Discussion Post - Jay-Z

1 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

Afrocentric Jay-Z: Africanisms in Black Culture

G. Jahwara Giddings, Ph.D.

Central State University

2 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

Introduction

“Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” Jay-Z & Eminem 2001

“I don’t know what you take me as, or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has.” Jay-Z 2003

Mostly disparaged because misunderstood, Hip-hop needs to be analyzed for its positive

role in Black and American cultures. As arguably the most accomplished Hip-hop emcee, Jay-

Z’s body of works illustrates the most compelling, yet misunderstood, feature of Black American

culture – its Africanisms. Explored herein are Jay-Z’s 20 studio album oeuvre which places him

in the pantheon of African-American creative cultural agents, which includes Winton Marsalis,

Toni Morrison, Sonya Sanchez, and August Wilson, et al. In fact, Jay-Z enables a new

framework for analyzing and understanding the value of American Hip-hop, based on Black

cultural nationalist theories advanced by Larry Neal (2000), Amiri Baraka (1991), August

Wilson (1996), Melville Herskovits (1959), Maulana Karenga (2008) Kariamu Welsh-Asante

(1993), Marimba Ani (1993), and G. Jahwara Giddings (2003, 2010).

An artist of Jay-Z’s stature as the most accomplished –wealthiest and the most decorated

emcee ever - naturally shapes how we see and understand this art sustained through generations

of innovation. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday’s musicianship and cultural

authenticity made them immortal Jazz innovators; Charlie Parker’s conscientious genius

innovated and forged Bebop; Sam Cook, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin

Gay, et al. generated rhythm and blues through Gospel music; then Bob Marley’s revolutionary

pan-Africanism passed the torch to his Jamaican compatriot Kool DJ Herk (Clive Campbell),

who helped create the Hip-hop genre which spawns cultural and market forces across three

generations while sustaining Africanisms or African culture in America.

Although geographically vast and very diverse with some 2,000 languages, there is

surprising cultural unity among the 1.2 billion people of Africa. The migration of Bantu

speakers from West Africa, moving south and east helps explain why 75% of Africa’s 2,000

languages belong to the Niger-Congo linguistic family, with the other 25% belonging to just

three other linguistic groups – Nilo-saharan, Khosian and Afro-Asiatic. The cultural unity of

Africa is illustrated by widely shared traditions such as high value or veneration of ancestors,

elders, and motherhood, the Queen Mother political office, inseparability of spiritual and secular

realms, matrilineal family organization, bride-wealth practices, and oral record keeping, and

dynamic communication scripts such as Adkinkra and Kente. (Diop 1989, Some, 1994) Malcolm

Gladwell’s (2011) analysis of the Scott-Irish roots of a ‘culture of honor” among many

southerners, concludes that “cultural legacies are powerful forces” with “deep roots and long

lives,” persisting through generations.

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Similarly, core cultural impulses, or epic memory, compel many African descendant

artists to inherit, negotiate, innovate, and perpetuate Africanisms or African culture across

generations. In Hip-hop, these impulses are expressed through imperatives and questions such as

“are you keepin’ it real?,” “who killed Hip-hop?,” and “are you an artist or entertainer?” as Hip-

hop is pushed and pulled in many directions by fans, critics, markets, and evolving norms. These

tensions are essential for understanding the significance of Jay-Z to Black or African American

cultures. Since we assume here that Black culture is a derivative of African cultures, let us admit

too that Africa is a conceptual invention, and thus subject to ongoing innovation. In fact,

historian James Sidbury (2007) argues that the idea of “Africa” was created by socio-historic

efforts of earnest African descendants within varied areas of the vast African Diaspora. The

reality of Blacks africanizing the U.S. is well documented and continues today in several ways,

including Hip-hop, where Jay-Z’s artistry is an exemplum.

Jay-Z’s stature places him at the center of debates on how Hip-hop helps to sustain

African culture in America. Consciously or not, Jay-Z’s twenty two albums oeuvre engages

themes, concerns and conventions that are at the heart of Africanist cultures in Black

communities. Jay-Z’s talents, professionalism, and fidelity to Hip-hop aesthetics beg for

analysis of its relationship to Black core cultural traditions/values or Africanisms, which

Giddings (2003) coined as oral, communal, spiritual and matrifocal. These Africanisms help us

to at least begin exploring Jay-Z’s place in the pantheon of African American cultural agents.

Chief among barriers to appreciating the importance of Hip-hop in general and emcees

such as Jay-Z in particular, is white America’s alienation from Black life and culture, as seen in

the myopic mass media critiques of Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and the late C. Delores Tucker.

Whites are not “woke” to Black realities and culture due to the legacy of American segregation,

the dynamics of which Toni Morrison (1993:4) illustrates in her sketch of a pre-1960s Black

community, where a white “valley man” entering such a segregated world, as an outsider, to

collect insurance premiums or such, might:

…see a dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of a cakewalk, a bit

of black bottom, a bit of “messing around” to the lively note of a mouth

organ. Her bare feet would raise the saffron dust that floated down on

the coveralls of the bunion-split shoes of the man breathing music in and

out of his harmonica. The Black people watching her would laugh and

rub their knees, and it would be easy for the valley man to hear the

laughter and not notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the

eyelids, somewhere under their head rags, …somewhere in the palm of

the hand, somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew’s

curve. He’d have to stand in the back of Greater St. Matthews and let the

tenor’s voice dress him in silk, or touch the hands of the spoon carvers

(who had not worked in eight years) and let the fingers that danced on

wood kiss his skin. Otherwise, the pain would escape him, even though

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the laughter was part of the pain … that could even describe and explain

how they came to be where they were. (author’s emphases)

WORD!

“They’re few writers in my cipher” Jay-Z, 2009

“If I can’t live by my word, then I’d much rather die” Jay-Z, 2009

Of the Black core values carried from Africa, preserved within a once segregated and still

somewhat self-contained African-America, the most familiar is the oral tradition. This

preference for oral (over written) communicative forms finds axiological expression in hip-hop

aesthetics. (Giddings, 2003) Jay-Z’s emcee prowess, and preference for free-style even at

recording sessions, illustrates the oral tradition. Free-style facilitates sincerity, spontaneity,

improvisation, realness, truth, and even spiritual engagement. Commitment to free-style allows

Jay-Z to convey sincerity and authenticity. His relaxed style or swag even makes his claim of

having the ‘hottest chick in the game” seem more than mere emcee braggadocio. Still, beyond

his blessings of a sustainable power marriage and growing wealth, Jay’s unique swag is seen also

in his gift or knack for spiting phrases which in the mouth of most other emcees would not land

the same, especially so in a career where coolness is currency. Few rappers can get away with

gushing over their mother’s cameo on their album, especially cooing about how at age four,

“Shawn … taught his self how to ride a bike – a two wheel at that, isn’t that special?!” And at the

end of which Jay (2003) exclaims, “Mom, you made the album, how crazy is that” Such an

unusual, yet matrifocal, expression is par for the course with a litany of maverick emcee phrases

and references such as:

… Jaybo …welcome to Jay-Z’s poetry readin’ … sounds so soulful, don’t you agree? …

actin’ all nonchalant ‘front of an audience … this is a public service announcement … I

mastered my aesthetics/I know you often heard me was poetic … this an unusual musical

I’m conducting … l’album noir … am the Sinatra of my day, old blue eye my Nigga, I did

it my way!… in layman’s terms … James Dean ... dyin’ young, leavin’ a good-lookin’

corpse … you got a daughter, gotta get softer... foreplay in the foyer … ain’t trying to be

facetious …faux nigga …she’s a lesbian/had to pretend so long she is a thespian … with

that in the egg shell …nothing succeeds like excess… thanks everybody out there for their

purchase … you’re far too kind … meteoric rise …

This seems part of Jay-Z’s unique manner of operating within Hip-hop’s imperative of an emcee

or MC, as a “microphone commando” who “moves the crowd,” in keeping with conventional

master of ceremony’s clear, authoritative, and effective speech events. As such, the free-style

oral tradition demands honesty, sincerity and authenticity. To effectively explain this tradition,

Marimba Ani (1993) expanded the conceptualization of aesthetics to include kugusa mtima (“to

move the heart in Ki-Swahili) as more appropriate for Black peoples’ creativity and beauty.

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Fittingly, Jay-Z (2004A) brags that: “first I snatched the streets, then I snatched the charts/First I

had their ears, now I have their heart.” In fact, Jay-Z’s attention to audience is well illustrated in

his MTV Unplugged (2001) live album, where he periodically gauges, on a 10 points scale, his

audience’s energy level throughout the performance, even directing the crowd’s energy by

instigating each side of the room against the other, and reveling in his violation of an MTV

broadcast rule, all in the name of maximum improvisational connection with his audience, who

karaoked his lyrics which they know by heart.

Expectedly, live concerts and ciphers are ideal venues for seeing the oral tradition in

action. Born of conventions, protocols, and practices that facilitate classical non-literary

communication, the oral tradition also facilitates new expressions that still affirm West-African

grammar kugusa mtima values. Such conventions include rhyming, repetition, tonal play,

compression, contractions or minimalism, and other means of aiding memorization,

improvisation and efficacy. Allsopp (1997:xlvii)) describes the “[c]reole economy of expression

which maximizes the use of the stock of vocabulary … by the device of functional shift or

‘conversion.’” For example, the creation and use of transitive verbs serve the goal of minimalist

and efficient wordsmithing as follows:

Everybody’s like, “He’s no item, please don’t like him,

He don’t wife ‘em, he one-nights them!” (2002, “Excuse Me Miss”)

…too old to be frontin’ what am feelin’

Denzelin’ and actin’ like you not appealing when you are

Stepin’ like you not my only girl, when you are (Pharrell 2003, “Frontin’”)

I ain’t a new jack

nobody gon’ Wesley Snipe me, (2009, “Change Clothes”)

Till we all without sin, let’s quit the pulpitin’ (2007, “Ignorant Shit”)

Ya’ll think small, I think Biggie! (2017, “Family Feud”)

These oral tradition conventions are at Hip-hop’s aesthetic core. Jay-Z’s poetics, replete with

masterful humor and irony, employ, innovate and thus sustain this kugusa mtima legacy. A small

sample of Jay’s wordsmithing reveals this mastery:

I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell

I am a hustler baby, I'll sell water to a well (2001, “You Don’t Know”)

Cats all feta, cause I got a little cheddar …

Bird ass niggas, I don’t mean to ruffle y’all

I know you waiting in the wings, but am doing my thing. (2001, “Heart of the City/Ain’t No Love”)

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Love, let's go half on a son,

I know my past ain't one you can easily get past,

but that chapter is done (2002, “Excuse Me Miss”)

My name is Hove, H to the OV

I used to sell snowflakes by the Oz (2003, Public Service Announcement)

It’s inevitable,

Now you’re (falling)

When you should’ve scaled back,

Now you’re (falling)

Right into their lap …

Now you’re tumbling, it’s humbling,

you’re falling, you’re mumbling

under your breath, like you knew this day was coming (falling)

Now let’s pray that arm-candy

that you left your Ex for, stay “down” and come in handy (2007, “Falling”)

No am not a Jonas

brother am a grownup

No am not a virgin

I use my cojones. (2009, “On to the Next One”)

Niggas make the same shit,

Me, I make the blueprint

Every year since, I’ve been on the next shit

Traded in a gold for the platinum Rolexes

Now a Niggas’ wrist match the status of my records (2009, “On to The Next One”)

I said, save the narrative that you savin’ it marriage

Keep it real ma, you savin’ it for carriage (2007. “I Just Wanna Love You/Give it To Me”)

For some immigrants

Build your fences, we diggin' tunnels

Can't you see, we gettin' money up under you? (2011, “Otis”)

Jay-Z (2009) conscientiously asserts a Griot or Djeli swag and status in claiming he is the

“only rapper to re-write history without a pen/ No I.D. on the track, let the story begin.” Here, he

evokes, via double entendre, the ephemeral, ethereal, character of the oral tradition by alluding to

an untraceable owner or authorship. Of course, effectively affirmed here is the communalism of

ambivalent ownership of such entities as words, rhymes and beats which are often borrowed,

sampled and collaborated, and in this case that of producer No I.D. Also apparent from the list

above is Jay’s mandatory assertion of Djeli-like authority, but which might be seen only as mere

emcee braggadocio. But a closer and critical afrocentric reading suggests the Africanist legacy

at work.

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THE HOOD

“…hold your applause, this is your song, not mine” Jay-Z 2007

“…I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars-worth of game for $9.99” Jay-Z 2017

It is the communal core value which breaks through any barriers to optimal engagement

between emcee and the audience. It is also this African cultural imperative to view and value the

self as extended (and thus dynamic) as opposed to nuclear (and static) that grounds Hip-hop.

Specifically, let us resist the inclination to limit our search for communal expressions only within

Jay-Z’s socially conscious lyrics. Perhaps because Jay-Z is not known to be as woke as Kendrick

Lamar, Common, Naz or even J Cole, he is a perfect subject for investigating the pervasiveness

of Africanist communal values, because he’s often not even trying to be woke. In his Black

Album self-professed “moment of clarity [and] honesty” a seeming self-conscious Jay-Z (2003)

admits to dumbing-down to audiences for optimal profit, and explains or rationalizes that:

If skills sold, truth be told

I’d probably be lyrically Tablib Kweli

Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

(but I did 5 mil)

I ain’t been rhyming like Common since!

When your sense got that much in common

And you been hustling since

Your inception, fuck perception -

Go with what makes sense!

Since I know what I’m up against

We as rappers must decide what’s most important

And I cant’ help the poor if I’m one of them,

So I got rich and give back

To me that’s the win win …(“Moment of Clarity”)

Here, Jay-Z’s (2003) win-win pragmatism suggests commitment to an extended self. Sharing the

same social or “street” milieu as Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z is compelled to “keep it real” about the

conditions of his “hood.” In fact, Jay-Z recognizes the dominant influence of mentor and

predecessor, The Notorious B.I.G./Biggie Smalls, whose “Ten Crack Commandments” track is

bitingly profound street pedagogy. As self-professed heir to Biggie Smalls’ legacy, Jay-Z builds

on community awareness and business skills honed during days as a drug dealer and as mentee

of both Biggie Smalls and Jaz-O, to achieve the career successes of which Biggie Smalls was

tragically cut short.

Jay-Z is aware of obligations to embrace the role of emcee as street-representative (2003)

and is upfront that “Marcy [projects] raised me; whether right or wrong, streets gave me all I

write in the song.” In the following justification of his thug actions, this Brooklyn

Representative emcee spits that:

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When your options is none and the pen is all you have

… there’s limits on the Ave. …

Mr. President, there’s drugs in our residence

Tell me what you want me to do, come break bread with us

Mr. Governor, I swear there’s a cover up

Every other corner there’s a liquor store – fuck is up? (“Justify My Thug”)

In this activist-artist role, success requires Bob Marley like social commitment. Amiri Baraka

observes that development or critique of society is the focus or driver of African or Black art

expression. Fittingly, another cultural agent, Jazz impresario Wynton Marsalis describes novelist

Ralph Ellison as the unsung ‘political theorist’ of the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement.

Perhaps conscious of the reach, limit and imperative of his rap representative, or culture agent,

role Jay (2003) admits that he is “far from a Harvard student, just had the balls to do it.”

In addition, glorification of roots is essential for any representative, traditional or street.

U.S. Congresspersons represent local district constituencies and similarly Jay-Z (2009) proclaims

his “New York’s Ambassador” status. In addition to addressing the plagues of poverty and

drugs, Jay-Z takes on the flawed educational system, much more diplomatically than Dead

Prez’s (2000) provocative “They Schools.” On a 1999 pop single with Mariah Carey, Jay-Z

complains that “school made me sick, teachers said I was too crazy.” However 10 years later,

and in the Obama era, Jay-Z criticizes a system where research suggests that white teachers have

less expectations than Black teachers have of Black students’ potential:

I felt so inspired by what my teacher said

Said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head

I’m not sure if that’s how adults should speak to kids

Especially when the only

thing I did was speak in class

I’ll teach his ass! (2009, “So Ambitious”)

Also in tune with the communal value is the seeming obligatory collaborations with fellow

artists, and Jay’s include:

Notorius B.I.G, Pharrell (Williams), Kanye West, J. Cole, Kid Cudi, Beyonce, Alicia Keys,

Rihanna, Beanie Sigel, Bilal, Ne-Yo, Sterling Simms, Usher, John Legend, Chrisette Michele,

Gloria Carter, Memphis Bleek, Timbaland, Young Chris, Scarface, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Anka

(that’s right Paul Anka, go figure!), Big Boi, Killer Mike, Twista, LaToya Williams, Sean Paul,

The Roots, Jaguar Wright, Q-Tip, R. Kelly, DJ Clue, Snoop Dogg, Scarface, Missy Elliott, Amil,

Juvenile, Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, Big Jaz, Babyface, Lil’ Kim, P Diddy,

and Mary J. Blige.

A notable collaboration is the “Renegade” track with the highly acclaimed Detroit emcee

Eminem, who is racially white and perhaps significantly from the blackest city in the U.S. where

he internalized hip-hop culture. In fact, Eminem’s skills arguably eclipse Jay’s on this track and

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represents the dynamics and diversity of community. Black American communities draw

diversity (10%) from immigrants who hail from the Caribbean, African and Latin America, and

even the birth of hip-hop is credited to Cool DJ Herk (Clive Campbell) who was born in Jamaica,

which the leading source of Black immigrants in the U.S. This communal value or posture

allows Hip-hop to benefit from the diversity offerings around it, be it immigrant, queer, or even

white.

SPIIRT

“If you don’t give me heaven I’ll raise hell. Till it’s heaven. Jay-Z 2003

“Spread love to all my dead thugs, I’ll pour out a little Louie ‘til I head above.” Jay-Z 2003

Notions of transcendence, religiosity and ethics pervade African origin cultures, from

Haitians and Londoners to Carolina Sea Islanders and New Yorkers. And art (song, elocution,

dance, etc.) is a natural conduit for conjuring up spirit. Specifically, Hip-hop’s communal

practices such as the free-style ciphers are chief means for engaging and manipulating, indeed

“riding” the spirit. Perhaps no single Jay-Z track engages spirituality more than “Lucifer.” Here,

Jay (2003) theorizes that “money and power is changing us and now we’re lethal, infected with

D’Evils …” Also, community concerns are painted as a “holy war” effectively shifting the

discourse on Ghetto realities from simple economics to ethics, in the manner that Maulana

Karenga (2010) recommend we examine America’s vexing socio-economic inequities.

Whenever such issues as inequitably funded schools are framed in economic terms and

abstractions only (i.e., property demographics, liabilities, and taxes) culpability is anonymous,

making needed political action out of reach. However, when social injustices are framed in

ethical terms (i.e., social-contract, collective responsibility, shared ethics and fairness)

culpability is clear and tangible solutions are perhaps more easily attainable. Recognizing that

street violence should be contextualized, Jay-Z (2003) explains and necessarily complicates what

is often seen as simply sinfulness:

“I’m from the murder capital, where we, murder for capital”

Lord forgive him

He got them dark forces in him

But he also got a righteous cause for sinning

Them a murder me, so I gotta murder them (“Lucifer”)

Don’t mean to be facetious, but vengeance is mine said the Lord.

Furthermore, Jay-Z’s diction here reflects traditional African American use, including

Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (Black Muslim) theology of conceiving whites as

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metaphorical “devils” as a means of grappling with the “moral monstrosity” (Karenga 2010) of

the enslavement holocaust and racism. Conscious that devilry can assume the “form of

diamonds and Lexuses,” Jay-Z (1994; 2003) employs this familiar metaphor to chase Lucifer

“out of Earth.” It’s compelling that on just two of Jay-Z tracks, one finds such proliferation of

spiritual and religious references as:

God forgive me for my brash delivery … forgive me I can’t be held accountable, D’Evils

beating me down … we all have sinned … blame it on the sun of the morning …

‘vengance is mine’ said the lord … introduce you to your maker … bring you closer to

nature … reading your psalms … paying your tithe, being good Catholics … wet you

with holy water … like a Semitic … Don Bishop …lift up your soul and give the Holy

Ghost … when I perish … the meek shall inherit the earth … bright light lead you …

memorial services ...somebody want their soul to rise …gone but not forgotten … love to

all my dead thugs …ashes after they cremate you … I’ll pour out a little Louie ‘til I head

above …

In his “No Church in the Wild” collaboration with Kanye West, Jay (2011) spits of:

Lies on the lips of a priest

Thanksgiving disguised as a feast

… I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach

Is Pius pious ‘cause God loves pious?

...Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy he laid beats

Hova flow the Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats, preach!

Beyond what is written and therefore explicit, it is in the cipher and other live

performances where one witnesses spirituality in fullest effect. Jay-Z’s (2001) recorded

performance of his “Song Cry” blues song begins with a sort of cipher among himself, Jaguar

Wright and the Roots. Jay-Z’s conventional rift of “…uh, uh, uh …” just behind and interlaced

with Wright’s own crooning, gets him into the grove and to spontaneously exclaim, “this is so

[mutafuckin’] soulful!” With invocation achieved, Jay-Z (2001) begs the music to do his

bidding: “can’t see it coming down my eyes, so I gotta make this song cry” to tell a confessional

tale of love lost to machismo pride. All the while Jay is sustained by Jaguar Wright’s blues

croons of minor notes that Jay rides all the way to epiphanies. In the end of this performed

confessional, and after arousal from a sort of post-coital stupor where Wright and Roots had

lulled him, Jay professes: “I got lost for a second, I ain’t gon’ lie … I was in my own thoughts

for real!”

Whether or not Jay-Z actually got lost in his own thoughts before an audience, he

certainly lays plain the sincerity cues hip-hop audiences expect. The great Jazz vocalist, Billie

Holiday (1957) mastered this improvisational convention and humbly defines the Blues

dynamics:

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The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy …

there’s two kinds of blues, there’s happy blues and sad blues … don’t think I ever sing

the same way twice, don’t think I ever sing the same tempo, one night it’s a little bit

slower, the next night it’s a little bit brighter, depending on how I feel. I don’t know, the

blues is sort of a mixed up thing, you just have to feel it.[author’s emphasis]

This spontaneity aesthetic, as informed by fidelity to context, mindfulness of audiences, and

one’s own mood and whim, affirms the established tradition of viewing, embracing and engaging

creativity as a collective/communal process. This aesthetic is popularly witnessed on any given

high-noon-on-Sunday (possibly still the most segregated hour in American life), where Black

preachers, saints, and musicians lean and build on collective shouts, songs and dances to call,

mount, ride, taste and feel the spirit.

Also, a tradition of personifying such spiritual forces as evil, affirms the Africanist

spiritual value of recognizing reality as not only tangible but also ethereal or even illusive. As

such, devilry is not just abstract, but also often very real and personified. In addressing the

“driving while Black” phenomenon, on the “99 Problems” track, listeners can deduce the Cop is

white, not only by Jay-Z’s mimicking his voice, but also by Jay-Z’s reference to him as a devil,

“… pull over the car or bounce on the devil, put the petal to the floor!” Lyor Cohen (Healy

2006: 288) perhaps unwittingly recognizes this orientation in Jay-Z’s personality by assessing

that “Jay-Z doesn’t have a [presumption] of what’s good and what’s bad. He doesn’t feel like

anything is out-of-bounds for him to witness and experience” and as such Cohen celebrates Jay-

Z’s disposition or worldview as “an incredibly valuable thing for hip-hop.” Jay-Z is merely

mirroring a larger spiritualist orientation, manifest by Africa’s cultural persistence in America.

James H. Cone (1992: 71-77) uses the musical Blues tradition to explain Black theology, and

Toni Morrison (1993: 90, 118) paints a pre-1960’s Black worldview similarly:

In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace … nature was never

askew – only inconvenient… There was no creature so ungodly as to make them destroy

it … a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones …They knew

anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t

commit suicide – it was beneath them …The purpose of evil was to survive it.

One of Jay-Z’s favorite producers, Kanye West (2010), puts it this way: “we love Jesus, but you

done learned a lot from Satan.” Indeed, a unique people dealing with the devilry of racism

produced a unique theology of oppression and expectedly also other unique ways of navigating

life, including essentials of the important dynamics of gender relations as we will explore in the

final section of this essay.

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MA

“Ladies is pimps too …” Jay-Z 2003

“Took my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes” Jay-Z 2017

“Bitch Bad, Woman Good, Lady Better, … Misunderstood” Lupe Fiasco 2012

In recognizing the importance of various women in his life, W.E.B. DuBois (1920)

describes the ‘mother idea’ as one of Africa’s important cultural gifts and legacies to the world,

and recognizes its continuity in African America. This matrifocal principle, conceptualized by

Giddings (2003) as the appreciation of women’s unique, indispensible and complementary

role in relationships, family, community and society, is very much manifest in Hip-hop, yet

Hip-hop is often simplistically dismissed as misogynistic music. The Hip-hop tradition of

referring to women endearingly as “Ma” complicates this charge. Further, one of Hip-hop’s most

natural links with its R&B forbearer, or cousin, is the emcee’s dependence on vocal hooks,

typically in feminine complementary voice generating, lubricating and guiding melodic tracks

for effective emcee flow.

Jay-Z’s (2001) “Song Cry” performance exemplifies this conventional assignment of

women to the role of crying and crooning, on his behalf, as his machismo, in this case, does not

allow him to see tears coming down his own eyes. In this confessional Blues song, Jay-Z offers

his masculine apologia, but he also takes a gender-complementarity approach. Although, to the

casual eye this seems a double standard, Jay-Z seems sincere. His thoughtful reflection on

coming to terms with repeatedly disrespecting by cheating, and consequently losing, his woman

is unequivocal:

How many time you forgiven me?/How was I to know you was plain sick of me?

I know the way a nigga was livin’ was wack/ But you don’t get a nigga back like that! / Look, I’m

a man with pride …

You don’t just pick up and leave and leave me sick like that/

I gotta live with the fact that I did you wrong forever! (“Song Cry”)

Jay (2017) later called on this trope again relative to his marital infidelity, admitting, “took me

too long for this song, I don’t deserve you” and relieved that he did not “go… Eric Bennet.”

This process of working out male-female romance issues is also attempted in Jay-Z’s

(2001) seeming misogynistic “Girls, Girls, Girls” which further complicates his relationship with

the matrifocal principle and gender complementarity. Collaborating with three other legends, Q-

Tip, Biz Markie, and Slick Rick, this track affirms Black Womanism, popularized by Alice

Walker (1983) as culturally distinct from white feminism. Here Jay-Z brags, or fantasizes, about

romantically conquering the following twelve “chick” caricatures: Spanish, Black, French,

Indian, Peruvian, Chinese, African, young, project, model, paranoid-hypochondriac, and

narcoleptic. Beyond its chauvinistic comedy, this rap rant seems to affirm the matrifocal value in

highlighting through satire, behaviors antithetical to conventional, complementary women’s

13 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

roles, which includes primary-care providers, educators of children, and husbandry of the home.

For instance, about the “model chick”, Jay-Z complains that though “she dress her ass off and

her walk is mean/only thing wrong with Ma she’s always on the scene/God damn she’s fine, but

she parties all the time,” and “don’t cook or clean.” Here, Jay-Z’s satire on women’s place is

within the same tradition of Brand Nubian’s (1990) “Slow Down” and Chaka Demas’ (2002)

“Murder She Wrote.” Indeed, one gets a sense of Jay-Z’s artistic socio-political satire, if the

surface chauvinism can be ignored. What then are we to make of Jay-Z’s (2003) gender

egalitarian assertion that, not just men but “ladies is pimps too”?

What possibly saves “Girl, Girls, Girls” from dismissal as pure misogyny, is Jay-Z’s

engagement of the “cash connection” dynamic of male-female romantic relations. (Karenga

2010: 279) Jay-Z’s (2001, 1999) asking his “Indian Chick” which tribe she is from, “red dot or

feather” is met by her “dough fetish” retort that “… all you need to know is am not-a-hoe and to

get with me you better be chief lots-a-dough.” Such engagements of the “cash connection”

enlightens the discourse on video vixens and other pornographies and economic traps into which

some women fall, in a society where matrifocal ideals are not mainstream values and where too

many female, Black and poor bodies are commodified. 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” affirms this as

Olivia, his female collaborator, boasts “I’ll have you spending all you got!” On his “Snoopy

Track,” Jay-Z (1999) is cognizant of this dynamic and salutes “…chicks who get dough for

takin’ off their closes, … money-makin’ honies that slide down the poles, all my educated chicks

whose grade is 4.0, all my baby mamas across the globe.” Jay-Z (2011) concludes that

“everything’s for sale …am never going to jail” and Drake (DJ Khalid 2016) even wonders out

loudly, “is it just me or is this sex so good, I shouldn’t have to fuck for free?”

Among Jay-Z’s supposed conquests, and in addition to the Indian chick, his “Black” and

“Project” chicks too are of particular interest to the matrifocal value because only these three are

given voice to respond, and thus engage in a Womanist discourse with him. Jay-Z’s (2001)

complaint that the “Black Chick” “don’t know how to act/Always talking out her neck, makin’

her finders snap” is met by her assertion that “listen Jigga man, I don’t care if you rap/You better

R-E-S-P-E-C-T me!” She asserts that neither Jay-Z’s status nor rap’s misogyny gives him the

right to disrespect her or the sisterhood. Jay-Z’s use of this Black woman’s anthem, as

popularized by the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, suggests some thoughtfulness. Further, as

an original recording of R&B pioneer Otis Redding, the use of this womanist “anthem”

underscores the very discourse Jay-Z engages with his female caricaturized subjects. As a son of

Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, Jay-Z (2001) is communally compelled to hold in high

regard, his “Project Chick, that plays her part” and about whom he concludes “…if it goes down

y’all that’s my heart.” Earlier, on the “Do It Again,” track Jay-Z (1999) collaborates with, and

thus engages, female co-emcee Amil (All Money is Legal) using classical call-and-response

format, where she playfully stands her ground against his bravado:

14 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

Jay-Z (Amil) Amil (Jay-Z)

12 am, on the way to the club

1 am, DJ make it erupt

2 am, now I’m getting with her

3 am, now I’m splitting with her (splitting with who?)

4 am, at the waffle house

5 am, now we at my house

6 am, I be diggin’ her out (who?)

6:15, I be kickin’ her out (what?)

7 am, I’m a call my friends

12 am, we gonna do it again …

12 am, on the way to the club

1 am, about to shake the butt

2 am, now I’m checkin’ the mix

3 am, now he buyin’ me drinks (what u drikin’ on?)

4 am, exit the club (let’s go)

5 am, think he getting some butt (that’s right!)

6 am, nigga still ain’t bust (what?)

6:15, nigga will get up (what?)

7 am, gotta tell my friends

12 am, we gonna do it again…

Beyoncee too holds her own, or is assertive, relative to the cash-connection romantic

relationship dynamic when asserting in song that “when he fucks me good, I take his ass to Red

Lobster.” The matrifocal principle is certainly at play in “Hello Brooklyn, 2.0” where Jay-Z’s

(2006) beloved borough of Brooklyn is personified as a nurturing woman, and after whom he

would name his future daughter, “Brooklyn Carter.” This 2006 collaboration with younger

emcee Lil’ Wayne, suggests a passing of this aesthetic tradition on to the next generation of

emcees, and fans too. This alone should warrant looking beyond Jay-Z’s surface misogyny if

one needs evidence beyond Jay-Z’s (2002) assertion that “Sisters love Jay cuz they know how

Hov is, I love my sisters, I don’t love no bitch.”

CONCLUSIONS

“You can’t kill me. I’ll live forever through these bars.” Jay-Z 2003

Well beyond an expose of Jay-Z’s hip-hop mastery, I have presented a framework for

viewing Hip-hop as a contemporary keeper of Africana aesthetic traditions. Jay-Z’s acclaimed

oeuvre points to a theory for understanding Hip-hop in Black culture-nationalist and historical

terms. In fact, Jay-Z’s self-confidence in engaging non-conventional rap references and

concepts, illustrates the authority of a cultural agent. An important aspect of cultural leadership

or mastery is consciousness of one’s relationship to surrounding cultural forces. Apparently

aware of connections to legacies, Jay (2003) admits that he did not “invent the game” and as a

metaphor for both the hustle and leadership, he thoughtfully explains:

I put my feet in the footprints left to me

… the ghetto’s got a mental telepathy

Man my brother hustled so, naturally

up next is me …

Shit I know how this movie ends … (Jay-Z, 1993)

15 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

Jay-Z seems to know also the complex cultural leadership landscape, littered as it is with rows

about relevance and realness. He says “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex” and

“never claimed to have wings on.” (Jay-Z 2003) Indeed, seeming to sense his eldership status as

younger emcees emerge while he still has much to contribute, Jay-Z (2006) compensated that

30s is the new 20s, recalling his own recording contract debut at age 26. Also, concern about

relevancy perhaps prodded Jay-Z’s orchestrated 2003 Black Album retirement, a bold and

unprecedented act in an industry where artists typically just fade to black. This facilitates the

issue of passing the mic from the hip-hop generation (born between 1965 and 1984) to what

might be called the Neo-hip-hop generation, who might not appreciate Hip-hop’s founding

pillars such as break-dancing, but whose reach beyond conventional limits of blackness might

have played some role in the election of President Barack H. Obama, who offers a new role

model for Black youths and many others. In cultural agency terms, Jay-Z capitalizes on his

maturity, painting the following braggadocio as earned status:

That's another difference that's between me and them

… I'm smarten up, open the market up …

Was born to dictate, never follow orders (2001, “U Don’t Know”)

I'm in the hall already, on the wall already

I'm a work of art, I'm a Warhol already …

Niggas compare me to Biggie and Tupac already. (2009, “All ready home”)

Pound for pound I’m the best to ever

come around here …

I went plat a bunch a times

Times that by my influence on pop culture

I supposed to be number one on everybody’s list

We’ll see what happens

when I no longer exist! (2003, “What more can I say”)

How can you falter, when you the Rock of Gibraltar

I had to get of the boat, so I can walk on water

This ain’t a tall order, this is nothing to me

Difficult take a day, impossible takes a week

… I do this in my sleep! …

Am not a businessman,

I’m a business, man!

Watch me handle my business, damn! (West 2004, “Diamonds from S.L.)

Mark Healy (2006: 288) justifies Jay-Z’s braggadocio by observing that “[t]he world

knows that if [Jay]’s doing it, wearing it, backing it, it’s probably worth a second look.” Actor

Gwyneth Paltrow (Healy 2006:288) too weighs in, that “there’s a generosity and self-assurance

that makes him super, super cool. Something just went right … he just has it all.”

16 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

Still, Jay-Z (2003) knows his paradoxical status as a rich Black man, whose “99

problems” include navigating a racist justice system which could impose “half-a-mil for bail

‘cause I’m African.” Indeed, Jay-Z’s oeuvre inspires further investigations into the dynamics of

Black culture and the potential, and imperative, of Black artists to forge a functional cultural

philosophy (a system of norms … that create institutions and policies that prod effective cultural,

socio-economic and political development among African Americans). (Cruse 1967) By more

conscientiously engaging such a cultural purpose and goal, Hip-hop can avoid the seeming faith

of its predecessor, Jazz, which was criticized shortsightedly from many middle class African

Americans during its formative years in 1920-‘30’s – perhaps understandably so as African

American leaders strived to assimilate into U.S. normative culture. But today’s artists and

executives, such as Jay-Z, should learn the lesson of Jazz and better nurture the new and crucial

cultural craft of Hip-hop.

As a crucial American musical genre, an offspring of Jazz, Hip-hop struggles to avert a

much prophesized death. Jay-Z, Eminem, Naz, Wu Tang Clan, Lil’Wayne, Mos Def, J. Cole,

Kendrick Lamar, Kodak Black et al., illustrate that Hip-hop is hardly dying, and is in fact

thriving. Still, Jay-Z (2004: 75) fans this prophetic flame by attributing his 2003 retirement to

being “honestly … bored with hip hop” and “…feeling uninspired.” His quick return from

retirement with Kingdom Come smacks of intentional provocation and a response to somewhat

messianic calls to save Hip-hop from the faith suffered by its elder grandparent, Jazz. Whatever

the motive, it has been illustrated herein that Jay-Z can be viewed as a Black cultural agent who

passes on core kugusa mtima values and traditions to subsequent generations with faith that they

can and will sustain African culture here in the U.S.

This exploration of Jay-Z’s oeuvre should help us understand some dynamics of Black

cultural agency or Black intelligentsia. Jay-Z speaks to at least two generations of fans while

amassing and directing wealth and influence the like of which predecessors such as Billie

Holiday, Duke Ellington, Sam Cook, Aretha Franklin, and Shirley Caesar only hoped to achieve.

With such influence, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, J-Cole and others have tremendous cultural

opportunities in their hands. Imagine then, how much more understanding of Black culture can

be garnered from a more comprehensive cultural biography that includes music theory analyses

of Jay-Z’s work and the Hip-hop genre more broadly. Such a comprehensive study could

elucidate the relationship between Africans and “African origin” communities particularly in

light of a diminishing baseline of culture between Africa and its Diaspora, as argued by Ronald

Walter (1997)

(In this current era where “racism” is indeed a ruse, or distraction from the real problem

of perpetuating greed and denying human dignity, it is important to address the issues of culture,

through which (real) power may be harnessed and employed via critique, motivation, pedagogy,

inspiration, wealth building and such. Jay-Z’s leadership and philanthropic approach is that

“…financial freedom’s my only hope …I’m tryin’ to give you a $1,000,000. worth of game for

just $9.99.”

17 G. J. Giddings, “Afrocentric Jay-Z…” 2018

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYg6Sl6dxx0