Jason Rowland: The message of O.J.
I’m going to ask you three questions, and I need you to answer honestly.
First, did you know that Black children are punished more often and more severely than their white classmates? Second, that Black borrowers are much less likely to be granted a loan than their white counterparts with similar credit scores? And third, that employers prefer applicants with “white”-sounding names over those with “Black”-sounding ones?
If you’re like most Americans, you probably did know all of that. Those facts don’t surprise you in the slightest; they’re just a reality of life. And that is the problem.
When those facts are given as simple statistics, they’re easy to ignore because of how commonly accepted they are — even for people who claim to care deeply about these issues. Yet when they’re packaged into other mediums, such as television, film or music, they’re denounced for mixing politics and entertainment. This creates a dilemma where these issues aren’t properly acknowledged because the “accepted” ways to discuss them are ineffective, but using other mediums (mainly, the arts) is deemed taboo.
The good news is that breaking such “taboos” can create a dialogue that fights to tackle many of these issues. For example, I wouldn’t be writing this article if the response to Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” — a song on the rapper’s album 4:44 that details the Black community’s struggles against poverty and racism — hadn’t been so negative. The bad news: in order for any good to come from these conversations, we must move past the hypocritical idea that one can claim to be a fan of Black artists yet turn them off when they start talking about Black issues. Especially when these “Black issues” are systemic problems of racism, segregation and discrimination — problems that require the attention of more than just the African American community.
While “The Story of O.J.” has received a generally positive reception from music critics, many casual listeners hold a much less favorable opinion of the song — with most finding offense in the song’s coarse language and frequent allusions to Black stereotypes. However, the detractors are offended for all of the wrong reasons. People need to be outraged that these problems exist, not by the way they’re being discussed by the victims. And, perhaps more importantly, people need to realize that the only reason these problems are being discussed so frankly in popular culture is because they’d otherwise continue to be swept under the rug and ignored.
“Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga / Still nigga,” a line from the “The Story of O.J,” sends the same message as “African Americans, regardless of their income levels or occupations, are discriminated against.” The difference is that one grabs your attention, while the other fades into the background as just another commonly accepted, if unfortunate, reality. To spark a discussion, we’ve given artists no choice but to use ostensibly provocative language. And by blaring Jay-Z when he raps about money and fame but muting him when he talks about real issues, you’re simply allowing these problems to continue unsolved by depriving them of the attention they deserve.
If we’re ever going to address these massive issues about race and discrimination, we need to first have a conversation. And in order to have a conversation, we must be cognizant of the issues at hand. Since traditional facts and figures haven’t drawn enough attention, the only way to raise this awareness is through unsparing channels such as “The Story of O.J.”
One of the great things about music is that it exposes listeners to cultures other than their own — and this cross-cultural exposure can change the world. However, this can only happen once people step out from the schoolhouse door and let the change in. For this to occur, we must be willing to listen and empathize with the experiences of artists without complaining, because if you get offended listening to them, just imagine how offended the artists get living those experiences every day.