Yeah, I said it, 4:44 is a mentoring album and here is why… It does not take very long into the album before listeners realize that there is a maturity in JAY Z’s tone. His raw talent and ability to spit lyrics from his head (I did it all without a pen, I had to remind ya’ll again) are all too familiar to fans, but his subject matter, “pregnant pauses” and vulnerability, signal a certain development and wisdom. In fact, JAY Z sounds like Black elders all over America who have endured decades of racialized experiences and now opt to bare their battle scars for the youth who have not yet had time to have the same experience or make the same mistakes. And, this is where 4:44 becomes a mentoring album. JAY Z exhibits moments of salience that at times sound like the old man sitting on the porch or standing on the street corner who insists you’re missing the point because your youth and inexperience blind you. “Listen here youngster, let me put you up on game… ” And, like many of our elders, he does this out of love. He’s listened, he’s watched, and he’s reflected and now seems ready to move into his next phase of life and share what he has learned.
“You know you owe the truth to all the youth that fell in love with Jay Z”: The first track on the album, Kill Jay Z, has been described as JAY Z talking to and checking his ego. But this also sounds very much like a conversation between him and his younger and more reckless self. His intention to come clean about the destructive ways in which he has behaved and promoted that behavior in his music is a sort of reckoning and he is more than honest about how this has hurt him and his family. This track sounds like so many of the conversations happening in the My Brother’s Keeper mentoring space, where adult men are wrestling with their former and present selves in the presence of young men and boys in an attempt to pass on some wisdom about masculinity, fatherhood, love, and marriage. In fact, this intergenerational dialogue and reflection are not only necessary but a critical component of mentoring.
“Ya’ll think it’s bougie I’m like it’s fine, but I’m tryna give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”: In The Story of OJ, already a favorite track with a gripping visual, JAY Z talks respectability and racial politics, generational wealth and much more. The track’s music is already symbolic of the intergenerational dialogue happening in mentoring spaces because it is a musical conversation between Jazz and Hip-Hop. JAY Z samples Nina Simone’s Four Women and spits verses on top of jazz piano licks. Aside from the musical symbolism, his subject matter is all too familiar in mentoring spaces where folks of color are engaging. Advice about how to spend and save money, how to recycle dollars within the community and how to navigate spaces while Black.
There is more, but you are going to have to listen to the album to hear HOV drop gems.
Here is what mentoring programs need to understand:
Communities have mentors already in them
4:44 and the messages within should remind mentoring programs that communities already have mentors and that these mentors have access to cultural knowledge and experiences that can’t be “recruited” from outside. Programs must do more to work inside and alongside these communities so that the youth we serve have access to the voices and wisdom that these community elders provide.
There is value in the diverse recruitment of mentors
How many of your mentors are having the kinds of conversations with their proteges that JAY Z is having on the 4:44 album? We need to be giving the young people we serve the opportunity to engage with mentors who can dispense this type of wisdom. The time for simple conversations about school performance is done with; we need mentors who can have complex and nuanced discussions about socio-political issues. Some of these gems can only be exchanged because of shared experiences. Don’t let your limited recruitment models keep a young person from accessing these powerful lessons. The more diverse and intentional we are about recruiting and training our mentors, the more likely it is that these conversations will take place.
Respectability is not a predictor of effective mentoring
This album is a reminder that the respectability of a mentor does not necessarily predict effectiveness. While mentoring programs have necessary safety checks in place to ensure the safety of our youth, we are also very much attached to the idea that a mentor must be an “upstanding” community member. And, our definition of “upstanding” is often based on white and middle-class ideas. We don’t often recognize Hip-Hop artists as respectable enough to be mentors and if they aren’t respectable enough then this almost always precludes the Brothers and Sisters from the neighborhood. We need to check this line of thinking and renegotiate our ideas about who can be an effective mentor.
Make space for Hip-Hop in mentoring
We need to establish spaces for matches to listen to and dialogue about pieces like 4:44. Some matches may be doing this naturally, but programs who have overlooked Hip-Hop as a living and thriving intergenerational dialogue have missed youth culture entirely. Our young people have listened to this album, and they are listening with or without the guidance of a mentor. Imagine what mentoring moments can happen when mentor and protege listen to 4:44 together and can discuss the complexities of the content. We need more of these exchanges in our mentoring programs, and Hip-Hop can help to facilitate them.
Finally, 4:44 should be a call to action for all of us. As Dr. Bettina Love says, “we can’t wait until we are 47 to start mentoring, our young people need us now”.
Torie Weiston-Serdan is author of Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide and CEO of the Youth Mentoring Action Network