“No Saint”

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[ By:Vincent Omni]

Walter Mosley speaking at the Hall Center.
Photo credit: The Hall Center

Call Walter Mosley what you may: novelist, playwright, artist, public speaker. Just don’t call him a saint. Much like Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the troubled protagonist of his renowned mystery series, Mosley is not a devout man – that is, not in most respects.

“I can’t help but believe in the soul,” the award-winning writer said during his visit to the University of Kansas earlier this month.

Perhaps this belief, along with a practiced optimism bred from growing up black in America – where, more often than not, hope is all one has in the face of racial injustice – allowed Mosley to impart a bit of inspiration on two topics of personal interest to him, politics and writing.

His ministrations began February 7th while speaking to a capacity audience in the Hall Center for Humanities. His sermon: “Political Optimism in the Age of Trump.”

Mosley, I should note here, is no fan of our nation’s 45th president, whose presidential campaign and subsequent term in the White House has been mired in controversy and scandal too long to list in this humble post. “He’s an idiot,” Mosley said.

Mr. Trump’s folly, however, is cause for optimism. At least, Mosley, who prefers Trump over other republican challengers in 2016, seems to think so. This preference is grounded in the notion that Trump lacks the sophistication required to camouflage his political machinations with smoke and mirrors, making his agenda of intolerance and discrimination apparent to the American public.

Moreover, Mosley remains hopeful that this administration — with its alternative facts, travel bans on Muslims, and recent government shutdown — just might unite Americans. “His (Trump’s) racism and greed will not undo us,” he said. “Things are open and there’s a chance for us to work together and change together.”

Mosley returned to the Hall Center on February 8th to extol the tenets of writing – a craft that has earned him an O’Henry Award, a Grammy Award, two NAACP Image Awards, and a Lifetime Achievement Edgar from Mystery Writers of America.

His first suggestion is one that may sound familiar to some writers: revise.

“Writing is rewriting,” he said. “You discover the story you’re telling while retelling it and then retelling it again. You may start out thinking that you’re telling one tale but after the fourth or fortieth rewrite an entirely different creature crawls out onto the page.”

His craft book, This Year You Write Your Novel (Little Brown and Company, 2009) is full of the kind of writerly advice that inspires discipline and dedication to the process. Mosley offered up a few verses from this text.

Dr. Shawn Alexander interviewing Walter Mosley. Photo credit: The Hall Center

Write Every Day: “That’s seven days a week, including holidays,” Mosley said. “This is the normal commitment of any athlete politician or parent.” What is written is just as important as the act of writing itself. Daily devotion to putting words on the page should bring the writer closer to a long-term goal, like completing a novel, play, poetry collection, or biography.

Write Without Restraint: Writing teachers the world over recite this sacred verse. Still, many aspiring writers, fearful of how their work may be judged by one reader or another, are nothing if not stealthy self-editors. Mosley has one suggestion for this insidious habit – stop. “Stop listening to the disapproval of man and critics. Stop keeping yourself from saying those things you feel are wrong or bad or even evil. You should edit but never censor your words.”

Voice and Point of View: The key here, Moseley says, is consistency. Once the writer has nailed down her protagonist’s narrative voice and POV, she should see it through until the end of her draft. This process will teach her something about her story. If things change during the revision stage, then so be it. Just be consistent.

Show and Tell: Mosely’s guidance here is so well-stated that it is doubtful a summary will achieve the same effect. To that end, I have left his statement in-tact for the writer who, perhaps lacking access to the text itself, might revisit this statement for inspiration and direction. “‘The words came right up off the page.’ That’s the highest possible praise for the technique of any writer. It means that, when reading the book, the reader was actually experiencing the sensations and emotions, life and atmosphere depicted. The accomplished writer achieves this level of realism by using language that is active and metaphorical, economically emotional, and also pedestrian. As often as possible, the fiction writer shows physical movement and active characters, vivid images and real dialogue rather than simply telling us what happened, what was said, or what someone was thinking or feeling. It is the difference between: His name was Ishmael and Call me Ishmael.”

And call Mosley an optimist – at least when it comes to what lies ahead for this country after Donald Trump. Despite his aversion to organized religion, he is a man of faith, faith in humanity’s capacity to, with patience and understanding, build a better world, tell a better story. He’s no saint, but, then again, he never claimed to be.

Vince OmniVince Omni is a creative writing student in the MFA program and teaches first-year composition at the University of Kansas. He manages HBW’s fiction acquisitions and helps develops content for the Black Literary Suite and blog.

“If You Trusted Love This Far, Trust It All The Way”

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Image result for if beale street could talk

Theatrical release poster

[By: Danyelle M. Greene]

“If you trusted love this far, trust it all the way.”   

A review of If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins

The December 2018 release of Oscar-nominated If Beale Street Could Talk has garnered a deserved amount of critical praise for its poetic rendering of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. Barry Jenkins, best known for the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight, wrote and directed the adapted screenplay. The film maintains fidelity to the original novel in tone and meaning as it interrogates the corruption of the American justice system through a story of Black love.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), a young Black couple torn apart by racism and injustice in Harlem during the 1970’s. Fonny, who is in custody for being falsely accused of rape, sits behind the glass that separates him from Tish and the rest of the outside world. The audience is invited into their story as Tish tells Fonny that he is going to be a father. From this moment, the story unfolds with the anticipation of the baby’s birth adding another level of complexity as Tish scrambles to prove Fonny’s innocence. Even before his birth, the heaviness of the American system of racial oppression weighs upon the shoulders of the unborn child.

True to the novel, the story shifts between the 1970s present-day and Tish’s retelling of their flowering love. The story is revealed through moments and memories with Tish as its arbiter. Moments of despair and hopelessness are interrupted by memories of love and hope. While Baldwin allows the audience access to the intimacies of Tish and Fonny’s story through descriptions of the characters innermost thoughts and feelings, Jenkins invites the audience into the film through direct engagement with the screen. As Tish and Fonny gaze at each other in the subway train, on the street, or in his apartment, Tish often narrates the scene with words taken directly from Baldwin’s novel. Along with this narration, Tish and Fonny are shown in close-ups looking directly into the camera as if gazing at the audience. These moments are slow and purposeful as the audience is encouraged to see Fonny as Tish sees him—a loving, faithful man. In this way, Jenkins’s adaptation of the novel preserves the perspective and poetry of their story. Shifting between the flashbacks of Tish and Fonny and the present-day interactions between family and friends builds a case for Fonny’s innocence. Through Tish’s eyes, we see an image that counteracts the perception of criminality and worthlessness racial stereotypes that have been placed on him from birth. It directly contradicts his placement behind bars.

If Beale Street Could Talk, then, does not solely address the physical implications of the historically biased tradition of African American incarceration. The story also demonstrates the larger weight of systemic racism on African American lives. In one scene, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), one of Fonny’s old friends, tries to hold back tears as he describes being falsely accused and jailed for two years. He admits to Tish and Fonny that the worst part of being jailed was the fear that had gotten so deeply ingrained into his psyche that he could no longer freely navigate his own life. This fear, meant to break Daniel, is similarly intended to overwhelm Fonny with hopelessness.

The couple’s families, clinging to faith, also bear the weight of societal fear and racial oppression. While Fonny’s mother and sisters cling to a sanctimonious sort of faith that distances them from everyone else in the family, his father along with Tish’s family relies on their interpersonal relationships to build hope and find courage. Everyone plays their part in this struggle. Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), Tish’s sister, hires an attorney to strategize for Fonny’s defense while Tish and Fonny’s fathers hustle to pay his rising legal fees. At the same time, Tish’s mother, movingly portrayed by Academy Award-nominated Regina King, comforts her daughter’s fears while organizing to prove her son-in-law’s innocence and confronting his accuser. Tish’s mother especially plays a pivotal role in maintaining this community of support both because of her own strength as an individual and also because of her intimate relationship with her everyone in her family, particularly Tish. In a moment when Tish is overwhelmed and discouraged, she encourages her daughter with the words that inspired the film’s tagline and capture a key component of the story’s central idea: “If you trusted love this far, trust it all the way.”

Ultimately, If Beale Street Could Talk celebrates the strength and vulnerability of African American men and women. The collective stories of Fonny, Tish and their loved ones demonstrates the fortitude found in family and community. 


Danyelle Greene is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on the politics of representation in cinema for African Americans at the intersections of race, gender, and religion.  She earned her MA in Media Theory and Research from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her BA in Communication Arts and Sciences from Adrian College.

Black Speculative Fiction On the Rise

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[By: Marcus Haynes]

In an age where Luke Cage can break Netflix, FIYAH literary magazine can win a World Fantasy Award, and speculative fiction legends Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes can give keynote speeches at the National Black Book Festival, it is clear that things are changing for creators of Black Speculative Fiction. And the fact that all of these things occurred during Black Speculative Fiction Month, a celebration of Black fans and creators of genre fiction, is even more evidence of the genre’s growth. Thanks to Black speculative fiction icons Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade, each October has been designated as a month to celebrate the accomplishments of Black people in fantasy, science fiction, horror, and alternate history. Knowing this, Due and Barnes were able to use Black Speculative Fiction Month and their platform to advocate even more for the importance of Black Speculative fiction.

Sitting in the audience of Due and Barnes’ talk, it is hard to believe how much change has happened at the festival in such a short time. In 2015, I attended the festival and was faced with outright hostility for bringing something “unholy” into a Black book festival located in a deep south church. As a Black writer of fantasy and science fiction, it is often difficult to find where you fit in. Traditional conventions (cons) are overwhelmingly concerned with whiteness, and most Black festivals, conferences, and cons do not always understand the purpose of Blackness in the speculative genres. The fact that Due and Barnes were brought on as featured authors is a testament to changing views on speculative fiction, and while a large part of this can be attributed to the massive successes of “Get Out and “Black Panther”; there is more to the cultural shift than those two films.

Until very recently, Black speculative fiction began and ended with Octavia Butler; Due and Barnes acknowledged this history. The fact that Butler was able to weave racial, gendered, and sexuality-based critiques into science fiction was considered an anomaly, despite the fact that since speculative fiction, in general, was designed to challenge world views it would make sense that Black authors would challenge perceptions about Black people with speculative fiction. The prejudice against Black Speculative Fiction was so strong that even a tale as blatantly speculative as Toni Morrison’s Beloved was denied the label of horror because it was “too good” and “too Black”. The general attitudes of Black audiences reflected this distaste with Black Speculative Fiction, and the audiences of the National Black Book Festival were unfortunately not exempt. Brandon Massey, an Atlanta-based Black horror author, faced some scrutiny as one of the festival’s earliest featured writers, and in the years that I have been aware of the festival,  fewer than fifteen Black speculative authors have attended there.   

Marcus Haynes (@LooseAsADEUCE) is a doctoral student in Humanities (English & African American Studies) at Clark Atlanta University. He is a published author, instructor, geek, and scholar in Black Speculative Fiction.

Q&A: With Nikita Haynie

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[By: Mona Ahmed]

Nikita Haynie describes herself as a Christian, an advisor to students, and writer who published her first novel “Phases” last year.  “Phases” is a trilogy, which depicts four students navigating their freshman year of college. In my interview with Haynie, she discusses how her job and faith influenced her book’s plot and what it is like to be a black woman writing Christian fiction.

What was the inspiration behind the plotline for your novel?  

So, the first thing was me thinking about growing up, I really was into book series like “Goosebumps” and “Sweet Valley High”. And just thinking like, ‘wow, you know, I really want to write something like that,’ because I was so engaged in those book series.

The second thing which probably was the most prevalent with the fact that I was working with college students and forming these relationships with students. So once you form these close relationships with students, they then confide in you about different things. So thinking about that was the inspiration for my book. College is such a powerful time in a young person’s life whether they choose to go to college, whether it is a two-year college or four-year college. I think is just a powerful time and is a transformative time. And quite frankly, I feel like it can make or break you because there are so many things happening, particularly as it pertains to a young person’s development. I really wanted to hone in on that and kind of encourage and empower students as they are going through this experience of college and hit on some of the challenges they might be going through some of the victories they might have.

What do you want your readers to take away from your book?

What I really want people to take away is just so like if you have already attended college, just kind of reflecting over your college experience. But most importantly, if you’re currently in college, that it’s okay for you to have challenges but at the end of the day is important for you to look at those challenges and those obstacles and think about how can this help me become a better person right? And then also is the undertone of the book is kind of about faith as well. So whatever your faith may be, how you can also find a balance between this experience that you’re going through it and also holding onto your faith, which is possible to do.

How does your faith play a role in your writing?

 It is the epitome of how I’m able to write because this is like something that I’ve thought about since I was a kid. But I didn’t actually bring into fruition until by my late 20s, but my faith is what kept me motivated to keep writing. When I initially started writing this book, it was in 2014, ……. then I fell off of writing it. Then I moved to Kansas in 2016. So then I was like, you know this is the perfect opportunity for me to really focus on this because I’m not distracted by all of the things I was distracted by in Atlanta. So I went on a fast and I did the fast for 40 days. And so every day I will pray about the characters and their storyline and just asking for the discernment and the ability to be able to write in those moments when you experience writer’s block. So, just kind of channeling that energy into my characters into the story.

Are there any Black authors that have inspired you? If so how?

Two black authors in particular that really inspire me are Stephanie Perrymore and then Kim Cash Tate. The cool thing about Kim Cash Tate is that I actually reached out to her on social media back in 2017. And I was like, you know what I’m going to shoot my shot and see if I can get her to respond to me. I wrote her a Facebook message and she wrote back she gave me encouragement and kind of told me about her process as a writer and author.

And so just to have that engagement with her, and then, you know a certain point in my process of writing, I will reach out to her. And she always responds, you know, and so I’m very encouraged by that. And one of the things that she told me that she does because I was like, you know, what would be your advice to a first-time author and she was like, rejection is a part of the process. So don’t take that personal and she also said I always pray, you know, pray about your book. Pray about your ideas about your characters in the images.

What have you noticed during the publishing process?

Something else I noticed in this process is that there are not just in general in the world of literature, black people don’t get the respect and notoriety that they deserve… Because the genre that I am going towards is more like Christian fiction particularly in that realm there is not a lot of black women.

Why do you think it’s so important moving forward that black women are given these spaces to showcase their work?

I think it’s important for black women and women of color to be showcased in this particular space because I think sometimes our experience with as it relates to religion, spirituality, and faith, it looks different.  

But I just think it’s important to shed light on that experience from the perspective of a black woman because as we know, in society as a whole, when it comes to like Christianity and things like that it is overshadowed more so by our white counterparts. And so I think just being able to showcase our experience is very important. Also giving people of color, particularly for my book, giving students of color, a perspective that they can relate to.

What’s next for you?

I am in the process of writing book two, because, in a book series, you kind of have to move fast before people lose interest. So I want to write that and then I also want to publish another novel. But, it’s going to be a novel about a black woman and just her evolution as a woman through the breakup of a relationship. I  also want to find more opportunities that allow them to showcase my writing, not just as a creative writer, but a writer overall.

You can purchase Haynie’s ebook on Amazon.  

This interview has been edited down for clarity.  

Nikita Annette Haynie is a proud Georgia peach. She earned her Master of Education in Higher Education from Georgia Southern University and Bachelor of Arts in English Literature with a minor in African American Studies from Clayton State University. Currently, she serves as the Assistant Director for Sorority & Fraternity Life in the Student Involvement and Leadership Center advising the Multicultural Greek Council and National Pan-Hellenic Council. Her life motto is: “Be the change you want to see in the world” (Ghandi).  She also advises the new student organization G.E.M.S (Gifted Empowered Motivated Sisters) that empowers and centers the voices of black women matriculating at KU. Last year she became a published author, publishing the first installment in her book series Phases. In her spare time, you can find her writing, reading, meditating on affirmations, and obsessing over her three-year-old niece. She is a life- long learner and believes in all things positive.

Four lesser known speeches by Dr. King

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Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Washington, D.C. by Brian Kraus.

[ By: DeAsia Paige]  

Today we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was a civil rights leader and minister. Dr. King ’s work to eliminate racial segregation was abruptly ended when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Although his legacy is often remembered with his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, here are four of Dr. King’s lesser known speeches to listen to commemorate  his legacy: 

1.) “Our God Is Marching On” Selma, Alabama: March 25, 1965 

At the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama, Dr. King gave a speech to reassure protestors that their work wasn’t in vain. Throughout the speech, King praises the strength of the protestors for refusing to give up the fight for voting rights in the South. King also makes the valid point that denying Black people in the South the right to vote is inherent to and perpetuates the system of racial segregation.

The previous point leads to the overall theme of the speech: the march to end racial segregation doesn’t end in Montgomery, Alabama, because there’s more work to be done (hence, the name of the speech). King ends the speech by encouraging the crowd that the fight won’t be for very long because God is on their side.

2.)Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”: Riverside Church in New York City: April 4, 1967

King was no stranger to sharing his anti-war sentiments. He first publicly expressed his disdain for the Vietnam War in 1965 when he talked about the hypocrisy of America using a lot of resources for sending troops to Vietnam while doing nothing to help citizens in Selma, Alabama receive the right to vote. King expresses the same hypocrisy with this speech as he questions the motives of the American government. Why cause violence in a different country while Black people are battling to become citizens in their own country? That’s the question that becomes the main theme of King’s speech.

Throughout the speech, King also challenged the method in which America chose to fight the war through incessant violence. He insists that nothing would be resolved because harmony could only be achieved through radical nonviolence. 

3.)  “The Other America” Stanford University: April 14, 1967

This is the first nor the last time that King gave this speech about economic justice and racial equality. He performed different versions of it in 1967 and 1968. However, King maintains the common theme of the speech by emphasizing how there are two different Americas that exist in society.

 King begins the speech by defining the two Americas. One is described as the land of opportunity, while the other continues to struggle because of the lack thereof. King specifically mentions that although the latter America is filled with groups like American Indians, Hispanic/Latinx and other minorities, Kings makes it clear that Black people are the largest demographic in that “other America”. In one of King’s most radical speeches, King expresses the many obstacles that Black people have had to endure and motivates the audience to not only be aware of those injustices but thoroughly understand how those injustices do not exist for white America. Toward the end of the speech, King explicitly mentions that the problems that exist for Black America will ultimately stunt the advancement of this nation, and he urges white America to help eliminate those issues. 

4.)I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Memphis, Tennessee: April 3, 1968

Braving a slight fever and sore throat, King spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee to striking sanitation workers in what would be his final speech. King was a strong supporter of the sanitation workers movement in Memphis and he even attempted to plan a march for the movement the month before his speech. However, them march was called off due to violence. With his speech,  King had hoped to reinvigorate the workers and promote nonviolence for the movement.

King starts off his speech expressing his gratitude for being alive in such difficult times. However, in a very prophetic tone, King also expresses how unafraid is he is to die because he “did God’s will”. Throughout the speech, King assures the audience that he’s content with the work he had done while inspiring the crowd to continue to fighting the injustice in Memphis as if he knows he won’t be alive for a long time. King was assassinated the next day, on   April 4, on the balcony of  Memphis’ Lorraine Motel.

DeAsia Paige

DeAsia Paige is a junior at KU majoring in journalism with a minor in African and African-American studies. She’s a blogger and student journalist whose writing interests focus on the intersections of race, pop culture, music, and feminism. Her work has been featured in Huffington Post Black Voices, Blavity, The Nation and other publications

Four Ways to Commemorate Dr. King on MLK Day

Posted Posted in HBW, Uncategorized

[By Kyndall Delph, DeAsia Paige, and Mona Ahmed]

People protesting on the streets of Mexico against the government and Trump. Photo by Jeronimo Bernot.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always celebrated on the third Monday in January across the United States to recognize his birthday, which is on Jan. 15. After King’s assassination in 1968, a public campaign by social activists, government officials and musicians (Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was used to popularize the campaign) began to urge the government to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was officially observed in 1986. Although some states were reluctant to observe the holiday, MLK Day was officially celebrated in all 50 states in 2000.

To remember the work of Dr. King on MLK Day, here are some things you can do:

1.) Listen to Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech    

To kick off MLK day listen to his iconic  “I Have A Dream” speech.  On August 28, 1963, Dr. King spoke from the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his speech, King called for an end to injustice and inequality in the United States. King’s speech incorporated themes from the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. King also paid homage to the Emancipation Proclamation, which the march coincided with its centennial anniversary.  

Originally, King’s speech was supposed to last only four minutes but ended up being 16-minutes long.  The phrase “I have a dream” was not incorporated into  King’s pre-written speech.  However, King started to speak about his dreams after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”     King’s ” I Have a Dream” speech encapsulated the struggle of racial justice Blacks faced in the U.S. while remaining hopeful that change will come.  

2.) Read Ta-nehisi Coates article on how Civil Rights Protests have never been popular    

Writer Ta-nehisi Coates wrote a column in the Atlantic critiquing nonviolent protests in modern-day America. Coates article is a response to David Leonhardt ’s column in the New York Times. Leonhardt attempts to draws comparisons between Colin Kaepernick ‘s use of kneeling as a form of protest to the civil rights marches during the 60s.   Leonhardt’s premise is that athletes use of kneeling to protest racial injustice is not effective because of its lack of popularity.

Coates counters Leonhardt’s argument by pointing out that the marches were actually unpopular by Americans. While 36 percent of Americans approve of kneeling as a form of protest.  Only 40 percent of Americans agreed with the marches.  Coates ends his piece by alluding that the problem isn’t the method used to (or the act) protest but perhaps it is the people disagreeing with the protesters.

3.) Watch Selma 

This Ava Duvernay-directed film is not necessarily a biopic of Dr. King. Instead, the film is based on the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which were influenced by Dr. King’s unwavering guidance. The film brilliantly captures the pain, resistance, and resilience that encompassed Dr. King’s leadership during the marches, and it offers a vivid glance into the many nuances of how his leadership is defined and should be remembered.

The film features a stellar cast, including David Oyelowo (who portrayed Dr. King), Oprah Winfrey and Common. The film’s lead song “Glory”, which was performed and written by John Legend and Common, won Best Original Song at the 2015 Academy Awards.  Their performance of the song during the ceremony is also a must-watch.

4.) Watch NBC Dateline  Special ‘Hope and Fury’: MLK, The Movement, and The Media

In 2013, to commemorate Dr. King’s 50th anniversary of his assassination NBC aired “Hope and Fury: MLK, The Movement, and The Media,” which was produced and directed by Rachel Dretzin and Phil Bertelsen. The documentary takes a look at the civil rights movement in the 60s and draws parallels to present-day activists and movements like the Black Lives Matter Movement. The film analyzes activists of today use of social media and the strategies Dr. King and other well-known civil rights leaders used.

The documentary uses first-hand personal collections,  archival footage, and photographs to showcase the trials and tribulations of the civil rights movement. The documentary is a must watch for anyone who wants to develop a nuanced understanding of how social-political movements function and their impact on society.

The Black Album: 15th Anniversary

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cover photo for The Black Album

By:  [Robbin Williams]

The Black Album is Jay-Z’s best solo work. Some of this has to do with the time when it came out. In 2003, Jay was arguably the most successful rapper ever. He had survived a beef with Nas, his only real competition for the title “King of New York,” and no one else at the time had the combination of commercial success, street credibility and lyrical skill that created a consensus around Jay; in fact, no one’s rivaled that combination since.  He was on the cusp of becoming the president of Def Jam Records, the parent company for his record label and the most legendary company in rap music. So even though “Ether” may have given Nas the win in the midst of their battle (unless you view Nas’s track as a vicious, desperate attempt to defend himself against the fact that “The Takeover” made it clear Jay was ready for action) Jigga’s continued success and diplomacy won the war; Nas signed to Def Jam while Jay was still president of the label.  Furthermore, Jay’s subsidiary, Roc-A-Fella Records, was still intact in 2003. The liner notes for Black include a leaflet advertising upcoming projects from the label that included not only Kanye West’s debut album, but also releases from Jay’s loyal homeboy Memphis Bleek, Philadelphia standout Beanie Sigel, Beanie’s crew State Property, high octane New York street act MOP, Harlem’s own Cam’ron and even Old Dirty Bastard, dubbed Dirt McGirt at the time.

Jay released an album full of lyrical songs that could have been singles. He rapped well over stellar production from The Neptunes, Just Blaze and Rick Rubin, not to mention a track where he seemed like he wasn’t even trying, but still had the assurance to refer to himself as the “best rapper alive,” over Timbaland’s irresistible production (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”).  Most rappers would have scrambled to release either “What More Can I Say?,” “Encore,” “Public Service Announcement” or “Lucifer,” so they could chart. But instead, on an album with no rap features, no supportive assists from other proven acts, these songs shine as reminders of how capable Jay-Z was for dolo. Deep cuts like “Moment of Clarity,” produced by none other than Eminem, and “Allure”—which prefigures much of Aubrey Graham’s early career with melancholy singing from Pharrell and introspective, nostalgic, wistfully-delivered lyrics—exhibit an engaging level of depth. “Justify My Thug,” a “clever-on-paper” reworking of Madonna’s hit that would have been acceptable from one of his peers is the album’s only misstep. Sure, it was novel for Jay to reach out to West Coast underground legend DJ Quik for production on the track, but on an album where he’s made it clear what he can do, why would listeners settle for a listless chorus and sometimes-clumsy lyrics that center on hackneyed “both-heaven-and-hell” imagery? Countering that mediocrity, Jay managed to rap an entire song about shooting people, over one of 9th Wonder’s neo-golden age instrumentals, that was both funny and timely. On “Threat,” he spits: “Y’all wish I was frontin’, I George Bush the button/For the oil in your car, lift up your hood, nigga run it/Then lift up your whole hood like you got oil under it,” all in the wake of then-currrent debates about whether the objective in the Middle East was weapons of mass destruction or petro.  

It could be argued that rap was more innocent in 2003, which may sound strange if we consider the fact that Tupac and Biggie had already been shot dead for what appears to have amounted to nothing more than rap ego and unnecessarily aggressive competition. But in an era when social media was still nascent, the overexposure of artists, as a result of the endless memory of the internet, hadn’t fully taken effect yet. Kanye West produced two songs on The Black Album, and one of those—“Lucifer”—might have attracted less negative attention then than it does now, after he has recorded an album he called Yeezus, led a tour that featured a Jesus impersonator, and declared on wax that he is “a god.” Similarly, in 2003, Jay could still record a song that features an adoring crowd—as he does on Kanye’s other contribution to Black, “Encore”—without anyone thinking much about the fact that the name that crowd chants is an abbreviation for the unspeakable tetragrammaton of the Hebrew Bible. Jay didn’t just call himself “a god,” he casually referred to himself “the” god. But at that time, he could still throw up his “diamond” hand signal without many people making claims—mainly via YouTube videos—that it was proof of his association with a secret society. The triangulation of artists between old fashioned media and the assortment of more-recent ways we’re granted more access than anyone should have into other peoples’ lives hadn’t made celebrity the hall of mirrors it is now. No one knew who the Kardashians were.

In 2003, Jay hadn’t dismantled Roc-A-Fella yet, embittering several former compatriots and necessitating the PR move of asserting, on Drake’s “Pound Cake,” that he’d “made more millionaires than the lotto did.” Those beneficiaries still made a point of “spilling their feelings in the air,” as Jay notes on Kanye’s “Monster,” and Kanye himself joined their ranks, making remarks that Jay appears to have considered unforgivable in a rift that still hasn’t healed. Jay-Z and everyone around him, besides Kanye, was at the height of their rap prowess when The Black Album came out. He would go on to make bigger business deals than he had at that point, but in the lacuna for rap labels between the fall of Napster and the rise of YouTube’s access to music and, well, everything else, Jay-Z released an album that, for the most part, people had to buy if they wanted to hear. He’s tried to replicate this feat since then, limiting access to his “product” with Tidal streaming service, but his success with that has been dubious.

Jay-Z has released albums that are ambitious since The Black Album, including one that includes the words “Holy Grail” in its title and came out through a trail-blazing partnership with Samsung, ensuring that it was certified platinum on the day it debuted. But his ambition on The Black Album wasn’t a stretch. As he puts it on “What More Can I Say?,” at that time, there had simply “never been a [rapper] this good for this long.” Many will argue that the Jay album that dropped on “the same date as the Twin Towers” is his finest work, and there are certainly compelling points to be made in support of The Blueprint. Many of the elements that make Black what it is were present on that outing, including production from Kanye, Just Blaze, Timbaland and Eminem. But one of the main things people like about Blueprint was the fact that Jay stepped out of character, rapping in a more vulnerable way than had become his custom, seemingly inspired by the soulful production of his accomplices, and allowing us personal insight into his past. Even though Jay did a great job on The Blueprint of providing what some listeners say he should have done more of all along, The Black Album is the best example of him doing what he does best: making polished declarations of his success that are both thoughtful and triumphant. Fifteen years later, these songs still ring true.


Robbin Williams is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Kansas. In addition to theorizing about connections between hip-hop and countless other aspects of modern life, he’s interested in critical theory and the manner in which ideas about the mind and the body relate to race.