J. Cole's HBO Documentary Brings Black Perseverance to the Forefront
Lauded as one of the rap game’s most powerful voices, J. Cole uses his newly-released documentary, 4 Your Eyez Only, to take a backseat to talking. Instead, he gives a voice to the voiceless members of the black community in several areas of the United States.
The 60-minute documentary, which aired on HBO Saturday night (April 15), acted as a way for the platinum-selling musician to listen to stories of perseverance, strength and family rather than telling them on his own.
Through a strategic song selection featuring tracks from his fourth LP, 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole and director Scott Lazer highlighted different narratives of strength on their travels. Different cities Cole visited include Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Ferguson, Jonesboro, Arkansas and his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C. The names of the citizens Cole came in contact with were not mentioned, but their stories were powerful enough on their own to make a profound statement.
The strongest theme the special invoked was the power of resilience in the black community. During his trip to Baton Rouge, Cole met an older woman whose home was presumably destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Despite the ever-present uphill battle she faces during the rebuilding process, she assures Cole she aims to build the house until it’s a home once again.
“I know me, I’m going to do it,” she says to the camera-wielding, platinum-selling recording artist. “I’m going to sit back and say, ‘mmm, I’m finally done.’” Even back in Cole’s North Carolina hometown, a group of young men discuss some of the struggles they deal with on a daily basis. However, they’re remaining strong in their belief that things will improve.
“I’m waiting to go somewhere better,” one man says right after Cole’s song “Immortal” blares through the screen. “That’s why it’s God first, man. The struggle’s only temporary.”
A belief in the strength of love, family and God is displayed throughout the special. While Cole sits on his tour bus rapping “She’s Mine, Pt. 2,” images of black men spending time with their families are shown in a grainy filter. To him, the power of family is far more important than materialism, especially now that he is a husband and father.
Cole also pays a visit to Jonesboro, Arkansas with his father, where the elder Cole attempts to show his famous son some of the town’s black history. As we discover, many blacks, including Cole’s father, wanted to get out of their town by any means possible for a better life, circling back to the perseverance motif. A previously unreleased Cole song which premiered during the special features the line, “God is real and he’s using me for a bigger purpose.” The track is used after a trip to an Atlanta church.
The special touches on the systemic racism of law enforcement around the country and the affect police brutality has on black families. Cole’s visit to Ferguson, Mo., the site of the controversial shooting of Mike Brown, finds him face-to-face with Brown’s older cousin. After a conversation about the Brown’s dreams of becoming a musician in his own right, Cole tells his cousin about the power his passing has had on the world to start paying attention and to continue fighting the good fight.
“His contribution, his life... the injustice... look at what he gave to the world,” says Cole of Mike Brown. “I remember things like this happening [as a child], and now people ain’t even standing for it... he’s the reason people fighting.” The usage of his track “Changes” also highlights the issues regarding violence in the black community, and how he is starting to understand how a change must be implemented.
To round up his documentary on a note that gracefully ties the themes together through the titular song, Cole meets a 52-year-old woman who has been through hell and back. However, she makes sure to keep her belief in life and God strong. On the way to her second of three jobs, she talks to Cole about losing her son, an aspiring rapper named Get 'Em, to gun violence, as well as a daughter to murder.
“After all that... how do you stay that way [‘glowing, beaming’]?” Cole asks of her positive energy.
“I gotta lot to live for,” she says to the camera. “God has me here for a reason, so many of us are hurting... but God is the answer, yeah, Jesus is definitely the answer.”
“I felt like it would be mad powerful for black people to see black people talking to each other,” he told The New York Times in a recent interview about the documentary. "And you see a rapper who’s considered one of the biggest in the game, just listening.” Through the powerful stories told by those who may not have gotten the chance to publicize them otherwise, it’s safe to say that Cole’s idea played out in a poignant and powerful manner.