"Business is booming
and I am not loved
the way I want to be." Morgan Parker, "Hottentot Venus" from the collection of poetry There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce
"You have to draw distinctions between yourself and your character. Yourself as a commodity, and who you really are, and your willingness to be for sale." Jodie Foster, Radio Times, January 2018
"There's no such thing as an ugly billionaire." Jay-Z, Family Feud
I'd like all the white people to leave the room now, please.
( Are they gone? Good. ) To paraphrase the great musician/songwriter Sly Stonethis is a family affair.
Several days ago, I went to Jay-Z's music-streaming site Tidal to watch his new video Family Feud. I read somewhere it dealt with his infidelity to his wife, Beyonce, and because I am always interested in how artists translate their life- experience into their work, I was excited to see how Jay-Z would explore this theme. While the subject of infidelity is addressed in his video, it is not romantic but cultural betrayal that defines the piece. In Family Feud, Jay-Z desecrates the blues song and our relationship to black American art.
The subject of Jay-Z's cheating has been one of speculation and great controversy. Some have suggested that when the story first appeared it was merely a publicity stunt, cooked up by the Carters to sell Beyonce's last work, Lemonade, considered by many fans to be her now legendary, scorned partner/black empowerment masterpiece. But then there was that incident that took place in the elevator the night of the Metropolitan Museum ( Met ) Gala that can't be ignored.
For the two or three people on the planet who haven't heard by now, Jay-Z, Beyonce, and her sister Solange were in an elevator leaving the event when Solange appeared to attack Jay-Z in a rage. Fans were surprised to see Beyonce standing in a corner, apparently stunned. The whole thing was captured on a surveillance camera, and had the look of an enraged woman fucking up her brother-in-law for hurting and embarrassing her very famous sister, and in public: Solange was a woman who'd clearly had enough. It seemed that for once the Carters were caught in a moment that they hadn't orchestrated for their financial benefit, social cachet, or mythmaking. And yet, given their marketing genius, perhaps this too was contrived, part of some ultimate plan.
I am aware that many people have very powerful emotions about Beyonce and Jay-Z. And while I have, at times, respected them both as artists, I also find their artistic choices increasingly problematic. I'll admit, before I write another word here, that criticizing the Carters can be a scary experience. Years ago, I went to a party and joined a group of people who were discussing Lemonade. When I brought up the subject of race, representation, and sisterhood, and how Beyonce was positioned in relation to the other black women in the video, the group went silent. In that moment, I felt the way people feel when they have told an offensive joke; the energy shifted abruptly, faces closed, and people seemed embarrassed for me, and more than a little pissed off.
I'm not quite sure when it happened, but at one point the conversation strayed from a critique of Lemonade and became a personal critique of me. Who was I to criticize Beyonce. Maybe I was just jealous. And what exactly had I achieved in my life to judge her, when it was clear that Beyonce "slays" at everything she does. I made it clear to the group ( black and mostly gay men and women, but I've had this conversation with straight white women, and white men too ), that I never said Beyonce wasn't amazing or "slaying", I just wanted to have a meaningful dialogue about her work, and her artistic intentions, and to introduce a larger question: can someone who inspires us also cause great harm? I assumed, wrongly in this instance, that if one loves Beyonce's work, then one enthusiastically welcomes the opportunity to deconstruct it. As it is difficult to find clips of Beyonce talking about the intention behind her work, and since her fans don't seem to demand it of her, we often have to find and talk with each other.
I held my own for as long as I could, but I soon felt as if I were drowning in straw. I even enraged an older black man who claimed he knew the Knowles family personally. Finally, a Latino man who had been silent and listening from across the room said, "I think he is just trying to offer a different perspective, not as a fan or hater, but as a critic." I was grateful for his intervention, but it didn't change much, and several of the people left the party soon I'd killed the vibe. I remember thinking at the time, how did we get to this point, where even to suggest Beyonce's imperfection is considered a sacrilege? Why isn't intelligently critiquing her work seen by her fans as the ultimate tribute to her as an artist?
Criticism, when done well and responsibly, is a form of love. The art of criticism has been eroded in our culture, there is a contempt for it, a "you're either with us or against us" bipolarity carried over from the George W. Bush years and the Iraq war. It is too easy just to click "Like" on Facebook now, or believe that something is brilliant just because it's received one million hits. ( Joyner Lucas' I'm Not A Racist video, a nasty piece of reactionary work presented as a racial "dialogue", has received 33 million views on YouTube. ) People are paid to write positive reviews on social media and make it look as if they were impartial viewers. We are living in the age of the constant press release everything in our lives is potential advertisement copy.
But if you've ever had someone stage an intervention or been confronted on your addictions, for example, then you know that the right criticism at the right time can save a life. A man I knew years ago is dead now, I believe, because key people who might have challenged him didn't want to hurt his feelings, or deal with their own addictions, feelings of powerlessness and shame. When we criticize, not recklessly but within defined boundaries, we show respect for the person, their art, or to an aesthetic. I am determined to find a way to criticize the Carters responsibly, while at the same time acknowledging the enormous impact that Beyonce, in particular, has had on our culture, and on people around the world, particularly black women, who find her work empowering, life-affirming, and vital.
Finally, I anticipate several readers' asking why a critique of Jay-Z's video includes an extended analysis of Beyonce. While the Carters both present themselves to us as "billionaires" in the video, we as an audience have a unique relationship to Beyonce based on the cult of beauty, her incredible success, and historical representations of whiteness. Jay-Z is ultimately responsible for his own artistic choices; but it is essential to deconstruct the myths surrounding Beyonce, in order to appreciate what is often used against us in her own work, their collaborations together, and in Family Feud. This essay was inspired by my anger at the use, or rather misuse, of legendary black artists in the music of Jay-Z and Beyonce; particularly those instances in which their work is attached to a message of capitalism, narcissism and greed, thinly disguised as black empowerment and wealth.
The black capitalist in America is a deeply fascinating creation; we, who have been commodities, are now in the position, perhaps for the first time to this extent, to commodify. It is no surprise that the white American capitalist is ruthless: blacks have been hating his guts since slavery, when he sold our son or daughter to buy a neighboring parcel of land, or to settle his poker debts. What is so interesting about the black capitalist ( who, one assumes, is modeled after the white one ), is his relationship to exploitation, particularly the exploitation of other blacks.
The black capitalist may find herself in a bind. Pure capitalism, one assumes, has ruthlessness at its core and doesn't like to make exceptions. It is the ideology of the rugged individualist I got mine, get yours. But black artists have existed, have thrived, and can only thrive, based on their relationship to their community. Who is Joe Louis without the roaring crowds of black people cheering him on in the barbershops and on the front stoop, who is Muhammad Ali without children running up to him in the street, old black men and women shaking his hand, proud of their shining black hero? Black folks knew Muhammad Ali was speaking directly to them when he said, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee", when he played the dozens with his opponents, and recited in the black tradition Ali, one of our earliest rappers. The faces behind the cameras and interviewing mics might have been white, but Ali knew that it was black people who were watching at home, exhilarated by his confidence and his sass. Here was a black man who was clearly letting the white world know, "You haven't broken me yet, and you never will." For some 'Black is Beautiful' was an empowering slogan Muhammad Ali seemed to carry the message in his DNA.
It won't come as news to anyone that many of our greatest black athletes, musicians, and writers died penniless and broke. In fact, it's newsworthy and the rare exception when a black artist dies with a few coins still left in his pocket, or able to keep the publishing rights to her music. As artists, we haven't had the riches in this country that we should have, often underpaid or ripped off by the industries we've worked for. But what is undeniable is the greatness of our contribution to American arts and letters from Stevie's Songs In The Key of Life to Mahalia Jackson's "In The Upper Room", from Alvin Ailey to August Wilson to Romare Bearden to Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni's Song of Solomon, and James' The Fire Next Time, and Ellison's Invisible Man.
Some black artists went broke helping their families and other artists, others struggled to stay afloat just long enough to complete their next work. There is a question whether author and activist James Baldwin, whose work appears in Family Feud, was ever financially secure in his lifetime. Perhaps he was too generous, but as the black literary paterfamilias and inspiration to so many artists a trip to Saint-Paul-de-Vence where he lived the last decades of his life became a pilgrimage for black writers he was always willing to help, always willing to invite someone to stay with him, to engage. Baldwin knew, even when he faced criticism for his privilege as a star writer and for white Americans' relationship to his work, what growing up in Harlem meant to his writing, where he came from and what he had to give back.
The capitalist has one pursuit: to make money. And once he has made money from one enterprise, he's off to the next, to pursue something else in the hopes that the next time he will make even more money. Which returns us to the question: does the black capitalist have a moral imperative which a white capitalist doesn't have because of our history as slaves? Is more expected of us? We often talk about "slavery" as a historical event, but what does it actually mean psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually to be owned by another human being? What does it mean to own another human being? And not just for a year, or for a decade or two, but for generations?
Does the black billionaire say to herself, "My grandmother worked for white folks for years in Mississippi, raised their children, and they barely paid her a dime. I think I'll break the pattern and give my maid a fair wage and health care"? Or are we all just chocolate-covered Donald Trumps, trying to ignore the fact that the undocumented immigrant we've hired to trim the hedges favors our Cousin Terrence who just graduated from Morehouse, and his mother, who does our laundry, looks like the Ecuadorian version of our Aunt Doris, whom everyone in the family calls Dee Dee? ( I don't think Donald Trump has the same dilemma when he looks at his staff. ) When the black billionaire's father worked for years on the assembly line at Chrysler, does that make him sympathetic to the teenage girls in the Thai facility who make his running shoes? What is the responsibility of the black billionaire, and more precisely, the black billionaire artist?
I've attempted in other essays to deconstruct black exceptionalism and the Carters, to understand what Beyonce specifically means to us as black Americans, what her legacy represents, and why some of us defend it so savagely. ( You may also insert Obama and Oprah here. ) I've finally concluded that when we appreciate Beyonce as an artist and engage with her work, open to praising or rejecting her latest project but always willing to think critically, then our relationship with her is healthy, and we honor her and ourselves. But when we embrace her to the extent that not only can we not be critical, but we silence with a fundamentalist fervor those who even attempt to challenge her work, then our relationship to her becomes pathological. Many people claim to find Beyonce's work liberating, but any real conversation about liberation has to begin with an exploration of power and powerlessness. Our relationship with Beyonce as a cultural phenomenon requires us to examine both.
A truly transformative artist will always return you to yourself, to building community, to your own power to create. An artist who exists solely within the cult of personality will make you greedy for more of her, encouraging an addiction that demands a constant investment in sustaining her mythology, while your own life atrophies. The Kardashians have made an industry of this. The dynamic of fame-addiction has always been a danger in America, where actors and rock stars are our aristocracy. I'm not talking about appreciating the talent of Janet Jackson and Mary J. Blige or having a little pep in your step because you admire Jane Fonda. I'm talking about how focusing on a famous life can be a way of denying one's own personal shame, of ignoring what is intolerable in our own lives. This has been true for decades in Hollywood, when a star's life took over our cultural imagination. The baby's been sitting in the same soiled diaper for hours, but you can't put down the movie magazine because Liz Taylor stole Debbie Reynolds' husband Eddie Fisher, or, for our generation, Brad Pitt is divorcing Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie. We're late for work because Beyonce plans to announce something to her fans this morning on national television, or we don't pay our rent in order to buy concert tickets. One can never become truly liberated until one faces the truth about one's addictions. In this country, as in many places around the world, Americans get high on famous people's lives.
The black American twist on this is that we have the added component of contempt for ourselves because of the horror of having once been slaves. Slavery is over, or so we've been told, but in too many places in America, our experience as people of color continues to be one of degradation, violence, economic injustice and terror.
The black American who "makes it", from Oprah to OJ, affirms for us that the system may work after all, at least for one of us, and that there is hope despite our feelings of despair. The exceptional black may inspire us on one hand, but she may also help numb us, alleviating the pain of a life constantly dealing with the frustrations and assaults of racism. The Talented Tenth theory maintains that if we pour all our love and resources into her, she will go to the higher echelons of power where we niggers are rejected, and speak to white people on our behalf.
Within this construct, Beyonce is our beautiful, light-skinned princess ( "light, bright and damn near white" as some used to say of singer, actress and civil rights activist Lena Horne ), representing the best that we have to offer. When racists meet her, our precious black offering, they will see how lovely black people can be and open the locked doors of power, bringing an end to racial and economic oppression. Our princess, our Queen, will then wave her arm to beckon us inside the castle where we will finally be equal, finally be free. It's a bedtime story, and it works as bedtime stories should: it puts you to sleep. But it's not a story of resistance.
There is nothing wrong with having a black ambassador, leader, or hero. We have an extraordinary history of black leadership in this country, from the usual suspects to courageous names we rarely hear about. ( I'm still outraged that it took a major Hollywood movie to teach me about mathematician Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, the three black women who worked at NASA and were profiled in Hidden Figures. )
But when our need to protect and empower The Star becomes a form of obsessive devotion, a relationship based no longer on inspiration but on fetishizing and hysteria, when we know more about her than we do about our own family, when she profits from the same representations of whiteness that have been employed for centuries against us, and we see what she is doing and still refuse to hold her accountable, then we are using her, her accomplishments and her relationship to the white world to mitigate our feelings of black shame. She and her family, in turn, becomes more and more wealthy, fattened up on the inheritance which we've bequeathed to her while we let our own children starve. We need her so badly and for so many reasons, but the question is, does she need us?
It is partly our fault, not entirely hers, that she has become a monster, a grotesque. Our relationship to her becomes perverse. Who can bear the responsibility of uplifting an entire race? In some ways, while she hurts us, she is our victim too. She reigns over us, our queen, but is never truly allowed to belong, never allowed a relaxed black womanhood. Meanwhile, we die with the regret of the failed capitalist on our lips: "If only I had been whiter, richer, more beautiful, more successful, like Beyonce, I would have been happy…"
We don't have this type of relationship with Patti, Gladys, Aretha, Chaka, Diana Ross. We defend them, yes, but we are also able to joke about them, at their peccadillos, their petty rivalries, their wigs. We may love and hate them and their music from time to time, but we forgive them eventually as if they were family. We laugh at them as we laugh at ourselves.
No one laughs at Beyonce. The Beyhive, Beyonce's most determined group of fans, makes sure of that as Queen Bey, she exists in her own pop universe. Her relationship with her most devoted fans seems unprecedented in the history of black performers, and their emotional violence and threats when they defend her publicly doesn't seem to worry her. With this kind of power at her disposal, she isn't just making music, she has created an ideology around herself, a cult-status not unlike L. Ron Hubbard or Jim Jones. I would argue that Beyonce speaks a liberation theology of a kind, but it is one that stays within the confines of the cult of narcissism; love her first, and if there is any love left over, give that to yourself and the people you love.
Beyonce's and Jay-Z's religion is capitalism, the power of the black billionaire. Racism is defeated through having the right financial portfolio, feminism in this context is defined by the ability to oppress others while wearing high heels. As people of color, as queers, as women in America, and globally, we are vulnerable to this kind of "liberation" because capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy have decimated our lives. We may still be holding out hope that we might win eventually if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It frightens some people to examine what Beyonce, or Jay-Z or Sean Combs or Kanye West are really selling in the marketplace: despite their extraordinary gifts as performers and their message of "your revenge is your paper", they are not deconstructing capitalism or suggesting revolutionary alternatives to transform it. They are businesspeople now, billionaires occasionally pimping as artists.
And they are doing very well for themselves. The problem that the black billionaire artist faces that makes her unlike Nelson Rockefeller, or Warren Buffett, the Koch brothers, or Mark Zuckerberg, is that it is not enough just to own Chase Bank or Trump Tower or Facebook. In the night, the black billionaire artist remembers where he came from, he hears the sound of the blues song faintly, he remembers his grandmother taking him to church when he was five, and he's haunted by his past. To assuage his pain, he may spend millions of dollars on the work of "real" black artists or give to black charities, to locate himself or absolve himself of guilt. Or he'll open his latest video with a quote by James Baldwin, as Jay-Z does. The process of dehumanization required for the white capitalist to exploit others in order to make money, and which defined American slavery, backfires on the black American capitalist if he still has a conscience; on some level, no matter how successful he is in business, slavery is not an abstraction he can ignore in some history book, it's his family reunion.
In 2003, Sean "Puff Daddy" ( P. Diddy ) Combs faced activists and reporters because of the conditions in the sweatshops in Honduras that made his clothing line, Sean John. Lydda Edie Gonzales who worked for the company for thirteen months described ( alleged ) conditions in the factory: forced overtime, workers making less than a dollar an hour, women having to ask for toilet passes, being searched before using the bathroom to make sure they didn't steal, filthy drinking water, overheated facilities, being screamed at for not working fast enough, and an inability to unionize without retaliation. She told reporters: "We are totally slaves. We live inhumane lives." Combs responded, "I grew up in a family of working people. I know what it's like to struggle day after day in a job to put food on the table." When one considers that he later starred on Broadway in a production of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in The Sun, a story that centers around a black family's decision to respect the memory of their deceased patriarch by choosing honor and dignity over some quick cash ( Mama: How come you talk so much about money? Walter Lee: Because it's life, Mama! Mama: So now it's life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life ) the irony and disappointment over Combs' sweatshop nightmare might send you to bed for days. Beyonce faced these same allegations in 2016 about her sportswear line, Ivy Park, and its alleged Sri Lankan sweatshops; in 2013, she was paid millions by H & M to model their swimwear, despite the retail clothing company's alleged human rights violations children, some as young as twelve, working fourteen hours a day.
Years ago, in an act of shocking resistance, intellectual and scholar bell hooks famously called Beyonce a "terrorist". The term was such an extraordinary statement that it left no room for denials, no exit strategy. It was a deeply provocative choice of words, especially for the times in which we live. If you've read hooks' work at all, you know that she is a very deliberate thinker, a prolific genius, and that her choices aren't careless she knew exactly what she meant. And baby, you better believe she caught holy hell for it. Despite the fact that hooks helped create the model for feminist criticism that many of us use today, no one seemed to ask what would motivate her to use a word so seemingly irresponsible; the need for annihilation or intervention? She was accused of "emotionality" towards Beyonce code for "bell's gone crazy." ( A black feminist friend of mine asked at the time, "If all the feminists are out here defending Beyonce, who is left to defend bell?" ) Years later, when bell hooks critiqued Lemonade, she was met with a similar response.
Some have never forgiven hooks for her "betrayal", but I believe she was onto something. She was criticizing the destructive elements in Beyonce's image, and what it means to women of color, specifically black girls. Beyonce's die-hard defenders and they exist in the halls of academia as well as on dance floors and performance arenas like to emphasize Beyonce the mesmeric performer on stage, the achiever, while often refusing to critique Beyonce the industrial complex. What Machiavellian moves led to Beyonce's singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" from the motion picture Selma at the 2015 Grammy Awards, while the song's originator in the film, the singer Ledisi, sat in the audience watching? To further the humiliation, Ledisi lost that evening to Beyonce in the category of best R&B performance for "Drunk in Love" Beyonce's 20th Grammy. ( A two-minute excerpt of Ledisi singing "Precious Lord" in concert after the Grammys can be found on YouTube, as can a 2011 live church recording of Whitney Houston. Ledisi's and Whitney's renditions embody the Holy Ghost power of black gospel and blues; these are the black women's voices that got us through slavery, these are the voices that would inspire you to go on living after your children had been sold. )
I looked for a critique of Beyonce's behavior that night from her staunchest defenders, at a time when clearly her "slaying" had harmed another black woman, and found very few. When John Legend was asked what happened, he told reporters that Beyonce asked to sing the song and, "you don't really say no to Beyonce if she wants to perform with you." Ledisi was publicly gracious, unlike Etta James who said, after Beyonce sang James' signature song "At Last" at Obama's inaugural ball, that the woman singing her song was "gonna get her ass whipped." It is regrettable that James, one of our great blues singers, legend at the time in her seventies and very much alive, wasn't invited to join Beyonce on stage as a tribute and to sing for our first black president. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938, James understood, having lived through the Civil Rights Movement, what having a black man elected president in America really meant. She died in 2012.
It is arguable that Beyonce began in the blues tradition with Destiny's Child and that her music does reflect the black experience in America "Sorry" from Lemonade is a powerful example of modern-day black American blues but something happened on the way to the forum. This corporate entity called Beyonce is something new in the tradition of black art. What's being celebrated by many is not only the furtherance of her personal legacy, but a fascinating new relationship to capitalism and power for the black billionaire artist. Corporate Beyonce and corporate Jay-Z have unprecedented access to "power", their tanks roll through the village, they are determined to take over. If we choose to genuflect at that altar, fine. But things become dangerous when we begin to watch radical black artists of yesteryear being interpreted through their capitalist lens, artists who sacrificed everything and rebuked imperialism, not because they were "losers' who were unable to master capitalism and didn't have the right lawyers or stock options, but because they had other priorities; the liberation of their people and a desire to further the black artistic tradition. The answer to ending racism and imperialism is not going to be found by going deeper into capitalism and making everyone black billionaires, or having a black president. We tried that, it didn't work.
The problem for the black artist and the black capitalist continues to be conflicting motivations the black blues song, handed down through generations from the church house moan of illiterate slaves to the music of Lauryn Hill, can't be found in the board room at Nestle, or at the corporate offices of Starbucks. When you hear Chaka Khan sing "I'm Every Woman", one of the greatest songs of self-love ever recorded by a black American artist, there are generations of black women's experience and pain in that song, and it took generations of black women to make that voice. And while someone might choose to use it one day to sell pantyhose, or life insurance, or coffee, Chaka is testifying to a particular experience, and that experience is black and American and female; she furthers the blues tradition, bearing witness to the women who have come before her.
This essay exists not because I hate Beyonce or Jay-Z, although I'll admit, I do hate some of the things they stand for. It exists because the Carters are going through the black American artist catalogue with what appears to be a lack of proper reverence. Was "Formation" from Lemonade, for example, an honest tribute to the courage of the Black Panther Party, or a way to cash in on the Black Lives Matter movement? Family Feud's quote from James Baldwin, a queer black writer who fought for civil rights his entire professional life, didn't inspire me as the film's creators may have intended, but instead aroused my cynicism and rage. At least with "Formation", whatever Beyonce's original intention, we have her spectacular performance at the 2016 Super Bowl. Baldwin's work in Family Feud, however, is used to flavor the drab, the unworthy the literary equivalent of pouring seasoning salt on bad meat. Nina Simone's masterpiece Four Women, used in Jay-Z's first single from his album 4:44, "The Story of OJ", is there for pretty much the same reason.
The Carters, black billionaires who can buy whatever and whomever they want, have a Midas touch. And the results may be equally heartbreaking. King Midas destroyed his daughter by turning her into gold. The Carters seem determined to corporatize the blues song. They've crossed this line many times before, but with Family Feud, they've finally gone too far.
Family Feud begins with its bizarre, corny title it is nearly impossible for someone from my generation to hear that name and not think of the legendary game show, which must be Jay-Z's intention. ( "One hundred people surveyed, top five answers on the board, here's the question: name something people forget to pack when they go on vacation…" ). As the video started, and recalling that it was about infidelity, I assumed he chose the name to explore the games that we play in our romantic relationships, how we often hurt the people we claim to love the most.
Jay-Z's instincts aren't wrong. Our families are feuding, and not just in our own backyards. There are deep and painful rifts between the black church and the queer black community, there are fatalities and gun shootings in our cities, violence against transgender women and men, and diabetes and heart disease are still claiming too many black lives. Serious questions about black politics abound: what direction should we go in, and whom can we trust to represent us? What exactly do we do with black Republicans like Omarosa, or Democrats like Donna Brazile? ( Whether Omarosa was dragged out of the White House by her heels or Brazile left with a little more dignity in an Uber ordered for her by Hillary, people of color are essentially where we always were: locked on the outside, looking in. ) We still can't have the breakthrough conversation we need to have about Bill Cosby, R. Kelly or sexual violence in our community, or how to keep the stress of racism from killing us. And last year on stage, as a result of past grievances, comedian and actress Monique told Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels to suck her dick. Oh Yes, Lord Jesus, we need a family meeting, and in a hurry.
Family Feud begins with the aforementioned quote from James Baldwin. Baldwin wrote in his 1976 critique on race and film, The Devil Finds Work: "The wretched of the earth do not decide to become extinct, they resolve, on the contrary, to multiply: life is their weapon against life, life is all that they have." As the video doesn't seem to deal with the wretched or their multiplying, it's not clear what Baldwin is doing in the video, except, one suspects, because of the popularity of Raoul Peck's 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin is topical at this moment; more importantly, his credentials as a force for justice are unimpeachable. But other than the fact that Baldwin is black and famous and a writer, his association with Family Feud ends there.
In late November 2017, Jay-Z gave an extended sit-down interview with Dean Baquet from The New York Times. They discussed the inspiration for his new album, emotional maturity, his raised consciousness, and "you can't heal what you don't reveal." If Jay-Z has moved beyond a sole focus on material considerations and is taking his art in a new direction, a direction that may have been inspired by black writers like Baldwin, none of this finds its way into his new video.
James Baldwin doesn't deserve the slovenly piece of work that is Family Feud. It has none of his intelligence, refinement or eloquence. I would actually argue that Family Feud is incoherent. Perhaps Baldwin is there because he was a visionary with a relationship to the black church as a child preacher. The black church: one of the primary stations for inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement, and which usually comes with a church family. But the house of worship in Family Feud doesn't recall the black church: it is barren and Roman Catholic. There is no congregation or preacher, just Jay-Z, Beyonce and, sitting in a pew alone, their daughter Blue Ivy.
I will attempt a brief synopsis of Family Feud, but I have to acknowledge that after several viewings, I honestly have no idea what it's about. After the Baldwin quote, Family Feud begins with a man dressed in what at first appeared to me to be antebellum garments, but the titles tell us it's 2444. ( A friend suggests that they were the ecclesiastical garments of a church elder, which makes more sense. ) He climbs the stairs to the bedroom of what looks like an old plantation house and says to his wife or sister, played by actress Thandie Newton, "You know it's the constant lack of respect you show me and this family that pisses me off. Do you have any idea how important today is? Lack of judgment. Respect. You have no fucking honor." As he tells her off, she gets up languidly, annoyed by his presence and wearing something that looks like an elaborate swimsuit, her hair tinted a strange, metallic blue. ( Another friend of mine was convinced that this outfit was part of Beyonce's athletic/swimwear line. )
The man, played by Michael B. Jordan, says something like, "Do think Father would be in bed at this hour? …You don't deserve to be the head of this family. You're a disgrace." She slaps him, and he shouts, "It should have been me!" We then discover that a muscular man with a huge chain around his neck has been sleeping under the covers. The two men begin to fight, the "thug" chokes the "aristocrat" to death, and then holds the woman in his arms and suggests that he has killed for her honor. She pulls out a knife, stabs him and says, "It's not his, it's not yours, it's my throne", and walks out over the two dead black male bodies.
Watching this scene I thought, We're in Tyler Perry land here, they need to subvert this somehow. We've seen this so many times before, the destructive, outdated stereotype of the evil women of color: the triumph of the ruthless "black bitch" at the expense of the two good brothers who end up losing their lives to her betrayal. ( The black bitch as a smurf in a bathing suit? Now that's new. )
In the next scene we see an Obama- like president and his Native American co-president being told by their Chief of Staff ( played by Jessica Chastain ), that a murder from his past ( we assume the scene we've just witnessed ) has come into the public eye. The politician says he refuses to discuss it without speaking about the positive side of his family's legacy. We then move on to dislocated scenes from the future in the years 2148, 2096, set up in odd locations The Last Jedi filmed in a parking garage.
We end up in a board room with a group of women, predominantly of color, who are revising the constitution the second and thirteen amendments, respectively. Jay-Z's daughter, whom we remember because of the outfit she wears in an earlier scene, now runs the world. Jay-Z raps the title song, while Beyonce gesticulates from the pulpit, dressed in a blue outfit that seems a cross between a high priestess, Nefertiti, and the fairy godmother from Cinderella. The video seems to be over before it's begun, and nothing in the "plot" has been resolved or even clarified. ( Ava DuVernay, credited as the co-writer and director, may have filmed the video during the lunch break from her latest project, Disney's A Wrinkle in Time. )
There are already lengthy videos on YouTube breaking down the deeper meanings of Family Feud, in-depth examinations of subtext and symbolism, but I can't bring myself to watch any them. Most of them are longer than the piece itself. And whatever criticisms I had about Lemonade, I do consider it a work of substance to be pulled apart, engaged with, challenged. Family Feud barely exists, it feels like a cross between a 70's encounter group and a Nike commercial.
The only image that has stayed with me after repeated viewings is Jay-Z, rapping while sitting in a confessional another Roman Catholic reference. When he finally emerges, the camera is positioned down on the floor and he raps while Beyonce hovers above us. Jay-Z paces, not as if he were in a house of worship, but like a businessman in the lobby of a hotel, awaiting the vote at a shareholders' meeting.
If this is the piece where Jay-Z refers to his adultery and spiritual change, I missed it. There is a reference to "Becky", a carry-over from Lemonade's "Becky with the good hair", who threatened The Carters' marriage. Jay-Z raps, "Leave me alone, Becky", and it sounds like "Get thee behind me, Satan." So much for confession and responsibility.
The Carters refer yet again in Family Feud to the fact that they are billionaires. Jay-Z raps, "What's better than one billionaire? Two, especially when they the same hue as you." Beyonce mouths "two", and in case we didn't get the point, holds up two fingers. They certainly have the billionaires' dilemma: even though they are rich filthy rich, in fact it doesn't seem enough, nor, I imagine, will it ever be enough. The ostentation and vulgarity in Family Feud appalls one waits for Jay-Z to show us his bank statements. Clearly, it isn't satisfying anymore to be the most successful entertaining couple in American history, black or white. The Carters, having conquered the world, seem at this point to need to be canonized.
In my early twenties, I visited Senegal with a group of friends, one of whom was there on a study-abroad program. We were walking along the streets of Dakar and stopped to get something to eat, pizza or some comfort food. On our way back to the house, I helped myself to my portion because I was "starving". My friend, American-born, but with an African father, and who had lived there for years as a child, admonished me for my insensitivity. We ate on the street all the time in America, but she pointed out to me that we were on a road in Africa, passing by several people who had no food. After her words, I looked at our surroundings with fresh eyes. I saw the hunger, I saw the need, and I felt ashamed. It hadn't even occurred to me, what it meant to parade my food in front of them, and more precisely, to parade my privilege. I had convinced myself when we arrived and visited the slave monument at Goree Island that I had come home to Africa and that I was no different from my African brothers and sisters. But in that moment I felt very ugly, very American.
Watching Family Feud, I was instantly reminded of that day in the street. The Carters are waving something in our faces too, and we forgive them, as we always forgive our black elite, because, based on the theory of trickle-down economics, it doesn't matter that we're hungry or that people are struggling to pay the bills because the Carters are billionaires, it is axiomatic that one day soon we shall all overcome.
The passing of Trump's tax bill furthers the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our country. Beyonce and Jay-Z are among those who will benefit, while friends of mine who are musicians, writers, the self-employed, the unemployed, will suffer. During these "let them eat cake" times, it is deeply tempting to resist facing the impending horror by watching Family Feud and focusing on hidden meanings, on whether or not Jay-Z really did cheat on Beyonce, and if her appearance in the video means she has forgiven him. But a lot of people are in pain in this historical moment, and we need more from our black artists than bullshit gossip and controversies whipped up to sell albums. Nothing about Jay-Z's and Beyonce's collaboration suggests a marriage that was ever seriously threatened. In fact, they seem to be doing better than ever thick as thieves. Their morality play is advertised as redemptive, but nothing appears to need redemption except their relationship to us.
We need real tools, medicine from our artists, especially at this time the stakes couldn't be higher. Family Feud as a work doesn't inspire me to resist, or even to talk about infidelity or the destructiveness of family infighting, both of which I've experienced in my family of origin. It only makes me want to salivate over the lifestyle of the Carters. We are cast as voyeurs, lucky to spend time in their company, at their orgy of envy. If the Carters really wanted to tell us something about families and feuding, Family Feud would have taken place in an elevator. And I wouldn't mind a tiny little rap from Becky.
In the song and video The Story of OJ, released before Family Feud, the Carters don't give us money, but perhaps offer something better: financial tips. Clearly inspired by the adage, "If you give you a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish…." Jay-Z shares real-estate and investment advice. He tells us: "Y'all think it's bougie, I'm like, it's fine. But I'm tryin' to give you a million dollars' worth of game for nine ninety-nine." The chorus contains a scrambled sample of Nina's Simone's Four Women. "My skin is black…My name is Aunt Sarah…"
The Story of OJ offers a cornucopia of racist images presented as cartoons from the 1930s Sambos ( Jay-Z is introduced as "Jay-bo" ), mammies, coons, Uncle Toms, jigaboo children with bones in their hair, Confederate flags, segregated buses, the Ku Klux Klan, dancing minstrels, cotton-picking slaves, a black family trembling on the auction block, and Jay-Z lynched from a tree as a white child watches and smiles at us. Nina Simone is presented, not as a solo artist who commanded the stage as she did in life, but as one of Jay-Z's studio players at one point he tells her and the band, "I like that second [take]."
Nina, like the other blacks in the video, is simian and dark with oval white lips, her voice warped and distorted throughout; she is recognizable only by her signature African head-wrap. A performer who recalls Josephine Baker dances in a tacky, ill-fitted G-string with pasties on her nipples, while Jay-Z raps about "throwing money away at the strip club", and a rowdy male audience "makes it rain" with dollar bills; hardly a tribute befitting the black woman from St. Louis who became the "Bronze Venus" in Europe, who refused to play to segregated audiences in the U.S. ( as did Paul Robeson ), and was part of the French Resistance during the war. Jay-Z later flies through the air as Dumbo, a rapping negro elephant, and Huey P. Newton, in his iconic Black Power pose with gun and spear, says in a defeated tone, "Still Nigga". There goes the movement. The artist, one assumes, must believe that the images, used ironically, are less painful when presented randomly and in modern "post-racial" quotation marks. But as we have no idea what the point is, we are harmed by them all over again.
There are artists you admire, and then there are artists who provide you a lifeline without their work you might go through the ice. Nina Simone is that kind of artist. In his film The Amazing Nina Simone, Jeff Lieberman draws a direct connection between Nina's courageous work in Four Women and the subsequent outpouring of truth in the literature of black women writers from This Bridge Called My Back and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and The Bluest Eye. By facing the taboo of discussing race, color, rape, and slavery, Nina's music gives us permission to talk about other taboo subjects like domestic violence and the sexual abuse of children. She helps to heal our colorism, our longest black "family feud". Through her brilliance we are able to understand and appreciate that the field hand and the house slave were both victims: those who are dark in complexion and those who share the master's blood speak to each other in Nina's song. Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches are really five women: Nina channels the other four, so they may speak to us.
In The Story of OJ Jay-Z makes clear, over the "Four Women" sample, that he is trying to help the rest of us become great capitalists like him. In the song, he informs us that he is furious because he lost out on a major business deal: "I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo. For like two million. That same building today is worth twenty-five million. Guess how I'm feelin'? Dumbo." He tells us why Jews own "everything" and how a piece of art he bought at two million has appreciated in value to eight million. I'm not sure why Jay-Z needed Nina, he should have sampled someone reading the audio version of Trump's The Art of the Deal. Even if the song's chorus, "Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga, Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga, Still nigga" in the four minute song we hear nigger 64 times is defended as an homage to "Four Women", I still don't want Nina's name next to OJ's, artifacts in the colored museum, brought together in Jay-Z's song serial killer and serial healer.
Music has many uses. Artists can sample whomever they like, advertisers choose music that inspires. But things have gotten out of hand. The other day I was doing the dishes and watching YouTube when The Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There" came on randomly. I associate that song with family gatherings and dancing with my grandmother when I was four. When the song ended after thirty seconds, I discovered that it was part of an ad for WalMart a corporate entity constantly challenged by activists for its labor rights violations. On Facebook there are advertisements to watch old episodes of Will & Grace sponsored by McDonalds. I have friends who no longer attend Gay Pride marches because of the predominance of companies with floats who attend, not to support LGBTQ rights, but because Pride Events are great advertising. It's not news to anyone that these days even our political movements are being corporatized.
And to be clear: there is nothing wrong with using money or power to further one's brilliance or with borrowing from the talents of other artists. Michael Jackson, who defined the extended music video, used his money and influence to get the best people for Thriller; impressed with the work of John Landis and make-up artist Rick Baker in American Werewolf in London, he reached for the phone. He already had black genius on his side, having collaborated with Quincy Jones, and the two made the brilliant decision to use horror-movie veteran Vincent Price to rap at the end of the song.
It is obvious in Michael's work that he was motivated by a legacy of black performing that ran through his veins when you watch Michael dance, you are watching the history of black performers, James Brown's electricity, Sammy Davis Jr's grace. You know that Michael wanted to top those black artists by paying tribute to them as he constantly strove to top himself. But I'm not sure when I watch Beyonce if she sees herself in a lineage that includes Tina Turner, Josephine Baker. She seems to have hatched fully formed, with no antecedents. If she does feel gratitude to Tina Turner, whose image Beyonce's own stage persona is most clearly inspired by, she has a funny way of showing it. In the song "Drunk With Love" Jay-Z famously tells Beyonce during the rap to "Eat the cake, Anna Mae", a reference to Tina Turner's struggle with domestic violence and rape by her husband and collaborator Ike Turner. In the song, Jay-Z "takes" Beyonce when they return home from a party, and the line is used as a pop-culture reference, meant for macho titillation and female debasement. In the song, "Nickels and Dimes", Jay-Z raps, "I'm just trying to find common ground, 'fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down, Mr. Day-O, major fail." Harry Belafonte, an unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement criticized Jay-Z and Beyonce personally for turning their backs on social responsibility. Jay-Z, clearly unaware that he is, in part, free because of activists like Belafonte, famously said at the time, "This is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama's is." He was later quoted as saying, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man."
These were pivotal moments for me in my relationship with Beyonce and Jay-Z and their music. Nothing was sacred anymore: they might not be artists after all, I thought, but art dealers, trafficking in black pain whenever it suited them. There are those who will argue that the Carters are doing a service by bringing new generations to James or Nina, but their lens is warped. We're being introduced to artists who spent their careers forming a critique on white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism, but their work is filtered through the cult of personality.
In fact, I'll argue that they are actually diminishing Baldwin and Simone by presenting them in this way. You put on Nina Simone as you'd put on a Prada skirt and earrings, you wear James Baldwin as you'd carry a bag from Louis Vuitton. Black actors like Michael B. Jordan may feel that it's a great career move to be seen in Family Feud and that he needs the Carters, but the truth is, it's a devil's bargain Family Feud is the only time I've seen him acting badly, and the truth is that the Carters need him. After his beautiful performance in Fruitvale Station, which I'll never forget, he gives them the innocence of an artist who isn't corrupted yet. In the past, it was the white master who summoned the darkies to come up and play the fiddle at Big House parties. Ironic that the ones doing the summoning are now black.
Upon a final viewing, I realized that what is most disturbing about Family Feud and The Story of OJ are their lack of humility. The underlying message is that no one is outside the Carters' despotic rule. Not the actors who embarrass themselves for the camera for Family Feud, not the director. There is a stunning presumptuousness to the entire project; you watch the credits in dismay, thinking they are taking a bow for something that isn't there. And there is an uncomfortable, underlying feeling of chaos and danger to the church scenes that recall Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The rest of us have to sit in our pews, but Jay-Z and Beyonce want us to know that billionaires, like fascists, aren't bound by rules. As the Carters take over the church, like a group of mischievous teenagers who've broken into the high school gymnasium at night, one longs for an archetypal grandmother to say to Beyonce as she stands in the pulpit: "If you two don't get down from up there and stop this foolishness, I'm gonna whip your asses myself when we get home. You ain't gonna embarrass me in here with Reverend Thomas coming by for dinner after church next Sunday."
I don't want to romanticize the black church, or whippings, but what I'm longing for here are the boundaries of an older generation of church-going blacks. Someone with the authority an elder, perhaps a performer whom they respect to tell the Carters to sit down. But who tells a billionaire to sit, or do anything in their plutocratic world? You don't tell Donald Trump, our billionaire fascist, he's fired, he tells you. It is this same sensibility that informs their relationship to the church in Family Feud, the same sensibility that chose the Baldwin quote. No one tells the Carters no, and everything is for sale.
As millions of people watch Family Feud on Tidal, there is a wrecking ball figuratively poised outside James Baldwin's historic house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, soon to be razed to build a luxury apartment complex. Efforts have been made to intervene, with the hope of creating a writers' house as a tribute to Baldwin who died in 1987, a place to inspire all writers, but specifically writers of color, for years to come.
It is my understanding that with the exception of a small plaque somewhere, there is no real acknowledgment of Baldwin's presence in the entire town. And unless someone steps in, his house will be destroyed. This was a house visited by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Miles Davis and Nina Simone at certain key points in their careers. In Family Feud, we are told that being a black billionaire is power; is it possible that these two black billionaires could save Baldwin's house? It can't be more than a few million; chump change for a billionaire. But I'm not counting on it. Billionaires often have other priorities.
Black art is being attached to images and motivations that are harmful to our younger generations, many of whom are coming to historic black music and literature for the first time. Instead of finding their way to black art through healthy means their grandparents, family gatherings, Dad's iPhone, Mom's old record albums, school assignments, museums they get to watch Shonda Rhimes use the entirety of Stevie Wonder's songbook for her television show Scandal, with its pathological relationships and graphic depictions of brutality and torture. Talk about a family feud; Rhimes has the distinction of bringing to the TV screen the most dysfunctional black family America has ever seen and she's been paid handsomely for it; the mother eats her own flesh to escape from prison, the daughter pulls a gun on her father, the father sabotages his daughter's romantic relationships so he can drink wine with her and have her for himself, and the star of the show, Olivia Pope, has murdered, twice, including a woman of color with children who begs for her life; and all of this under a backdrop of Stevie singing songs like, "Ma Cherie Amour". She slays literally. It may be good for business, and someone's making money somewhere on Rhimes' debased estimations of black womanhood. Meanwhile, as black viewers our brains are rewired, our childhood memories degraded. When I associate, "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" with Olivia Pope, I forget about those afternoons when I was four, dancing to Stevie Wonder with my grandmother.
We are the descendants of slaves. Our children have been sold from us. We've lost our languages, we've lost our tribes. We have been tortured for learning to read. We've been maimed for attempting to escape, lynched for our progress. Murdered as social control. In 1817 and in 2017. Our memory is our song. And when our black art becomes corrupted, we don't end up with real estate, we end up with nothing. The dignity and truth of our experience must be maintained. Our lives must bear witness. As James Baldwin taught us, what doesn't bear witness in our art, collaborates.
Months ago, I read somewhere that Beyonce had been looking to trademark her daughter's name, Blue Ivy. When your own child becomes a corporation or a brand, how can you even begin to appreciate the sacred?
The branding of children in America isn't a first: we as a people have been branded for years. It's the reason why my last name is Gordon, and why your last name is Williams, and why your cousins' last names are Smith. The trauma in our past is in our names. Saffronia, Aunt Sarah, Sweet Thing, Peaches.
In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, Sethe, an escaped slave who kills her own baby girl rather than return her to slavery, recalls to her daughter Denver an experience she had with her own mother, a branding of a different kind:
"She picked me up and carried me behind the smokehouse. Back there she opened up her dress front and lifted her breast and pointed under it. Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, 'This is your ma'am. This,' and she pointed. 'I am the only one who got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can't tell by my face, you can know me by this mark.' Scared me so. All I could think of was how important this was and how I needed to have something important to say back, but I couldn't think of anything so I just said what I thought. 'Yes, Ma'am,' I said. 'But how will you know me? How will you know me? Mark me, too,' I said. I said make the mark on me, too.'" Sethe chuckled.
"Did she?" asked Denver.
"She slapped my face."
"I didn't understand it. Not until I had a mark of my own."
Branded, trademarked, auction blocked, for sale, negro wench and her two children; for sale, Sallie, 40, excellent cook, Lizzie, 23, with 6 month old pickaninny; a cargo of 94 healthy negroes just arrived from the windward and rice coast of Senegal, off the coast of Sierra Leon, to be sold at public auction on Monday the 24th of September at Banks Arcade, no small pox, credit accepted for ninety days, pay in installments; long cotton and rice negroes, mechanics and house servants sold in Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Memphis, New York, Jacksonville. Taylor, boy, 14, Lawson, boy 12, brothers, good field hands. 50 dollars reward for runaway, Anna, five feet, seven inches, scar on forehead, belonging to Thomas Drayton, deceased. Contact Stephen Drayton. 100 dollar reward for return of negro boy, George, 20 years of age, bright mulatto color, sullen countenance, wearing blue mixed pants and a black frock coat, black hat, and coarse shoes when he left. Baltimore.
For sale, Friday next, one cedar desk, one large table, and negro woman, Sue, aged 50 years, housekeeper. Mary, runaway, missing front teeth, upper lip is thick and hangs down, speaks English and French, she has a small child, 7 months old, which she commonly carries with her. 50 dollars to return her to the District of Columbia, 100 dollars north of state, daughter in Maryland, may have traveled there to find her. For sale, black woman Peggy and Son Jupiter, trusty house servants and excellent cooks; runaway, Jack, negro boy, speaks good English, no brand marks, runs with limp; runaway from subscriber, five negro slaves, man called Red, wife, Mary, children Matilda, Lem, and Malcolm; 200 dollars reward for the apprehension of Harriet, agreeable carriage and address, good seamstress. For sale, hardworking, serviceable, able-bodied negro buck, plantation hand from Alabama, highest market price paid for good stock. Public cordially invited to attend.
To be sold at noon before the door of the Eagle Tavern: a negro man, his wife, and child, reasonable rates, terms cash. They called me Isaiah when I arrived at these shores, now they call me Abner. I am Horace, I am Mary, I am Letty, I am Blue.
I am James, but nobody knows my name.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and performer. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos ( University of Michigan Press, 1991 ), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction ( Henry Holt, 1996 ). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include "Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence", "A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology", "Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, 'I Am Not Your Negro', 'Can I Get A Witness' and 'Moonlight'", "Resist Trump: A Survival Guide"