By Ryan Velez
One may recall the central character of Jay-Z’s The Story of O.J. music video, Jaybo. While based off of the racially controversial Little Black Sambo character from 1899, it looks like we may not be seeing the last of Jaybo, according to The Daily Mail, as Jay-Z has filed a trademark for it.
The trademark was filed by Jay’s company S. Carter Enterprises. In the documents of the filing, the company says it plans to put Jaybo on merchandises including T-shirts, sweaters, and hats, according to the publication. You may even see Jaybo on home goods items including pillow shams, blankets, dinnerware, mugs, cocktail shakers, and thermal containers. The original story of Little Black Sambo was actually praised in its time for being a rare positive portrayal of Black children, but its stereotypes have long eclipsed any positivity in its legacy. Sambo is one example of many of the “minstrel” type artwork that has portrayed black people in a certain light for a long time since
On paper, there’s nothing wrong with Jay-Z trying to make a little money off of this creation. Many artists have done the same. But when you bring the racial history of Jaybo’s appearance to the fore, you open up a Pandora’s box of issues. For example, Jaybo may be seen as a clever example of Jay-Z trying to take something that was used against Black people and reclaim it, using it as something to fuel his business empire. But when you merchandise something, you open it up for everyone.
What happens when a white child who doesn’t know the history of the Sambo stereotype but enjoys Jay-Z’s music buys the shirt and wears it around their friends? Does this qualify as reclaiming or does it take the punch out of any statement? There’s a difference between something like the N-word, where there are obvious social reprisals for using it, versus buying a shirt or mug with a racial image. If you buy it in private, nobody knows about it.
Jay-Z has always been a shrewd businessman, so he likely has a plan in place to address this criticism. It will be interesting to see what this plan is.