In the first verse of “Smile” — the third track off JAY Z’s critically acclaimed album 4:44 — a reflective JAY-Z raps “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/ Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian/ Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate.” Backed by a chopped and screwed sample of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Key of Life cut “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” the rapper continues, revealing his mother’s narrative: “Society shame and the pain was too much to take/ Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/ Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.” With unconditional support for his mother, he finishes off with “I just wanna see you smile through all the hate/ Marie Antoinette, baby, let ’em eat cake.”
This is all a set up: the subject of the opening verse, Gloria Carter, transforms from “thespian” to actual human being. At the end of the track, she’s granted the opportunity to publicly come out to the world as lesbian. In her gripping closing monologue (structured as a spoken poem), Carter talks about walking away from the “shadows” of hiding her sexuality for decades, uttering the word “free” four times. Her final thought echoes her son’s sentiment: “Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed,” before she instructs every listener to “Smile.”
This is just one of the multiple highlights existing on 4:44 — which alongside Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., became an immediate front runner for this year’s musical hub centered on the politics of hip-hop culture and blackness in America. And, it’s no surprise that in the third week since the LP’s release, 4:44 spends a second consecutive week in the penthouse of the Billboard 200.
Carter’s newfound freedom — next to a wisecrack at the decolorization of football-hero-turned-tabloid-obsession OJ Simpson, an apology tour to a jilted mega-star wife, and subsequent battle with ego alongside financial stability and family legacy — would be one of the many focal points sparking provocative conversations across the world.
For Tiq Milan, an LGBTQ advocate and writer featured on publications such as CNN, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian, the moments in “Smile” stuck out the most. So much so that it inspired him to tweet “Jay-Z was raised by a single lesbian mother. Where are all the gay bashing woman hating hoteps now?” Milan — who identifies as a transgender man — raised a valid (and valuable) point, opening the floodgates for some homophobic rebuttals, and most importantly more than 1,000 retweets and 2,000 likes.
But let’s dissect the significance of the tweet, shall we?
First, the term “hotep.” At first, “hotep” was used as a moniker attributed to black men who care about the well being and prosperity of his black community — his ideology rooted in ancient Egyptian principles. The word actually means “at peace” in Egyptian. Over the course of time (and thanks to Internet culture) the definition became muddled and started being used as a derogatory term for black men with misogynistic, transphobic, and homophobic beliefs. Hence why Milan calls out this portion of JAY Z’s fan base, who writ in large comprise a key demographic of hip-hop’s storied tradition and culture.
On why he sent out the tweet, Milan explains to Billboard that the moment was inspired by his guest appearance on an episode of the YouTube series The Grapevine, titled “Hoteps & ‘The Gay Agenda’.” The Grapevine features a panelist of influential black individuals who debate topics essential to the community; on part one of the episode a self-described hotep claims that sometimes they can serve as the “black alt-right.”
About the filming experience, Milan says “There were queer people on there and hoteps, and of course the hoteps were blaming gay men for the downfall of the black community.” His tweet served as a counter to that widespread accusation: Here’s an iconic figure for the community who was raised by a lesbian mother.
Milan finalizes his action with this thought, “I sent it on Twitter because there are so many hoteps on that platform. I wanted to get their attention and it worked.”
Often in the black community — particularly with hoteps — there is a sentiment that LGBTQ individuals can not bare or should not raise children. In fact, this belief is widespread amongst most homophobic persons, no matter the race. The fear is founded on an unfounded belief that the youth will be brainwashed by their parents, as they could possibly be molested or “turned gay.”
Although Taylor Bennett — who identifies as bisexual — did not experience this with his own parents, the rapper tells Billboard “a lot of my friends have come out, and they talk about how their biggest fear is that their parents want them to have children.” He hits on another notion that “gay people are incapable of having kids.” That’s been disproven with the methods of adoption as well as advances in modern technology.
Another argument against LGBTQ parents raising their own children is the fact that those kids could possibly become rebellious and problematic due to societal pressures. Often, these individuals face the cold hard truth of bullying from their peers in school settings, something Tiq Milan and Bennett both acknowledge.
And while we don’t know what attributed to this, JAY Z has acknowledged his drug dealer past as well as previous violent tendencies while growing up in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn. We’ll never know if he felt a resentment or shame towards his mother for her secret — possibly causing this behavior — but it seems he’s been complacent with her sexuality. Instead he’s lyrically focused on dealing with other demons, like the absence of his father which he addresses on 4:44’s “Adnis.”
Milan counters the parental gay bashing with these words: “hoteps don’t want to talk about cisgender black men who are molesting children, who are violent, who don’t want to contribute anything.” He also brings up “those who walk out of families,” as evident of JAY Z’s personal story.
This only supports the strength of Ms. Carter who had the burden of raising a son by herself — despite her own personal struggles with her sexuality. Milan takes this a step further: “It’s not about which sexualities and genders are in the house. It’s about the bond and the guidance that you’re giving a person, and the strength that you’re giving a child. That’s not dependent on anybody’s sexuality.”
With 4:44, JAY Z continues to cement his already present legendary status in his black community, as well as his music industry and Pop Culture realm. With that comes a responsibility as an artist to shed light on issues affecting his personal life, as well as the society at large. It’s not an obligated task, but it becomes quite impactful when the crème de la crème uses their platforms for the better. His wife, Beyoncé — as well as his sister-in-law and former elevator-foe Solange — executes that on their 2016 releases LEMONADE and A Seat At The Table.
Both Tiq Milan and Taylor Bennett acknowledge JAY Z’s iconic status in hip-hop — both seemingly grateful for the inclusion of “Smile” on his LP. Milan states how he was “pleasantly surprised that [JAY Z] invited us into that part of his life. My wife and I were sitting there listening to it and we both got teary eyed.”
As for Bennett: “I loved the production on that record. It came out, and it felt heartfelt. I think in music we need a lot more of that.” Bennett went on to discuss the importance of JAY Z’s financial lessons on 4:44, one of his favorite lines being “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit” on “The Story of OJ.”
In such an influential role, JAY Z offers a positive outlook on hip-hop’s perception of the LGBTQ community, something that’s shape-shifted over recent years. 4:44 is considered by many as a conscious hip-hop record — a first even for JAY Z, two decades and 13 studio LPs in since his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt.
Milan could only recollect a few other significant moments where a spotlight was given to LGBTQ matters in hip-hop. “I remember back in the day Common made an attempt to apologize for his previous homophobia” on 2002’s “Between Me, You & Liberation” off Electric Circus — but even that for Milan was “a small attempt.” He credits Frank Ocean — “a mysterious, beautiful man who is a critical darling but openly not straight” — as setting a new foundation for the movement. In fact, JAY Z publicly supported Ocean (who is featured on 4:44’s “Caught Their Eyes”) back when he came out with an open letter on Tumblr in 2012. He also acknowledges Young M.A.,who is openly lesbian with one of “the hottest songs” to ever exist in hip-hop.
With “Smile,” we witness JAY Z — who Milan describes as “the pinnacle of hip-hop and symbol of black excellence” — be candid about one of his biggest inspirations: his mother who happens to be lesbian. That moment reveals that despite what the community may feel — hoteps and all — those of the LGBTQ community can still birth history and set a precedent, even after struggling with their own truths.