Jay-Z and O.J.: Sport and the Performance of Race in Hip-Hop Music

in Sociology of Sport Journal
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  • 1 University of Central Florida
  • 2 University of Washington

The purpose of this study was to understand the symbolic messaging in hip-hop music as it relates to the lived experiences and realities of Black Americans in the United States. The study examined the song and music video titled “The Story of O.J.,” by hip-hop artist Jay-Z to gain a better understanding of how Jay-Z interpreted the impact of Black Americans’ lived experiences in the United States on their identity and ability to progress economically and socially, regardless of social standing, within subcultures such as sport. Employing a content analysis method, data were collected and analyzed using critical race theory. The results of the analysis of lyrical and video data identified three major themes: (a) battle with Blackness, (b) economic enslavement and financial freedom, and (c) systematic subjugation.

“NBC News reporter Sandy Vanocur (NNR): What is it about the Negro, I mean every other group that came as an immigrant somehow? Not easily, but somehow got around it. Is it just the fact the Negros are Black?”

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK): “White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. That is one thing that other immigrant groups haven’t had to face.

The other thing is that the color, became a stigma. American society made the Negroes’ color a stigma. America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality. And as a matter of fact, to get started on.

At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest. Which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base, and yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.

And so, emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time.

And when white Americans tell the Negro to ‘lift himself by his own bootstraps,’ they don’t oh, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own boot straps, but it’s a cruel justice to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading” (King Jr. M.L. [NBC News]. 1967).

According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 interview with The National Broadcasting Company, the identity of Black Americans has been defined through the lens of White society for centuries. Past research (Hawkins, 1998b; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996; Neville, Viard, & Turner, 2015; Steele & Aronson, 1994) has shown the Black struggle to be one that has to overcome negative symbolical and cultural perceptions created about their ethnic group. Historically, White Americans fashioned opposing images of themselves, compared with Black Americans, to support the legalization of oppressive policies that created a hierarchy that essentially made them the dominant culture and subjugated Black Americans to second-class citizenship (Cooper, 2012; Helms, 1994). This established culture robbed Black Americans of an opportunity to develop a positive identity and created a milieu of perceived difference. These differences were interwoven throughout American society through science, religion, and policy (Hawkins, Francique, & Cooper, 2017). For example, perceptions associated with one’s skin color produced opposing views, as Black Americans were considered unclean and evil, while White Americans were defined as pure and good. Scientifically, phrenological studies, coupled with the eugenics movement of the 1800s, created false narratives about Black intelligence reinforcing White superiority (Hawkins, 1998b). In religion, the conversion of Black slaves to Christianity concerned many slave owners due to the threat of rebellion. This concern caused some to create a reinterpretation of the Bible to maintain the status quo, justifying slavery through stories, such as one found in Genesis 9:19–27. In this story, Ham, the father of Canaan, sees his father, Noah, naked and is therefore cursed and subjected to Shem and Japheth (Myrdal, 2000). Further, the Civil War challenged White superiority and created turmoil for White slave owners. This tension led to de jure (legalized) policies, such as anti-miscegenation and Supreme Court (e.g., Plessy vs. Ferguson) decisions, that sought to divide the races and reestablish a social hierarchy whereby Black Americans were second-class (Branch & Young, 2006). Subsequently, it led to the formation of the Jim Crow laws, which remained in effect until the mid-1900s.

Given these challenging circumstances, the identity of Black Americans was compromised, thus, making it difficult for them to exist in and assimilate into American society successfully. DuBois (1903) described this struggle:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging, he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. (p. 2)

Many scholars have tried to better understand the formation of Black identity development because of the negative experience and conflict DuBois (1903) described. Cross (1991) sought to define the various stages (i.e., preencounter, encounter, immersion–emersion, and internalization) Black Americans experience based on conditional and environmental factors through his theory of Nigrescence. This transformation can be described as going from a Eurocentric point of view that is considered anti-Black and negative to one that is Afrocentric and considered pro-Black and positive (Cross, 1991). However, the dismemberment of identity, being Black and American, cannot be ignored within the American societal context, as Black Americans’ human rights (pre-13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) have historically been challenged (Cooper, 2012; Hawkins et al., 2017). While these inadequate social representations exist at the macrolevel of society, they also manifest themselves at the microlevel, in areas such as sports. Dominquez (2018) argued that “sport has operated as a racial project for centuries, using the ostensible equality of the sporting endeavor to mask divergent, racialized life experiences, institutional privileges, and assimilative pressures” (p. 104). The ideal of overcoming racial issues through competition and deemphasizing the opposing systemic realities that persist when the competitions cease can be misleading and create color blindness not only for the audience, but also for the performers (Dominquez, 2018). A prime example of this identity crisis is illustrated through critical narratives about Orenthal James Simpson (known as O.J. Simpson).

O.J. Simpson is a former college and professional football player, widely known for his athletic prowess that garnered him accolades, such as the Heisman Trophy (given to the best collegiate football player) in 1968 and enshrinement in both the college and professional football Halls of Fame. He played collegiately at City College of San Francisco and the University of Southern California. Most of his professional football career was spent with the Buffalo Bills, where he rushed for over 2,000 yards in one season (Hunt, 1999). Off the field, Simpson was an actor, sports commentator, and spokesman for national brands, and he was viewed as a hero—a Black hero—who arguably transcended race, meaning that his status or unique abilities offered him acceptance into mainstream White America (Hunt, 1999). However, in 1994, this so-called acceptance was derailed, as O.J. Simpson was considered a person of interest and eventually charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. He was acquitted of the murders in 1995, but the racially charged monumental trial was the catalyst that critics (Howard, 2016; Walton & Chau, 2018) believe eroded O.J.’s mainstream acceptance.

What is unique about O.J. Simpson’s Black identity conflict was that it was flanked by critical time periods when social unrest was at its peak. At the beginning of Simpson’s acceptance into the mainstream in 1968, the Watts, California, riot was still a recent memory (1965), and the Vietnam War was being protested all over the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated, and the Summer Olympics in Mexico City were being protested by Black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Similarly, when O.J.’s acceptance began its erosion in the early 1990s, four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted of the crime of savagely beating a Black man, Rodney King, in spite of condemning video evidence. This acquittal subsequently led to the riots of 1992 in Los Angeles, California, and a version of hip-hop, known as Gangsta Rap, had already emerged with groups like Niggas With Attitudes and artists such as Ice-T. Their respective songs challenged police brutality with titles such as “Fuck Tha Police” and “Cop Killer” (Walton & Chau, 2018). O.J.’s trial and acquittal served as the climactic event of the 1990s that ended with Simpson’s sentiment “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” This sentiment was referenced by an activist and organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Dr. Harry Edwards, in the ESPN film O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, 2016). It reinforces the notion that “identity is constituted by characteristics that are not chosen, such as race” (Neville et al., 2015). When O.J.’s performance ceased with the not guilty verdict, his Blackness prevailed, and the consequences of his actions were felt (Walton & Chau, 2018).

The events surrounding O.J. Simpson’s case are evidence of the racial tensions that have existed within the very fabric of the United States of America for centuries. Race has always played a significant role in the lives of Black Americans. Acts of terror and violence against Black communities and individuals to maintain power and control have been commonplace since the slave trade. Other events that illustrate the motivation to dominate and control are the Civil War; Wilmington, North Carolina, Massacre of 1898; Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riots of 1921; and the unnecessary violence and murder of young boys and men like Emmett Till in 1955, and countless others, such as Trayvon Martin in 2012, Eric Garner in 2014, Tamir Rice in 2014, and Keith Lamont Scot in 2016. These occurrences echo a system of legalized racism that has oppressed Black Americans and negatively impacted their ability to generate wealth, social capital, a positive self-image, physical health, a healthy family structure, and access to equal education (Hawkins et al., 2017; Mays, Cochran, & Barnes, 2007).

Similar to Niggaz Wit Attitudes attempts to address social injustice in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop has reemerged as a way to battle the resurgence of racism as prominent entertainers use their platforms to speak up about the inequalities that exist (Dyson, 2019). This intersects with subcultures such as sports, as hip-hop artists have shared similar experiences as athletes. Arguably, most athletes and hip-hop artists have experienced low socioeconomic circumstances, grown up in similar communities, and experienced the double standards of society toward Black Americans (Cooper, 2012, Dyson, 2019, Melendez, 2008). Even the clothes that they wear and brands that they associate with are evidence of this natural intersection, as both endorse sports apparel companies such as Adidas, Nike, and other brands during performance and nonperformance times (e.g., videos, athletic competitions, concerts, commercials; McLeod, 2009). In the most popular sports of football and basketball in the United States, the majority of the athletes competing are Black: 58.9% in the National Football League (NFL) and 74.8% in the National Basketball Association, respectively (Lapchick, 2019a, 2019b). These implications and data should alert sport sociology and management communities to take a closer look at how to critique race, class, society, and sport.

The current study examines the Black experience through the examination of the song and music video titled “The Story of O.J.” by hip-hop artist Jay-Z. Jay-Z (Shawn Corey Carter) is a rap mogul and businessman. He is regarded as a cultural icon and one of hip-hop’s greatest artists of all time, having sold over 100 million records worldwide (Dyson, 2019). In July 2017, Jay-Z released the song and music video “The Story of O.J.,” a black-and-white animation that uses historical Disney and Warner Brothers cartoon racist imagery to describe the Black experience. Jay-Z described why he utilized O.J.’s sentiments for the song:

O.J. would get to a space where he’s like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Like Tiger Woods would get to a space and think, I’m above the culture. And that same person when he’s playing golf and playing great, you’re protected. When you’re not, they’re going to put pictures of you drunk driving and, like, embarrass you. That world will eat you up and spit you out. (Pan African Knowledge, 2017)

The lyrics and imagery from the music video helped to evaluate constructs of identity, race, social class, and Black masculinity within the context of sports, as well as within the greater American context. During the past four decades (1980–2019), hip-hop music has emerged and been recognized in scholarship (Bridges, 2011; Cohen & Ballouli, 2018; Rashid, 2016) as public pedagogy, meaning the music itself has intrinsic educational value. According to Rashid (2016), “its emergence as a cultural form parallels its application in the vein of social justice” (p. 344). Educators such as Michael Eric Dyson teach courses on hip-hop and specific hip-hop artists like Jay-Z (Dyson, 2019). Hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z have used this artform to critique society and to provide a voice for marginalized groups.

In what follows, we discuss the literature related to the issues in the study and other similar topics. Next, the qualitative method used will be explained. Lastly, the findings will be presented and discussed.

Review of Literature

A Brief History of Race and Racism

When discussing the history of race and race relations, it is important to first note that race is a completely constructed and man-made concept used to group people. It is not the social cognitions that we have given other cultures, but instead the eugenics and qualities passed on to a related group that characterizes all of their members (Benedict, 2000). However, in English discourse, race appeared first in text as early as the 17th century, and in North American scientific literature, in the late 18th century, to designate and elucidate various phenotypical differences between human beings (Miles, 2000). Racism is a more modern creation that was first understood in the 1938 published book by Magnus Hirschfeld entitled Racism. In an effort to explain how different races might react, the ideology of racism operates as a reasoning for those race relations. According to Miles (2000), “the theory of racism becomes entangled in a theory of ‘race relations.’ In so far as Marxist writers have incorporated an idea of ‘race,’ as an analytical or even a descriptive concept, into their theorizing about racism, they too have become similarly entangled” (Miles, 2000, p. 126). For Black Americans in America, race and racism have had a distinguishable and traumatic history.

Racism toward Black Americans in America is largely a byproduct of the rules, systems, and regulations that persisted following the abolishment of slavery. Slave traders did not position Africa as the vanguard of their slave trade because Africans were Black, but instead because their tolerance to European diseases and understanding of European crop cultivation deemed them the best workers for European expansionary efforts. Cox (2000) hypothesized that “racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and because of the worldwide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonists can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the White people of Europe and North America” (p. 72). Thus, “racial antagonism is essentially political-class conflict. The capitalist exploiter, being opportunistic and practical, will utilize any convenience to keep his labor and other resources freely exploitable” (Cox, 2000, p. 73).

However, the Africans’ inception into American slavery did not sit well with the European, Christian principles at the time, causing White Americans to look more closely into developing a “justification above mere economic expediency and the might of the strong” (Myrdal, 2000, p. 87). The Bible was used to categorize Black Americans as cursed descendants of Noah's son, Ham, labeling Black Americans as outcasts, heathens, and barbaric in nature (Myrdal, 2000). Socially, however, “the idea of race provided the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights” (Winant, 2000, p. 182). However, around the time of the Civil War, widespread ideologies centering around slavery opened the door for biology and ethnology to act as a base for notions of theology and history, allowing ideas of inferiority to amass (Myrdal, 2000). From these notions, numerous racial legislations and covert and overt social dynamics were employed to further subjugate Black Americans to a lower caste system in society. This construction of false history benefits the oppressor and creates a pathway to shape present and future. “The failure to allow for changes, in [how the] word race has been used, has important consequences; for those who misunderstand the past of their society are also likely to misunderstand the present because people judge the present in light of what they believe the past to have been. The past cannot be properly understood if changes in the significance of words are not allowed for” (Banton, 2000, p. 52).

Language, Race, and Privilege

One of the most ubiquitous topics currently discussed as part of the social climate in America, from politics to sports, is diversity. It is being celebrated and discussed like never before, yet it has been appropriately questioned for its often-idealistic notions that lack awareness of White privilege, domination, and superiority. With an increase in public discourse, “nearly half of Americans believe that diversity is ‘mostly a strength’ for the country” (Bell & Hartmann, 2007, p. 895). However, how Americans dissect and analyze diversity has become an area in academia that warrants close attention. In Bell and Hartmann’s (2007) Diversity in Everyday Discourse, researchers found that Americans idealize diversity as a necessary construct of our world and “the new cornerstone of American democratic idealism” (p. 895). However, many people tend to view diversity very superficially, neglecting the more intrinsic levels of diversity and failing to effectively communicate it on an individual level. Here, researchers found that Americans became more racially charged in their individual discussions and are often uncomfortable examining the structural inequalities in the context of diversity (Bell & Hartmann, 2007, p. 902). Additionally, it was found that Americans use the word “diversity” when they are really referencing race—more specifically, the relationship between Black Americans and White Americans. Furthermore, “race is the primary experiential lens through which difference in all of its forms are experienced and understood. Therefore, although ‘diversity’ may sound race-neutral or appear to transcend race altogether, the discourse of diversity is deeply racialized. Americans’ poignant and life-shaping experiences with and understandings of diversity involve race and especially racial others” (Bell & Hartmann, 2007, p. 905). To effectively discuss the notions of diversity, Americans must refrain from using diversity as the rhetorical and linguistic umbrella to discuss cultural differences (Bell & Hartmann, 2007). Doing so allows the notion of diversity to remain undeveloped and ambiguous, allowing people to discuss race openly without acknowledging the racial disadvantages and inequities that permeate American society (Bell & Hartmann, 2007). The defining element of diversity discourse will “separate discussions about diversity, difference, and multiculturalism from more uncomfortable conversations about inequality, power, and privilege” (Bell & Hartmann, 2007, p. 906). This notion of racially adjusting one’s grammar to appropriately discuss injustices will help White Americans to better understand the structure of the racial situation in America.

To more effectively discuss the true undertones of diversity, a strong discourse on privilege and, more specifically, supremacy is needed, as it offers a narrative that does not acquiesce to White racial reasoning (Leonardo, 2004). Examined further, “discourses on supremacy acknowledge white privileges, but only as a function of a whites’ actions toward minority subjects and not as mysterious accumulation of unearned privileges” (Leonardo, 2004, p. 150). Often when discussing privilege, the tendency to massage the uncomfortableness of the subject neglects the historical backing of the roles that White Americans played in defining the system that stands today. “There is a cost here of downplaying the active role of whites who take resources from people of color all over the world, appropriate their labor, and construct policies that deny minorities’ full participation in society” (Leonardo, 2004, p. 138). Privilege, therefore, is not a preposterous happening of society, but a “daily cognate of structural domination” (Leonardo, 2004, p. 148). Stated differently, the privileges that White Americans enjoy in our society were created under a system of domination so that they may thrive as a group (Leonardo, 2004, p. 137). Though the system may seem complex, it is actually quite simple; it has been set up to benefit White Americans by mystifying the system as a whole, removing White Americans as agents in the discourse, and “stifling the discussion with inane comments about the ‘reality’ of the charges being made” (Leonardo, 2004, p. 148).

The systemic role of privilege has played into the greater concept of domination. “Domination is a relation to power that subjects enter into and is forged in the historical process. It does not form out random acts of hatred, although these are condemnable, but rather out of a pattered and enduring treatment of social groups” (Leonardo, 2004, p. 139). This pattern has been issued in America through the ratification of a Constitution that failed to provide freedom for every American as promised, but instead solely for the property-holding White man. This presents an overarching body of subjugation so that anyone not a White, male proprietor is deemed unworthy and left out of social standings and planning. According to Leonardo (2004), without warning, the “white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist subject represents the standard for human, or the figure of a whole person, and everyone else is a fragment” (p. 139). Furthermore, domination plagues our thought process in so much that the referents in public discourse are particulars disguised as universals of the White race speaking for all of humanity (Leonardo, 2004; Bonilla-Silva, 2012).

The notions and vagueness of diversity, privilege, language, supremacy, and domination lead to a color-blind ideology that only further illustrates these problems. Explained in greater depth, Bell and Hartmann (2007) explained that “unspoken norms about racial difference, cultural assimilation, and the core values of U.S. society create cultural blind spots to the ways in which race—the primary social referent for discussion of diversity—structures social life” (p. 896). Moreover, color-blind ideals pair well with liberal-individualistic ideas and downplay the existence of racial inequalities that are present in society. It creates an avoidance of race talk to maintain decorum in society (Bell & Hartmann, 2007). The doctrine has also operated as a political tool to maintain racial order and covertly veil an institutionally racialized system that deems cultural difference as a reasoning for inequalities, instead of systemic “social forces” (Ferber, 2007). The inability to properly attach correct language to the overarching topic of diversity results in a system that perpetuates injustices further and spills into other constructs of society.

CRT in Sport

When considering alternatives to the gradations of privilege, language, and racism, critical race theory (CRT) challenges the status quo and provides a way to open the dialogue of new opportunities (Bell, 1992; Brown, 2003; Landson-Billings, 1998; Milner, 2007). CRT is a legitimate epistemological and theoretical approach to conducting research in the sport management field and is the best alternative to the dominant Eurocentric worldview. Epistemology is largely the way people understand the world and is also “a ‘system of knowing’ that is linked to worldviews based on the conditions under which people live and learn” (Singer, 2005, p. 465). Stated differently, it is the way upon which we see things in our world and have been socialized to internalize the Eurocentric dominant worldview. In retaliation of the Eurocentric worldview, CRT emerged as a counterargument to the positivist motive behind the Civil Rights Movement meant to provide liberation and empowerment to Black Americans (Singer, 2005).

The CRT works to unravel the idea that racism is not ubiquitous, but a systemic tool that is deeply intertwined with American life and looks to use first-hand accounts to bring light and change to educational institutions. The paradigm also looks to separate the notions of democracy and capitalism, which are commonly intermingled. Singer (2005) believes “traditional civil rights approaches to solving inequality have depended on the ‘rightness’ of democracy while ignoring the structural inequality of capitalism” (p. 52). We cannot argue for a better democracy and leave the catalyst of capitalism out of the picture, especially considering that America was built on capitalism and property rights. In America, during the Civil Rights Movement, there was a call for the “natural right” of citizens to be upheld, not minding that the basis of humanity in the United States was not built on this right. This “natural right” did not have the legal standing American values upheld. Thus, the tension between property rights and human rights is what has kept Black Americans at a disadvantage in society.

Singer (2005) explained, “CRT is a legitimate attempt to elucidate the potential of an alternative race-based epistemology to reconceptualize the present disciplinary-based system of knowledge that has traditionally been legitimized in the academy in general and the sport management field in particular” (p. 466). White Americans have created a system of dominance that has enabled them to control the “nature of ideas permeating society and its social institutions. As a result, the folkways, morals, values, attitudes, and beliefs of the dominant White race have become the norm or standard upon which other racial and ethnic groups in society are judged and evaluated” (Singer, 2005, p. 476). The paradigm opens the discussion to better observe other possibilities, theories, and physical methods that can work to foster learning and advancement of other theories and thoughts from races outside of European and White scholars. By allowing for a paradigm more diversified in makeup and nature, ideas and literature are better shaped as a result and can have a profound effect on sports management discourse and learning, as well as providing a deeper analysis of athletic experiences.

In the context of sport management, CRT’s aim is to provide sport management researchers and students with fundamental awareness of how CRT’s epistemological and methodological bases could be applied to investigation in the field of sport (Singer, 2005). Scholars (Harrison & Lawrence, 2003; Singer, 2005; Tate, 1997; Wing, 1997) have noted a number of major tenets of CRT:

  1. (a)Racism is an ordinary part of American society and deeply rooted in the culture;
  2. (b)A culture develops its own narrative to accommodate its own self-interest;
  3. (c)White elites will encourage the advancement of minorities as long as it promotes their self-interest.

In regard to sports in America, this theory implies that Black athletes are allowed entry into the industry as a form of labor to produce revenue through their athletic prowess, where an overrepresentation of Black athletes exists, but the decision-making roles of commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, and presidents are still largely occupied by White males at the collegiate level. Recent data supports this notion in major revenue-generating sports, such as Division-I football (Football Subdivision level) and basketball. In the two most popular sports of football and basketball, Black athletes comprise over 50% of the representation at 54.3% and 53.6%, respectively (Lapchick, 2018). This is juxtaposed to leadership at the athletics director and head coaching positions, where White Americans made up 84.3%, 90%, and 92.7% of the athletics director positions in Division I, II, and III and 86.2%, 87.4%, and 91.4% of all head coaching positions in Divisions I, II, and III in 2017–2018, respectively (Lapchick, 2018).

Moreover, CRT helps us to understand how the current processes and structural aspects of sports can negatively impact minority students. The CRT framework should be utilized to provide unique perspectives and approaches to assist scholars in sports to recognize, examine, and alter the historical aspects of sports that maintain the status quo by supporting racial positions of subordination and domination (Singer, 2005). To counteract this idea, one of the biggest colloquiums of CRT is providing storytelling as an analysis of Black athletic experiences (Hawkins et al., 2017). By naming one’s reality, research and writing can be shaped to demonstrate how understanding is not always universal, but situational as well (Singer, 2005). Thus, voices are needed to further develop theories that better support students, athletes, and all people of color who do not fall under the universal Eurocentric umbrella.

Race, Sport, and O.J.

While many academics have provided an analysis into the world of sport and race, the subject still warrants deeper discussion and thought, as “the potential for explosive, transgressive, and revolutionary scholarship on the subject is unlimited” (Sammons, 1994, p. 238). Engaging in discourse surrounding the scholarship of sport will help to identify additional experiences of Black people and provide future direction for scholarship that will, in turn, help the sport management field (Sammons, 1994). After all, sport allows for more exposure when it comes to diversity. Sports can be a mechanism to create more diversity opportunities for people to see and understand others in different ways. Bell and Hartmann (2007) explained, “the only clear, concrete explanations of the benefits of diversity we heard involved popular culture” (p. 900). Using the platform of sport can help scholars to more accurately and more loudly confirm or refute studies on discrimination in society. This is considering the fact that the history of Black sport, though a social construct and cultural phenomenon, has largely had political undertones and nuances (Harrison, 1998). Through this, the dimensions of culture must be fully investigated and elucidated while also ensuring the analysis of internal dynamics, as well as cultural styles (Sammons, 1994). However, America’s hypersensitivity to race often permeates into other social constructs and can create an interplay of the racial and social inequities that exist in society at large. More specifically, “sport history can make valuable and unique contributions to issues of domination and oppression by males in Black life and cultures because of the exaggerated chauvinism inherent in the sports world” (Sammons, 1994, p. 208).

Ferber (2007) analyzed the effect that inequality and color-blind racism can have on constructing Black male masculinity that promotes White male superiority and White superiority at large. The admiration of Black athletes allows White Americans to laud Black athletes and their talents without actually having further interaction with Black America, allowing them to continuously live under the color-blind ideology. However, as noted earlier, color-blind ideology dangerously mimics racism of the past that suppresses athletes not insomuch as their mental capacity (as sociologists tried to do in the past), but in their masculinity and as a sense of property (Hawkins, 1998a, 1998b). Assumptions about Black males have defined them as physical, aggressive, and naturally gifted without acknowledging their ability to hone their skills through hard work and discipline. Ferber (2007) explained:

Black men’s talent is often attributed to nature, whereas the accomplishments of White athletes are instead characterized as “fortitude, intelligence, moral character, strategic preparation, coachability, and good organization.” Thus, the success of Black men in sports is entirely consistent with White supremacist ideology. (p. 19)

The amount of racist imagery that one intakes almost daily, applicable to these notions, causes White Americans to naturalize racism and thus naturalize inequality (Ferber, 2007). One of the biggest cases supporting the mentioned notions of racism is that of O.J. Simpson.

Critical to the White American identity is the notion of the Black male as hypersexual, animalistic, and savage and their desire to tame the Black male body (Ferber, 2007; Hawkins, 1998a, 1998b). According to Sammons (1994), “O.J. as a prime suspect and as quasi-fugitive: ‘Simpson’s public image had taken on two of our most potent and perverse images of black manhood—the black beast and the emasculated, infantile black male” (p. 238). O.J.’s demise catapulted the mainstream view of Black masculinity to the forefront and confronted the age-old notions of Black stereotypes. The racial nature of the O.J. Simpson trial and O.J.’s inability to transcend race (though fervently attempted by O.J.) allows for a greater dissection of the racism and racial inequities present in not only American society, but American sports as well.

Methods

Design

A qualitative methodology was employed to better understand and more fully identify representations of Black Americans’ experiences within the specific context of the song and video, “The Story of O.J.” A content analysis was performed to examine “The Story of O.J.” lyrics and unearth recurrent words and themes (Patton, 2002). According to Patton (2002), content analysis aims to analyze text, make sense of the qualitative material, and identify core consistencies and meaning. CRT (Bell, 1992; Brown, 2003; Landson-Billings, 1998; Milner, 2007; Wing, 1997) provided a theoretical lens to examine and understand issues of race common to Black Americans. This particular song was selected because it was believed that the song elucidates the intersection of race, class, sports, and culture.

Data

The data that were used in this study consisted of lyrics from one song by hip-hop artist Jay-Z. While Jay-Z’s directory of music is numerous, this song was selected because the lyrics highlight the social realities of Black Americans and provide content that extends beyond music and into other domains, such as sport.

Analysis

Utilizing a coding technique, the data was deconstructed, conceptualized, and reconstructed (Flick, 2009). According to Flick (2009), theories are developed through the consistent evaluation and comparison of phenomena. When coding, Flick (2009) suggested that researchers approach the text with questions that answer what (issue or phenomenon mentioned), who (people involved and their roles) is doing what (intensions) and to whom, when (time, course), and where (location). Researchers should also ask why to uncover “which reasons are given or can be reconstructed” (Flick, 2009, p. 310). From this series of questions, the text will begin to unfold (Flick, 2009).

The song was coded in stages and started with one member of the research team reading the printed lyrics while listening to the song in its entirety to get an overview of the song. Second, the researcher listened to the song again and coded, using MAXQDA 2020 (VERBI Software, Berlin, Germany), each line to determine what common themes were being conveyed. During this process, the researcher began to answer the questions outlined by Flick (2009). For example, to answer to who is involved and communicating their thoughts was Jay-Z. When answering the when question, the song and video premiered in July of 2017. Other questions, such as why did Jay-Z record this song and whom was he speaking to, were revealed in the lyrics and through a secondary source in the Footnotes . . . The Story of O.J. commentary that was searched on YouTube. Jay-Z was speaking to the Black community to help them understand that their success as Black does not allow them to transcend racism. He also highlighted the importance of ownership for Black Americans and provided some examples to help them become financially independent. Moreover, Jay-Z shed light on the Black experience in America.

The what question (i.e., what is the major issue in Jay-Z’s song for Black Americans) was answered by the investigator by reading each line of the lyrics to determine common threads. This process is referred to as line-by-line coding (Glaser, 1978). Additionally, the process of open coding was used by the investigator to identify potential themes by extracting examples from the lyrics and frames from the video (Agar, 1996; Bernard, 1994; Flick, 2009). This procedure is often referred to as identifying raw themes. The raw data themes are quotes that capture a sentiment provided by the participant (singer; Marshall & Rossman, 1999). The third listen to the song by one of the investigators involved a memoing technique, which is utilized to record commonalities among codes or raw data themes (Ryan & Bernard, 2000). Of the three types of memos that Ryan and Bernard (2000) defined, code notes were the type the researcher utilized, as it affords the researcher the ability to “summarize his or her ideas about what is going on in the text” (Ryan & Bernard, p. 783).

From the code notes, three major themes were established, applied, and counted via the use of MAXQDA software, and associated with the music video frames after intercoder agreement among the researchers was reached: (a) battle with Blackness (perceptions of color), (b) economically enslaved and financial freedom, and (c) systematic subjugation. Figure 1 is a product of the process and provides examples of the data and coding structure. To decrease the subjectivity, another member of the research team evaluated the data and coding structure. Additionally, disagreement about the data was discussed until consensus was achieved. This process of peer review helped to add credibility to the study, as the data were analyzed by more than one researcher (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005).

Figure 1
Figure 1

—“The Story of O.J.” Codes.

Citation: Sociology of Sport Journal 37, 3; 10.1123/ssj.2020-0053

Findings

Based on the content analysis of “The Story of O.J.,” three major themes were identified. The results provided thick and rich narratives of Jay-Z’s perspective of what it is like to be Black in America. The themes will be discussed as follows: (a) battle with Blackness, (b) economically enslaved and financial freedom, and (c) systematic subjugation. The figures displayed below each theme will provide visual framed imagery from the “The Story of O.J.” video that corresponds with the lyrics of the song and each respective theme.

Battle With Blackness

As mentioned earlier in the introduction, Black Americans have struggled with their identity based on their experience in America (Dubois, 1903). It was evident from the content analysis of the song that skin pigmentation has been used as a rubric to determine value and social standing. The battle with Blackness was one of the most salient themes in this song. The opening clip introduces Nina Simone, from whom the musical sample for “The Story of O.J.” originates. The original song by Ms. Simone is titled “Four Women” and tells the story of four different Black women whose skin pigments seem to impact their mobility positively (lighter skin) or negatively (darker skin) in America. In the song, the words “skin is, skin, my skin is black, my skin is black, my skin is yellow” are repeated (Jay-Z, 2017). Further, the lyrics expose the effects of slavery that these women experience, as all the women have either Black, yellow, tan, or brown skin. The song also exposes the stereotypes plaguing Black men in America in the same way Nina Simone expresses. Additionally, an exaggerated caricature of a Black woman is shown as half naked, curvy, and entertaining men in a room at a Burlesque show. She is the stereotype of what Black women look like and how they act (hypersexual) juxtaposed to Nina Simone’s classy character in the next frame. The exaggerated caricature of a light complexion is seen as more beautiful to that of Nina Simone, who is fully clothed, has dark skin, and sings somberly and proudly of her “black skin.”

In Figure 2 (Frame 6), we are introduced to the first Black male caricature (Jaybo) who is holding a watermelon, a racist trope that became a big part of American culture in the late 1800s. After slaves were freed, Black Americans grew, ate, and sold watermelons, making the fruit a symbol of their freedom. As a response, American media began creating racist caricatures to dehumanize and insinuate that Black Americans were unclean, lazy, childish, and happy with their subservient life (Hawkins, 1998b). This clip goes back and forth with that of O.J. Simpson running the football, with the hook of the song repeating the lyrics “light brotha, dark brotha, faux brotha, real brotha, rich brotha, poor brotha, house brotha, field brotha, still brotha, still brotha” (Jay-Z, 2017). With these lyrics, Jay-Z conveyed that no matter how much fame you earn or your status, you are still seen as a stereotypical Black man.

Figure 2
Figure 2

—Battle with Blackness theme frames from “The Story of O.J.” video (Jay-Z, 2017).

Citation: Sociology of Sport Journal 37, 3; 10.1123/ssj.2020-0053

Figure 2 (Frames 7 and 8) introduce O.J. Simpson. He is seen running the football again and then shown in a press conference explaining that he is not Black, but O.J. This infamous sentiment made by O.J. Simpson in the video may suggest why he remained neutral on Black civil rights issues at the height of his stardom, distancing himself from his race. At a time when Black athletes such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar were using their platform to bring Black issues to the forefront, O.J. remained quiet and seemingly comfortable in his ability to transcend race.

The following frames (9–19) in Figure 2 continue to show O.J. Simpson running the ball, but display the light, dark, faux, real, rich, poor, house, and field brothas, respectively above the stadium. These comparisons (light vs. dark, faux vs. real, rich vs. poor, and house vs. field) are intraracial disparities used to separate Black Americans from their identity. If you are light, faux, rich, and a house brotha, you are considered superior and have a higher status. If you are a dark, real, poor, or a field brotha, you are considered inferior and have a lower status. These descriptors explain how social hierarchy is constructed for Black Americans and supports the literature (Cross, 1991; DuBois, 1903; Steele & Aronson, 1994; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996) regarding negative stereotypes and the Black struggle for identity. This social hierarchy strongly correlates to the challenges Black Americans experience to achieve and sustain economic mobility (Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter, 2018).

Economically Enslaved and Financial Freedom

Studies (Chetty et al., 2018; Kaushal & Nepomnyaschy, 2009; Thomas, Mann, & Meschede, 2018) regarding wealth disparities have shown significant gaps in the financial resources of Black and White families. According to Thomas et al. (2018), the wealth gap “is driven by several key factors: homeownership, education, employment, and inheritance” (p. 1079). Discriminatory practices are widely associated with these disparities and have served as a significant limitation to upward mobility for Black Americans.

Given these systematic issues and challenges that have left Black Americans economically disadvantaged, Jay-Z shared common financial mistakes through the caricature of Jaybo, in the hopes of educating the Black community not to repeat them, and offered suggestions on how to build wealth. He first described his acquisition of depreciating assets (cars) over appreciating ones (property). The lyrics state, “I bought every V-12 engine, I wish I could take it back to the beginning” (Jay-Z, 2017). In Figure 3 (Frame 25), Jaybo is seen is seen with a psychiatrist disclosing his discomfort of not buying property that would have increased in valuation. The lyrics read, “I could have bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo, for like two million, but that same building today is worth twenty-five million. Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo” (Jay-Z, 2017).

Figure 3
Figure 3

—Economically enslaved theme frames from “The Story of O.J.” video (Jay-Z, 2017).

Citation: Sociology of Sport Journal 37, 3; 10.1123/ssj.2020-0053

In Figure 3 (Frame 29), we see Jaybo at a strip club, dismayed at the culture. He explains that building credit is more important than throwing money away at strippers. These highlighted mistakes magnify negative financial behaviors that have the propensity to enslave Black Americans. However, in the same frame, Jay-Z offered insights on how to become financially free and encouraged the listeners to adopt perceived positive Jewish culture behavior in building credit and buying property.

In Figure 4 (Frame 30), Jaybo is seen walking on million-dollar bills and discourages “living rich and dying broke.” Popular culture often correlates the accumulation of high-cost items (e.g., fancy cars, clothes, sitting in VIP at the club) with being rich. In Frame 31, Jaybo makes the decision to purchase an appreciating item (art) to build wealth, a lesson presumably learned through his mistake in not buying property earlier in the song. He depicts a small Black child that is confused with this concept, but nonetheless is still acquiring knowledge of how to properly build wealth for himself. The lyrics read, “I bought some artwork for one million. Two years later that sh** worth two million, few years later that sh** worth eight million. I can’t wait to give this sh** to my children” (Jay-Z, 2017). Figure 4 (Frame 33) puts the song lyrics in perspective as it references slavery and the hope for a Black man to leave an inheritance to his children.

Figure 4
Figure 4

—Financial freedom theme frames from “The Story of O.J.” video (Jay-Z, 2017).

Citation: Sociology of Sport Journal 37, 3; 10.1123/ssj.2020-0053

Building on Frame 33 of Figure 4, Frame 34 of Figure 4 shows Jaybo’s intent to provide lessons to the listeners. The lyrics read, “Ya’ll think it’s bougie, I’m like it’s fine, but I’m trying to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for nine ninety-nine” (Jay-Z, 2017). Figure 3 (Frame 35) and Figure 4 (Frame 37) illustrate the mindset shift of Jaybo as he is seen unchained, walking through the bowels of a slave ship with Black caricatures in shackles surrounding him. As he walks up the steps, he is displayed owning the ship (saluted by White attendants) and discouraging behaviors such as “holding money to your ear” to signify you have wealth. In Figure 4 (Frames 43 and 44), Jaybo is shown flying as Dumbo over cotton fields and New York, handing out money to the masses. This signifies how financial freedom allows him to empower his community and overcome a system that has historically subjugated Black Americans to second-class citizenship through democratic and capitalistic inequity (Singer, 2005). Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how race and poverty perpetuate systematic subjugation (Chetty et al., 2018).

Systematic Subjugation

The final theme that emerged from the content analysis was systematic subjugation. As CRT posits, racism is an ordinary part of American society and is deeply rooted in the fabric of the nation (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). These roots of racism have created a social caste system placing Black Americans at a disadvantage, making it difficult for upward mobility. Mass incarceration, unemployment, and life expectancy rates are staggering and are considered tools that perpetuate a free labor system and lack of concern for Black lives. While Black men make up 7% of the general population, they make up over 40% of the U.S. prison population (Pager, 2007). Black Americans still have the highest unemployment rate in the United States (Wilson, 2018). Additionally, a mortality gap exists between Black Americans and White Americans, as Black Americans have higher death rates than White Americans (Mays et al., 2007). These issues, coupled with negative racial stereotypes (e.g., angry, danger to the community, menaces to society, unintelligent), are problematic and leave Black Americans with limited options for advancement.

Figure 5 (Frame 22) highlights the issue of unemployment, as Jaybo is seen on the corner, depicting a drug dealer. He lists several subservient employment options for Black Americans throughout history in the verse. The lyrics read, “I’m a field brotha with shined cutlery, gold-plated quarters where the butlers be, imma play the corners, where the hustlers be” (Jay-Z, 2017). Arguably, the roles mentioned are reserved for the disenfranchised.

Figure 5
Figure 5

—Systematic subjugation theme frames from “The Story of O.J.” video (Jay-Z, 2017).

Citation: Sociology of Sport Journal 37, 3; 10.1123/ssj.2020-0053

In Figure 5 (Frame 23), Black angels are displayed ascending to heaven with gunshot wounds. This is notating crime and violence in Black communities and the high death rates. Additionally, Jay-Z spoke to gang violence and turf wars, where Black Americans pledge allegiance to a neighborhood that they do not own, reinforcing the dearth of opportunities to achieve the American dream. He stated, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood that your momma rentin’. Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood, that’s how you rinse it” (Jay-Z, 2017).

Figure 5 (Frame 24) provides imagery of the stereotypical Black woman who serves as “Mammy,” which is a form of a maid and nurse for White children. She is larger in size, has full lips, and appears to be happy with the conditions. This image was first described in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Figure 5 (Frames 39, 40, and 27) shows Africans making their first journey to America in shackles, being sold as families to slave masters, and picking cotton fields. This can be associated with mass incarceration and exploitation. The animation displays the fate of the Black family: trembling in fear, sad, and subjected to slavery. The last two clips, Frames 41 and 17, respectively, display a public lynching and Jaybo sitting in the “colored section” on a bus. These clips show the lack of concern for Black lives and legislation (separate but equal) that maintains the status quo, leaving Black Americans vulnerable to the system that does not recognize their humanity.

Discussion

As mentioned earlier, the present study examined the representations of Black Americans’ experiences in the United States through a content analysis of the song and music video, titled “The Story of O.J.,” by hip-hop artist Jay-Z to gain a better understanding of how Jay-Z interpreted the impact of Black Americans’ lived experiences in the United States, on their identity and their ability to progress, economically and socially, regardless of social standing. Findings from the content analysis revealed that Black Americans are still challenged by a racially discriminate system that recognizes them as second-class citizens despite their status.

The first section will apply the theoretical framework to analyze the data. The second section will discuss the limitations of the study. Lastly, the final section will conclude with implications for stakeholders.

Theoretical Analysis

The CRT recognizes continuing political and financial disparities based on race. CRT challenges status quo ideologies of different forms of racism in America that manifest themselves through people and social institutions (Bell, 1992; Donnor, 2005; Milner, 2007). The three major tenets of CRT are as follows: (a) Racism is an ordinary part of American society and deeply rooted in the culture; (b) A culture develops its own narrative to accommodate its own self-interest; and (c) White elites will encourage the advancement of minorities as long as it promotes their self-interest (Bell, 1992; Harrison & Lawrence, 2003; Landson-Billings, 1998; Singer, 2005; Tate, 1997; Wing, 1997).

The utilization of CRT in the evaluation of this study provided an important lens to view race. The emergence of the battle with Blackness theme is consistent with previous research (Cross, 1991; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996; Neville et al., 2015; Steele & Aronson, 1994) and highlights the struggles Black Americans still face to overcome negative stereotypes. The lyrics used in “The Story of O.J.” discuss skin pigmentation of Black Americans and how skin complexion can create social hierarchies inside and outside the culture. The song also reinforces Dubois’s (1903) dual consciousness ideology in the lyrics, as one of the main characters (O.J. Simpson) renounces his Blackness to remain socially accepted despite his status as a star athlete. Sports are a microcosm of American society, but often times have the propensity to create color blindness not only for the consumers, but actors as well (Dominquez, 2018). Juxtaposed to O.J. Simpson’s neutral position on civil rights issues, when star athletes, such as Tommie Smith (Olympian), John Carlos (Olympian), Muhammed Ali (former Boxer), and Colin Kaeapernick (former NFL football player) embrace their Blackness to protest inequality, their actions are met with negative consequences that fragment their social standing (Hawkins, 1998a). The video also provides exaggerated animated caricatures that represent negative stereotypes that display Black Americans as unintelligent, hypersexual, subservient, brutish, and childish (Hawkins, 1998b). In sports, these negative stereotypes are compounded for Black athletes, who also have to overcome the categorizations as “dumb jocks” and “not serious about their education” (Melendez, 2008). Further, the song repeatedly informs the listener that, no matter the social status of Black Americans, great or small, their social order has been stratified and predetermined by a racially discriminatory system since the African diaspora. These lyrical and visual expressions shared by Jay-Z indicate that racism is perceived as widespread and ordinary in American culture. This finding is consistent with CRT’s first tenet.

Economic enslavement and financial freedom were also important issues that emerged. Jay-Z’s lyrics support the literature (Cooper, 2012; Chetty et al., 2018; Kaushal & Nepomyashy, 2009; Thomas et al., 2018) discussing the significant gaps in wealth, income, and unemployment, and a system of exploitation. These financial disparities are also relevant when examining sports culture and racial discrimination. Research (Clopton, 2011; Cooper, 2012; Singer, 2009) related to this issue has emphasized the overrepresentation of Black athletes in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball at the collegiate level and a dearth of Black Americans in upper management positions (i.e., president, head coaches, director of athletics, commissioner; Beamon, 2008; Donnor, 2005; Harrison & Lawrence, 2003; Kennedy & Dimick, 1987; Lapchick, 2018). This is problematic for Black student-athletes, as positive role models are absent. Having Black representation in leadership roles may encourage athletes to pursue careers in sports administration. Furthermore, economic values are associated with respective job titles and functions. The lack of Black Americans in these decision-making roles reinforces the gap in wealth and earnings in American society between Black Americans and White Americans. Additionally, critics (Beamon, 2008; Branch, 2011; Cooper, 2012, 2019; Donnor, 2005; Huma & Staurowsky, 2012) also assert that student-athletes are a labor force who do not benefit equally financially for their contributions to institutions and sports at large. The revenue-generation sports of football and basketball, heavily composed of Black student-athletes, underwrite the nonrevenue men’s and women’s sports (tennis, golf, crew, soccer, volleyball, and softball) made up of mostly middle- and upper-class White athletes (Donnor, 2005).

While discrimination and exploitation have played a role in hindering most Black Americans from achieving equal economic mobility, the song offers financial advice to overcome the systemic oppression. Jay-Z told stories of his financial mistakes through the purchase of depreciating assets and lack of awareness to acquire appreciating ones. He also evaluated these past decisions, took responsibility, and adjusted his way of thinking to elevate himself and his family. The lyrics discuss the importance of financial literacy and not wasting financial resources on revelries. Jay-Z also spoke to the importance of building credit and of purchasing appreciating assets, such as property and art. Further, he encouraged Black Americans to be owners of businesses and benevolent to the Black community to overcome the established system of subjugation. The inequities articulated by Jay-Z’s lyrics and visual imagery regarding economics and methods of control by members of the dominant culture support CRT’s third tenet, which asserts that Black athletes have been afforded access to sports as labor to reinforce the self-interest of White elites.

The final theme that emerged from the content analysis was systematic subjugation. The lyrics and imagery from the video depict the roots of slavery and the stereotypes that reinforce the once prescribed colonial placement of Black Americans. These descriptions parallel the literature (Hawkins, 1998a, 1998b). Throughout the video, Black Americans are animated as slaves arriving to the United States in shackles and are shown picking cotton. Jay-Z rapped about the various subservient options for Black Americans throughout the song. Arguably, the imagery and lyrics in the video represent racial imbalances that specify the placement of Black Americans in America as a labor force, signifying exploitation. Black Americans are also shown being sold as property on auction blocks, as maids, and as drug dealers working the street corners. Further, the video animates a lynching, the death of Black men, and policies (separate but equal) that demonstrate a lack of concern for Black lives. Throughout the song and video, the lyrical hook reminds the listeners of the historical constructs of racial discrimination and how cultural differences were established to keep Black Americans marginalized.

As mentioned above, the role of an athlete as only a laborer and entertainer is problematic and socializes Black athletes to the athletic role (Edwards, 2000). Additionally, these categorizations and narratives undervalue Black Americans who are successful in other fields of human endeavor and discourage athletes from visualizing themselves in other competences (Harrison, 1998). Fortunately, hip-hop artists like Jay-Z are inspiring athletes to use their influence to counter the narratives about the Black experience and roles that have traditionally been communicated by the dominant group. Lebron James is a great example of an iconic athlete who defies the stereotype and has created a platform, uninterrupted, where athletes and other entertainers are encouraged to speak their truth. Additionally, the “more than an athlete” movement pushes back against the status quo ideology of being an athlete only and encourages athletes to communicate other capacities (e.g., business man, philanthropist, father, friend, educator) that they serve in and empowers athletes to utilize their voice, resources, and influence to make a difference in their communities (Rhoden, 2006). The data presented from Jay-Z’s lyrics support the second tenet of CRT, where society has created a narrative to justify the marginalization of Black Americans. However, Jay-Z’s courage to present a hip-hop song and video, such as “The Story of O.J.,” provides a unique perspective and counteracts the racial position of subordination and domination (Singer, 2005).

Limitations

While this study fills in gaps in the race and hip-hop literature and achieved some compelling results, there were also some limitations. One limitation was that the “Story of O.J.” was the only song examined. Evaluating more hip-hop artists’ songs would have yielded more data and provided more narratives regarding Black experiences in America. Another limitation was the lack of gender representation. Given the nature of the song and references to the male athletic figure of O.J. Simpson, this study focused more on the Black male experience and did not include the Black female student-athlete perspective as often. Black female student-athletes are not exempt from facing challenges associated with race, sport, and social standing. Another limitation was the lack of diversity in the genre of music. Only studying hip-hop music excluded the views of other ethnic groups, as well as Black Americans who might have had similar or different experiences. The final limitation was bias. There was a heavy reliance on the principal investigator for analysis and interpretation of the data collected.

Future research should continue to utilize content analysis, CRT, and other hip-hop artists to examine sports, higher education, and other social experiences of ethnic groups. Other studies could examine the impact of hip-hop music on female and White athletes. Additionally, studying female hip-hop artists’ perspectives on Black females and athletes may shed more light on their experiences. These research approaches could influence policies and support resources for athletes and students in higher education.

Implications

The findings from this study have some practical implications for stakeholders. Using components of CRT to analyze Jay-Z’s perceptions of the Black experience, themes emerged that highlighted the battle with Blackness, economic enslavement and financial freedom, and systemic subjugation. The character of O.J. Simpson is unique and important in this assessment, as it reinforces the notion that sports are a microcosm of the American society. Given the rhetoric regarding sports and the influence they have on popular culture and society, recommendations are provided for Black athletes and hip-hop artists to use their platforms to educate consumers about society’s shortcomings and their mistakes and to offer remedies to overcome adversities and lack of understanding (Beamon, 2008).

Athletes

For Black athletes who compete at every level, education is essential. While earning a degree is beneficial, understanding the history of racism and the impact it could have on them socially and economically is important. A study by Rudman (1986) found that most Black males who participate in college sports feel that sports will support their quest of becoming a professional athlete and help them avoid discrimination. However, athletes need to understand that society’s acceptance of them as athletes is somewhat conditional and does not exempt them from the inequalities that Jay-Z outlined in his lyrics. When the cheering stops after games, spectators return to their homes, and the status quo living arrangements that reinforce the systemic norms of racism persist (Dominquez, 2018). Athletes have to be more cognizant of this and understand that their futures are determined in the present. In essence, what they do now determines their future. They must understand that achieving professional sports playing careers are not guaranteed, as fewer than 2% make it to the major professional ranks (NFL and National Basketball Association) in football and basketball (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2019). Additionally, they must fully grasp the data and literature (Singer, 2005) surrounding the lack of leadership opportunities for Black Americans to work in sports or any other sector after their careers are exhausted. The research by Lapchick (2018), mentioned earlier, highlighted that White Americans made up 84.3%, 90%, and 92.7% of the athletics director positions in Division I, II, and III and 86.2%, 87.4%, and 91.4% of all head coaching positions in Divisions I, II, and III in 2017–2018, respectively. This awareness is vital and should make athletes think about ways to change this paradigm, other than education.

Building on education, Black athletes should seek out mentors and advocates. Studies by Donnor (2005) and Martin, Harrison, and Bukstein (2010) found that positive interactions with parents and faculty had a positive impact on the quality of life of student-athletes. It is imperative that athletes seek counsel to achieve success and avoid potential pitfalls in many aspects of their lives. They should also connect with other athletes who have walked in their shoes. These current and former players could help athletes achieve their goals on and off the field by connecting them with meaningful resources (e.g., financial, marketing, lifestyle) and networks (social capital) and provide them with sound guidance. Athletes should also encourage their parents to get involved and share information with younger athletes’ parents about the probability of playing sports beyond high school, the process of recruitment, how to build healthy relationships with campus personnel, utilizing campus resources, selecting an agent, turning professional, and the transition after sports. Having a healthy network of trusted friends, colleagues, and advisors would help athletes advance socially and economically.

Another way to shift this paradigm of inequality is for athletes to present a united front. In November of 2015, Black athletes on the football team at the University of Missouri understood their influence and power. The team provided a blueprint for Black athletes to collectively influence their current and future opportunities for upward mobility by standing in solidarity with the Concerned Student 1950 group and student Jonathan Butler. The Black football players at Missouri ceased all football-related activities until Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike and certain demands were met that created a better environment for Black students on the Missouri campus. If Black athletes of today do not disrupt the current social and economic model collectively, exploitation will continue and their desire to be whole, socially and economically, will be limited. According to Singer (2009), athletes see themselves as laborers and are aware of the system that does not compensate them fairly. Respectfully demanding more jobs for Black administrators, coaches, and faculty would aid Black students and athletes in their development now and hopefully create more opportunities for them to occupy professional positions later. This would also make predominately White campuses more hospitable and welcoming and hopefully reduce the level of mistrust Black students have who attend predominately White campuses (Melendez, 2008). Like Jay-Z, if Black athletes were to use their influence to speak up and act collectively within the popular culture of sports, positive outcomes would abound.

Hip-hop artists

Without a doubt, hip-hop entertainers have influence and access to multitudes of listeners. These listeners are not just Black, but mainstream consumers around the world. We see the cross-pollination of music and sports, as multiple performances have been given by the likes of Nelly, Puff Daddy, Missy Elliot, Nicki Manaj, J. Cole, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and others at the NFL Super Bowl and National Basketball Association All-Star game halftime shows (McLeod, 2009). Not to mention, during pregame warm-ups, timeouts, and other breaks in competition, hip-hop music is played, heard, and enjoyed by the fans in these sports venues.

While hip-hop is a source of entertainment, it is also a medium of education for the masses (Bridges, 2011; Rashid, 2016). Hip-hop artists must continue to use their platform to serve as role models and educators like athletes (Donnor, 2005; Dyson, 2019). However, what gives hip-hop artists an advantage to impact society more so than athletes is the liberty they have to communicate messages in their music that athletes wish they could (Dyson, 2019). Given this freedom, Black hip-hop artists must continue to speak for those on the margins of society unapologetically. They must tell the truth about their lived experiences and the stress that comes along with being Black in America. They must share their tragedies and triumphs of being in the entertainment industry. Additionally, hip-hop artists should continue their learning about the history of racism, capitalism, money, and politics. Once they learn the system, they need to share the knowledge gained, like Jay-Z did in the “Story of O.J.,” as he stated, “Ya’ll think it’s bougie, I’m like it’s fine, but I’m trying to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for nine ninety-nine” (Jay-Z, 2017). This sentiment expressed in Jay-Z’s song should underscore the hip-hop artists’ desire to empower others through lyrical expression and provide tools for listeners to overcome their hardships and advance to achieve the American dream.

Further, new songs could be written to provide more in-depth instructions about how to build credit, start a business, and buy a home. Hip-hop artists could also leverage technology to create interactive videos that lead viewers to tangible resources that provide continuing education on these topics for viewers to explore. Lastly, hip-hop artists should serve as mentors to up-and-coming hip-hop artists and their families. Like sports, the entertainment industry is competitive, and competition for fans and consumers can be fierce. However, hip-hop artists should display mutual respect for one another and choose wisdom over consumers, as wisdom can provide protection and access to more opportunity beyond albums. As the Ecclesiastical passage notes, “Wisdom is as good as an inheritance and an advantage to those who see the sun, because wisdom is protection as money is protection, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of its owner” (Ecclesiastes 7:11–12, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Athletes and hip-hop artists have a great opportunity to continue to shape American culture in a positive way. While both have shared in the hardships of overcoming adversity, they are also a beacon of life and hope for Black Americans and America at large. Utilizing their intellect, natural talents, discipline, and hard work, athletes and hip-hop artists can use their platforms to offer solutions to a system of racism that has negatively impacted Black lives and America for centuries.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this content analysis presented findings related to Jay-Z’s perspective of Black Americans’ lived experience in the United States. This analysis has enhanced the overall understanding of the Black experience and their ongoing struggle for equality and singular identity. While there is a large volume of research documenting the concerns of Black Americans, little research has presented the experience and perceptions of Black Americans through music.

The lyrics from the song as well as the animation are highly consistent with existing research. This analysis adds to the greater understanding of the issues of race, racism, and identity by providing various levels of depth through hip-hop music and sport. The lyrical and visual data expressions indicate a deeply rooted, widespread, and persistent culture of racism in American society and, more specifically, within subcultures such as sport, which has had profound meaning and impact on the lives of Black Americans. The color-blind view of sports often obscures perspectives, not allowing viewers to see the intersection with society, functioning in deceptive ways, and magnifying the already existing practices of marginalization and exclusion (Dominquez, 2018). Jay-Z expresses this culture in negative terms. This research provides a lyrical expression of the norms, values, and beliefs that saturate the American culture. Based on the lyrical and visual data, it is evident that unending difficulties brought about by racial discrimination, Black identity, exploitation, economic stagnation, and subjugation are endemic within systemic policies and other institutions. Until these issues are addressed, most Black Americans will continue to share the same sentiment as LeBron James, a Black professional basketball superstar athlete, businessman, and arguably the best basketball player of all time, who responded to a racial vandalism incident, in 2017, at the height of his illustrious professional playing career:

No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is—it’s tough. And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America. (Cacciola & Bromwich, 2017)

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If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Northcutt is with the DeVos Sport Business Management, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA. Henderson is with the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, WA, USA. Chicoski is with the College of Business Administration, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA.

Northcutt (jamilnorthcutt@gmail.com) is corresponding author.
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bell, D. (1992). Race, racism, and American law. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Benedict, R. (2000). Race: What it is not. In L. Back & J. Solomos (Eds.), Theories of race and racism (pp. 113118). New York, NY: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Bonilla-Silva, E. (2012). The invisible weight of whiteness: The racial grammar of everyday life in contemporary America. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(2), 173194.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Brown, T.N. (2003). Critical race theory speaks to the sociology of mental health: Mental health problems produced by racial stratification. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44(3), 292301. PubMed ID: 14582309 doi:10.2307/1519780

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Jones, M.R., & Porter, S.R. (2018). Race and economic opportunity in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/race_summary.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clopton, A. (2011). Using identities to explore social capital differences among white and African American student-athletes. Journal of African American Men, 15(1), 58

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, A., & Ballouli, K. (2018). Exploring the cultural intersection of music, sport and physical activity among at-risk youth. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 53(3), 350370. doi:10.1177/1012690216654295

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, J.N. (2012). Personal troubles and public issues: A sociological imagination of Black athletes’ experiences at predominately White institutions in the United States. Sociology Mind, 2(3), 261271. doi:10.4236/sm.2012.23035

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cooper, J.N. (2019). From exploitation back to empowerment: Black male holistic (under) development through sport and (mis) education. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cox, O.C. (2000). Race relations: Its meaning, beginning, and progress. In L. Back & J. Solomos (Eds.), Theories of race and racism (pp. 7178). New York, NY: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cross, Jr., W.E. (1991), Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

  • Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y.S. (2005). Handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  • Dominquez, M. (2018). Race, affect, and running: A decolonial reflection on school athletics. In I.P. Renga & C. Benedetti (Eds.), Sports and k-12 education (pp. 101116). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Donnor, J.K. (2005). Towards an interest-convergence in the education of African American football student-athletes in major college sports. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 4567. doi:10.1080/1361332052000340999

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DuBois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of black folk. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg and Co.

  • Dyson, M.E. (2019). Jay-Z: Made in America. New York, NY: St. Martins Press.

  • Edelman, E. (Director) (2016). O.J.: Made in America. [Film]. ESPN Films.

  • Edwards, H. (2000). Crisis of Black athletes on the eve of the 21st century. Society, 37(3), 913. doi:10.1007/BF02686167

  • Ferber, A.L. (2007). The construction of Black masculinity: White supremacy now and then. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 31(1), 1124. doi:10.1177/0193723506296829

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. London, UK: Sage.

  • Glaser, B.G. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

  • Harrison, C.K. (1998). Themes that thread through society: Racism and athletic manifestation in the African American community. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 1(1), 6374. doi:10.1080/1361332980010105

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harrison, C.K., & Lawrence, S.M. (2003). African American student-athletes’ perceptions of career transition in sport: A qualitative and visual elicitation. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 6(4), 373394. doi:10.1080/1361332032000146384

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hawkins, B. (1998a). The dominant images of Black men in America: The representation of O.J. Simpson. In G. Sailes (Ed.), African Americans in sport (pp. 3952). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hawkins, B. (1998b). The White supremacy continuum of images for Black men. Journal of African American Studies, 3(3), 718. doi:10.1007/BF02902935

  • Hawkins, B.J., Carter-Francique, A.R., Cooper, J.N. (2017). Black athletic sporting experiences in the United States: Critical race theory. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Helms, J.E. (1994). The conceptualization of racial identity and other “racial” constructs. In E.J. Trickett, R.J. Watts, & D. Birman (Eds.), Human diversity: Perspectives on people in context (pp. 285311). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Howard, G. (2016, June 17). “Why ‘Transcending Race’ is a Lie.” The New York Times.

  • Huma, R., & Staurowsky, E.J. (2012). The $6 billion heist: Robbing college athletes under the guise of amateurism. A report collaboratively produced by the National College Players Association and Drexel University Sport Management. Retrieved from https://www.ncpanow.org/studies-and-revenue/study-the-6-billion-heist-robbing-college-athletes-under-the-guise-of-amateurism

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Jay-Z. (2017, July 5). JAY-Z – The Story of O.J. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM7lw0Ovzq0

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