On therapy, politics, marriage, the state of rap and being a black man in Trump’s America
by Dean Baquet
My conversation with Jay-Z began with O.J.
When I was a kid growing up in black New Orleans in the 1960s, O.J. Simpson was a god. We imitated his moves, his swagger. We didn’t want to just play like him. We wanted to be him, gorgeous and running in the California sun. We practiced his juking moves in the mirror, our hands too small to hold the ball loosely, the way he did. We even wanted to go to U.S.C., where he led the nation in rushing two years in a row. We were angry when he lost the Heisman Trophy to the white, All-American, clean-cut U.C.L.A. quarterback Gary Beban, known as “The Great One.” We were triumphant when he won it the next year.
But O.J. was not a perfect hero for young black boys, even though he launched himself from poverty in San Francisco to superstardom. He was racially ambivalent. At a time when other athletes were starting to make their blackness a cause, he was trying to make his a footnote.
So when I was invited to interview Jay-Z, I wanted to talk about his song “The Story of O.J.,” from his most recent album, “4:44,” in which he quotes the legendary, maybe apocryphal, Simpson line “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
I was less engaged by the rapper’s marital troubles or his infamous, caught-on-video 2014 elevator dust-up with his sister-in-law. But I did want to try to understand how, with an $88 million Bel Air mansion a freeway ride from neighborhoods where black people endure with so little, Jay-Z holds onto his younger self — a black man who grew up in the ’70s in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn. It seemed from his new body of work that examining this high-wire act of straddling two places had been stirring more deeply within him — much the way it stirs in me, a Southern black man who grew up revering O.J. and whose own success is infinitely greater than anyone in my early life would have imagined for me.
What is it about the story of O.J. Simpson that moved us both?
O.J. must have locked down part of himself when he presented himself as the noncontroversial star who never talked about race, the perfect foil for his fellow football player, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who seemed more threatening, angry. I had to wonder if the pressure of that denial caused him to explode decades later.
All of this was on my mind when I met with Jay-Z for two hours in an executive office at The Times this past September. Besides O.J. and racial identity, we talked about his mother’s sexuality, and how he could possibly raise socially aware children who shuttled between mansions: After years of rapping about growing up in the ‘hood, he has produced an album that sounds like a middle-aged black man’s deeply introspective therapy session put to music.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
DEAN BAQUET First, welcome.
JAY-Z Thank you.
BAQUET The things I want to talk to you about: I want to talk a little bit about race. Your music some, too. I thought the song [“The Story of O.J.,” from the album “4:44,” 2017] was particularly powerful. I took the message as, “You can be rich, you can be poor, you’re still black.” Who were you speaking to? Who did you want to listen to that and be moved by it?
JAY-Z It’s a nuanced song, you know. It’s like, I’m specifically speaking to us. And about who we are and how do you maintain the sense of self while pushing it forward and holding us to have a responsibility for our actions. Because in America, it is what it is. And there’s a solution for us: If we had a power base together, it would be a much different conversation than me having a conversation by myself and trying to change America by myself. If I come with 40 million people, there’s a different conversation, right? It’s just how it works. I can effect change and get whomever in office because this many people, we’re all on the same page. Right? So the conversation is, like, “I’m not rich, I’m O.J.” For us to get in that space and then disconnect from the culture. That’s how it starts. This is what happens. And then you know what happens? You’re on your own, and you see how that turned out.
BAQUET Was it a reminder, too, that the thing O.J. forgot, maybe, was that as rich as he was, as entitled as his life was, he was reminded very forcefully when he became a subject of racial debate that he was also a black man, whether he accepted that or not?
JAY-Z That’s right. Absolutely. And for us, like I’m saying, to speak to that the point is, “Don’t forget that,” because that’s really not the goal. The goal is not to be successful and famous. That’s not the goal. The goal is, if you have a specific God-given ability, is to live your life out through that. One. And two, we have a responsibility to push the conversation forward until we’re all equal. Till we’re all equal in this place. Because until everyone’s free, no one’s free, and that’s just a fact.
BAQUET When you’re as amazingly successful as you are, your kids will live in a very different world from the world you grew up in. How do you go about making sure that they understand the world you grew up in?
JAY-Z There’s a delicate balance to that, right? Because you have to educate your children on the world as it exists today and how it got to that space, but my child doesn’t need the same tools that I needed growing up. I needed certain tools to survive my area that my child doesn’t need. They’re growing up in a different environment. But also they have to know their history. Have a sense of what it took to get to this place. And have compassion for others. The most important thing I think out of all this is to teach compassion and to identify with everyone’s struggle and to know these people made these sacrifices for us to be where we are and to push that forward — for us. I believe that’s the most important thing to show them, because they don’t have to know things that I knew growing up. Like being tough.
SOURCE: T: The New York Times Style Magazine