In his new music video for the song “G.O.M.D.,” the North Carolina rapper J. Cole takes it back to the South—complete with antebellum-style dress and the not so distant memory of slavery. Filmed at a plantation in Napoleonville, Louisiana, nearly an hour and a half outside of New Orleans, the video depicts an in-house slave rebellion, with a house slave depicted by Cole as the lead protagonist. However, this isn’t just any slave rebellion–the underlying causal effects of slavery creep to the surface in unexpected ways.We sat down with the rapper in New Orleans, hours after the video dropped, and discussed the visual direction he chose to take with the song, classism and colorism, and addressing these issues within hip hop and the black community.
Saint Heron: So, you dropped a big video today.
J. Cole: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, that was crazy.
In the video, we can kind of gauge who you’re referring to, in a sense, but ultimately, who are you telling to get off your dick?
Like in actuality?
Whoever’s on my dick [laughs]. I mean, it sounds like a very shallow thing, but it means a lot. You just feel like you’re up against a lot of people, up against a lot of shit, people doubt you. Basically that’s it. Niggas is doubtin’ and niggas is hatin’. It seems very petty, but it’s real. I guess life has to work like that. Like, no one is going to get 100% love. It’s impossible. They were against Jesus and Gandhi and Martin and Malcolm. So it’s like, no one is ever going to have an easy, clear path full of love and nothing but support. Everybody’s always going to have friction. It’s just telling those people to get the fuck off my dick, you know?
You said the video was filmed in Louisiana. Why here? Was it because of the plantations?
No, we have plantations in Carolina, but there’s something about the trees down here.
The willows or the huge live oaks with the moss?
The moss! Exactly. There’s something about those trees. I don’t know where you find that in other places—maybe like Savannah or something?
Yeah, I think Georgia has them, but, you know, we have the best [laughs].
[Laughs] Word! It was just a way cooler, creepier setting for like a plantation.
Can you tell me a little about the lyrical development behind “G.O.M.D.” and how that translates into the music video and the visual direction you chose to take?
You know, honestly, it’s a video idea I had on my last album for a song called “Chaining Day.” I always wanted to do that video. I had that video idea in my head for like two years or so, and like, I always wanted to make that statement, because it comments on so much. So the video idea was honestly already there before the song was ever made. It just so happens that on that song, I sampled this old, field song that used to be sung by like railroad workers. The first time I heard it, it was at this play called “The Piano Lesson.” My mom took me to see it when I was back home in Fayetteville. The man who wrote it, [August] Wilson, is like one of the best black playwrights that ever lived.
What was it like?
Well, I went to see it, and in the kitchen scene, the guy starts singing this song. Basically, he did a play for every decade that he was alive. This play took place during like the 30’s or 20’s. In one of his scenes, a group of friends and family all start reminiscing on the days when they used to work on the railroad, and they used to sing this song. When I heard them singing it live, I’m looking around the theatre like, “Yo, do y’all know how crazy this is? Like, yo, this shit sounds amazing” [laughs]. I went home and prayed that I could find that sample. So I looked it up, and it turns out they did a TV version of the play. I went and watched that joint, and sure enough, they sung that same song. I tried sampling it off of that first, but then, come to find out, the guy that did the soundtrack for that television movie was selling it. So I just bought that shit [laughs]. Because it’s a reference to that time, and not necessarily slavery, but like the Jim Crow era South, the video treatment felt like that. So that’s the real answer behind why that video is with that song.
Why did you choose to take this video back to slavery and create sort of this period piece?
Well, I struggled, because first of all, I wanted to do like a Hype Williams-style video for this song so bad, because I’ve never done one of those. I felt like if I did do one of those, this would be the song to do it with. So, I battled with that urge to go the typical route with this video, because I feel like that’s what everyone expected. And every video I’ve ever done has never really been expected, so I was just like fuck it, let’s do it. The video is really more of a commentary on the need for unity and togetherness more so than it is a comment on racism, because [the black community] knows—we all know about oppression. We’re all aware of that. What we’re not aware of is the dysfunction within our own community. You know what I mean? The fact that there are levels to us economically and because of the different skin colors within our own race. We’re not aware of that. We’re aware of the other shit.
So we’re against the outside already.
Yeah, we’re against the outside, but we’re not looking around and being like, damn, we’re actually against each other too. It’s like the minute that we come together and start to cut out all of the classism that exists among black people and the skin color differences among black people. It’s really for that reason. Then there’s this whole “real nigga” conversation. The field niggas are the real niggas. Today, the schoolboy—the boy who went to college and did something with himself—he’s the soft, house nigga.
So, that’s who you were portraying in the video?
Yeah, that’s why I play that guy [laughs]. I’m not on the block; I didn’t come up in the streets to where I have a cool drug dealer story or a cool gangsta story like the real niggas got—like the real rappers and how we perceive them. Like, “I fuck with this rapper cause he a real nigga—cause he’s talking about this, that, and the third.” But really it’s like, nah. He was just more oppressed. He was just in a more fucked up situation. Just like the field slave. He’s in the worst position on the whole plantation. So there’s that correlation there, and the fact that in the video I was seeking for that approval. If you notice, I was like, “What’s up fellas!” I want them to like me [laughs]. Our mindset is so fucked up that the people that actually found a way to escape the oppression, either through their own merit or through their parents providing them with the opportunities, are seeking approval from the more oppressed. They want the stamp. They wanna be real! Look at the way I talk. I’m a college graduate. Every person I know that graduated college, our preferred speak, which we can switch on and off, our preferred speak is more relaxed and more street. So that’s what it was like for me in the video being like “What’s up fellas? We in this together, right?”
And they’re like “Nah” [laughs].
They’re like, “Nigga fuck you!” [laughs].
I know you worked with Kendrick Lamar in the past, and he just released his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It seems as though both of your albums and your new video specifically, have these shared undertones of unity within the Black community. Was this something the two of you established mutually or were you both just intuitive of what needed to happen in rap music?
It wasn’t a conscious effort of, “Yo, we’re gonna do it like this.” I can speak for myself; I can’t speak for another man, but I know what’s in my heart and I know what I want to say and the messages I want to get across. But yeah, we do have conversations when we get together about the same shit that we’re talking about and rapping about. Everything that I’m revealing on my album, I was telling him. Like, “Yo this is what I figured out. I see this shit like this. I might not even be doing this shit no more because I see this.” You know, I’m telling him all this. Even with his album, I haven’t been able to dive all the way in his joint, but I know that there’s a moment where he’s calling for unity no matter the gang color.
I had just read this book called “Monster,” which is the story of Monster Kody—this dude from South Central. It’s the wildest book you’ll ever read in your life because all the shit niggas be rapping about or the gangsta shit N.W.A. came in the game with, he was actually doing it—murder, crime, robbery, and for fun! He lived in a war zone. His whole neighborhood was a war zone between colors and what block you live on. So I was just talking to him about that. The fact that even Monster Kody viewed the whole thing to be so fucking stupid, when you look at it. When you examine it, you realize how fucked up the mentality needs to be that you killing another black man over what street he lives on. No disrespect to them, because they are literally brought up in that. I’m just explaining to him, like yo, I feel like you can do it. You have the respect of that neighborhood and L.A. on another level. If anybody can come through and put an end to this shit, it gotta be you. The thing is, music is powerful, but I don’t know how powerful it is. I don’t know what it can actually do, but I respect him for speaking on it. That nigga’s an amazing artist from top to bottom.