PERSONAL ESSAYS

big homie better grow up: an important messages about vulnerability

formatted by mike muse.

influence is evidence of success and legacy, especially within hip hop. shawn carter, famously known as jay-z, has build a legacy that surmounts many of the greats.


Often misconstrued as the “response” to Beyonce’s Lemonade, Carter’s latest effort offers more than just advice on Beckies and rebuilding “Sandcastles”. But are Black men listening? Do they even need to?

 

Current myths about relationships, fatherhood, and homophobia often depict Black men as flat, stoic, and incapable of compassion, even though a significant amount of Black men, including Will Smith, Barack Obama, and Mahershala Ali, are present, appear to be thriving in their communities, and have healthy relationships with their spouses and children. Many Black men have also listened to Jay Z through 13 studio albums, a record label, a clothing line, a cognac brand, legendary verses, and immense fame. They refer to him as Hov, an exalted figure who’s rich in experience and wealth. When he speaks, they listen. On 4:44, Hov utilizes that influence to ask the question: What does it mean for Black men to practice vulnerability? Instead of rapping about the allure or trappings of hip hop fame, 4:44 offers a sonic foray into Jay Z’s innermost thoughts about Black wealth, self-awareness, and his marriage. On the album, he re-introduces himself as a transparent and intentional rapper who still embodies the hallmarks of Black masculinity: hard, street smart, and dominant. He’s a mastered the game of life, or more specifically, the game of capitalism. In this competition, men test their wills to earn more dollars than the next man, but for Black men, this is a game of survival. In order to escape the streets and sit in boardrooms, Black men, like Jay Z, harden themselves and learn to out think and manipulate their competitors.


In an age where prosperity and increase is celebrated, Black men and the need to provide; whether family men, street hustlers, or celebrities, is not new. In fact, that same need has been responsible for molding men like Carter. In a racist and capitalist society, the rat race for a paycheck numbs many, especially Black men. The laissez-faire spirit informs the competitive nature amongst our community, supporting the belief of “every man for himself,” planted in the heart of Marcy projects and countless other ‘hoods across the county. TIn these environments, the instinct of self-preservation creates a “me vs. the world” mentality that becomes useful. Carter pivots this message to the concept of Black wealth and collective economics in “The Story of OJ.” The leading single from 4:44 has a politically charged visual that utilizes racist cartoons from Disney and Warner Bros. to investigate the intersection of race, class, and especially gender. “Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga/ Rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga/ Still n*gga, still n*gga.” The hook suggests that regardless of the approach that Blacks take to capitalism to get ahead, it doesn’t negate their race.

If Hov can challenge the masses to consider this concept, surely his audience- especially Black men can consider others.


While his growth and vulnerability is powerful for other Black men to witness, does it have to occur at the expense of those who love them? Is the performing vulnerability worth much here?

There is a stillness between Black men, a tension filled with topics avoided and words unspoken. When hanging up the phone with my best friend of 15 years, I still hesitate to say “I love you,” like I end other conversations. It took me four of those years to come out to him as gay, and another four years to come out to my college homies. As a Black gay man, I feel anxiety when addressing other Black men. I fear that my love for them, fraternal or romantic, will be seen as soft, and thus anything I say or write in service of my brothers—specifically the heterosexual ones—may fall on oblivious ears and hardened hearts. But the encompassing love I have for Black men wants for them to lead healthy lives and build healthier relationships.

Often, when Black men dare to express their innermost feelings, they are forced to confront the dangerous paradigm of hypermasculinity. For them, being perceived as soft or feminine is a gamble. Although the wager may yield tremendous personal growth, Black men navigate internal conflict in attempts to preserve social expectations, outward perception, and personal safety. Jay Z has embodied this mentality on some of his most memorable records, including “Big Pimpin” and “Song Cry.” He’s selectively shared his emotions while he attempts to conquer or collect as many women possible to assert dominance. The’s album title track, “4:44,” is a litany of apologies for that behavior. “I apologize/ I often womanize/ Took for my child to be born/To see through a woman’s eyes,” he raps over a soulful sample of Hannah Williams and the Affirmations’ “Late Nights and Heart Breaks.” “Took for these natural twins/ To believe in miracles/ Took me too long for this song/ I don’t deserve you.”

At the age of 47, Shawn Carter has awakened, pivoting from the Jay we knew on “Big Pimpin.’” He’s wiser, more mature, and knows his indiscretions have impacted his wife and brought shame to their family.

I have experienced this isolation a few times on the journey to finding and understanding myself as a Black male. First, as a young boy with an estranged father, and then, much later, attempting to validate myself by performing the dominant, heteronormative standard in my teenage years. I would boast about having any girl I could. I would draw all of the attention on myself from girls, and eventually other boys, because I wanted to be affirmed. In reality, I was terrified that no one knew the real me, or saw me fully. I experienced this isolation one final time when struggling to come out as gay. It wasn’t enough to just say it, I wanted to be open and proud. I wanted to maintain my dignity, my family, and my friends. I didn’t want to change the softness in my voice or suppress parts of myself labeled as deviant or damaging to my people. When Black men express themselves in a way that shatters the paradigm of Black masculinity, it often leads to tangible penalties against Black bodies, psyches, and spirits. Because of this, Black communities need more vulnerability and openness between Black men and their families. Is 4:44 enough? What does it take to change that?

My story is unique, but similar to other Black queer men. However, there are Black men who experience isolation in a wildly different manner, many simply struggling to articulate their thoughts or emotions.


4:44 sells a story of reflection, accountability, and closure. Its content stands to initiate a larger conversation amongst Black men; and potentially their loved ones. Influence is strengthened by the devoutness of followers. Black men are listening to Jay-Z. They can follow his footsteps, or rather learn and prevent similar missteps by practicing transparency and vulnerability in their relationships, romantic and platonic. Tremendous growth can be attainable with practice of humility and reflection. Carter’s influence challenges Black men to change with the stronger resolve of awareness and reciprocity.