“O.J like ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J’…okay”
THE seeds of the record of the year 2017 can be found in the seven months leading up to last January.
In May 2016 US cable sports channel ESPN released its five-part documentary O.J: Made in America. That August American football player Colin Kaepernick, while a member of the San Francisco 49ers – OJ’s hometown team where he brought his famed playing career to an end – remained seated on the bench as his teammates stood for the US national anthem ahead of a pre-season game.
In the ESPN film a journalist recalled how O.J Simpson, the sports celebrity, turned actor and later America’s most famous acquitted murder-charge defendant, once told him of a teammate’s wedding where a player’s wife, using a racial epithet, asked why OJ – the Buffalo Bills star running back – had been seated on a table with the black players.
The white journalist said he had expressed his shock and anger to O.J whose own feelings were quite the opposite. O.J had recalled the anecdote with pride, it was more than acceptance, he’d transcended a racial division, “I’m not black, I’m O.J”.
It’s a remark that must have caused Jay-Z to pay attention. It appears to have inspired a song about how race, or at least being a black person, is the defining characteristic in American society and package it as the story of the former hero who had lived the American dream. Jay’s “okay” suggests his incredulity at O.J’s view of his then position.
Before he was accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her new partner Ron Goldman, O.J had established himself as one of America’s favourite celebrities, earning endorsement deals previously out of the reach of black stars, and he’d done so at first by being among the very best at American Football. A game that embodies both the glory and brutality of American society and has also mirrored its racial divides – more so than the times it has broken them.
Jay-Z’s thoughts are set to a sample of Nina Simone’s Four Women a song also about how blackness is the defining characteristic in a racist society.
The website Genius also suggests the title is a play on a 1954 French novel The Story of O, which is about dominance and submission – traits of societies divided by race and economic inequality and also, arguably, the NFL.
Turning his back on the black community and shunning its political activism is an allegation that dogged Simpson as he cultivated a clean-cut image as one of America’s favourite and most celebrated stars.
Colin Kaepernick, centre, kneeling with teammates before a December 2016 game
If O.J wished to avoid the topic of race then the mixed-race Kaepernick, who was raised by white adoptive parents, probably realised when he remained seated, almost 40 years on from OJ’s final NFL season in San Francisco, he should be prepared for the sound and fury that characterises debates on race in America. However the issue of police violence and a seemingly unprecedented number of deaths of black people at the hands of the police, that had motivated Kaepernick, sadly hadn’t sparked such a vociferous debate on America’s Main Street as the one which would engulf the player.
The quarterback, the team’s on field general who is expected to display all the best aspects of ‘American leadership’ on and off the field explained, after being questioned on why he remained seated, that he couldn’t “stand or show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”. The public backlash, in America’s fraught public conversation on race, was intense. But rather than buckle Kaepernick got himself up from the bench to take a knee during the pre-game anthem throughout the September to December 2016 season.
Kaepernick opted out of his 49ers contract in March 2017 and remained unsigned all summer and through the 2017 season. Players and pundits alike expressed the view Kaepernick’s political stance has seen him blackballed from the league. He has also filed a grievance complaint against the NFL and team owners alleging collusion.
Though Kaepernick was now outside of the NFL the political debate he initiated was evident as the new season kicked off when more, mainly black, players opted to take a knee rather than stand for the Star Spangled Banner.
The white, conservative American backlash was fanned by the new US President Donald Trump. In the early weeks of the season, in September ’17, at a public rally in Alabama, deep in the old south, Trump attacked players for their political stance. He said he’d “love” to see them fired and called protesting players “sons of bitches”.
The Story of O.J was featured on Jay-Z’s 4:44 album that was released in June 2017. Its black and white animated video, featuring a heavily stereotyped, early 20th Century African-American caricature, was released that July.
The song makes no direct reference to Kaepernick – and was indeed released before the issue of NFL players ‘taking a knee’ intensified this season with Trump’s response sparking a culture war with the NFL. Race and economic power in the league, in which some 60% of players are black and all the owners white, came to the forefront as the league struggled under the strain of uncomfortable off-field noises.
But as the public political awakening among NFL players grew – and with it the vitriol towards Kaepernick and other players – Jay-Z made prominent public displays of support for the leader of the new NFL movement.
Jigga wore a number 7 ‘Colin K’ football jersey on the Saturday Night Live television programme in October and a few weeks earlier, on stage at a concert in New York, dedicated his performance of The Story of O.J to Kaepernick and the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who had died aged 84, a month earlier.
Title aside The Story of O.J only makes one direct reference to the former football star when Jay repeats the “I’m not black, I’m O.J” line. The video also features an animated football player in a 32 jersey, the same number O.J wore.
In his in-depth and engrossing interview with Dean Baquet, of the New York Times, Jay confirms he watched the O.J documentaries: “Every one. I had like eight of them on at the same time,” and that he feels those in privileged positions, like O.J once was, shouldn’t “turn their back” on their beginnings: “You come from a community. Your job is to uplift it now”.
In the interview Jay doesn’t appear to want to step away from any criticism of O.J. His disappointment in the star, who he believes failed to build and “uplift” his community, is evident.
In the second verse Jay raps “financial freedom my only hope” encapsulating the rapper’s long-held belief that the African-American community’s upliftment is reliant on economic equality that must be driven from within. The throw-away remark in the song about “Jewish people own all the property in America” is an example of an admiration, often found in hip-hop, of the successful economic base of other minority American communities.
Jay declared on his 1996 breakthrough single, Can’t Knock The Hustle, that “All us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even” and 21 years later he has again discussed race and economic power and acknowledged it as the story of a black man who found success and ultimately rejection in both worlds.
I wrote last year the art of rap is to quickly absorb current events and to tell them to a beat. The Story of O.J dropped over the summer and was on-hand to soundtrack what was arguably the most racially charged NFL season since the league’s full integration. But racism isn’t a new problem. Jay would probably acknowledge the issues brought to the fore by Kaepernick had always been there under the surface rather than try to claim he was a great visionary in releasing the track ready for the political football season.
The Story of O.J also draws together many of the themes explored on 4:44, especially around black economic empowerment. The album is Jay’s most personal yet but like all of his music was released through his own record label, and of course, now through his own music streaming service, Tidal.
On Caught Their Eyes, Jay tells how he sat down “eye to eye” with Prince, who had signed an exclusivity deal with Tidal, and refers to the late singer’s famed protest against his former record company and all that it embodied about the economic relationship between artists and the record industry: “This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face/You think he wanted the masters with his masters?”
The video for Bam sees Jay visiting the home, and absorbing the legacy, of the late reggae singer Bob Marley with the singer’s son Damian who is the featured artist on the track. Marley of course was a follower of Rastafari which was inspired by the black economic empowerment advocated by Marcus Garvey.
The Story of O.J could tell the story of any year but in 2017 it offered another perspective of an ongoing American story of race, fame, money and power while also tying together so many of the themes that featured so prominently on 4:44 and throughout Jay-Z’s career.