4:44 and the Burden of Proof
I purposefully kept quiet after 4:44 was released. Not because I didn’t have strong thoughts or feelings about it, but because I wanted to see the general reactions in my internet community before I threw in my two cents. The first knee-jerk reactions I saw were exactly what I expected – the album was reduced to the title track and Jay Z’s admissions of infidelity were used as confirmation of a long-standing trope of “he doesn’t deserve to be married to Beyoncé” (part of which, if we’re honest with ourselves, has some of its roots in anti-Black racism and classism, but that’s an entirely different conversation). These ranged from simple “I told you so's" in the face of mutterings that Lemonade wasn’t about the personal tribulations of the Carters, to jokes about Blue Ivy penning scalding diss tracks against her father. These, I saw coming.
What I didn’t see coming was the backlash of very real anger at the track. I thought it might have been somewhat assuaged when the Footnotes videos were slowly released, fleshing each track out from an individual’s narrative into a larger conversation with multiple men of color, mostly Black men, in the entertainment industry.
The Footnotes on 4:44 saw them candidly discussing wrongdoings towards partners and family members, their process of learning to identify it, and them baring their feelings as they began to realize much of their self-sabotage. I saw it as brilliant, even in the wake of the very unfortunate and poorly timed rumours of Jesse Williams allegedly dating his white Grey’s Anatomy co-star after he’d said that he’d had to deal with “think pieces that I somehow threw a thirteen-year relationship, like the most painful experience I’ve had in my life with a person I’ve loved with all of my heart, that I threw a person and my family in the trash because a girl I worked with was cute”. But, even with this clash of narratives, I found it intensely personal and touching and a step in the right direction for emotional growth and wellness for Black men.
My sentiments weren’t generally shared.
Instead, I saw comments that interpreted the song and the following discourse about it relating to personal experiences, as more or less of a masturbatory exercise in male bonding over female pain. It was received as a man believing that the process of naming his faults and crimes was enough to absolve him of them, an influential celebrity giving the men who looked up to him another excuse to believe that they could be washed of their veritable sins just by speaking them.
I hadn’t seen it that way, but what fascinated and somewhat perplexed me was that I couldn’t understand why. Granted, I didn’t believe these reactions any less valid or grounded in reality, but I was having a very hard time identifying where I split off from this thought process. I couldn’t simply chalk it up to being a fan – there is no instance in which cheating or emotional abuses, are okay, even (and especially) from someone I admire. But the arguments felt one-dimensional to me, more based on reactions to misconstrued messages that other men had received due to a lack of nuance.
I finally managed to find clarity in a long conversation about the album with my best friend Gerald, a Black male I’ve been close with for nearly a decade. As someone I trusted, had prayed and cried with, respected, and loved, I was ready to go to battle with him over the messages once geeking out over the production value and wordplay was out of the way. He shared some of my slightly frustrated confusion, but it hit me in the middle of our conversation. I was saying that I thought that some of the problem others found in the album was that there was an admission of guilt without explicit reconciliation, to which Gerald replied, “but we got that in Lemonade.”
And it all clicked.
There were three big, fundamental problems that separated my own view of 4:44 from the views I had seen.
The first was that the narratives that were created by 4:44 and Lemonade were ones that echoed a painful reality in the Black community that many women were honestly fed up with – a man messes up, does serious emotional and psychological damage to a woman he was meant to love, apologizes, and then the woman is tasked with the process of reconciliation.
This is what you get when you use the narratives of these two projects alone. 4:44 comes clean about Jay Z’s cheating, his inability or unwillingness to be emotionally and sometimes physically available, and his litany of other wrongdoings, and then weaves it together with a refrain of “I apologize”. Lemonade documents Beyoncé’s painful and passionate process of transitioning from suspicion to anger to depression to self-actualization to reconciliation. That entire process only exists in the latter project, so from the outsider’s perspective, there is nothing radical or transformational about a dramatic retelling of a man’s selfishness and ego creating a situation where a woman becomes a beast of burden for her own pain.
The second problem was an extension of the first – all we have to interpret are two intensely personal, but most likely incomplete musical narratives. Granted, there is a lot shared on both ends, but the creation of timelines detailing the apparent rise and fall of the Carters was done so out of what we have seen – and we have not seen it all. I do not and cannot believe that these two people have exposed the full goings-on between them, the full process of falling apart and then coming together to rebuild. After all, there are things that do and should remain private between couples, both to shelter them from unnecessary influences and because, quite frankly, it’s not everyone’s business. There are parts of their reconciliation that are probably not discussed and remain part of their personal journey.
This, however, leads to the third, and most jarring issue that I realized – the idea of there being more to their reconciliation process than what was seen as the tired trope of a man believing an apology is enough and a woman needing to take on the job of reconciliation could not be imagined because most people have never seen more. There are Black women (and men) who have only known the men around them to do the bare minimum at most, to be dependable for nothing but more disappointment, and to wrap ownership of their wrongs in excuses and deflected blame. This is a hard fact to digest, but a true fact nonetheless. The constant, fervent cries of “niggas ain’t shit” are not the product of a handful of bitter women whose boyfriends left them. Rather, it’s the exhausted and frustrated sob of a population of women who have seen every man – their fathers, their uncles, their brothers, their boyfriends, their homegirls’ boyfriends, and so on and so forth – not only inflict ego-based pain upon the women in their lives, but then sweep them under the rug, under their apologies, under their admitted ignorance, and then believe this worthy of being redeemed. And it’s not just the men who supposedly don’t know better.
There is a published conversation between two brilliant Black thinkers and writers, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, as they attempt to discuss the overlap of anti-Black racism and misogyny. I say “attempt” because Baldwin seems unable to absorb the idea that the pain that is inflicted upon Black women and girls by Black men and boys must be eradicated by the men themselves. He doesn’t appear to process that no matter if the Black man is torn down and made to feel inferior and made to believe that he has no place in the world, that this does not and can never absolve him of crimes against Black womanhood. He even goes as far as to state that “a Black man is a nigger when he tries to be a model for his children and he tries to protect his women” and “do you know what happens to a man when […] he can’t protect anybody?”.
Those two statements alone take the pain a woman bears and erases it for its impact on a man. Why be focused on the inability to protect instead of the violence that’s being specifically inflicted upon women in the first place? A woman being beaten in front of a man is directly about her, not about him having to see it, and while there is shame in feeling unable to help, to completely erase the pain that a woman goes through by flattening it into the catalyst for emasculation is violent in and of itself.
Where does this leave us? That question is large and daunting, but not as much so as the answer – with work to do, and the onus is on Black men. What all this has done is rip off a barely formed scab over a deep and personal hurt in the community, but with a small difference – now there is facilitated discussion. There are spaces and allowances for men to now voice their wrongs, but it must be done in a new way. It’s no longer acceptable to only say, “I have done wrong”. It’s no longer acceptable to only say, “I know that I have hurt you”. It’s no longer acceptable to only say, “I’m sorry”.
Men have to move past their own guilt, their own pride, their own wallowing in victimhood, to take on the burden of reconciliation. Emotional growth is not women’s work, it is community work. We can’t erroneously try to assert that “we’re all in this together” when we refuse to be equally yoked in the process of healing the hurts that exist between us. The way we have done things before has been ugly, left us warn-torn in constant battles with each other that are sometimes treated as imaginary by those who inflict pain in the first place. Black men, you have to be willing to grow. You have to be willing to be accountable, you have to be willing to be wrong, to fall from grace, to sacrifice your ego and bear the cross of “niggas ain’t shit” in the name of becoming better until you have harvested true proof that you actually are. You have to answer the call.
Warsan Shire said it best – “if we're gonna heal, let it be glorious.”