How Jay Z's "Moonlight" Video Tackles Cultural Appropriation Head On
Protect our art by any means necessary.
Can we talk about the music video for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight”?
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“Moonlight” is set in a present-day remake of a Friends episode titled “The One Where No One’s Ready”. In this alternate universe, the characters are portrayed by some of the black Hollywood’s most talented and innovative creators and performers. Lil Rel Howery plays goofball, Joey Tribbiani. Lakeith Stanfield plays the witty and sharp-tongued Chandler Bing. Jerrod Carmichael plays neurotic paleontologist, Ross Gellar. Tiffany Haddish plays the comically quirky, Phoebe Buffay. Tessa Thompson plays the lovably obsessive, Monica Gellar. And last, but not least, Issa Rae plays the endearingly narcissistic, Rachel Green. Nothing is different from the original episode, other than the fact these characters are now black. And low and behold, it works. In fact, it more than just works. It is brilliant.
The scene is broken when Howery’s cell phone rings. Carmichael calls for a break and steps off the set to ask his friend (portrayed by Hannibal Burress) for an honest opinion on the show. Burress rips the episode to shreds. “Garbage. It was terrible, man. It was wack as shit. It was just episodes of Seinfeld but with black people. Who asked for that?” Carmichel responds, “When they asked me to do it I was like alright, this is something subversive. Something that will turn the culture on its head.”
The video appears to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Friends being heavily influenced by the early 90s hit show, Living Single. Jay-Z and director, Alan Yang are imagining a world in which black actors are cast to remake a white mainstream classic. Through Burress’ voice, they depict the cultural backlash this would produce, both from within and outside the black community. “Well, you’ve succeeded in subverting good comedy. You gonna do black Full House next? Family Ties?”
After the conversation, a subdued Carmichael returns to the character of Ross. As Thompson’s Monica rambles fuzzily in the background, he falls out of character dazed by a realization of some sort. Rae walks out of the bedroom, also out of character, and looks at Carmichael as she puts a finger to her lips. They walk off the set together as Jay-Z begins to rap to a sample of “Fu Gee La:
We stuck in La La Land
Even when we win, we gon’ lose
Y’all got the same f**kin’ flows
I don’t know who is who
Rae points Carmichael down a path lit by blinding stage lights. He follows it, looking back at Rae as he walks out of the studio and into the night. Jay-Z continues:
Y’all ni**as still signing deals? Still?
After all they done stole, for real?
After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?
And y’all ni**as is ‘posed to be trill?
Carmichael walks onto a green field where he takes a seat on a park bench. The music comes to an abrupt halt. His turns his gaze up to the sky and takes in a brilliant full moon as a clip from this year’s Oscar ceremony plays: “The Academy Award for Best Picture goes to – La La Land!”
I am unashamed to say that I shed actual tears of joy while watching this video and listening to lyrics of the song. Jay-Z and Alan Yang have created an astonishing and sharp commentary on the appropriation of black cultural products and the celebration of white mediocrity.
The song is not only an indictment of the white mainstream but also of the black artistic community’s tendency to seek the approval of the mainstream. Of our collective inability to learn from how the industry has and continues to disregard us. Our hope that one day the genius and originality of our cultural production will be recognized and celebrated. Our periodic amnesia about the certainty that they will attempt to lay claims to our intellectual property.
Each of the actors featured in the video are real-life subversions of this. Issa Rae and Jerrod Carmichael, in particular, are powerful representations. They have not waited for shows to be written for them, but have created their own universes. They have turned their struggles into pure comedic gold. They have portrayed unapologetic and multifaceted blackness. They have pushed the cultural needle by creating content that is for us, by us. If the mainstream approves, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too.
I was particularly moved by Jay-Z's mentioning of Ms. Lauryn Hill, who has often been the target of criticism about her supposedly erratic behavior. As an actress and a musician from a young age, we have consumed Ms. Hill and her music. We have mined her talents and her pain for our own personal healing and growth. How many of us have given thought to the impact this has had on the artist?
We may have dropped the ball when it comes to protecting and caring for artists like Lauryn Hill, but we must do what we can to rectify that. And we must do better by artists like Rae, Carmichael, Haddish, Howery, Thompson, and Stanfield.