Has Jay Z Had a Feminist Awakening?
There is much to praise about Beyoncé’s husband’s new album, which documents the rapper’s reckoning with toxic masculinity. But is he due all the credit for his evolution?
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Has Beyoncé’s feminist awakening caught on with her husband? The think pieces predictably rained down moments after Jay Z surprise-dropped his new ten-track album 4:44 on June 30, deeming it his most mature, vulnerable, and introspective yet and perhaps for good reason. Track by track, the 47-year-old rapper reveals his battles with redefining his own masculinity, struggles to defeat his own ego, confronts cheating rumors, talks about his devotion to his mother, who has been grappling with coming out as a lesbian and a compartmentalized life for years (she even makes an appearance in the track, “Smile”). In the context of 21st-century Black politics, 4:44 is perhaps one of the most progressive rap albums to date, heralded as the audacious, revolutionary work of a Black man. But without the Black women in his life there to enlighten him, there would be no 4:44. Jay’s evolution, as reflected in this profound album, relies heavily on the impact of femininity, Black motherhood, Black female maturity, perseverance, and most importantly, Black feminism.
And, arguably, it exploits it.
At the core of the celebrated introspective lyrics is an important conversation the rapper begins about turning his back on male chauvinism and toxic masculinity, which he presents as a kind of byproduct of fatherhood and an appreciation of life by seeing it through a Black woman’s eyes. In the song “Kill Jay-Z” he asserts that he needs to kill his own ego: “But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue/ You had no father, you had the armor/ But you got a daughter, gotta get softer.” On “Smile,” he raps, “Push through the pain so we can see new life/ So all the ladies havin’ babies, see a sacrifice“—an ode to childbirth. While this is Jay Z’s account of how he came to see his need for personal change, it is very important that these lyrics are understood not simply as a natural transition, but in the context of politics within the Black community.
Even on the surface, Jay’s work clearly has been influenced by feminism. Black feminists like bell hooks have devoted their life’s work to address the impact of patriarchy and toxic masculinity on both women and men. hooks describes patriarchy as “the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation” in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Black feminists have called for the redefining of masculinity, often with little support and even outward hostility from Black men. It is indeed Black feminism that advocates for men to play more wholesome roles in the lives of their children, not merely participate in the household as “breadwinner.” In hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody, she wrote, “One of the most positive interventions feminist movement made on behalf of children was to create greater cultural awareness of the need for men to participate equally in parenting not just to create gender equity but to build better relationships with children.” Jay Z’s album becomes even more political on “Smile,” on which he features his mother, who reads a poem about the difficulty of living a closeted life. He addresses her struggle directly: “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/ Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian/ Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate/ Society shame and the pain was too much to take/ Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/ Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.”
It is Black feminists, like Alicia Garza and Angela Davis, who are currently fighting (and have long fought) to make both activist spaces and the Black community more “queer affirming.” These are the politics of Black women, not cis Black men. And that truth is best highlighted with a comparison of America’s current largest and most influential liberation movement, Black Lives Matter (founded by three Black women: Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors), to its Civil Rights–era predecessors like the Black Panthers and Black Nationalists, which centered on and were led by men.
Black Lives Matter distinguishes itself from other popular black civil-rights movements by asserting their mission “goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight Black cis men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.”
The very tenets of Black Lives Matter are centered on family, focused on empowering women and LGBTQ people and battling misogyny and homophobia and transphobia, all of which were glaring blind spots in the male-centered politics of movements like the Black Panthers, which tended to be macho and sexist, with their narrow definitions of masculinity, their homophobia, and often violent reinforcement of the oppression and abuse of Black women. Even many of today’s cis, black “intellectuals”, like Dr. Boyce Watkins and Umar Johnson, promote the idea that the gay right’s movement is a “gay agenda” created and pushed by white people, merely meant to “emasculate black men” and destroy the black community.
In her memoir, A Taste for Power, Elaine Brown, one of the most prominent women of the Black Panther Party, wrote that “a woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of the black people.”
Groups like SDS and the Black Panthers regularly refused to recognize women’s voices and platforms and even resorted to catcalling while women made speeches. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975 described a scene when feminists Marilyn Webb and Shulamith (Shullie) Firestone stood up to speak:
“Almost as soon as Webb began speaking some men began chanting, “Take it off!” and “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” Webb recalls, “It was like a riot breaking out.” The crowd became even more feral when Firestone spoke. But rather than rebuking the hecklers…[conference organizer Dave] Dellinger tried to get the women off the stage. Webb remembers Dellinger asking her to “shut Shullie up.”
One of the most influential writers of the era, Amiri Baraka, espoused the belief that women and men could never be equal, which was met with little to no criticism from the Black community, as when he wrote, “By embracing a value system that knows of no separation but only of the divine complement the black woman is for her man. For instance, we do not believe in the ‘equality’ of men and women. We cannot understand what the devils and the devilishly influenced mean when they say equality for women. We could never be equals … Nature has not provided thus.”
And Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party, detailed the violent crimes he committed against women of color and white women in his memoir Soul and Ice: “I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto-in the black ghetto where vicious and dark deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of a day-and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey.”
So when in 4:44, Jay-Z raps: “Look, I apologize, often womanize/ Took for my child to be born/ See through a woman’s eyes … /You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready,” his newfound respect for and focus on Black women and denunciation of Black male sexism/chauvinism reveals a fact about his politics that many Black men would never want to appreciate: It is wholly feminist.
Despite this fact, Jay Z never refers to himself or his politics as “feminist” in his obviously feminist-inspired music. Though it may not be necessary for Jay to call himself a feminist, it is, I believe, important that he give credit where credit is due, and that is to the Black feminists who champion the very “woke” ideologies he is now espousing and capitalizing on. Here he at the very least is being heard by the general Black community because these messages are being delivered by a well-respected cis man; and he’s making feminism more palatable in part because he’s not calling it what it is, and because of who he is. Recall how Jay received little to no backlash for coming out in support of the LGBT community, telling us he needs to be “softer”and turning his back sexism and misogyny; if anyone else had said this, they’d be written off as further “emasculating black men.” I think the celebration of this album and 4:44’s near-universal positive reception reveals something deeply troubling about the Black community: Patriarchy and sexism still reign supreme in a culture that embraces feminism from a Black man, but rejects it from the Black women who originated and promoted the ideas.
When a Black woman dares to enumerate the many ways in which patriarchy, Black masculinity, and hip-hop culture are problematic or take a stand against its toxicity, they are shunned and castigated. When a Black, female member of the LGBT community tries to live freely (sadly, still a political act), she can face threats of physical and psychological abuse. All things Black feminism are often labeled, discarded, criticized and outright rejected by cis Black men and the greater Black community. Antifeminism in the Black community is the status quo.
In a telling and recent example, when Amber Rose took a stand against slut-shaming, by organizing a “Slut Walk” rally, she was met with both criticism and condemnation. On the radio show, “The Breakfast Club,” the show’s male radio hosts responded: “So basically they want to be able to be sluts and hoes but they don’t want anybody to call them that”; “Sounds like they want to promote being sluts and hoes”; and “You can’t have an actual slut [Amber Rose] hold a Slut Walk.”
There was an immediate backlash when Ebony released its November 2015 cover, which featured a picture of the Huxtables with the face of Bill Cosby—who’s accused of sexually assaulting at least 50 women—rendered in shattered glass. About the public’s response, Tamara Winfrey Harris wrote: “To many vocal African-Americans, it is an affront—a venerable Black publication colluding with racist oppressors and rabid feminists, publicly piling on a beleaguered (and possibly innocent) man. Bill Cosby, for some, has become a symbol of every Black man brought down by a racist society with the help of mercenary and vengeful women.”
In the year 2017 alone, violence against transgendered women has already claimed the lives of nine Trans Black women. Much of the violence transgendered women face is at the hands of cis men. Black women who speak out on issues most pertinent to them are labeled “social justice warriors” and “negro bed wenches.” Black feminism is blamed for “the destruction of the black family,” despite there being no proof to support that myth. Black feminists are called “man haters” or “man bashers” for merely calling for an end to rape culture or reexamination of the role of patriarchy in female oppression.
So is 4:44 really revolutionary? It is for the Black women who did the work and helped enlighten men like Jay Z. The Black LGBT women who died fighting for the freedom to merely exist. The women who are shunned, mocked, and threatened for begging an end to domestic violence, rape culture, and the objectification of girls. The women, like Beyoncé, who were forced to publicly face the shame of their husband’s infidelities and suffer the trauma of that shame. The emotionally, physically, intellectually abused Black woman. The women who are vulnerable in their struggle and fight, not heralded and applauded. The women who spearhead movements, despite being the least financially and politically empowered. The Black feminist women who men like Jay Z must now step up to the plate and support through actions and words.
But if Jay Z truly wants to be revolutionary, to truly be as fully evolved as he’s being given credit for, he needs to acknowledge the women and the movement that promotes the progressive politics expressed on the album—he needs to validate the truth that 4:44 is “feminist inspired art.” And that the maturity and progress of men like himself, and the Black community as a collective, is dependent on the very politics and women it too frequently abuses and shuns.
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