Because of Jay-Z, this New Year’s Eve, I found myself thinking about families and feuding.
When he released 4:44 in June 2017, the reception was mixed, not because the music wasn’t good or poignant—no one who understands hip-hop can deny Jay’s lyricism or his ability to catch our attention with interesting melodies. But men and women had very different reactions, to put it lightly.
Many women applauded Jay’s ability to finally take up the mantle of manhood and apologize for his bad behavior; for black women especially, there seemed to be a collective “Thank you!” He had violated the trust of Queen Bey, and that was unacceptable. In the aftermath of the release, Candice Benbow’s “4:43” spoke to nearly every black woman I know about what it means for men to finally reckon with honesty and faithfulness—or not to—at the expense of the women they claim to love.
However, men weren’t collectively as gracious, and although a 4:44 syllabus created by Anthony Boynton addressed issues of toxic masculinity and manhood, the reception from some men seemed to decry Jay as a “sellout” to women. How dare he apologize? Maybe Bey wasn’t doing her “job.” [Editor’s note: GTFOH.]
With the appearance of writer and transgender activist Janet Mock as one of the “founding mothers” in the “Family Feud” video, I couldn’t help wondering: What are these same men thinking about Jay now?
I’ll confess that though I’m a longtime fan of Jay-Z, I’m not a fan of “Family Feud.” Though Jay rarely has a misstep lyrically, the line “Let me alone, Becky” seems to completely place the blame for his affair or affairs on the infamous “Becky with the good hair” rather than where it squarely needs to be: at Jay-Z’s billionaire feet. In my opinion, it undermines the title track (“4:44”), where he actually apologizes and keeps the attention solely on his fuckboy behavior. So suffice it to say that when the video for “Family Feud” debuted on Dec. 29, I wasn’t too interested in checking it out.
But then I thought, “It’s Jay. I got to.” And I’m happy that I did.
To start off, the choice to open the video with a quote by James Baldwin—a queer black man—is subversive in its own way. But then, when we time-travel to 2050 and the council of founding mothers, among the many famous faces, we see Janet Mock.
There’s an interesting vibe when you watch a video intended to reveal a futuristic narrative about families feuding; I read the table of founding mothers as a collective of multihued women “saving” us from ourselves—yet again. Some have expressed concern about the fact that there’s no truly ebony woman at the table, which is an important conversation about colorism that needs to be addressed. And yet seeing Mock at the table as a fully participating part of the healing process made my masculine-of-center lesbian heart leap for joy!
As I replayed that section of the video, I wondered if Mock’s inclusion was a result of Ava DuVernay’s hand in the process, or was Jay giving a nod to us queer women—cis and trans alike—that yes, I see your womanhood? Hard to tell, but I’ll take that win. Of course, that also means acknowledging the possibility of tokenism, which I’m never in favor of.
In fact, one could argue that the entire video has moments that give us a wobbly understanding of futurism—possibly Afro but certainly black American: a distinction that is important in the analysis of why it feels very American. For instance, the question of tokenism could also be raised when examining the inclusion of Native American actress Irene Bedard as one of the presidents in this futuristic world.
But I’d beg to differ; for me, her appearance alongside Omari Hardwick was a reminder of the much-needed conversation that black Americans and Native Americans—both of whom have been uniquely affected by colonization in the social project that is America—need to have. It is important that they are sitting side by side, defending each other and having each other’s backs.
With that in mind, I’m going to optimistically err on the side of DuVernay’s deft hand and say that tokenism isn’t a part of Mock’s inclusion. She belongs there because she is a woman. I hope Mock’s presence among the founding mothers in this video signifies a shift away from the misogynoir and queer antagonism still present in contemporary hip-hop narratives. Maybe young men will take a note from an elder statesman and begin to understand their regressive ideologies.
But I can hardly see someone like black activists’ fave Kendrick Lamar doing any work in this area. He can barely speak about cis black women in a positive manner, so I’d be doubly surprised if he attempted to take on embracing queer and trans black women. I wondered as I watched this video—do you have to get to almost 50 years old and out of the price range of Target runs to get some damn sense when it comes to love and womanhood?
I find it telling that embracing queer women on an album where you are finally understanding that black women aren’t the cocoons in which black men find their humanity feels like the next step in an evolution toward manhood. And when it comes to toxic masculinity and its relationship to womanhood, I’m interested to see if Jay will, at some point, walk us through his understanding of the humanity of queer men as well.
But the presence of Janet Mock gives me hope. Not hope of acceptance—that would just be empty rhetoric and truly a pitch to tokenism of the basest form. No, I hope that her presence is an acknowledgment of the personhood of queer folks. The ongoing murders of trans women—particularly those of color—speak to a deep and entrenched toxic combination of internalized racism and unhealthy masculinity that continues to inhabit our communities.
It’s finally time for people to recognize that the most marginalized voices in the room—those of trans women of color—should be centered in our conversations when we are talking about getting free. Maybe our human family can stop the feuding over gender-identity labels and start thinking more broadly about what it means to be a man or a woman or genderqueer. That said, I’m not going to label this video as a catalyst for that freedom.
But I am going to call it a start.