The 4:44 Effect
Jay-Z, The Footnotes, and Performative Vulnerability
When 4:44 dropped at midnight on June 30th, the buzz was immediate surrounding. Particularly, the attention focused on Jay-Z’s admission of cheating on Beyonce. The reactions were shock, awe, and the inevitable “duh, she JUST released Lemonade.” It was a late night talking-point
And then the details came out. In 4:44 (the track)itself reveals the cause of Beyonce’s rumored miscarriages: His repeated infidelity. A man who could have been a father of four, five, or six children vicariously killed them because he did not care enough about their mother. So while 4:44 is supposed to read like a grandiose apology and a commitment to do better, it ended up reading like far too little far too late. But there was something way more sinister between the lines that I did not quite have words for when I first read the lyrics. Intuitively, I picked up on the abusive patterns in both his past actions and current apology. It deeply disturbed me, and I remember posting “this is some Beauty and the Beast Stockholm shit”. And it was. But that was just the start of why the 4:44 is so dangerous.
Red Flags on 4:44
The gender (and to some degree, sexuality) divide of the reactions was the red flag. I saw men joke about how if Beyonce could get cheated on, NO black woman can or should reasonably expect a black boyfriend/fiance/husband. I also saw the more, “woke” black men praise Jay for his candor and honesty. BOTH were, and are, red flags. Meanwhile women (and LGBTQ folks of all genders, to some degree) immediately identified with the deep pain of Beyonce’s trauma. I think that the viscerality of their reactions stemmed from the speculation becoming concrete. Beyonce wasn’t just speaking about her mother’s pain or empathically channeling the generational pain of black women, she was drawing from personal trauma. This trauma, in all its variations, black women know all too well. Suddenly listening to her music was painful, because her pain was real. For me, and even more so for black women, that’s what hit the hardest. (Since the release of 4:44, I haven’t been able to listen to Beyonce’s music) Now knowing what she was/is dealing with added a crushing gravity to each song. She was speaking from personal painful experience. And many men glossed right over that.
The second was the line about finally feeling shame for his actions because of his daughter, Blue Ivy. I spoken before about why statements like these are not endearing, but rather a wrinkle in the cycle of a abuse. He only began to care when he had a girl whom he could consider property from birth, and the thought of someone abusing his property made him realize that his wife was also valuable property to be handled with care. Jay doesn’t seem to realize that he still frames and addresses his wife and daughter like objects or pets, gaining renewed humanity while sapping theirs. The problem, therein, is that most cishet (cisgender heterosexual) black men don’t see that either, even those who claim to be allies to black women and black LGBTQ folks.
The third was the context of it. It is public knowledge that Jay-Z is nearly twelve years older than Beyonce. An age difference that played directly into his ability to use her. Yet he blames his supposed immaturity for his actions, and her maturity for the survival of their marriage. Statements like these are textbook pedophilic grooming tactics that adult black men use to prey on black teenage girls. It is alarmingly common. This phenomenon is not exclusive to black men, but it is also not exclusive of black men. Jay and Beyonce began publicly dating when she was about 21, putting Jay at nearly 33. The age difference also creates a really dark and sinister picture about continued grooming, exploitation, manipulation. And as evidenced by her miscarriages, emotional abuse is just as serious (and is often the foundation of) physical or sexual abuse. The lyrics even suggest Jay-Z utilizing common abuse tactics (crying when she wants to leave, repeated promises to change, etc), It’s not just the infidelity, it’s abuse of power that a woman has been victim to her entire adult life.
Even so, the buzz died down after a few days. People casually debated the truth of Jay’s words, citing the Knowles-Carter couple’s mastery of viral and provocative content. Other dismissed the reactions of other. “Even if it was true, the whole last half of lemonade was about forgiveness. Beyonce forgave him; move on like they did.” And many people did. I tried to push it to the back of my mind, but it kept nagging at me. The word “barbershop” came to mind, but I honestly did not realize how apt it was until Footnotes.
The Curse of the Footnotes
I heard about the Footnotes on accident, when Jesse Williams went on a rant against those who questioned the reason for his divorce. I found it ironic, that he would do so on an album where the titular track contains a man admitting to infidelity. His credibility with black women had been shot since his public support of Birth of a Nation, so his tirade drew little sympathy. But I was curious as to why Jesse would use his platform on Jay-Z’s album to talk about that rather than his standard entry-level sociology. Then people began posting the other videos and I got an immediate, but familiar pit in my stomach. I’m realizing now that this was the same way I felt when I read the transcript for Nate Parker’s BET interview. The videos were all of men who, at face value, appeared to be talking about growing up as a black man. But again, something didn’t feel right. It seemed somehow insincere or incomplete or shallow. But re-positioned in relation to “4:44” it hit me: Every bit of this supposed vulnerability was performative; a collective exercise in gaslighting. And it set a dangerous precedent for cishet black men who live in our homes and communities.
To be clear: I am fully in support of black men being emotionally available and aware. While that is what Footnotes claims it is, and what the men involved probably think it is, that is not the case. Rather Footnotes features black men profiting from the exploitation and pain of black women, and benefitting from the very same “vulnerability” that they beat or degraded queer black men (and LGBTQ black men) for showing. They reaped the benefits of learning from pain that not only is not theirs, but pain that they actively caused. Pain that, in the process of creating this thinly veiled self-aggrandizement, they are continuing currently. When you understand that, the entire premise falls flat. I would go so far as to say is subtle manipulation tactics, both toward the people these men have harmed personally and toward black women in general. Let me give an example.
On 4:44, Jay talks about the many ways he hurt Beyonce, and says that now he realizes what he has done he will be a better man. Face value fiction. Both financially and emotionally he built his growth on her back. He watered his crops with her tears. And know that he is reaped all those benefits, he found a new way to exploit her pain for what appears to be emotional maturity. He said she grew up faster, but fails to realize that he forced her to. And now with his very public and sensationalist apology, he is promising to stop using her while still in the process of using her. What Jay has done is put Beyonce on the spot. She has publicly forgiven him, sure. But if she hadn’t she would not be considered cold and heartless in the face of a black man finally emoting and feeling. It’s less apology and more power play. The onus is on her positively reinforce his behavior like he is small child, or she risks looking like the abuser. Public manipulation 101: The abuse of a platform to both manipulate public perception and the victim
The men in Footnotes wield similar public manipulation tactics. What looks like an open learning experience for black men ends up serving as a workshop in new abusive maneuvers, all while serving each other’s alibis and witnesses to “still learning.” These men who seem to be baring their souls, are more similar to a bully whining about how hard an exam is while making someone else do all of his homework. Of course you’re unprepared, you never did the work! And yet, they still expect more emotional labor to be done for them. Several of the men take jabs at the women who didn’t stick around until they finally figured it out. Almost as if they’re offended that someone who probably waited out their abuse did not wait longer. They claim to have learned but drop constant hints that no they have not.
Footnotes also serves the general conflation of emotional intelligence with empathy. The two are not the same. Understanding someone’s emotions or knowing the context of that emotion is not the same as empathy, ie the ability to feel what that person feels or would feel. Emotionally intelligent (self-proclaimed or broadly assumed) black men were impressed by 4:44 and Footnotes, but no legitimately empathetic people (usually black women) either at face value. Abusive men can wield emotional intelligence like a weapon to target and manipulate others, but they cannot feel empathy for their victims. Entry-level emotional intelligence actually makes these men more dangerous.
I stated earlier that 4:44 felt like a Barbershop to me, and Footnotes crystallized that for me. I mean that the album creates a safe space for cishet black men to grow and learn and vent. But it is also a place where questionable wisdom (black capitalism, casual antisemitism, male-centered high school level discussion of racism, etc.) is imparted by these supposedly seasoned men. It is frustrating because they reproduce the exact same toxic structures with a new coat of Vulnerability Varnish, and no one actually learns anything. It’s pseudo-empathetic, pseudo-intellectual mutual masturbation, in a space which ironically excludes queer black men.
None of this is deliberately malicious, but the general lack of actual self-awareness among black men is on full display here. Many of these video feel like watching children discover things, and excitedly tell them to you. But these men are not children, and their arrested development should not be rewarded. This is especially true because these revelations came as someone else’s expense. Jay-Z talks about finally growing up at 47, while his child bride had to grow up when he started eyeing her at sixteen. Jay-Z and these men only seem to grasp that pain was caused, and not that pain is continuing and far deeper they are apparently capable of understanding. The black community is perpetually required to respect black men like adults, while coddling them like children. And much like children, they believe any work done for/around/them is the same as work done by them. Black women and LGBTQ black are tasked with maintaining this facade because both individually and collectively, the black male temper tantrum is deadly. The only reason 4:44 and the Footnotes are being celebrated as they are is because the bar for cishet black men is so incredibly low. That celebration, in and of itself, is dangerous. It enables what I call The 4:44 Effect
The 4:44 Effect
As more videos surfaced online, the response was overall positive with black men from all walks of life began to praise it. Even supposedly empathetic famous black men like Trevante Rhodes were cheering on the Footnotes. When a guy whose breakout role was in a film about empathy misses the point so clumsily, I knew there was problem. Poison had been presented as medicine, and black men were buying in bulk. That is to say, 4:44 allowed black man a new way to reassert their station in the black community, while still claiming to care about black women. Vulnerability could be worn as a mask, but without the danger that comes with actually being vulnerable. Emotional intelligence and personal growth could be used as a club to beat down anyone who pushed back against a black man who was “trying to learn.” A new tool to manipulate more endangered black people into refocusing their attention on “building up the black” to the detriment to their own lives and selves. And all this, while still claiming the blood and tears of their victims on their own.
For cishet black men 4:44 was a Godsend. For the rest of the black population, however, 4:44 a curse. Almost immediately, a man who presented himself as feminist and activist posted a tweet thread about the pain and restrictions black men experience growing up, and how black women needed to be patient with black men who are still learning. When multiple black women responded that black women grow up under the same conditions with equal or greater constraints on emotional display, he gaslit and dismissed them. This is exactly what I feared. This is The 4:44 Effect in action, cishet black men sobbing about the emotional/empathic growing pains while expecting grace that was never afforded to black women. All the while, these same black men continue to “learn” by harming and discarding black women. They continue to learn by ostracizing queer black men, but then want easy access to the emotional spaces queer black men were beaten for entering. Cishet black men want the applause for finally gaining emotional depth that the rest of the black community had to develop as children for our safety and their comfort. The 4:44 Effect, I fear, will be particularly toxic in spaces once considered safe for black women. Cishet black male allies can can now dodge accountability under the guise of “still learning”. They can berate black women for not being impressed or wooed by their juvenile grasp on emotional intelligence. They can berate queer black people for not graciously allowing their casual queerantagonism because that’s “how I was raised.” The bar wasn’t raised, it was just repainted. Jay-Z and the other men in the Footnotes, in all their blissful enlightened ignorance, don’t realize the pandora’s box they’ve opened on the people they claim to now care about.
The celebration of 4:44 speaks to the centuries-long abusive relationship that cishet black men have had with the rest of the black community. An epoch of unreciprocated support for black men, who expect praise for returning the bare minimum. When black women and LGBTQ black people say “cishet black men are the white people of black people.” it is met with derision, indignance, and even outrage. But the statement serves two purposes. One is an appeal to the limited empathy of cishet black men. And yes, it is severely limited, as made evident by the Footnotes. It is an attempt to frame the argument in such a way that cishet black men understand that their treatment of other black people mirrors the way white people treat them. In theory, it is a useful tool to allow black men to understand the depth of the violence and abuse (physical, financial, mental, sexual, emotional) done to black women and black LGBTQ people. The only problem is, like white people, cishet black men view themselves as “neutral”, with every other gender or sexuality being a deviant.
Which bring me to the next purposes: it help illustrate the ways in which black men are the standard bearers of white supremacy in our communities. The frame helps us understand that more often than not, black men’s main contention with white supremacy is lack of access to power because blackness is the only barrier. The concern is with having the spoils, rather than liberation from oppressive structures. This is why cishet black men so readily replicate white supremacist notions of proper gender and sexuality roles and expression. Cishet black men want both freedom from harm AND the freedom to do harm. Because that is the white supremacist model of power, which affects both the systemic and microcosmic social spheres. While white people are the overarching abuser, most direct action abuse of intersectionally oppressed black people iis at the hands of black men.
With both the basic album and the Footnotes, 4:44 added fuel to that raging fire of black male entitlement. Despite his provocative Story of O.J. video, Jay-Z and all the men has inspired and will still imitate white supremacy. Namely, they imitate the position of white allies. Those who seemingly give up their power to stand with the downtrodden are praised for their sacrifice. But as many black women and black queer people will say, the support of allies is almost always conditional. Like the bellyaching in the Footnotes, white allies put the onus on the oppressed to constantly reassure and prove to them that they deserve to be there.
While white supremacy is an influence, I do not want to absolve black men of responsibility. Abuse and oppression are not only parallel structures, they are the same structure. Understanding cishet black men as direct-action oppressors makes it a bit easier to understand why I see 4:44 as an enablement of black male entitlement and abuse. Praising our oppressors for the bare minimum only serves to prolong that oppression, and introduce new or repackaged violences into our lives.
Breaking the Curse
To conclude, 4:44 was presented as a response or complement to Lemonade, a labor of love even. But calling it that is more of a testament of the low standards we set to make cishet black men feel powerful and necessary. It’s production value and quality may be objectively sound, but the overall message unravels the painstaking tapestry woven in the work of Lemonade. While Lemonade is not perfect but is about a woman drawing from her own pain, while 4:44 redirects the focus to “but what about the men?” 4:44, both the track and the album in total, are toxic, and a horribly exploitative use of another person’s pain to make a profit. But it will be praised because at the end of the day, we still have to treat the mediocrity of black men like it is precious gold. We expend so much energy to hide the truth: cishet black men are entirely superfluous to the black community.
When that truth is faced directly, when we stop centering our, oppressors/abusers. then we can move forward and eventually be free. The 4:44 Effect is a curse, but one that can be broken.
Why I wrote this.
I had to sit down and write this all out after a week of seeing cishet black male “allies” abuse their power or overstep boundaries. From homophobic rape jokes, to pedophilia, to the commodification of vulnerability. 4:44 and the Footnotes was the bulk of the issue because it bolsters and excuses the monsters in our midst. I saw a man make millions after publicly admitting to abusing his wife. Black women were hurt for the “growth” of the Footnotes men, and the hundreds of black women, black femmes, black children, and black queer folks who will have to bear the burden of future “growth” of men enabled and empowered by supposedly repentant abusers. What was presented at a break in the cycle of abuse, was just a thinly veiled jump into the honeymoon phase. I saw it almost, I’m not entirely sure why it hit me so hard. Maybe I think, it is because I’ve personally been mined for my emotional pain and labor so that someone else could “learn and grow”. Maybe it was because cishet black men almost unilaterally cosign this grand scale manipulation, and the collective lack of true empathy deeply disturbed. Maybe it’s because 4:44 encourages us to give another inch to men who have run miles on our broken bodies. Maybe it was because I was feeling what these men claimed to, but clearly could not. Maybe it was my powerlessness to change any of it. My depression was triggered and I’ve trouble eating, sleeping, focusing all week. As I told my parent when I broke down talking to them this week, it felt I was turning inside out. It felt like I was throwing my emotional energy. This is worst I have felt in months. The last time I felt this kind of empathic overload, I wrote that Nate Parker piece. It helped me process my anger and sadness, while all hopefully helping someone else with similar feelings. So like that piece, I write this one to help process my pain. But I also write for those of those with similar feelings who seek validation. I write to expose abuse/oppression, because it is not addressed until it is obvious.
To the black women who appreciate and love 4:44, and who stay with men who may have done harm, this piece is not judgment of you. It’s not my place to decide how you manage your own health and safety, or what your personal reasons or limits are. Why you stay could have a million reason, or it could have none. I wish you safety and happiness, and that you can be where you want to by, rather than where you have to be.
To the LGBTQ black people who are relieved by “Smile,” “Moonlight,” and/or “Footnotes,” you are entirely within your right. This piece does not judge you either. I understand the relief at not being directly targeted or open attacked for once. Immediate emotional and physical is priceless.
To those celebrating Rumi and Sir, go ahead. To see Beyonce thrive despite all this is a victory. That she is willing and able to share it with us is a greater victory still. Celebrate with her, because it takes on a whole new meaning now.
To the cis het black men who feel uncomfortable, annoyed, or even attacked by this piece. Good. Use that frustration and do your own emotional labor. Challenging toxic masculinity and doing serious introspection is good, great even. But it is imperative that all the discomfort, pain. and grief you feel be yours to bear, entirely. If you need support, seek counseling. If you need the space to grow and mature, make sure that space is far away from black women, children, and queer people. We don’t have to share your growing pains, because too often we have bear your growing pains. We will give you the room to grow, but no longer will your path discovery be littered with our bodies, blood, or tears. You lost your right to that the second you decided emotional vampirism or terrorism was acceptable to do to another person in any capacity.
We don’t owe you a thing. Not anymore.