The Story of O.J.: Confronting American Animation’s Racist Past

While most publications seem to be debating whether or not Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé, Jay-Z’s music video for his new track The Story of O.J. has already become one of the boldest music videos of the year. Released on YouTube this afternoon, the black and white animation examines offensive racial stereotypes and explores the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement. It also references famous black figures such as Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton and the controversial footballer and convict O.J. Simpson. Similarly to the way racist and oppressive language such as the n-word has been reclaimed by black people in the past decades, Jay-Z challenges the discriminatory way black people were represented in animation and re-appropriates the genre himself.

While Jay-Z is certainly not the first artist to address racism in a music video, the clip is certainly one of the most overt. Jay-Z characterises himself as ‘Jaybo’ (possibly a parody of the 1935 animated film ‘Little Black Sambo’) and the clip takes on many racist depictions and stereotypes; for example, the characters have over-exaggerated lips, oversized teeth and are seen eating watermelon and picking cotton. The clip’s title sequence directly parodies Merry Melodies, the animated series from Warner Bros. The company produced many racist cartoons, many of which have since been censored- the ones that remain are highly disturbing in its depiction of black people and can be found online. Animated favourites such as Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny all frequently included bigoted racial stereotypes. The music video is a reminder that it is important the past is not forgotten as the discriminatory way in which black people were depicted still has an effect today. The depiction of black women in the clip as either ‘Mammy’ maid figures or over-sexualised, scantily-clad strippers reflects how, even today, black women in the media are still regularly objectified or reduced to comedic roles, rather than being presented as multidimensional characters. While detrimental depictions of black people are now much more subtle, they are still evident today- for example, black male characters being over-represented as criminals or thugs.

The video also takes on key moments in the Civil Rights Movement, such as the 1968 Olympics Black Panther salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze medals. It also references the titular O.J. Simpson- “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”, quoting The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, to which ‘Jaybo’ rolls his eyes. During his dramatic trial, Simpson was criticised for having spent the majority of his life with rich white people rather than supporting the black community. His trial divided the country and made him a figurehead for institutionalised racism in America.

In the heart-stopping final moments of the music video, ‘Jaybo’ is shown hanging from a tree, surrounded by a grinning white audience. The harrowing scene is a stark reminder of the Jim Crow era in which thousands of black people were publicly lynched. The shocking ending to the video shows the violent effect dehumanisation can have whilst confronting an era in American history that many try to forget.


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