Jay-Z’s 4:44 Footnotes: Self-reflection on Racism

Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album gave goose bumps to everyone.  An amazing display of emotions and touching lyrics.  Now Jay-Z is shaking the hip hop world in his own way.  The lyrics cut through topics I thought I knew but realized I didn’t. As if it was not enough for him to rap about his infidelities, his mom coming out, his relationship with his dad, Jay-Z releases weekly footnotes for each song on the album.

The footnotes are an opportunity for listeners to hear from Jay-Z notable friends on various subjects.  The first footnotes are about the song “The Story of O.J” a song talking about how Black men realize that society uses their color as a constraint.  During the footnotes, Kendrick Lamar, Will Smith, Mahershala AliChris RockMichael CheMichael B. Jordan, Van Jones and Trevor Noah share personal experiences about being Black in America.  The way they talk about is so candid, you vividly feel what they had to go through, what they learned and what they are potentially scared of.

What’s the connection to negotiation? Your cultural background has an impact on how you are influenced and how you influence people.  So the more you understand yourself, your situation and your environment, the better you can succeed in negotiations and get what you deserve.  So, I decided to listen carefully and reflect on the insight of Jay-Z and his friends.  Why? because these topics can be controversial, and as I write this post, there is already a conversation going on about Jay-Z footnotes, so this is more likely to resonate with people, and you can read different perspectives on the same topic – always a great idea to develop your own opinion.

Let’s dive in and talk about my favorite quote from the footnotes: “The Story of O.J”:

Quote 1 – The quiet way of racism – Van Jones: “I did not know until I got out of law school that people were invited to professors’ home [ ] Those professors were picking students to become supreme court clerks [ ] this is the quiet way racism works, it is not what they do to you, it is what they do not even tell you about”

It is the opening for this footnote video.  That is the video that made me stop and carefully listen to the other 8 minutes. It also prompted me to write a series of blog post about the footnotes. This is the first post of many!

This quote touched a raw nerve with me.  I have several degrees. Not saying that in a boastful way. More in a way of, why do I have so many degrees? Many positions I have held, my peers were less educated than I am and just as qualified if not more than I was.  What went wrong? I suspect they got mentored either by professors or people they knew.    And these mentors articulated the best reach their objectives and maybe made a few connections to speed up the process.  If you did not grow up in an environment with this type of access, doing the right thing, doing your job or homework will not compensate.

My key learning: Doing what you are being told is not enough. This is the minimum.  You have to exceed expectations at work, at school, in life. Moreover, people will not tell you how to exceed expectations. You must figure it out.

Quote 2 – Slavery teachings are still there – Michael Che: “The thing people do not understand about slavery, yeah it was 150 years ago but those people raised children, they were slaves, they raised children, and then those free children raised children [ ] a lot of these teachings are still there from 150 years ago”

Quote 3 – Vet, dentist for Blacks – Chris Rock: “My Mother, not my great grand mother, in South Carolina [ ] they would not let Black people going to the dentist, so she had to [ ] get her teeth taking out by the vet [ ] and they had to go through the back door [ ]

Quote 4 – 10,000 lbs pressure – Micheal B. Jordan: “Being Black in America is like being in a tiny compressed box anchored at the bottom of the ocean, 10,000 lbs of pressure on you at all time and not feeling like you can speak your truth”

Quotes 2, 3 and 4 are best clarified by this:

Offense vs. Defense – Mahershala Ali: The difference between a Black man and a white man is this: We move through the world playing defense, we don’t have the capacity to play offense. because we are constantly looking for the moment you are going to be disrupted.  You walk through the word being conscious the world sees you a certain way. You have to play defense, and you have to play it real smooth.  When you don’t get disrupted like that you walk through the world like what can I build there [ ] you play offense so your whole flow is different.

Throughout my life I have realized that I was playing defense. And the reasons for that were so deep that I did not even realize I was playing defense. So deep that until I saw people not being derailed by them, I could not understand how they were holding me back.  First, I was, and still am, obedient even too obedient. My wife always tell me that I am a stickler for rules.  This was deeply rooted in the way I was raised. The consequences of not listening to my mom were more serious than a time out :). Second, I got used to be treated differently at an early age:

  • Camping site is full for my friends and I, and when white friends arrive to the same camp a few hours later the camp is suddenly not full.
  • Women clutching onto their handbag in the street.
  • The store security guard following you around the store as if you were about to something.
  • Rejections from nightclubs

At some point you have to put all that behind you to move forward, but it is still there lingering on the back of your mind. Forcing you to tread carefully to avoid these embarrassing moments.  Forcing you to anticipate what others may think of you and try to act accordingly.  That sucks your energy. Especially that after dodging everything that is thrown at you, you still have to work twice as hard to prove yourself.

My key learning: Recognize your own situation. Don’t ignore it, don’t pretend it is better than it is.  Be honest. Why? this is the only way to move forward, learn from past mistakes and come up with a solution that works for your situation.