Jay-Z dropped the video for "Moonlight," a single from the surprisingly vulnerable 4:44 on Tidal Thursday. My heart soared at the beauty of the cast, and simultaneously ached for my generation, the cast of Moonlight and Living Single by the end of it. The film reimagines the cast of NBC's acclaimed comedy series, "Friends," as beautiful, young, melanin- and talent-rich African-American actors.
I find the film daringly excellent. Just as in Master of None, Alan Yang's caring directorial instincts are just as much a character as the humans on the screen. And what magnificent humans: Issa Rae, Executive Director and star of Insecure is "Rachel," Tessa Thompson of Thor: Ragnarok appears as "Monica," Girls' Trip's Tiffany Haddish plays "Phoebe," Lakeith Stanfield from Get Out and Atlanta nails "Chandler," Get Out's Lil Rey Howery takes on the role of "Joey," and Jerrod Carmichael literally becomes "Ross."
Jay-Z, Yang, and the ensemble cast seem to all but stare into the camera with the same message: these actors are just as talented, charismatic and competent as those who played these roles in the '90s. They are the faces of the big and small screen renaissance we've seen lately--television and film deftly exploring the brilliance, the resilience, the joys, humor and pain that can be a daily part of the African American experience. It gave me such joy to see Issa Rae's post:
And when my husband, who was a Tidal early adopter, shoved his phone in my hand and said, "Dude, just watch this," I savored every moment of the music video. I watched Friends with a loyalty that chose to ignore the lack of diversity in the main cast (yes I have seen this hilarious video running down the characters played by black people). I even cried at the last episode. Even though the big six were white, I found myself in the writing, the humor, and humanity of the characters.
The video remakes Season 3, episode 2, "The One Where No One is Ready." While we were crowded around the tv on Thursdays, my roommate would scoff at Friends, saying "That ain't nothing but a white Living Single." The shows are similar; both set in New York, in the '90s, about a group of six men and women who live in the same building, are good friends, and get into all kinds of hilarious trouble. They're all professionals, exploring the adventures of mid-twenties and singlehood. Two of them even end up married...Queen Latifah confirmed the show as an inspiration for Friends on Late Night With James Corden, citing the then-president of NBC's covetous comments about Living Single, and Friends premiering the next year. Living Single ran from 1993-1998 on Fox. Friends ran from 1994-2004, and by the end of the show's run, the six main cast members earned an unprecedented $1 million per episode. Do you see what I see?
I have always had mixed feelings about Jay-Z. I know he is talented, and don't need the 21-Grammy or the 12 platinum album lecture. I have seen his master class on OWN. I love his intuitive collaborative nature, and his quick discernment when it's time to move forward (i.e., Best of Both Worlds). I get it. The thing is, I've constantly felt conflicted, because I felt that some of his music gave the young men that mistreated my friends and me a soundtrack to do so.
For Instance: I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me)," The Dynasty: La Roc La Familia
"When the Remy's in my system/ain't no telling will I fuck or will I diss 'em."
This was literally the scenario around that time for my friends and I. We were encountering these young men--attractive, smart, ambitious-and we could not from day to day determine if they would be kind or cruel. One in particular thought it was fun to see just how many different days he could be sweet and then rude to me. His friend told me so that I'd finally move on.
Now, I am clear: that sociopath's behavior is not Jay-Z's fault. The messaging in his lyrics, however, became triggering for me. I'd listen, and become sad and then angry at how cool it was to be aloof, rude, and unconcerned about much beyond sex. "I like the production," I'd tell people. "I like his style. But why he gotta be so mean?"
Fast forward to the release of 4:44. We were all astonished at the rapper's sentimental and honest lyrics, alluding to his financial mistakes, his infidelity, and, on "Kill Jay-Z," his direct admonishment to himself:
"This "fuck everybody" attitude ain't natural."
Ok, so while that doesn't erase years of mysogynist lyrics, it's a shift in a direction that I can get with.
Then, he drops the video for "Moonlight."
“The hook is ‘We stuck in La La Land/ Even if we win, we gonna lose.’ It’s like a subtle nod to La La Land winning the Oscar, and then having to give it to Moonlight. It’s really a commentary on the culture and where we’re going,” Jay-Z explained to IHeartRadio. The audio of the now famous Best Picture Hot Mess that happened plays at the end of the track.
Jay-Z, once speaking directly about his pimp genetics, is now aggressively calling out the entertainment industry's overtly racist systems, behavior and practices.
I am so excited about the emotional, honest, and human stories that are explored through the amazing art form that hip hop is. The kind of influence that leads millions to change the fit of their clothes, the sound of their speech, and the movement of their bodies has the potential to move those same millions to relational, financial, social and mental health.
I am in full support of work like 4:44, Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar's D.A.M.N., and Solange's A Seat At The Table. Because no one is imperfect, criticism and suspicions around the timing, profit margins and intentions abound. While those conversations are happening, I am hopeful. I believe that the fans of this music, those of privilege, talented artists, and those with decision-making power will take in the music, and let it be a soundtrack to dismantling and interrupting the systems that maintain injustice.
Danielle Fanfair is a writer, producer and speaker. To learn more about engaging her for your website, book, or event needs, click this sentence!