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).
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.
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.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.
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).
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.
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.
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
- Hip-Hop Culture
- Rap Culture