What’s the ups and downs? I wanted him to not be over people’s heads.” There was a tone of encouragement and curiosity with No I.D which prompted Jay-Z to release what he did, and there is an understanding of approval amongst all those involved in the production of this song.

Other “average” people such as Mosi Reeves also from the Rolling Stone thought the initial thought of Jay-Z making a public apology to anyone was at the very least “unnerving”, but later those feelings of slight fear changed to an admiration of his willingness to express vulnerability to the public for the sake of his wife. There is complimentary feeling for this more “down-to-earth Jay” in the opinion of Reeves. Even still there are those like, Rebecca King, an author of an article titled “Jay-Z’s 4:44: A Lyric Analysis”. Who aren’t the least bit interest in Jay-Z or the kind of music he creates. In the aforementioned article, she discusses the lyrics of the top 2 songs on Jay-Z’s album but starts off with a disclaimer which states her distaste for rap music in general and Jay-Z in specific. When she eventually discusses the individual song ‘4:44’ she praises Jay-Z for his admittances and how he chose to bare himself to completely apologize to his wife for his shortcomings and poor decisions. It is interesting that even those who are in the outer circle of the “audience pool” were still touched, affected, and formed opinions on his work.

Works Cited

“JAY-Z – 4:44.” Genius, 30 June 2017, www.genius.com/Jay-z-4-44-lyrics.

Leight, Elias. “’4:44′ Producer No I.D. Talks Pushing Jay-Z, Creating ‘500 Ideas’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 30 June 2017,www.rollingstone.com/music/features/444-producer-no-id-talks-pushing-jay-z-creating-500-ideas-w490602.

King, Rebecca. “Jay Z’s 4:44: A Lyric Analysis.” The Odyssey, 26 July 2017, www.theodysseyonline.com/444-lyric-analysis.

“Hannah Williams & The Affirmations – Late Nights & Heartbreak.” Genius, 11 Nov. 2016, www.genius.com/Hannah-williams-and-the-affirmations-late-nights-and-heartbreak-lyrics.

Roth, Madeline. “Watch Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’ Video, Featuring Appearances From Beyoncé And Blue Ivy.” MTV News, 14 July 2017, www.mtv.com/news/3025317/jay-z-444-video/.

Tutu, AnnMargaret. “What Does JAY-Z’s Album Title ‘4:44’ Mean? – ART Marketing.” ART Marketing, ART Marketing, 7 Aug. 2017, www.artplusmarketing.com/bts-of-jay-zs-4-44-intro-what-does-4-44-mean-4c6ee0bdc99b.

Jones, Ja’han. “JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’ Makes Room For Black Men To Be Vulnerable.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 July 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jay-z-444-makes-room-for-black-men-to-be-vulnerable-and-thats-important_us_596780bfe4b0a8d46d129b22.

“Beyonce and Jay Z’s Daughter Blue Ivy Is ‘So Excited’ to Be a Big Sister.” Us Weekly, 8 Feb. 2018, https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-moms/news/beyonce-and-jay-zs-daughter-blue-ivy-is-so-excited-to-be-a-big-sister-w464413/. (for the picture)

Spanos, Brittany. “How Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’ and Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Redefine Black Love, Fame.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 30 June 2017, www.rollingstone.com/music/features/jay-zs-444-and-beyonces-lemonade-redefine-black-love-w490410.

Reeves, Mosi. “Review: Jay-Z Is Vulnerable, Apologetic and Still Dazzling on ‘4:44’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 5 July 2017,  www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/review-jay-zs-444-w490939.

Bueno, Antoinette. “JAY-Z Explains Why He Was Unfaithful to Beyonce, Talks ‘Complicated’ Relationship With Kanye West.” Entertainment Tonight, ETOnline, 29 Nov. 2017, www.etonline.com/jay-z-explains-why-he-was-unfaithful-beyonce-talks-complicated-relationship-kanye-west-91828.

Further readings:

White, Miles. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity. University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Morry, Emily, et al. “”I Too Sing America” The Sense of Place in African American Music, 1920-1992.” “I Too Sing America”: The Sense of Place in African American Music, 1920-1992, 2013, pp. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Hodge, Danielle. Yeezus Meets Watch the Throne: How Kanye West and Jay Z Construct Identities and Build Relationships in Rap Music and Interviews, Syracuse University, Ann Arbor, 2015, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1687221481?accountid=11107.

Perry, Armon, et al. “‘You Ain’t No Denzel’: African American Men’s Use of Popular Culture to     Narrate and Understand Marriage and Romantic Relationships.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, Dec. 2014, pp. 485-497. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s12111-014-9284-7.


Afterlives of slavery, Jay-Z, rap, African American relationships, “4:44”, Beyonce, African American men

“Reagan” by Killer Mike


Album Cover for R.A.P. Music. Render, Michael. “R.A.P. Music.” RateYourMusic.com, El-P, 15 May 2012, rateyourmusic.com/release/album/killer_mike/r_a_p__music/.


“Reagan” is a popular politically charged rap song by Killer Mike. Michael Render or Killer Mike is a famous and prolific rap artist. In addition to being the founder of Grind Time Official Records, he is both a social and political activist. He was influenced politically by his Grandma who raised him in Collier Heights—a neighborhood rich in political history. His grandmother played an integral role in getting him involved in politics, educating him on American politics from a young age. His first hip hop influence was Schoolly D, Public Enemy, and N.W.A and earned his stage name for being “a killer” of mike’s (Biography.com). The image above is from Killer Mike studio album R.A.P Music, which stands for Rebellious African People. This title suggests that Killer Mike is writing an album to stir up conversation and make an impact on the political atmosphere. This song illustrates Killer Mike’s ability to recognize social injustices in America. In this song, he focuses on the Reagan administration. His goal is to show the connection between the state of the black community and the heavy decisions of those in power. He exposes things that are forgotten or ignored because of their radical nature. He references the problems that the black community in America face both internally and externally. These problems include the glorification of violence in rap songs, the organized influx of cocaine, the War on Drugs, police brutality, the prison system, and more.


Clip from Official Music Video for “Reagan” by Killer Mike. Render, Michael. “‘Reagan’ (Official Music Video).” Youtube.com, Pitchfork, 3 Oct. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lIqNjC1RKU.

Historical and Cultural Context

The song discusses many important historical and political events such as the war on drugs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and Reaganomics. Killer Mike artfully implies through his meaningful lyrics that all of these events are connected and Reagan’s policies destroyed the black community in more ways than is discussed in history books or is common knowledge. Killer Mike begins to rap about The War on Drugs. Contrary to popular belief, The War on Drugs didn’t start with Ronald Reagan, but rather with Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Nixon emphasized to the American people that drugs were problem with the country and levied different prison sentence to different drugs (War on Drugs). Nixon also introduced “”New Federalism” during his presidency which offered the states a means to preserve race-based hierarchies after civil rights by returning funding power to governors” (Hinton 135). This meant after civil rights, black people were allowed to join in the political landscape but the core system stayed the same and never gave the black people any political power. John Enrichleman, domestic policy chief of Nixon, explicitly admitted that purpose of the War on Drugs was to disturb the communities of “antiwar left and black people.” When Reagan came into power after Jimmy Carter’s term, the War on Drugs reached its peak (War on Drugs).

Another pivotal event during the Reagan administration was the Iran-Contra Scandal, which eventually led to the crack epidemic in black communities all across the nation. When 7 hostages were held in Iran, Reagan agreed to sell 15 missiles for 30 million dollars and funneled 18 million to the Contras in Nicaragua as they were fighting against a communist government know as the Sandinistas (Iran-Contra Affair). During this period of time America was extremely afraid of communism and were prepared to do anything to deter the spread of it. Reagan was willing to do anything to stop this threat, even Americans. In order to further fund the Contras, who were involved with cocaine dealings, the FBI introduced cocaine to black communities, leading to the cocaine distribution funding the Contra’s efforts and the crack epidemic of the 1980s (Parry 68).

After the crack epidemic, Reagan administration increased the severity of law enforcement, especially regarding crack and cocaine. Reagan put Law and Order first and foremost, above all the other executive duties. Police brutality became rampant and young black men were disportionately affected in imprisoned, since the drugs were found in black communities. This brutality led to a increase of black incarcerations (Abshire 76).  

Regarding economic policy, Killer Mike also describes that due to “Reaganomics,” “prisons turned to profits, cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics” (Killer Mike- ‘Reagan’). This line highlights the hypocrisy of the privatization of prisons and references that slavery built America. Killer Mike’s references to private prisons “causes many to question the morality of turning prisoners into profitable commodities” (Genius). Killer Mike expresses prison inmates as slaves and despite the 13th Amendment—which prohibits involuntary servitude—prisoners were used as a labor source. Ronald Reagan remodeled the structure of the American system with his trickle-down economic plans and conservative fiscal policies. Though many claimed this helped the U.S. economy, “Reaganomics” resulted in a tripling of the national debt and exacerbation of wealth inequality (Longley 156).


Themes and Style

Killer Mike’s “Reagan” is a popular, catchy rap song that incorporates strong, politically charged lyrics and an intricate, multilayered beat. This song’s main theme revolves around Ronald Reagan and his unfair political policies. Killer Mike takes a tough stance against a generally popular president, challenging his ideas and actions by mentioning specific events in his song. His historical allusions to Oliver North, the Iran-Contra scandal, and “Reaganomics” highlight the government’s institutionalized destruction of black communities. His use of rhyme and beat in the song place emphasis on specific words like “cocaine” and “triggers” to draw the attention of the listener to the statements in his song. Killer Mike injects pathos in his song by specifically painting an image of young black boys being abused by the police—a direct result of the war on drugs put in place under Reagan. These lyrics and historical references shed light on the institutionalized destruction of black communities. The motive behind these actions can be traced back to racism rooted in slavery. The mindset is carried on through generations and has resulted in black lives perpetually facing unfair challenges in society.

One of the most signficant and boldest claims Killer Mike makes in his song is “Just like Oliver North introduced us to cocaine” (Killer Mike – ‘Reagan’). This is a reference that is thoroughly historically discussed in the Historical and Cultural Context section of the digital encyclopedia. This claim refers to the CIA’s coordinated influx of cocaine to black communities to fund Contra efforts in Nicaragua. Killer Mike is a social activist and believes this portion of history is never discussed, despite the overwhelming evidence and scandals surrounding the event. Black communities today still suffer from drug use and very little are aware of the government’s involvement in this issue. Statistically it has been proven that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned for drug use compared to others in America, only to maintain their status as slaves in “post-slavery” America. Killer Mike has emphasized this point in his song, declaring “Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison” (Killer Mike – ‘Reagan’). This highlights the plague that perpetual cycle that black people face due to racist attitudes.

Later in the song, Killer Mike alludes to the present day when he compares Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama as “talking heads telling lies on teleprompters.” This line implies there is little difference between the presidents, and that the government is just as corrupt as it was under Reagan. Killer Mike’s rhyme of “we invaded sovereign soil, going after oil,” highlights a major injustice among many presidents, indicating the same recurring issues arise (Killer Mike – ‘Reagan’). As a vocal political and social activist, Killer Mike has proclaimed his lack of faith in the government. His song mentions the bleak cycle that blacks are placed in and describes how the system is impeding their progress.

Another major theme in this work is the continuous destructive cycle in black communities. Killer Mike uses metaphors of “bread” and “bakers” declaring, “we brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers” to criticize black and rap culture for boasting about wealth without actually achieving financial security. The lyrics, “We are advertisements for agony and pain, We exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang, we tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game” are one of three strongest lyrics of this song because it highlights how the problems within black communities cycle endlessly (Killer Mike – ‘Reagan’). He criticizes the glorification of drug dealing and gang culture,placing the blame of the destruction of black communities and racism not only the government, but also on the current culture among black communities.


Critical Conversation

While there is not much critical conversation surrounding this particular song, there is immense controversy surrounding the Reagan presidency as a whole. For example, one of the most significant programs lead by Reagan was the “War on Drugs,” which was implemented with the public intention to end overdoses and unhealthy drug use, but really was used to imprison young black Americans. Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: the Making of Mass Incarceration in America sheds more light on the corrupt prison system in America. This specifically relates to Killer Mike’s reference to “prisons turned to profits,” in which prisoners were used as a labor source despite the 13th amendment during the Reagan presidency. In the prison system they have no agenda to decrease the incarceration rate because it is for their own benefit (Hinton 184). The prison conditions were also a topic of heated debate. Hinton claims that prison conditions were inhumane and disgusting, but others claimed prisoners did not need to be treated well.

While the cocaine scandal surrounding Reagan has been supported by many, some still believe it is merely a conspiracy theory. Robert Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine & Other Crimes provided conversation regarding the Reagan presidency and the cocaine scandal. Parry, an investigative reporter that worked for The Associated Press and PBS Frontline, provides detailed accounts of how the FBI helped finance the Contra’s efforts by organizing the black community’s addiction to cocaine, causing the crack epidemic in the 1980s. While Reagan is an iconic president, many consider him a racist and detrimental to those who were not elite. Others, including the elite, were big fans of Reagan due to his conservative economic and social policies. In Deconstructing Reagan: Conservative Mythology and America’s Fortieth President, Longley covers the presidency of Reagan and his significant influence of politics in America. Longley praises Reagan as an iconic symbol of the conservative party in America and the idea of “Reaganomics” as it began the conservative regime in America. He goes onto describe other influential conservative policies enacted by the Reagan administration and their effects on America.

Despite much history surrounding his presidency that is hidden and controversial, Reagan was generally a popular president. His public relations team was able to manipulate the media and his public image to pain him in a good light despite the Iran-Contra scandal and the turmoil in black communities. Saving the Reagan Presidency: Trust Is the Coin of the Realm by David Abshire discusses the public relations committee and their plan to alter the public image of Reagan after countless scandals, the most significant one being the Iran-Contra scandal. Changing and manipulating the public image is a skill that people who work for presidents have perfected. It is no surprise that Reagan’s public image is still so good due to the complicated scheme coordinated to keep Reagan liked among Americans. This book provides insider information on the manipulative schemes within the administration and supports many accusations in Killer Mike’s song, “Reagan,” including Oliver North’s cover up in the cocaine scandal.

Politics is obviously a widely debated topic, and Reagan’s presidency is no exception. While there are many different opinions on Ronald Reagan, Killer Mike’s lyrics and allusions demand the listeners to reconsider the popular president and question our society and government.

Works Cited

Abshire, David M. Saving the Reagan Presidency: Trust Is the Coin of the Realm. Texas A&M University Press, 2005.

Hinton, Elizabeth Kai. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: the Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Harvard University Press, 2017.

“Iran-Contra Affair.” History.com, A+E Networks, 2017, www.history.com/topics/iran-contra-affair.

“Killer Mike- ‘Reagan’ (Official Music Video).” Youtube, Pitchfork, 3 Oct. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lIqNjC1RKU.

“Killer Mike Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 30 May 2017, http://www.biography.com/people/killer-mike-5102017.

“Killer Mike – Reagan.” Genius, 15 May 2012, genius.com/Killer-mike-reagan-lyrics.

Longley, Kyle, et al. Deconstructing Reagan: Conservative Mythology and America’s Fortieth President. M.E. Sharpe, 2007.

Parry, Robert. Lost History: Contras, Cocaine & Other Crimes. Media Consortium, 1997.

“War on Drugs.” History.com, A&E Networks, 2017, http://www.history.com/topics /the-war-on-drugs.


Further Reading

“13TH | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix.” Youtube, Netflix, 26 Sept. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V66F3WU2CKk&t=3s.

“Bernie Sanders x Killer Mike Interview #FeelTheBern || Moorish World News.” Youtube, IAMHH Temple, 20 Jan. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJjQWaWIxCs.

Logan, Charles H. Private Prisons: Cons and Pros. Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.

Smith, Calvin L. Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua. BRILL, 2014.

Key Words

  1. Killer Mike
  2. “Reagan”
  3. “Reaganomics”
  4. War on Drugs
  5. Iran Contra Scandal
  6. Police Brutality                                        
  7. 13th Amendment  

Dave Chappelle’s Equanimity


In September of 2017, Dave Chappelle filmed his 3rd Netflix Special, Equanimity. As part of his brief return to public appearances after a near 12 year hiatus, this special offers a unique insight into the mind of one of the most talented comedians of all time and serves as a time capsule for Chappelle views and experiences as a black man America. He speaks his mind about many current social issues, with particular focus on the transgender rights movement, juxtaposing it with the civil rights movement. Chappelle comments on how, though he has nothing against trans people, he found it has been surprised at the general acceptance the movement has gained in a country that still faces significant racial issues. He then later in the piece he pivots and speaks about the Trump presidency.  He is very critical of Trump emphasizes a lot of negatives about our nation but has an overall optimistic outlook. Overall he provides a powerful insight into what it is like living as a black man in America, and how race and racism have affected the way his experiences and views. He places his thoughts and understandings alongside those of others, particularly white people, highlighting how and why they differ. He shows how racism is still an issue today, and how it has become even more apparent with the 2016 elections.


Historical and Cultural Context

In Equanitmity, Chappelle references multiple social, political and historical issues and events in his jokes, often relating them to other ones. He uses comedy to indicate the flaws in the issues or events  or uses them to support the points he makes. The three biggest ones are about Emmett Till, Rachel Dolezal and the attitude towards stereotypical black names. Emmett Till was lynched when he was 14 years old after he whistled at a white woman in the 1950s. His murder is an important moment in history because it exemplifies the racial bias in the justice system as his killers were not imprisoned or punished (Pérez-Peña). While Chappelle used his story to comment on Trump’s presidency, the context of his death is still very relevant today. Another one of Chappelle’s biggest points of discussion is the transgender community and rights movement. In relation, Chappelle brought up Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be black for years. He compared her “identify[ing] as black” to the way transgender people identify as a certain gender, only that he does not believe Dolezal (Chappelle). Also, during his juxtaposition of the transgender rights movement to the civil rights movement, Chappelle speaks a little about black names. While not going far in depth, this brings another layer to his commentary because research has shown correlation between people with stereotypical black names and poverty and less success in life (Dubner and Levitt). All of these events bring more depth to his points because of how they relate to race and racism in America, none of the points can be considered without their context, affecting their meanings.

Chappelle follows in the footsteps of other black comedians, who have a long history of social and political commentary (Carpio). He, like many others, uses comedy to point out things that are wrong or should be changed, which can be seen throughout his career in comedy. Many of his skits have provided important insight into racism and racial tensions in America. Similarly, this special also continues something else from his past, his reluctance to preform and his want to quit comedy. Chappelle’s went on a twelve-year hiatus prior to this and he discusses his reasoning for why, mostly being how started feeling like his was becoming socially irresponsible, which is in relation to how white audiences react to black comedy, to the point where he feels like white audiences were not laughing with him but at him (Bailey). This also has a long history, for as long as there has been black comedy, there has been the mocking of black people, such as the minstrel performances of the 19th century (Carpio).


Themes and Styles

Chappelle follows several themes with this jokes and commentary, many of them revolving around highlighting or pointing something out. To do so, he relates one topic or issue to another, many times ones that seem unrelated, forming a particular style. By comparing topics, he also brings more depth to his commentary, almost as if he is alluding to other issues or thoughts. This makes his jokes not just funny, but very thoughtful and detailed.

The first and most central theme of the special is the idea that good can come from bad things. This theme is not suggesting that we should purposely act badly in hopes that it will bring about good results. Instead it is an optimistic look on what may appear to be bleak in the moment. It shows us a possible future, and acts as a rallying cry for us to wake up and make that future a reality. In the special Chappelle shows that the death of Emmett Till, though tragic and bleak, was ultimately what was needed to wake America to the true horrors of the Jim Crow south. The Civil Rights Movement gained strength because of the hard fighting of many Americans, and through it we reached a better place. Chappelle parallels these events with those facing our modern society. He talks about Trump’s failings as a president but hopes that it is exactly what this country needs to open its eyes and from it, if we put in the effort and fight for it, someday not too far off we could emerge better of than we are now. Chappelle truly believes in the character of the American people and their desire to make America a better place. Even though he thinks Trump is bad for America, like the murder of Emmett Till, we will learn from it and it will ultimately better off in the future.


Photos of Rachel Dolezal from youth, clearly showing that she is white. The bottom right photo shows her while pretending to be black. Source: CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2015/06/17/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-naacp/index.html

Another theme is about how the experiences of black people differ from those of white people, and that society treats them differently. Chappelle goes about revealing this by discussing the transgender rights movement. He first mentions Rachel Dolezal and her story about pretending to be a black woman. As said earlier, Chappelle does not believe her story as he does transgender people’s. By bringing her into his discourse, he brings up, but does not elaborate on, how race identity is different from gender identity. This is part of his style of bringing up an outside topic to help get his point across. Along the lines of identity, Chappelle makes a powerful point, that one of the reasons the transgendered rights movement has gained support is because white men are a part of it, not just minorities. He comments that the movement “reeks of white privilege,” emphasizing on the fact that it was “easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than for Cassius Clay to change his name” (Chappelle).These jokes support his theme of the black experience, because they stress how America often shows lack of support for black issues and movements.

Chappelle continues to joke about names by talking about Dolezal not changing her name, and by doing so he continues the style of lightly mentioning an issue with greater depth to it, in this case, black names. Chappelle comments on Rachel Dolezal’s lack of commitment stating “didn’t even change her name”, and that if she wanted him to believe she was really black she would “have to change her name to Draymond Green” (Chappelle). He then jokes “if you type Draymond Green into Airbnb that shit will log off automatic,” touching on how black names are treated (Chappelle). The idea that black names put people at a disadvantage can be seen in studies made that, as mentioned earlier, show that stereotypical black names are correlated to higher poverty rates and lower success rates in life (Dubner and Levitt). So by making these comments Chappelle shows another way the black experience is different, and can be based in something as simple as name.

Critical Conversation

To begin with, it is prudent to remember why Chappelle declined a $50 million offer from Comedy Central, instead choosing to leave the country. He supposedly was tired of getting harsh reactions specially from the white and transgender communities. His shows have been widely criticized as the techniques he implements when telling jokes have been described as reckless. After many years of “walking in the shadows”, Chappelle decided to return and film some Netflix specials, Equanimity being our main focus.

Through time Chappelle continues to be described by critics as being homophobic and transphobic. At first, some people thought this type of mentality would change in his new specials, but as you will notice it clearly didn’t. Critics stemming from Equanimity were negative, in general. In The New Republic’s article, “What is Dave Chappelle’s problem with gay people?”, its author, Eric Sasson describes Chappelle’s mentality as a “myopic worldview that only a rich male comedian might have”. He does this by extracting a line from Chappelle’s special referring to the Trans society: “black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe” (Sasson). He sets this example as a main contributor to Chappelle’s wrongful mentality… that the progress Trans people have done in the past years has come at the expense of black people.

The article, “Dave Chappelle Is Mostly Disappointing in His New Netflix Specials” released by The Vulture, is another example proving how poorly received Chappelle’s comments can be taken. One can obviously have an idea of what the article is about just by looking at its title, but Matt Zoller Seitz, its author, goes beyond any of these ideas. He refers to Chappelle as “one of the most important comedians of the last 20 years” but he also states that “unfortunately, the four specials released in the past year make him seem out of touch at best…” (Zoller Seitz).

One can say it’s easier to find negative things out of such a controversial special, but by the research made, one can tell why Chappelle’s specials were widely regarded as homophobic and transphobic. In the article “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Movement”, Jason Zinoman, explains why he thinks some of Chappelle’s “jokes” can be regarded as a “revolutionary social movement” (Zinoman). This article raises the question of what the actual role of a comedian is. Is it to make people laugh and have a fun time? or is it supposed to create a revolutionary social movement?

On the contrary of critiques, there were no articles or text works praising Chappelle’s special that I could find. However; one might want to look at what Chappelle’s audience looks like. In my opinion, the fact that Chappelle is the sole author of his lines makes him, as a comedian, very fun to watch for some people. His audience is varied in all terms (age, gender, race…) but the African American community is often present. With some of his comments stating Martin Luther King Jr., Chappelle has gained respect from the community, as is now seen as some type of “social leader”.



Bailey, Constance. “Fight the Power: African American Humor as a Discourse of Resistance.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 36.4 (2012): 253-263.

Carpio, Glenda R. Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Pérez-Peña, Richard. “Woman Linked to 1955 Emmett Till Murder Tells Historian Her Claims Were False.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2017.

Sasson, Eric. “What is Dave Chappelle’s Problem with Gay People?” The New Republic 23 March 2017. Web.

Zinoman, Jason. “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment.” The New York Times 2 January 2018. Web.

Zoller Seitz, Matt. “Dave Chappelle Is Mostly Disappointing in His New Netflix Specials.” Vulture 3 January 2018. Web.


Further Reading

Aitkenhead, Decca. “Rachel Dolezal: ‘I’m not going to stoop and apologise and grovel’” The Gaurdian, The Gaurdian, 25 Feb. 2017

Maus, Derek C., and James J. Donahue. Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Print.

Scott, Eugene. “Dave Chappelle has a message for ‘poor white’ Trump supporters.” The Washington Post 22 December 2017. Web.

Suskind, Alex. “Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Evolution.” The Daily Beast 22 March 2017. Web.



Dave Chappelle, Equanimity, Black Comedy, Comedy, Black Culture, Modern Racism, Donald Trump


Essay  By: Thomas Kane, Belen Heybroek, Juan Castellanos


“The Liberation of T.O”

By: Neha Embar and Kiran Varadarajan



“The Liberation of T.O” is a work by Hank Willis Thomas created in 2003 in order to address the racial stereotypes that lie within advertising and the sports industry. In the image, we see the football player Terrell Owens running from a crowd in a market. The people in the background are seen rioting and visibly angry with T.O. This image is a part of Thomas’ Unbranded series which focuses on the racial stereotypes propagated by advertising by removing the text of advertisements thereby revealing what the advertisement is really selling. His work often exposes signals of prejudice that readers would not have noticed otherwise. This allows the reader to have a more stripped-back and realistic depiction of these advertisements and the age-old stereotypes that they continue to promote. Thomas capitalizes a lot on the rhetoric of visual advertising. The message needs to be conveyed quickly and effectively in order for a person to be able to understand the meaning of the work in the amount of time that they view the image. In making each piece, Thomas makes decisions about what aspects can be emphasized to convey a message in the most powerful way that is also convincing and easy to understand.

Historical and Cultural Context:


Hank Willis Thomas received his education in photography and Africana Studies. Afterwards, he went on to create numerous pieces inspired by African Americans as they are perceived in modern society. He rose to fame with the creation of his Branded series. Currently, Thomas is currently delving more into the political atmosphere and creating works that critique our current government. Thomas’ works portray the rampant racism that still pervades the advertising industry. Thomas began his artistic career with a work based on a MasterCard advertisement. Thomas had a very personal connection to this work as it was based off of the death of his cousin. He used photographs of his own family at the funeral and in doing so is able to draw more emotion out of the viewers of his work.


In terms of the actual artwork, a lot of the context is based on the setting of the photograph in that it takes place in Oakland, California, which is a predominantly African American community.  Terrell Owens, the football player featured in this work, famously played for the San Francisco 49ers. In this work, Thomas draws comparisons between the neighboring towns and their differences in race and socioeconomic status. In comparison to Oakland, San Francisco is a much more affluent area of California. Oakland also has a larger African American population than San Francisco.  He uses Terrell Owens as an example of a successful black man creating a bridge between the two towns.

In the image we see T.O. running away from Oakland and given his attire, stance, and history with the 49ers, it is safe to assume that he is running toward San Francisco. At the same time, we see a black man who is dressed in a football uniform, a sport that was traditionally all-white. This man is running away from a white man who is dressed in “street wear” or basketball clothes, a sport that is now considered a predominantly black. Thomas uses their difference in apparel to emphasize the role reversal that is happening in the picture and in daily life. The white man is angry with T.O. for taking what is, in his opinion, “his”. He uses T.O. as a symbol of black excellence, and the man in the background as a representation of society’s objection to this. This idea is echoed in the extended title: “I’m not goin back ta’ work for massa in dat’ darn field”. In this analogy, Thomas likens the relationship between the people in the background and T.O. to that of a slave and his master. Terrell Owens is “escaping” the town of Oakland to play for San Francisco. The white man in the background is upset with Owens for his newfound freedom and success, like a master with his slave. Thomas uses this artwork to depict the changing roles of African-Americans in society and how this has affected the dynamic between white and black Americans.

Themes and Style:

Most commonly, Thomas’ artwork is a photograph that has already been produced and distributed, but instead has just been edited by Thomas. Instead of creating new work to share his message, he exposes the stereotypes that already exist in advertising and media. For example, instead of making a piece of art featuring T.O., he manipulates an advertisement featuring the football player. By simply “exposing” the truth that already lies within modern media, he almost heightens the effect of the racism and makes it more powerful than if he had created the art himself.  In turn, it gives the reader a sense of unease by showing them that this sort of racism has existed under their noses this whole time. While people may not realize how pervasive these age-old stereotypes are, Thomas’ work helps readers understand that certain racist ideas are deeply ingrained in our sense of self, so much so that they make up a huge sector of our economy. Furthermore, the use of an advertisement as his form of media emphasizes the presence of racism in consumerism. These stereotypes are often the foundation of advertisements and marketing campaigns everywhere – meaning companies make large amounts of money off of this racism. The use of advertisements gives a harsher spin to the reality of these stereotypes.

Hank Willis’ Thomas style is as mentioned above, heavily based in advertisements and media. However, most of his advertisements originate from the 70s and 80s. His work also reaches past African-Americans in media and delves into modern femininity: stewardesses smoking cigarettes, black women with large afros holding their children, and rosy cheeked women pulling muffins out of an oven. He uses these “retro” seeming advertisements to draw out a sense of nostalgia from his readers. As most of his readers are around his age, they too grew up seeing these advertisements and therefore, grew up seeing these harmful stereotypes propagated. These small instances of racism served as the foundation for their childhood. Again, this makes audiences even more aware of the racism that surrounds them: even the images they grew up with are tainted with harmful and ignorant ideas. It makes them question every aspect of their daily life and how pervasive slavery-era stereotypes are.



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His other series is the opposite of Unbranded-instead titled “Branded”. In this series, he takes slavery era symbols and weaves them into images of modern Black America. For example, he has an image of the Nike image branded onto a black man’s head. Another image features two basketball players dunking into a noose. This is a recurring theme of Thomas’: infusing the everyday with slavery-era in order to expose the pervasiveness of racism.  His Branded series works in the same way as Unbranded, showing people how connected these stereotypes are to our everyday life.

Critical Conversation:

Our piece touches on controversial topics both in sports and in advertising. Race has historically been a central point of advertising in that the message is able to be conveyed quickly and effectively. As Bristor et al mentions, racial stereotypes in advertising are often depicted from a white perspective which emphasizes the stereotypes even more. The article by Bristor et al discusses the ways that race and African American stereotypes have pervaded so much of American television and culture in general. This gives us a better perspective into the advertising aspect of stereotypes. It also gives us better historical representation as to how stereotypes have been propagated throughout time and throughout popular culture.

Dipti Desai, in her article, talks about the different ways that race relations have changed over time and specifically the ways that race relations have changed after President Obama took office. While all stereotypes are not necessarily negative, there are many instances of popular stereotypes that have been referenced throughout history. These stereotypes even extend to advertisements with celebrities as Desai mentions one in particular with athlete Lebron James carrying the famous supermodel Gisele Bundchen in an “ape-like stance,” according to Desai. This stereotype of African American men as a “black beast” is one that has been unnecessarily maintained throughout time in advertising, war propaganda, and advertising. Techniques such as this one have been repeated time and time again and the techniques extend to even television. Thomas himself describes his art on the “problematic state of race in America.” He chooses specifically to emphasize certain aspects of advertisements that highlight these stereotypes. It is no secret that race and racial stereotypes  have been used as a major factor in advertising.

In his interview with Thomas, writer Andrew Goldstein discusses the ways that Thomas’ art is a form of social commentary. Thomas’ art uses the techniques of advertising to emphasize the stereotypes that are propagated. Jonze is a writer from The Guardian that interviewed Thomas personally about his work and the contribution that he thinks it has in today’s political and social climate. Jonze’s article also discusses the ways that Thomas’ works are a commentary of the race relations of today. He explains how Thomas ties together the ideas of political polarization with racial themes in artwork. The article goes further in depth to describe the impact of sports as it contributes to race and specifically states that, “‘[f]ootball is often a proxy for war.’” We see this idea further explored in the work itself in that we see the politics of sports as it contributes to race and the perceptions of each race. Thomas’ emphasis of sports as it plays into race has been a huge source of influence in his art and has been shown throughout both the Branded and Unbranded series.


Works Cited

Bristor, Julia M, et al. “Race and Ideology: African-American Images in Television Advertising.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, vol. 14, no. 1, 1995. JSTOR [JSTOR], http://www.jstor.org/stable/30000378.

Desai, Dipti. “THE CHALLENGE OF NEW COLORBLIND RACISM IN ART EDUCATION.” Art Education, vol. 63, no. 5, Sept. 2010, www.jstor.org/stable/20799833.

Goldstein, Andrew M. “Hank Willis Thomas on the Art of Talking About Race.” Hank Willis Thomas on the Art of Talking About Race, Artspace, 20 Feb. 2012.

Jonze, Tim. “Hank Willis Thomas: Why Does America’s Great Protest Artist Think Things Are Better under Trump?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Oct. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/10/hank-willis-thomas-the-beautiful-game-ben-brown-fine-arts-london-football-art-trump-race.

Further Reading

Bay Area Census — San Francisco City and County, Bay Area Census, http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/counties/SanFranciscoCounty.htm.

Shainman, Jack. “Hank Willis Thomas.” Hank Willis Thomas – Jack Shainman Gallery, www.jackshainman.com/artists/hankwillis-thomas/.

Thomas, Hank. “Bio.” “Works.” Hank Willis Thomas, www.hankwillisthomas.com/.

Website Services & Coordination Staff. “US Census Bureau 2010 Census Interactive Population Map.” Visit Census.gov, 5 May 2011, http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap/ipmtext.php?fl=06:0653000.



Hank Willis Thomas

Branded Series

Unbranded Series

Terrell Owens

Afterlives of Slavery

Racism in Advertising


“The Story of O.J.”


        “The Story of O.J.” comes from an American rapper and businessman Shawn Corey Carter, who is also known professionally as JAY-Z. “The Story of O.J” comes together with JAY-Z’s thirteenth solo studio album – ‘4:44’. The album and the song were released on June 30th, 2017. The album was released through Roc Nation and universal Music Group. When the album was released, it was exclusive to Sprint and Tidal customers. JAY-Z was the executive producer and Ernest Dion Wilson, professionally known as No I.D., was the co-executive producer of the album. ‘4:44’ is made up eight songs and features guest appearances from Frank Ocean, Damian Marley, Beyoncé and Gloria Carter, JAY-Z’s mother. “The story of O.J.” was nominated for Record of the Year at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards.

        During the release of Jay-Z’s 4:44 album, there was much press about Jay-Z and his supposed cheating scandal with his wife, Beyonce. His album was conjured in response to his infidelity. There is much significance behind the number ‘4’ for hip-hop sensation Jay-Z. Jay-Z reveals in an interview the number four was “the day I [Jay-Z] was born. My mother’s birthday, and a lot of my friends’ birthdays, are on the fourth; April 4 is my wedding date” (Ahmed 2017). The number 4 represents his love for his family and his wife and represents his direct response to Beyonce’s album Lemonade that was about love and infidelity. The number 44 also pays a tribute to the 44th president Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States. In the interview Jay-Z recounts how he woke up at 4:44 in the morning to write the song. Jay-Z believes that “4:44” is one of the best songs he has ever written. The number 4 is extremely significant to Jay-Z, and so this album carries the emotional, social, and personal commentary of Jay-Z.


A snapshot from Jay-Z’s music video “The Story of O.J.” JayZVEVO. “JAY-Z – The Story of O.J.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 July 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM7lw0Ovzq0.

Historical and Cultural Conversation

        There is much cultural and historical conversation to be made around Jay-Z’s song “the Story of O.J.”, the O.J. Simpson interview being the most obvious. In Jay-Z’s song, he mentions the famous O.J. Simpson interview in which O.J., himself, denies being black and instead identifies his being as O.J.. The conversation that sparked O.J.’s comment was when a woman commented “Look at those n*****s sitting with O.J.”, to which O.J. responded: “Don’t you understand? She knew I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.”. This interview was a streamline to the theme of inferiority complex among African Americans in “the Story of O.J.” The idea of African Americans distancing themselves from their race by means of their own wealth or social status becomes a huge theme throughout Jay-Z’s album. The reason behind this inferiority complex of blacks can additionally be attributed through black history. Jay-Z adds in the music video for “the Story of O.J.” several clips obviously referencing slavery. One clip displays Jay-Z’s persona lynched on a tree and another shows several black characters picking cotton. Later in the music video, the cotton is then made into Ku Klux Klan uniforms. This transition illustrates the history that follows the abolition of slavery with the later creation of the violently racist Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan was a collection of confederate veterans that committed acts of violence against African Americans and whites that accepted the abolition. Jay-Z attributes the inferiority complex of black America to the history of slavery and the after result of racism with the Ku Klux Klan. Although blacks are equal to whites in modern day, the historical inferiority of blacks against the superior white race detriments the current day black America. This inferiority is what caused many blacks, namely O.J. Simpson, to deny their race and attempt to separate themselves from black culture through materialistic means.

        The theme of racial separation stems off to another theme of fiscal responsibility. In “the Story of O.J.” Jay-Z discusses his perspective of the financial culture impressed upon African Americans through various rappers and singers. As assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Jenkins, would claim, the influence of rap and hip hop in a black society determined the social survival of black America. Jenkins states that hip hop songs portray the illustration that the “ghetto life is so hopeless that an explosion of violence is both justified and imminent”(Jenkins 1232). Therefore, Jenkins concludes that hip hop songs and artists are greatly influential when forming the popular opinion within black America. In accordance to this claim, the constant materialistic nature of rappers such as Mos Def are able to dictate the financial culture of black America as well. Therefore, the financial stereotypes that are built into modern day society is centered around the idea of materialism instead of generational wealth.


A snapshot from Jay-Z’s music video “The Story of O.J.” JayZVEVO. “JAY-Z – The Story of O.J.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 July 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM7lw0Ovzq0.

Themes and Style

        The song: “The Story of OJ” tackles many racial issues relevant to not only the past, but also the present. These racial issues include racial pride, financial stereotypes, and racism. These themes are illustrated through the exaggerated features of the characters based on stereotypes as well as the many visuals presented within the music video such as the slave ship, slave auction, and O.J. Simpson’s interview. These themes are meant to speak to the public of black America and their lifestyles.

        Jay-Z’s disapproval of those who distance themselves from their race as well as those who embrace the stereotypes of their race is self-evident through his lyrics and animated music video. Jay-Z builds upon the frivolousness of intentional racial disconnect in America using O.J. Simpson’s infamous interview regarding his view of racial identity. O.J. Simpson attempted to escape racial identity through financial and social status, and tackles the ‘shame of being black’ by so desperately trying to separate himself from the reality of race in America. In the interview with Dean Baquet, New York Times executive editor, Jay-Z and Dean Baquet discuss the impact O.J. Simpson had on the young and black communities back in 1960s. O.J. Simpson was admired by many, “[kids] imitated his moves, his swagger […] We wanted to be him, gorgeous and running in the California sun.” He also disappointed many kids, especially black kids in poor neighborhoods, who were looking up to him and saw him as a god.

        In the interview Dean Baquet and Jay-Z discuss the powerful message that came from the song – “You can be rich, you can be poor, you’re still black.” Next Jay-Z answers who he was speaking to, and who he wanted to be moved by it. In the “The Story of O.J.” Jay-Z is specifically speaking to his audience and “about who we are and how do you maintain the sense of self while pushing forward and holding us to have a responsibility for our actions.” He brings an important idea about unity and having conversation all together and not shying away from the important topics. As Jay-Z states, it’s when we take the O.J. Simpson attitude that we isolate and separate ourselves from our community, people and the bigger conversation.

        “The Story of O.J.” also offers the audience Jay-Z’s stance on the financial culture of Black America. Jay-Z belittles the financial culture of African Americans that are so drawn into frivolous spending rather than leaving behind wealth for their own offspring. He illustrates this through the characters throwing their money away at a strip club. In the music video Jay-Z instead highlights the importance of financial responsibility. Jay-Z offers a solution to the current black financial culture. In the music video Jay-Z talks about the importance of credit, investment and saving.

        Most importantly Jay-Z presents a personal experience and offers the viewer to learn from his mistakes. Jay-Z raps about how he used to spend money on expensive cars. In the song he states that he regrets not buying property in Dumbo Brooklyn “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” Jay-Z explains how the property values have risen and how he could have invested into the property rather than buying “every V12 engine” this way he would have profited way more. He also conveys that he feels unintelligent, “dumbo,” about this situation and that he wishes he could go back in time and change that about himself. This way Jay-Z is trying to change the black financial culture of “living rich and dying broke.” Rather Jay-Z wants to install the mentality of leaving something for future generations and children.

        The caricature of “The Story of O.J.” music videos animation and its uncanny resemblance to Walt Disney’s animations is purposed to illuminate the racist and bigoted past of animated studios such as Fleischer studios, Warner Bros., and Walt Disney. Jay-Z’s persona in the music video, Jaybo, is an obvious tribute to Walt Disney’s Dumbo which had its own several racist undertones. Additionally, the animations symbolize the many African American stereotypes that were implanted through animations and movies. Therefore, it can be concluded that Jay-Z’s music video animation offers a criticism of past cartoon portrayals of successful animators as well as the portrayal of black America in media platforms.


A snapshot from Jay-Z’s music video “The Story of O.J.” JayZVEVO. “JAY-Z – The Story of O.J.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 July 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM7lw0Ovzq0.

Critical Conversation

        The cultural influence that many rappers have today can be explained through Jenkins’s interpretation of pop/rap music. Jenkins believes that Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and other hip hop songs of the like, recognize that hip hop songs dictate the social tempo of black America. Therefore, Jenkin’s beliefs can very well explain the materialistic financial culture of black America with many rappers and hip hop artists representing gang violence, drug culture, and issues that arise with poverty. Her views are very much in line with Dr. Hughes, a professor at Virginia Tech. Dr. Hughes conducted a research that very well supports the social influence of rappers. Through empirical data, Hughes is able to concluded two major points: the first being “group identification is associated with positive group evaluation” and the second being “racial identification… is linked to higher self-esteem… and lower symptoms of depression” (Hughes 27). This research develops an argument that supports the idea of the positive social impact of a mob mentality driven by a certain culture or identification. In this scenario, the popular singers/ rappers have the ability to culturally drive groups into certain ways of knowing such as financial responsibility.

        A staff writer in the Atlantic, Kornhaber, on the other hand expresses his view of racial and financial significance of Jay-Z’s song: “the Story of O.J.”.Ultimately Kornhaber focuses on two major topics within Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”. The first topic regards O.J. Simpson’s famous line: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”. Kornhaber analyzes this phrase and concludes it as an attempt of a man to separate himself through the reality of race by means of his own wealth. This claim ultimately builds upon the frivolousness of intentional racial disconnect in America. Secondly Kornhaber delves into the idea of generational wealth instead of ‘living rich and dying broke’ present within Jay-Z’s song. Money is without a doubt a major theme within “The Story of O.J.” as Kornhaber decrypts Jay-Z’s message that belittles the financial culture of African Americans that are so drawn into frivolous spending rather than leaving behind wealth for their own offspring. Kornhaber portrays the idea of the foolishness of trying to disconnect oneself from their own race as well as providing a social commentary on his view of financial culture in black America. Finally, Jay-Z, himself supports Kornhabers claims in an interview with Dean Banquet. In the interview JAY-Z talks about having conversations and how with his music he tries to create conversations between people, between different races, between different ages. He talks about the importance of one’s culture and history and how that defines us.


Works Cited

Baquet, Dean. “Jay-Z Discusses Rap, Marriage and Being a Black Man in Trump’s

        America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Nov. 2017,

Coscarelli, Joe. “Jay-Z Releases His Personal and Political Album ‘4:44’ on Tidal.” The New

        York Times, The New York Times, 30 June 2017,

Hughes, Michael, et al. “Racial Identity and Well-Being among African Americans.” Social

        Psychology Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 1, 2015, pp. 25–48.,

Jenkins, Toby S. “A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture.”

        Journal of Black Studies, vol. 42, no. 8, 2011, pp. 1231–1251. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Jesus, Austin Elias-de. “Jay Z’s New Music Video Uses America’s History of Racist

        Cartoons to Deliver a Haunting Message.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 30 June 2017.

        Web. 27 Feb. 2018.

Kornhaber, Spencer. “Jay-Z Pitch for Generational Wealth.” The Altantic. N.p., 30 June      

        2017. Web. 26 Feb. 2018

Morgan, Marcyliena, and Dionne Bennett. “Hip-Hop & the Global Imprint of a Black  

        Cultural Form.” Daedalus, vol. 140, no. 2, 2011, pp. 176–196. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Sullivan, Rachel E. “Rap and Race: It’s Got a Nice Beat, but What about the Message?”

        Journal of Black Studies, vol. 33, no. 5, 2003, pp. 605–622. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Further Readings

Blanchard, Becky. “The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture.” THE SOCIAL


KOUTONIN, Mawuna. “Racism Is an Inferiority Complex.” Silicon Africa, 30 Mar. 2014,

Leight, Elias, et al. “Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’: A Track-by-Track Guide.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 30

        June 2017, 
Scott, Eugene. “Jay-Z Says Trump’s Election Forced a Conversation on Race, but Talking Is

        Not Enough.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Nov. 2017,                      


“Jay-Z”, “The Story of O.J.”, “Financial Culture”, “4:44”, “Analysis”, “Race Issues”, “racism”, “hip-hop”


Malcolm X

Publishers: Evan Jester, Malachi Rice, and Jose Alvarado Malcolm-X image 2

Thompkins, Gwen. “Malcolm X’s Public Speaking Power.” Uptown Collective, 24 Feb. 2015, http://www.uptowncollective.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Malcolm-X-Speech-in-Harlem.jpg.

The film, Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee came out on November 18th, 1992. Malcolm X is played by a very well known actor, Denzel Washington. Malcolm X’s father was killed by the KKK which changed his life. He was traumatized by this which led to bad things. He became a gangster and was later arrested. While Malcolm X was incarcerated he found the Nation of Islam writings of Elijah Muhammad. He preaches Islam when he gets out of jail and later travels to the city of Mecca where he converts to a Sunni Muslim and changes his name to El- Hajj Malik AI-Shabazz. Conceived Malcolm Little, his dad (a Garveyite Baptist serve) was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm turned into a criminal, and keeping in mind that in prison found the Nation of Islam works of Elijah Muhammad. He lectures the lessons when let out of prison, however later on goes on a journey to the city of Mecca, there he changes over to the first Islamic religion and turns into a Sunni Muslim and changes his name to El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz. He is killed on February 21, 1965 and kicks the bucket a Muslim saint. In the movie, Malcolm X is played by Denzel Washington. He received a nomination at the Academy awards for his role in the movie. However, Denzel did receive a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture. The movie also got nominated for best costume design as well.

Historical and Cultural Context
Malcolm Little, famously known as Malcolm X was the son of Earl Little who was a minister and an outspoken civil rights activist. So at a young a age Malcolm X and his family had been receiving death threats from white supremacist. At the age of four Malcolm’s family house was burned down to the ground and two years after that his father’s body was lying dead on the trolley tracks. Both incidents were ruled accidents by the police but Malcolm’s family knew it was the white supremacists. After the incidents, Malcolm’s mother Louise Little had a mental breakdown and was forced into a mental institution. This forced Malcolm and his seven brothers and sisters to split up to different foster homes and orphanages. All of this happen in the first six years of a young African American boy’s and clearly affected him to the fullest. Most people don’t know the detrimental events that happened in Malcolm X’s childhood to make him become as violent as he was. Now they see as time went on Malcolm kept those tough memories stored in his head to help motivate him to stand up and fight.
Malcolm X was based on the Civil Rights Movement. With that being said before the film was even fully created there was some was controversies and conflicts preventing it to be produced. Warner Bros, the producers of the movie, argued with Spike Lee about who should be the director. Spike Lee felt it should be a black person and Warner Bros disagreed and a felt a Jewish man should do it. After the arguments they came to an agreement that a black person should direct it and Spike Lee became the official director. After all that Spike Lee received a great deal of backlash about his perspective on Malcolm X by adding some gruesome and touching scenes that people try not to believe actually happen. He didn’t let the outsiders get to him and continued to great the film the way he portrayed Malcolm X.
A few months before Malcolm X was created a Rodney King was beaten by police officers after being pulled over for speeding. Rodney King was obeying and going along with the police officers but still was severely beaten. Spike Lee even went as far to incorporate the frightful Rodney King Beating in the opening of the film which may appear a touch of on the nose yet so critical I couldn’t see the film without it. Since history rehashes itself continually and it never shows signs of change until the point that we need it to change. This is the place Spike Lee holds up the mirror to every one of us and influences us to see the way our general public and culture capacities. Our general public enabled Rodney King to be barbarously beaten on that roadway and we permitted police powers to hammer an iron clench hand in Ferguson this year. I know this may appear to be silly however the way that we enable our general public to work occasions like these happen and will keep on happening With a lot hostility towards Rodney King’s case and the movie, in Los Angeles in 1993 throughout all the protests there were more than 50 killed, over 4 thousand injured, 12,000 people arrested, and $1 billion in property damage.

Malcolm X image 1

Clip of Rodney King’s beating-Holliday, George, director. Rodney King Beating. Multishowtv.com, All Media Worldwide, 1991, http://www.rodneykingvideo.com.ar/.

Themes and Styles

The Spike Lee film, Malcolm X, conveys a lot of themes correlates to racial issues that still exist in our world today. One of the main rhetorical methods used in the film is en media res. The film starts with the murder of Rodney King then rewinds back. The director of the movie, Spike Lee, puts this in the movie to remind the viewers that the struggles that Malcolm X is fighting for are far from over. This scene that happens in the beginning of the movie immediately grabs the audience’s attention. Through Malcolm X’s point of view, the audience sees the violence and oppression that still existed even after slavery was abolished. Another theme that is apparent throughout the movie is a feeling of resilience. When times were rough, Malcolm didn’t just lay down and give up. He fought back and stood up for what he believed in. Malcolm’s changing perspectives of America’s racial issues mirror the advancement of his character. At the point when, as a kid, he sees both of his folks decimated by white society, he feels like he should give up about the situation of blacks. His state of mind changes, in any case, after his encounters operating at a profit ghettos of Boston and New York create in him the rationality that black individuals ought not acknowledge assistance from white individuals. The lessons of the Nation of Islam that he gets in jail impact a further change in both Malcolm’s character and his perspective of white individuals. He at the same time relinquishes his wild past and grasps an orderly contempt of whites. His later goes in the Middle East reason another significant change; his break from the American Nation of Islam agrees with his freshly discovered conviction that blacks will be effective in their battle for parallel rights just on the off chance that they relate to persecuted people groups over the globe. His state of mind toward the finish of the work appears differently in relation to his past convictions in that he now bolsters white interest in the battle for dark liberation, while he prior does not. Simply in the wake of going through such a significant number of stages and seeing the race issue from such a large number of alternate points of view is Malcolm ready to settle on a theory in which he genuinely accepts.

Critical Conversation

Other thinkers thought very highly of this movie in terms of the general public. Because of his performance in this film, Denzel Washington received nominations for many different awards. The dramatization of Malcolm’s life and what he went through and what he meant to the Civil Rights movie is what made this movie what it was. One area for critique, according to the general public, was the editing. Many people believe the movie was too long. But, for the most part critics loved the movie. In terms of Malcolm X as a historical figure, people have very conflicting views about him. Malcolm had a “revolutionary” effect of frightening both the establishment and also the oppressed. When Malcolm X spoke about self-defense and sticking up for yourself, whites just heard racial violence. Despite this, he brought to light a legitimate concept of physical self-preservation. Malcolm’s intentions were good, but people saw them differently. He frightened and antagonized Caucasians and he frightened and threatened the white and black power elites. He was the left hook to Martin Luther King’s right cross. Even before the film came out, it had trouble making it to the big screen. Even when the movie was released, it was released in the wake of the riots which erupted in LA following the brutal police beating of Rodney King. It arrived in a harsh, post-civil rights movement climate of right-wing fundamentalism. This made the movie even more controversial. The movie basically emerged from an extension of conversations in the 80s and also early 90s about Afrocentric politics and populist black nationalism.

Works Cited

“Awards.” IMDb, IMDb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104797/awards.

Canby, Vincent. “Review/Film; ‘Malcolm X,’ as Complex as Its Subject.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 1992, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/18/movies/review-film-malcolm-x-as-complex-as-its-subject.html.

Clark, Ashley. “Malcolm X: Spike Lee’s Biopic Is Still Absolutely Necessary.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Feb. 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/19/malcolm-x-spike-lee-biopic-black-cinema-selma-the-butler.

Collins, Austin K. “How Spike Lee and Denzel Washington Turned ‘Malcolm X’ Into a Hollywood Epic.” The Ringer, 22 Nov. 2017.

Ebert, Roger. “Malcolm X Movie Review & Film Summary (1992) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, 18 Nov. 1992, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/malcolm-x-1992.

Further Readings

Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed., vol. 10, Gale, 2004. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/pub/5AWK/GVRL?u=gainstoftech&sid=GVRL. Accessed 1 Mar. 2018.

Hoyt, Charles Alva. “The Five Faces of Malcolm X.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 4, no. 4, 1970, pp. 107–112. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3041388.

“Spike Lee.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 19 Jan. 2018, http://www.biography.com/people/spike-lee-9377207.

V. P. Franklin. “INTRODUCTION: REFLECTIONS ON THE LEGACY OF MALCOLM X.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 98, no. 4, 2013, pp. 562–564. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Civil Rights Movement, Earl Little, Black Activist, Assassination, Racial Violence, Tragic Hero, Police Brutality


Song of Solomon

By Dong June Jang and Allen Zhang


Song of Solomon is one of the most celebrated examples of modern African American literature. Written by Toni Morrison and published in 1977, the book describes the life of a black boy named Milkman Dead. Milkman’s life begins at No Mercy Hospital, just one of many ironically named locations in the unnamed town in Michigan that is Milkman’s hometown. As Milkman grows up, he becomes jaded to the world around him and finds himself lost as he pushes away his family, his friends, and even his own heritage. His only confidant is Guitar Bains, whom Milkman considers his wise and confident best friend. Guitar’s cynical view of the racial atmosphere, however, eventually leads him to join the Seven Days, a secretive group of seven black men that commit revenge killings against white people in response to unjust black deaths. Milkman himself, driven by nothing but material greed, sets out on a journey to find his grandfather’s remains and the gold supposedly buried with them. His quest for the gold takes him to Danville, Pennsylvania, and Shalimar, Virginia, each stop revealing a chapter in the family history he had tried to avoid. By the end of this journey, he realizes his folly and accepts his roots, maturing as a character and returning home with a fresh sense of identity. Set in the years when the Civil Rights Movement was sweeping throughout America, this novel explores what it was like growing up in a segregated America. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Award and was accredited for helping Toni Morrison win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Historical and Cultural Context

Song of Solomon takes place in America during the mid-20th century, when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. This places the book only slightly in the past relative to time of writing. A time of social and cultural instability, the Civil Rights Movement years were characterized by strained and overt racial tensions even as the country prepared to address the issue of race. This unique atmosphere is reflected in the book, as Song of Solomon references actual events such as the lynching of Emmett Till and the Birmingham Church Bombing. In the former, a 14 year-old black boy was brutally murdered and dumped into a river following false accusations of verbal advances on a white woman at a grocery store. The acquittal of his murderers combined with his mother’s insistence on an open-casket funeral for the mutilated corpse drew widespread outrage and became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. Angry barbershop customers discuss this news in Song of Solomon, reflecting the general outrage at the sheer ease with which whites could kill blacks in America and get away with it. In the latter, Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of TNT under the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African American church, where the blast killed four girls and injured 22 other people. In Song of Solomon, Guitar is assigned by the Seven Days to bomb a white church in the exact manner it was committed in Birmingham. Guitar’s conflict with Milkman arises from Guitar’s desire to use the gold that Milkman seeks to buy bombs for this end.


The four black girls killed in the Birmingham Church Bombing. From left to right: 11-year-old Denise McNair, 14-year-old Carole Robertson, 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, and 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley. Source: CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/13/us/1963-birmingham-church-bombing-fast-facts/index.html

Since Song of Solomon is set so soon relative to time of writing, many of the circumstances surrounding the novel’s fictional setting overlap with its real world setting. This creates a strange sense of both distance from and nearness to the events in the novel. The Civil Rights Movement was undeniably a turning point in American history, as prejudices formerly enshrined in law were finally addressed and deposed from legitimacy. These prejudices, however, did not disappear. Instead, they continued to haunt American society as strongly as ever, something that the contemporary readers of Song of Solomon would have recognized immediately in the racial tensions that permeated American society. Thus, the novel becomes its own context in a sense, as it reminds readers of the greater, overarching context of the times they were living in, a context, the book recalls, that stretches back to the time of slavery. Thus, the context for the book is twofold: one which places the story in the past, amidst an era of revolutionary advancements in civil rights, and one which reflects the present, highlighting the need for continued progress in recovering from centuries of slavery and oppression.

Themes and Style

A major theme throughout Song of Solomon is the idea of heritage and connection to the past. Milkman represents the archetypical boy growing into a man, but in his case, this coming of age is a parallel to his acceptance of his heritage as well, tying together the two themes of timeless growth and context in the past. Much of this connection is represented in the idea of flight. Solomon, Milkman’s great-grandfather, flew back to Africa, leaving behind his family; Milkman dreams of flight and eventually learns to fly himself; and Guitar himself advises Milkman that if he wants to fly, he needs to “give up the shit that’s weighing you down” (Morrison 179). In both these cases, flight is symbolic of maturity and self-determination. By accepting his heritage and responsibility for his own life, Milkman unlocks the secret of flight – not by running away from his identity, but accepting it: “If you surrendered to the wind, you could ride it” (Morrison 337). Guitar, ironically, fails to take his own advice, as he is weighed down by the burden of the past he has imposed on himself. Unlike Milkman, who has found peace and acceptance with his identity, Guitar tries to deny it in vain, ultimately perpetuating the past he thought to destroy (Guth 581). Thus, in the second half the novel, Milkman and Guitar find their relationship reversed. Milkman, now the wise one, finds true freedom while Guitar only finds vengeance and self-destruction.

This need for connection to heritage is extended to community as well. In Milkman’s case, by constantly pushing away the people around him instead of seeking common ground, he finds himself alone, a feeling he likens to going one way on the street while everyone else is going the other way (Morrison 78). When Milkman arrives in Shalimar, the ultimate destination of his journey and the mythical hometown of Solomon, he finds himself hated as his aloof attitude instantly antagonizes the local residents. Some of these people invite Milkman on a bobcat hunt as a hazing ritual. During the hunt that was intended to bully and humiliate him, however, Milkman realizes his error and finally discovers connection with the the people around him and, it seems, the whole world. As Milkman leaves the hunt, he is able to laugh together with the men around him, accepting them and being in turn accepted as equal and a friend (Schultz 138). Song of Solomon suggests that nobody is above community, implying that without community, individuals cannot truly find themselves.

Legacy also plays an important role in the book. Milkman chases after the gold his grandfather supposedly hid long ago. In the end, instead of this false, materialistic inheritance, what he receives is the legacy of flight, a spiritual awakening and discovery of self. Guitar claims his mission is to uphold the legacy of black struggles, a claim that is undermined symbolically by the Seven Days’ inability to have children (and thus an inability to leave behind anything meaningful) and by Guitar’s own downfall (Guth 581). Pilate leaves Milkman one last message and a final unfulfilled wish, an episode that prompts Milkman to hope that “there’s gotta be one more girl like you” (Morrison 336). In each case, legacy defines the impact of the character’s life and carries on beyond death. Song of Solomon thus shows the power of legacy, of inheritance from past to present and present to future.


Milkman and Guitar’s conflict is often compared to the differing viewpoints of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While Milkman’s stance on the racial divide left hope for the future, Guitar, like Malcolm X, eventually met his downfall as a result of his violent beliefs. Source: Wikipedia.

The book is an example of magic realism, depicting events that are mostly realistic and believable, while also incorporating surreal and even impossible events that suggest a mystical aspect to the story. The narrative of Song of Solomon is interlaced with aspects of magical and spiritual elements. Toni Morrison uses theses elements of magic realism to highlight the deeper symbolism of the actions themselves, not so as much the literal actions that are depicted. For example, Milkman’s coming-of-age comes to fruition when he learns that his ancestor Solomon was able to fly. The focal point of this tale is not that a human being literally flies; instead, Solomon’s flight serves to represent freedom and liberation. Upon discovering his heritage, Milkman is likewise liberated – not from the institution of slavery, but from his own self-inflicted imprisonment and personal bondage. In the end, Milkman flies at his erstwhile friend and nemesis Guitar, and the book ends. Whether he lives or dies is not important, for the story itself has already concluded. Through this abrupt yet appropriate ending, Morrison accentuates the importance of the symbolic over the literal in the story, as Milkman’s life is immaterial when compared to the idea of his life.

The Critical Conversation

Song of Solomon is typically studied under two main focuses. One discusses the novel as a coming-of-age story. The other focus discusses the novel as a tale of rediscovery of heritage and identity. In the former, Song of Solomon is a rather straightforward specimen of Bildungsroman literature and not particularly relevant to our focus. In the latter, the themes addressed most closely connect Song of Solomon and the Afterlives of Slavery. Song of Solomon explores the dynamic between heritage, community, and identity of African-Americans. In Milkman’s case, his heritage is something that is obscured by the past and not something he initially wants to accept. Even so, it is ultimately something that he cannot define himself without and something he is happier for understanding. In this way, Milkman’s quest to rediscover and reclaim his heritage serves as a representation of the overall African-American experience of self-discovery and restoration of identity. Although this identity may be blurred by years of oppression and generations of distance, it is nonetheless a vital part of African-American cultural identity, and the struggle to reunite with it is unique to the African American community. Song of Solomon is thus a story about cultural reclamation as a way of moving forward, just as by restoring the heritage he had previously lost, Milkman redefines the way he views the world around him.

In a scholarly article by Sean M. Kirby, a grant writer based in Buffalo, New York, Kirby analyzes the relationship that naming and identity have in Toni Morrison’s novels. Kirby states that “as an African American author, Toni Morrison is acutely aware of the pain that is intertwined with the history of her history” (Kirby, “Naming and Identity…”). Toni Morrison’s awareness of the deep-rooted pain in her history is reflected in the naming of her characters. When Africans were taken away from their homes and families in Africa to be sold as slaves in America, slavers effectively ripped away the identity and heritage of the slaves. They were transported to a foreign land, given foreign names, and subjugated under white ownership. This loss of identity makes its way to modern times as an afterlife of slavery. In Song of Solomon, Morrison pays particular attention to the naming of her characters in order to carve out an identity of black characters that is fully theirs. In an interview with Toni Morrison about her recent novel God Help the Child, Morrison explains that “naming is vital because we didn’t have any names” (Morrison). Morrison points out that the names given to slaves were meaningless and provided no sense of identity. In response, Morrison chooses names for her characters that accurately and/or ironically describe that character. For example, Milkman’s name is a reflection of his immature temperament. Similar to how a baby depends on its mother for milk, Milkman depends on his family to fulfill his materialistic needs. Guitar’s name is likewise double-layered, as the seemingly innocent anecdote of the young Guitar desperately wanting a guitar in a window that he could never have ultimately reflects Guitar’s cynical view of the world and his “love” for people, a “love” that quickly turns into despair and hatred (Dubek 101). Instead of looking for a path to the future, Guitar gives up any hope of a future, and instead of trusting in his friend Milkman after Milkman leaves to find the gold, Guitar concludes that Milkman is trying to take all the gold for himself and determines to kill him.

Ballou's Pictorial (Boston, Jan. 23, 1858), vol. 14, p. 49.

Depiction of slaves working in cotton plantation by Eleazar Powel. Through the institution of slavery, not only were Africans forced to work under brutal conditions, they were also stripped of their cultural identity and heritage, made evident in this image by their American apparel. Source: Ballou’s Pictorial (Boston, Jan. 23, 1858), vol. 14, p. 49. https://b-womeninamericanhistory19.blogspot.com/2017/01/slaves-working.html



Some view Song of Solomon as a critique and warning of contemporary African Americans fighting for rights. References to the Civil Rights Movement, both direct and indirect, occur all across the story of Song of Solomon. In addition, Milkman’s personal growth that occurs only with acceptance of his heritage seems to suggest that black rights activists then and now cannot define their movement without remembering and considering the struggles of past movements, according to Laura Dubek of Middle Tennessee State University (Dubek 93). Deborah Guth of Tel Aviv University argues that both Guitar and Macon ultimately fail due to failure to accept their heritages, as “while Macon seeks quite consciously to beat the white world by joining it, Guitar’s apparently oppositional stance unwittingly adds up to the same thing, for through his system of hidden reprisals he does no more than inscribe himself invisibly into a society that has condemned him, and his people, to invisibility” (Guth 581). In both viewpoints, Song of Solomon reminds readers to consider the past even as they look to the future, lest they wander aimlessly like Milkman or condemn themselves to oblivion like Guitar.




Works Cited

Dubek, Laura. “”Pass it on!”: Legacy and the Freedom Struggle in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2015, pp. 90-109,196, ProQuest Central; Research Library, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1674233994. Accessed 24 February 2018.

Guth, D. “A Blessing and a Burden: The Relation to the Past in Sula, Song of Solomonand Beloved.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 1993, pp. 575-596. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0197. Accessed 24 February 2018.

Kirby, Sean M. “Naming and Identity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon.” Inquiries Journal, vol. 16, no. 5, 2014, pp. 3-6.

Morrison, Toni. Interview by Mario Kaiser and Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Toni Morrison in Conversation, 29 June 2017, https://granta.com/toni-morrison-conversation/. Accessed 22 February 2018.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York City, Vintage International, 1977. Print.

Schultz, Elizabeth. “African and Afro-American Roots in Contemporary Afro-American Literature: The Difficult Search for Family Origins.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 8, no. 2, 1980, pp. 127, Periodicals Archive Online, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1297890837. Accessed 24 February 2018.

Further Reading

Blake, Susan L. “Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon.MELUS, vol. 7, no. 3, 1980, pp. 77-82.

Klein, Michael R. “Civil Rights & Black Identity.” The Atlantic. March 2006, pp. 78-88.

Stryz, Jan. “Inscribing an Origin in Song of Solomon.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 19, no. 1, 1991, pp. 31, ProQuest Central; Research Library, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/274265192?accountid=11107.

Krumholz, L. “Dead Teachers: Rituals of Manhood and Rituals of Reading in Song of Solomon.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 1993, pp. 551-574. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0913



By: Jake Lundkovsky & Nick Cooke


Joey Bada$$, Brooklyn-born 23-year-old hip-hop artist, dropped his second studio album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ on April 7, 2017. In this work, Joey employs conscious lyrics to magnify pressing issues such as police brutality and volatile race relations that currently plague the United States. Joey hopes that his work does not fall on deaf ears, as his lyrics often cut deep and hit hard. For instance in “GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA”, Joey raps, “America, my masseuse, massagin’ my back / Tryna act like, she ain’t gon do me like Pratt.” (“ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ by Joey Bada$$.”). In this lyric, Joey references Geronimo Pratt, a former Black Panther Party leader who the FBI wrongfully framed and convicted for murder in 1972. Had one merely listened to the song or album once, he or she might not have caught this subtle yet profound message and other messages that Joey litters throughout his work. Thus, Joey wants his listener to relisten and further analyze what he has to say. He wants his listeners to truly ascertain his message that despite the current state of affairs, one should remain hopeful. Joey wants his listeners to realize that the effects of slavery live on and that we should not overlook them; in fact, many minorities still face similar prejudice that African American slaves faced two hundred years ago. ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ serves to acknowledge the widespread discrimination and provides those affected a bold call to action.

Historical and Cultural Context

The year 2017 was one of continued high political tension, increasing police brutality, and feeble race relations. In 2017 alone, police officers were responsible for ending the lives of 1,127 individuals in the United States. To provide some perspective: police killed more than 700% more people in 2017 than there were lynchings during the peak of the Jim Crow years (“2017 Police Violence Report.”). Out of the 1,127 incidents, only twelve police officers faced criminal charges. Twelve out of 1,127 is an astonishingly small number  — a 1% rate of conviction. Many people wonder why no change has taken place so far. Police brutality is no new phenomenon either; Chaney and Robertson write that the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights has investigated more than twelve police departments in major cities across the United States for this very issue (Chaney, Robertson). Needless to say, many African Americans and other minorities in the United States feel strongly about this issue, as does Joey Bada$$. With such poor conditions, Americans wonder how far our society has really moved past the slavery era. Further research proves how the odds are stacked against the community. Higher unemployment rates, higher incarceration rates, and lower bachelor degree rates are merely a few of the many disadvantages this community faces.

But how does this relate to the afterlives of slavery? When modern scholars think about the issue of slavery, their discourse often revolves around the ideas of prejudice, persecution, and oppression — and rightly so. When one considers the current times, some common themes exist. Minorities face discrimination on a day to day basis. If an outsider were to examine the current power dynamics and numbers, he or she would vividly see the residual effects of slavery. These truths are self-evident; one simply needs to take a second to view what is in front of him or her. Joey Bada$$ mentioned in an interview with Fuse that he felt as though there was no better time than 2017 to provide the message of hope to a community —  a culture — which needs it most (FUSE). He did just that. His album struck at a crucial time. In 2017, many minorities sharply opposed the president in office; many minorities faced prejudice on a daily basis, and many minorities have perished through acts of police brutality. These occurrences continue to happen to this day. Joey wishes that this injustice does not go unnoticed; he does not want these Americans to fall complacent with the status quo. His goal is for people to hear his music, to examine society further, and then to stand up for themselves. He wants his music to be a kind of call to action. Through his album, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, Joey seeks to give a voice to the people who, during this period of discrimination, feel voiceless.


Themes and Style

Joey Bada$$ is known for his lyrically focused writing style. His skills as a lyricist have been evolving ever since he stepped foot in the rap game a few years ago. Joey is best known for his old-school style and vivid metaphors – traits he established on his 2013 mixtape Summer Knights. As a storyteller, Joey excels, and he made full use of these skills when he delivered  ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$. A lot of Joey’s songs build their message throughout the song and contribute to the overall story of the album. In the album’s intro, Joey begins by repeating “Good morning Amerikkka” which begins his deep look inside his conscious and that of America’s. In “LAND OF THE FREE”, Joey explains his inner conflict with his culture’s past (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

(Fig. 2) LAND OF THE FREE, the first single off of Joey Bada$$’s 2017 album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$; Vibe, 20 January, 2017, https://www.vibe.com/2017/01/joey-bada-land-of-the-free-single/

He points out many of the difficulties facing African American society and the challenges he faces in changing things. He uses rhetorical questions like, “But how do I go about it? [changing society] / Tell me where I start? / My destiny rerouted when I chose to follow heart / You told me to follow suit, but tell me what it did for you? / Except weigh you down, now you trapped inside that cubicle” These bars, or lines, are rich in both rhetorical questions, rhyme, and theme. Joey wants to make his audience think with this project, so he adjusts his style to that purpose asking the audience questions and trying to relate to the common plight of many. Regarding Joey’s style, he often relies on developing an idea over the course of a few lines. Like in the quote above, Joey develops the idea that making a change is difficult over the course of a few lines in what appears to come across as a conversation between Joey and the stereotypical corporate American. He implements this style again in “FOR MY PEOPLE.” Joey raps, “Never restin’ /  I’m surpassin’ the expectancy of life in my direction / Man the section 8 is depressin’ / Hard to be progressin’ through recession and oppression / Not to mention that they had us cell blocked ever since an adolescent”. Joey again takes several lines to develop the idea that he will rise above the difficulties that have plagued the African American community. The life of an African American who is born into “section 8” and faces a constant “oppression” is what Joey is trying to bring to attention to his audience (“FOR MY PEOPLE”). In many ways, this is the afterlife of slavery that continues to haunt many African American communities. The harsh cycle of depression, violence, crime, discrimination, and incarceration that stems from the end of slavery is what Joey styles his lyrics around.

In the last song of the album, “AMERIKKKAN IDOL,” Joey writes and flows at his best. He shows that he has decided to take a stand and take action against the wrongs he has witnessed on behalf of society and government. He raps lines like, “And we [African Americans] on top ‘cause my people been paining before crack / Media’s got this whole thing tainted, that’s all fact / Feedin’ you lies like this whole thing wasn’t built on our backs / Assimilate our history then made it a mystery / Now they inherit the bittersweet victory,” using rhyme and storytelling to paint the picture of the entities he feels are putting down African Americans. In the last verse, Joey raps slowly, emphasizing what he feels is most important. He points his finger directly at the government with lines like, “What the government is doin’ amongst our people is downright evil / With all of the conflict of propaganda, I believe they are simply tryna slander / Start a Civil War within the USA amongst black and white and those alike” exposing a bigger plan set in motion by racism and power. This plan is that “They want us to rebel / so that it makes it easier for them to kill us and put us in jails.” To combat this scheme, Joey urges everyone to come together. For the gangs to “protect” the neighborhoods they are destroying. He asks everyone to “wake up” and “form opinions”  that aren’t influenced by the media so everyone can change America before it is too late (“AMERIKKKAN IDOL”). The style of these bars and their delivery is almost like a speech. Joey does this as this is his final message on the album and he wants to use the pedestal he has built in the previous tracks to make sure his audience knows what to take away from his work and what they can do next.
ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is full of significant themes like race tension, police brutality, slavery, current politics, and finding one’s purpose in life. Joey focuses much of his argument on looking at the past and present times to work toward building a better future together. In “LAND OF THE FREE”’s chorus, he raps, “In the land of the free, it’s full of freeloaders / Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors / They disorganized my people, made us all loners / Still got the last names of our slave owners” Joey has annotated these lines pointing out that his last name is Scottish and comes from a slave owner who owned an ancestor of his (Genius). Joey’s point is to point out the legacy, or afterlife, of slavery that still lingers in society today. In another song, “TEMPTATION,” Joey includes a snippet from a speech delivered by Zianna Oliphant, a nine-year-old girl from Charlotte, North Carolina in 2016 in response to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, an African American man. At one point, Oliphant sobs, “Just because of our color doesn’t mean anything to me.” The fact that a child is pointing this out in 2017 shows the state of race relations in society and how much the color of one’s skin still matters today like it did in the time of slavery. Joey discusses the inner challenges he forces himself to face in response to the discrimination and police brutality that many African Americans face in their daily lives. He addresses the cycle of gangs, drugs, mass incarceration, welfare, government housing, police brutality, and lack of family structure that continues to hold his culture down. As the last song of the project, “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” brings together many of the themes of the album and allows Joey to push forward and present a plan for moving on towards the future.  


Critical Conversation

Joey Bada$$ released ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ at a critical time. Following the turbulent 2017 presidential election, much of America was as divided as ever. Police brutality is a hot issue frequently appearing in the news and race is becoming more commonly used to separate America’s diverse population with movements like Black Lives Matter representing the injustices faced by some racial groups over others. Joey capitalized on current times with his project and truly made this a contemporary piece of art. Thus, this album got a lot of press coverage and was trending for quite some time after its release.

Fig. 2

(Fig. 3) Joey Bada$$, 23 year old rapper from Brooklyn; FactMag, 13 March 2017, http://www.factmag.com/2017/03/13/joey-badass-all-amerikkkan-badass/

The work itself provoked controversy and conversation, something Joey aimed to create with this project – his ultimate goal is to make the listener “open” his or her eyes and think (Bada$$ 2017). Media outlets like Fuse interviewed Joey to gain insight into what his motives were while writing this album. The internet was flooded with album reviews ranging from praise to caution. In a podcast interview with culture icon Pharrell Williams and Scott Vener on Beats1 radio, Joey feels his album might alienate him from the industry due to his willingness to speak out the wrongs he sees every day. XXL’s hip-hop magazine praised Joey as making a very conscious yet catchy album. Spin media pointed out Joey’s attempts to make more radio-friendly music as a detractor to the album as a whole due to the “tepid” nature of his radio-friendly cuts (XXL). Spin media and others like Clash Music felt that the album became too “preachy” at points. Rolling Stone conducted an interview with Joey that pointed out Joey’s attempts to create a project that would invite new fans to listen and hear his message. Joey stated that he wished to make every song a song that he could perform at music festivals in front of 50,000 people (Bada$$ 2017). Comparing the reviews we saw with this album to his previous album, B4.DA.$$, it is clear that Joey took a leap with ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$. In his previous album, he noted that he relied on his nostalgic 90’s sound to tell the world a little bit about himself as he transitioned from mixtapes to an album. It’s clear with ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ that Joey is telling the world that not only is he here to stay but he is here to make a difference.  

As a whole, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ was met with both critique and praise and regardless of opinion, there is no debate that Joey represents a growing trend of both artists and everyday citizens speaking out against injustices still existing in the world today.


Works Cited

“2017 Police Violence Report.” 2017 Police Violence Report, policeviolencereport.org/.

“ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ by Joey Bada$$.” Genius, genius.com/albums/Joey-bada/


Bada$$, Joey. All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, 7 Apr. 2017.

Chaney, Cassandra, and Ray Robertson. “Racism and Police Brutality in America.” Journal of  

African American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2013, pp. 480–505.

FUSE, director. Joey Bada$$ On All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. YouTube, FUSE, 7 Aug. 2017,


Glaysher, Scott. “Joey Badass Empowers the People on ‘All-Amerikkkan Badass’ -XXL.” XXL

Mag, 14 Apr. 2017, http://www.xxlmag.com/rap-music/reviews/2017/04/joey-badass-all-amerikkkan-badass-album-review/.

Hyman, Dan. “Joey Bada$$ on Tackling Police Violence, Coming Into His Own on New LP.”

Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 12 Apr. 2017, www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/



Further Reading

Kubrin, Charis E. ““I See Death around the Corner”: Nihilism in Rap Music.”

Sociological Perspectives, vol. 48, no. 4, 2005, pp. 433–459.

Murray Forman. “Conscious Hip-Hop, Change, and the Obama Era.” American Studies  Journal, no. 54, 2010, p. 3.

Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Brothas Gonna Work It out! Hip Hop Philanthropy, Black Power Vision,  

and the Future of the Race.” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 18, no. 2, 2004, pp. 231–304. (further)

Wright, Kristine. “Rise up Hip Hop Nation: From Deconstructing Racial Politics to Building  

Positive Solutions.” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 18, no. 2, 2004, pp. 9–20.



Rap, Music, Joey Bada$$, Conscious Rap, Police Brutality, Hip-Hop, Race Relations, Afterlives of Slavery, Pop Culture, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$



By: Kennedy Rand and Chandler Witucki


Jay-Z released his video album 4:44, produced by No ID, largely in response to Beyonce’s video album Lemonade. Within the album, his song and video “Smile,” became the platform that his mother, Gloria, used to reveal her homosexuality to the world. This song details how she kept her sexuality a secret and remained in a heterosexual marriage in order to build the best life possible for Jay-Z and her other children. Jay-Z describes this secret of Gloria’s as something that keeps her from fully being free. One of the lines in the song says: “in the shadows people see you as happy and free, because that’s what you want them to see” which implies that keeping this secret allows his mother to live daily life with the facade of happiness, but does not actually feel this way (Jay-Z).


Fig.1 Jay-Z and his mother, Gloria Carter. Britton, Luke Morgan. “Jay-Z’s Mother Comes out on Rapper’s New Track ‘Smile’.”NME, NME, 30 June 2017, http://www.nme.com/news/music/jay-z-mother-gloria-carter-comes-out-gay-smile-2096802.

The entire song “Smile” revolves around this struggle of his mother with both Jay-Z’s written words and the visual images in the video references the struggle of his mother hiding her true identity. By describing his mother as not really free, Jay-Z addresses not only the lack of freedom his mother has from hiding her sexuality, but also addresses the lack of freedom she has a member of a poor black community.

Historical and Cultural Context:

Rap music as a genre has been established as important to black culture, as most of the music in this genre stems from black artists with a common goal- to speak their minds. In particular, rap music has become a platform for artists to express their grievances and struggles to the world. Culturally, rap music is a relatively new genre. As music has progressed, rap/hip-hop has become another platform that many African Americans use to express themselves and their struggles. Beyonce added to this community with her visual album Lemonade, and Jay-Z followed with his shortly after. The addition of these music videos adds extra meaning to their messages and lyrics. For example, Jay-Z includes the phrase “living in the shadows” many times in his lyrics. He enhances this phrase through the video by showing the actress playing Gloria off to the side in parties, having intimate, but hidden moments with a lover, and overall keeping her true identity in the shadows in daily life. By using not only rap, but also this powerful video, Jay-Z is able to effectively portray the struggles that Gloria faces in daily life when trying to keep her true identity “in the shadows” (Jay-Z).
Most directly, Smile addresses Gloria Carter’s struggles with her sexuality as she kept it a secret because, within society, the homosexual community experiences many hardships and discrimination. For most of the history of this nation, “homosexual activity or deviance from established gender roles/dress was banned by law or traditional custom” (Morris). In light of this extensive history where people have homophobia engrained in everyday life through customs, religion, and even law, coming out about homosexuality proves difficult and requires courage. Keeping this extensive discriminatory history against the homosexual community in mind, the power of “Smile” becomes that much more powerful. This idea that Gloria is living in the shadows, as Jay-Z raps about, stems from the extensive discrimination against the homosexual community. Historically, “there were few attempts to create advocacy groups supporting gay and lesbian relationships until after World War II” and the homosexual community only recently started to become accepted by society (Morris). It was only in 2015 that the Supreme court “ruled that same-sex couples can marry nationwide” (Diamond and Vogue). Therefore, in light of the newness of the acceptance of the LGBTQIA community across the nation, coming out as part of that community requires coming to terms with the fact that many people across the nation will not be accepting.


Fig.2 The White House shines Rainbow colors to hail the same-sex marriage ruling. Vries, Karl de. “White House Lights with Rainbow Colors – CNNPolitics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 June 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/26/politics/white-house-rainbow-marriage/index.html.

Furthermore, Gloria Carter also experiences the effects of discrimination toward the African American community in addition to the homosexual community. Jay-Z references that people like Gloria and other members of the African-American community are “not free”(Jay-Z). The video shows images of an impoverished African-American community, thus reminding viewers and listeners of the continuing battle for civil rights among minorities. The African American community has been fighting for civil rights since slavery, and still struggles with the racism that pervades society today despite over a century long battle. “Smile” chronicles a story of the battle of an individual against the discrimination against the African American community and the homosexual community.

Overall, “Smile” can be viewed as a tool to help improve civil rights within both the African-American community and the LGBTQIA community. Jay-Z addresses within the song that “the world is changing and they say it’s time to be free” which indicates part of the purpose of this song that goes along with the title – “Smile” (Jay-Z). Culturally and historically, our nation has experienced slow moving changes toward equality for African Americans and acceptance of the LGBTQIA community.  By creating this song about a negative daily struggle, but addressing the song as “Smile”, Jay-Z also references the bravery of the movements to continue to push for equality and acceptance of minorities in society and culture as a whole. Both movements, although having different histories have the same overarching end goal: equal rights without discrimination over innate aspects of a person’s identity such as sexuality or skin color.

Themes and Style:

While the lyrics of the song are powerful, the music video Jay-Z released with the song provides much deeper insight into the meaning of the song. In the video, the audience follows Gloria Carter through a typical day in her life prior to revealing her sexuality, and thus is able to see the sadness and discomfort she is feeling through her subtle actions and expressions. This style serves as both a reflection and a magnification of the themes present in the lyrics of the song; without this added visual communication, the audience would only hear the struggles associated with Gloria’s hidden sexuality in the words of the song, incapable of actually seeing and comprehending the pains of this hidden life and thus the pains of being a part of a minority. In addition, the video nature of the song allows the audience to get a better look at the racial injustice and stereotypes that exist in modern times. Gloria is pictured walking through a clearly lower-class neighborhood, surrounded by solely black actors/actresses. There is harsh language, violent insults and cursing in the background, and no one appears to be happy. These visuals cause the audience to associate these two characteristics- poverty/lower class and previously “inferior” races- as being related, and then connect this to the economic inequality black people have consistently faced in the near and far past. Thus, the song is able to bring up this negative stereotype that has existed for African Americans in the past and continue it into the present, thus revealing that we have not made enough progress towards racial equality.

Building on this, in the last seconds of the video Jay-Z chose to include a recording of Gloria herself reading her original poem; she is set up in what appears to be a poetry reading convention, and is portrayed by the real Gloria, who is much older and more worn-down than the young actress portraying her in the rest of the film.

Gloria Reading

Fig. 3 Gloria reading her poem within the “Smile”.  “New Video: JAY-Z – ‘Smile’ [Ft. Gloria Carter] [VEVO Version].” ..::That Grape Juice.net::.. – Thirsty?, 22 Dec. 2017, thatgrapejuice.net/2017/12/new-video-jay-smile-gloria-carter/.

This change is an interesting style choice that puts the timeline of the video in perspective, showing that the discrimination struggles that Gloria faced as a younger woman with young children have carried into her older life as she has aged. The fact that present day Gloria, many years later, is still in a dark enough place to be writing and presenting poetry about her struggles reveals that society has remained stagnant. The progress towards equality that minority groups have fought for over all of that time still is not within reach of being attained. In choosing to include this final scene of Gloria, Jay-Z thus makes the audience aware of the need for racial change; after viewing the music video, the audience sympathizes with Gloria and hates to see her be treated unfairly, so seeing her living in this racially unequal world challenges the viewer to fight back against modern racial prejudice and stereotypes in order to work towards a better world for Gloria and other minorities.

All in all, the music video style of the release of “Smile” is critical to the importance of “Smile”. Including such shocking images of the modern day manifestation of racism and prejudice towards minorities in general allows these deeper meanings and conflicts to become more apparent to the audience. This clear motif of inequality among people of different backgrounds pushes the audience to desire a change for this long-standing issue, thus developing the main message- that we all must push aside our differences and accept each other to create a more fair and authentic world. This thought process and deeper understanding of the purpose of “Smile” then provides a great starting place for critics to analyze the importance of the song.

Critical Conversation

While the main focus of “Smile” does not initially appear to be centered around themes of racial injustice and prejudice, further investigation into the purpose of the album as a whole brings these themes closer to center stage. Many of Jay-z’s songs focus on the hardships he has experienced due to his race, and keeping this in mind when experiencing “Smile” allows audiences to better see the presence of this issue throughout the song (Flanagan).

An example of such is Gloria’s original poem included in the song discussing the idea of “living in the shadows”, which both she and the hosts of her autobiographical podcast agree broadens the topic far beyond her hidden sexuality to inferiority of minorities in general (Axelrod).


Fig.4 Several Black rappers pose for a potential album cover. “Latin Rap Music Genre Overview.” AllMusic, http://www.allmusic.com/subgenre/latin-rap-ma0000002696.

This inclusion specifically clearly opens the door to discussions about racism in modern times, and how that has been reflected in music. The unique revealing of Gloria’s sexuality in a rap song raises questions about the significance of rap to black culture- why is a fast paced rap song the chosen best medium to portray such a delicate and complex issue? Rap has often been used to highlight important struggles that black rappers are facing, thus making it clear that this genre is critical to the development of this culture (Blanchard). This is likely due to that fact that the genre originated mainly from black artists, and has been spread and established throughout the country as a predominantly black genre of music. However, few other genres center around the discussion of the hardships of life as deeply and consistently as rap music does, and therefore it is logical that this genre would serve at an outlet for Gloria and Jay-Z’s struggles with inferiority (Jay-Z).

With this, it is important to note the prevalence of rap in modern music- if rap music serves as a medium for racial issues, the excessive rap music produced and distributed in the music industry today reveals the excessive need for improvement of racial relations. This has led to the discussion of the failures of the era of humanism in the African American community, and the improvements that must be made going forward (Marlo). In discussing “Smile”, therefore, we move towards discussing a more racially equal and prejudice free world for the future.

Works Cited

Axelrod, B. “The Gloria Carter Episode.” SoundCloud, 17 Sept. 2017, soundcloud.com/dussefriday/the-gloria-carter-episode.

Blanchard, Becky. “The Social Significance of Rap and Hip Hop Culture.” THE SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF RAP & HIP-HOP CULTURE, 26 July 1999, web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/socialsignificance.htm.

Flanagan, Andrew. “Let’s Unpack Jay-Z’s 4:44.” NPR, 5 July 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2017/07/05/535638777/lets-unpack-jay-zs-4-44.

Jay-Z. Decoded. Spiegel & Grau, 2011.

Marlo, David. “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music.” African American Review, vol. 41, no. 4, Winter 2007, pp. 695-707. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=35132165&site=ehost-live.

Morris, Bonnie J. “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movement.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/history.aspx.

Vogue, Ariane de, and Jeremy Diamond. “Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage Nationwide -CNNPolitics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 June 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/26/politics/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage-ruling/index.html.

Further Reading

Knowles-Carter, Beyonce. “Lemonade.” Rough Trade Publishing Ltd, Apr. 23, 2016. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.

McGoodwin, Michael C. “Aspects of Black American Music.” Aspects of Black American Music, 30 Aug. 2014, www.mcgoodwin.net/pages/blackmusicafram330.pdf.

Muhammad, Kareem R. “Everyday People: Public Identities in Contemporary Hip-Hop Culture.” Social Identities, vol. 21, no. 5, Sept. 2015, pp. 425-443. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13504630.2015.1093467.

Yaszek, List. “Race in Science Fiction: The Case of Afrofuturism.” Race in Science Fiction: The Case of Afrofuturism, virtual-sf.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Yaszek.pdf.


  • Civil Rights
  • Gloria Carter
  • Homosexuality
  • Racism
  • Hip-Hop Culture
  • Jay-Z
  • Minority
  • Rap Culture


Alright By Kendrick Lamar



Alright 1

Tardio, Andres. “Kendrick-Lamar-Cop.” Exclusive: We Got All the Answers about Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Video, MTV, 30 June 2015, http://www.mtv.com/news/2201127/kendrick-lamar-alright-video-colin-tilley/



“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar appeared in 2015 in his acclaimed album “To Pimp A Butterfly” followed by an accompanying music video. Kendrick Lamar entered the mainstream after the success of his first album “good kid, m.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar Biography 2018).” His songs were inspired by the challenging life on the streets of Compton, where he was born and spent his childhood, and he was mentored by prominent hip-hop artist Dr. Dre (Kendrick Lamar Biography 2018). Kenrick sees himself as a voice for African Americans who don’t have one, and believes he has a great responsibility to speak up for them (MTV 2015). He originally gained inspiration for the song after visiting Africa and seeing the problems people across the world have to deal with (MTV 2015). “Alright” was produced by another famous African American musician, Pharrell Williams, who can also be heard in the chorus of the song. The music video for the song was released in June 2015, directed by Colin Tilley, appears exclusively in black and white, displaying shots from both San Francisco and Las Angeles (Tardio 2015). The video contains themes of the relationship between the black community and the police, an issue that was a hot topic at the time and still is today. The song continued to grow in popularity as its theme truly resonated with the contemporary social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was declared “Best Rap Album” at the Grammys, and “Alright” the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, with the lyrics “We gonna be alright,” heard at Black Lives Matter events across the country (Harris 2015).


Historical Context

The concept of using music to protest social injustice has been around for quite a while. For example, in the 1960s many musicians created songs criticizing America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, such as “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Haltiwanger 2015). Nowadays, the use of music to call attention to societal issues is a fairly common occurrence, making music an effective tool for giving people a voice.

Because of this, it is no surprise that soon after the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, Kendrick Lamar stepped in with his song “Alright” to vocalize the sentiments of African Americans across the country. The movement formed in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed African American, Trayvon Martin, claiming it to be self-defense (McLaughlin 2016).This caused much outrage among African American citizens, as they believed Zimmerman’s severe actions were racially motivated, and that his acquittal was an unacceptable absence of justice. The goal of the Black Lives Matter movement was and is to end racial profiling of African Americans by police, and to hold those who abuse their power as a police officer accountable for their actions. The movement calls attention to the fact that blacks are much more likely to be arrested or shot by police officers than members of other races. In fact, 31% of Americans killed by police are African American, despite only representing 13% of the total population, minorities are almost 30% more likely to be shot and killed by police while unarmed than white citizens, and blacks are more than twice as likely to be arrested for drug offences than whites, despite relatively similar drug usage rates (Lopez 2017).

The Black Lives matter hashtag soon gained popularity on Twitter as people across the country began to call for justice and reform of a system that appeared to disregard the lives of African Americans (McLaughlin 2016). The movement continued to grow a large following after countless subsequent acquittals of police officers who shot and killed African Americans. Protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri after a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, and protests appeared in locations across the country following similar occurrences such as the death of Freddie Gray (McLaughlin 2016).

It was during this time that Kendrick Lamar released his album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which contained the song “Alright,” expressing the tension and fear that exist between American law enforcement and the black community. The song echoed the fact that members of the black community are rightfully afraid and resentful towards the police because of the countless examples of police executing unarmed African Americans and facing no consequences. This fear and absence of justice is unacceptable in society, which is why the Black Lives Matter movement fights for the simple right to not have to be afraid of getting shot by those who claim to protect them. Because of the sentiments the song conveys, it is not uncommon to hear the lyrics of “Alright” shouted at Black Lives Matter events, and because of this, many label the song as the anthem of the movement (Harris 2015). The fact that the message of “Alright” was so widely accepted indicates how, while slavery may have ended over 100 years ago, the effects are still visible today, as the racism Atlantic slavery put into place still exists and still claims the lives of African Americans through police profiling and brutality. “Alright,” has secured its place in history just as the protest songs of the 1960s did, by being a voice for a prominent movement that will be remembered for decades to come.

Themes and Style

“Alright” holds many important themes that intertwine both the lyrical and visual elements of the work. One common theme that appears throughout the music video is the relationship of the black community with the police. For a long time in African American music, perhaps since the first slave hymns were created, music has been used as protest. As one of our sources states: “This paper suggests that political and gangsta rap music artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s were utilizing a bold form of oppositional culture in protest and condemnation of perceived racial formation, institutional discrimination, and urban decay in the inner cities” (Martinez 3). “Alright” is no exception. Kendrick is very outspoken and says what he feels he must say about the struggles of his people: “Alls my life I has to fight, n***a!” It is important to him to be as succinct and loud about his point as possible so the whole world understands: ‘these people, MY people, are struggling’.


Soufi, Basil. “Oakland skyline, with the old eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in background.” Oakley,California, Wikipedia, 10 April 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakland,_California

The fact that the music video was shot around Oakland, a city in California known for high levels of crime and poverty, and displays of poverty and crime like the hellish beginning of the video with broken bottles, fire and darkness, try to convey this same point about the struggles of black America as a way to protest how their problems seem to be simply swept under the rug. ‘No more’ this video seems to say. The modern struggles that the African American community deal with are many and diverse, but the song focuses specifically on police brutality and the police’s treatment of the community.


Amrit, King. “tumblr_nqsb36mzzf1r7k95zo1_500.” *NEW* Kendrick Lamar- Alright (Music Video), Deadstock Kings, 1 July 2015, https://deadstockkings.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/new-kendrick-lamar-alright-music-video/


In the music video the police are a violent, malevolent force. This theme is exemplified firstly in one of the early shots of the video, which shows the shooting an unarmed black man running away from police; this is probably a homage to Walter Scott, an African American man who was fatally shot five times in the back when running from a police officer.

Alright 2

Santana, Feidin. “Walter Scott runs from North Charleston police officer Michael Thomas Slager before he was shot.” Sentencing begins for Michael Slager, ex-cop who killed Walter Scott, NBC News, 4 Dec. 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/walter-scott-shooting/sentencing-begins-michael-slager-ex-cop-who-killed-walter-scott-n826431aption


 Secondly a police officer shoots Kendrick from his perch on top of the light pole at the end of the video. Before being shot Kendrick looked like he was on top of the world and free from this cycle of terror inflicted on others in the black community; it is shown in that scene that no one in the black community is immune from this violence, and mourns those lost. The use of a grayscale color scheme with the video emphasizes all of the messages Kendrick is trying to convey in the music video, indicating that like the video itself, the messages he is trying to convey are black and white.

Another common theme in the video is brotherhood and unity; Kendrick is always with other people, celebrating, feeling the togetherness, and staying stronger as a group. This seems to be a common theme in hip-hop, and contrasts with the appearance of other negative qualities:

Another aspect of the rap/hip-hop genre is its deep-seated homosociality and “brotherly love”. This is juxtaposed with frequent misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and violence often found in gangster rap, specifically, but this dichotomy also exists in this moment of Lamar’s video. He exclaims:

“On my momma, n***a — I’mma be the greatest to ever do this s**t…on my momma, though, like…on the dead homies”

…just before the instrumental begins and he raps:

“Tell me who the b***h n***a hatin’ on me. Jumpin’ on my d**k, but this d**k ain’t free. To Pimp A Butterfly — another classic CD. Ghetto lullaby for everyone that emcee (sounds of gunshots). N***a, now R.I.P., my diligence is only meant to write your eulogy

-Yuri 5

On the whole however, the message of this song is meant to be all positive. It conveys through the lyrics a feeling that even when you feel as though your situation seems hopeless and events have taken a turn for the worst: “Hard time like ‘God!’ Bad trips like ‘Yeah!’”, your friends and your family will always be with you: “I’m f****d up homie, you f****d up, but if God got us then we gon’ be alright”.

“Alright” says that the past does not have a firm grip on the present and the future. Kendrick conveys a feeling of optimism throughout the song, that despite their struggles, past and present, he, his friends and family, and everyone in the black community “gon’ be alright”. The scenes of chaos in the beginning of the music video do not need to be the future for the black community; they can create something more beautiful for everyone, together. Along with that optimism however, Kendrick laces in some skepticism about the present, while although it was the year 2015 a time of progress, it still was 2015, a time of stagnation. These struggles that the black community faces will not just disappear, as evidenced by the police officer shooting him down from the light pole. One should dream to fly high, but be more wary than Icarus and try not to fly too close to the sun.

Critical Conversation

As stated in “The Improbable Story of How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Became a Protest Anthem.” the controversy surrounding “Alright” concerning the black community had less to do with the song in itself but rather what came before the dropping of “To Pimp a Butterfly” and the beginning of the popularity of “Alright”. According to the article, Kendrick’s relationship with the black community was at times strained and even hostile. Many lashed out at his remarks about some events affecting the community, angrily denouncing what they felt was very conservative and insensitive perspective on the situation. As the article states:

    The criticism that followed was swift. Outspoken rapper Azealia Banks was perhaps the most      public critic when she fired off a series of tweets: “‘When we don’t respect ourselves how can we expect them to respect us’ dumbest shit I’ve ever heard a black man say. Lol do you know about the generational effects of poverty, racism and discrimination? There are things in society that benefit a select few of us. fine….But don’t put down the rest by saying they don’t respect themselves. HOW DARE YOU open ur face to a white publication and tell them that we don’t respect ourselves…. Speak for your f*****g self”.

-(King 6-7)


Robo, “Screen-Shot-2015-01-09-at-4.20.46-PM.” Azealia Banks Bashes Kendrick Lamar For Ferguson Comments, Rap Basement, 9 Jan. 2015, http://www.rapbasement.com/azealia-banks/010914-azealia-banks-bashes-kendrick-lamar-ferguson-comments.html

Due to her habit of getting into fights with other celebrities, perhaps Azealia Banks did not have as much of a finger on the pulse on the black community as suggested. Regardless, what was important was that with the popularity of “Alright” the perception of Kendrick totally changed; everyone understood Kendrick’s stance on these events, and they approved.


Cohen, Lester. “Celebs-kendrick-lamar-geraldo-riveria.” Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera Responds to Kendrick Lamar, Says Hip-Hop is the ‘Worst Role Model’, BET, 15 April 2015, https://www.bet.com/music/2017/04/15/fox-news-geraldo-rivera-responds-to-kendrick-lamar.html

The most famous controversy surrounding the song is the infamous Fox News segment in which the pundit Geraldo Rivera, unappreciative of Kendrick’s performance at the BET awards and the song in general, said “this is why say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”. This prompted a response from Kendrick, saying “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred. The overall message is we’re gonna be alright”(Heins 3). This controversy highlights the ongoing debates between artists using their work to speak for themselves about their lives and those around them to highlight the injustices in society, artists like Killer Mike and Lauryn Hill, and people like Rivera and Bill O’Reilly, who seek to dismiss these claims made by artists.

Work Cited

Haltiwanger, John. “How Kendrick Lamar Is Proof Hip-Hop Can Influence Society In Big Ways.” Elite Daily, Elite Daily, 3 Aug. 2015, http://www.elitedaily.com/news/politics/kendrick-lamar-hip-hop-black-lives-matter/1156751.

Harris, Aisha. “Has Kendrick Lamar Recorded the New Black National Anthem?” Slate, 3 Aug. 2015, http://www.slate.com/culture/2018/04/springsteen-on-broadway-is-worth-it-for-the-quiet.html.

Heins, Scott. “Kendrick Lamar Slams Fox News, Defends Hip-Hop.” Okayplayer, 3 July 2015, http://www.okayplayer.com/news/kendrick-lamar-fox-news.html.

“Kendrick Lamar Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 29 Jan. 2018, http://www.biography.com/people/kendrick-lamar-21349281.

King, Jamilah. “The Improbable Story of How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Became a Protest Anthem.” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 11 Feb. 2016, mic.com/articles/134764/the-improbable-story-of-how-kendrick-lamar-s-alright-became-a-protest-anthem#.ETcovGPkb.

Lopez, German. “There Are Huge Racial Disparities in How US Police Use Force.” Vox, 6 May 2017, http://www.vox.com/cards/police-brutality-shootings-us/us-police-racism.

McLaughlin, Michael. “The Dynamic History Of #BlackLivesMatter Explained.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 Dec. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/history-black-lives-matter_us_56d0a3b0e4b0871f60eb4af5.

MTV. YouTube, MTV, 31 Mar. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUEI_ep9iDs.Tardio,

Andres. “Exclusive: We Got All The Answers About Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ Video.” MTV News, 1 July 2015, http://www.mtv.com/news/2201127/kendrick-lamar-alright-video-colin-tilley/.

Lamar, Kendrick. “Alright.” Genius, 15 Mar. 2015, genius.com/5062787

Martinez, Theresa A. “Popular Culture as Oppositional Culture: Rap as Resistance.”Sociological Perspectives, vol. 40, no. 2, 1997, pp. 265–286., doi:10.2307/1389525.

Further Reading

Blum, Adam. “Rhythm Nation.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality, vol. 17, no. 3, Jul-Sep2016, pp. 141-149. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15240657.2016.1199923.

McLeod Jr., James D. “If God Got Us: Kendrick Lamar, Paul Tillich, and the Advent of Existentialist Hip Hop.” Toronto Journal of Theology, vol. 33, no. 1, Spring2017, pp. 123-135. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3138/tjt.2017-0006.

Smitherman, Geneva. “‘The Chain Remain the Same’: Communicative Practices in the Hip Hop Nation.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 1997, pp. 3–25. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784891.

Ramocan, Yuri. “For The Dead Homies .” Medium, Medium, 7 Dec. 2015, medium.com/@yramocan/for-the-dead-homies-a-critical-analysis-of-kendrick-lamar-s-alright-music-video-eddde3be3177