It’s no secret that many Black communities in America today are faced with
significant social inequalities. Why this is the case is an issue of contention, often highly politicized, and far too complex a situation to be addressed in this article. I bring it to the foreground simply to introduce the larger context within which the art to be discussed sits – and to remind us that these stories are not intended to live only on the page, in headphones, or through images, but within the lives of real people. This article will present the stories told in Jason Reynold’s revolutionary and much acclaimed novel, Long Way Down, in both its original verse and its later adaptation as a graphic novel, as well as J. Cole’s song “G.O.M.D.” as it was released on the album 2014 Forest Hills Drive and as it later appeared as a music video. This is not intended to be a detailed summary or review of these pieces, but an example of how art can shape the stories we believe about ourselves and our world. Being conscious of these stories and how they work is perhaps the best thing we can do to create positive social change – and artists like Reynolds and Cole are prime examples of how our story telling superpower can be utilized to address real-world problems.
The idea that stories are intimately connected to the conditions of society is more
than just some hippie dreamscape – many social scientists have begun to tout the
importance of social constructions; call them stories, fictions, ideas, concepts,
frameworks, worldviews, or anything you like, but it is clear that the stories we believe about ourselves, the world, and our place in it filter our perceptions and alter our behaviors in startlingly ways. A preeminent voice on this matter is historian Yuval Noah Harari, who concludes that “human…power depends on creating and believing fictions.” Broadly speaking, these include major categories such as corporations, ideologies, religious beliefs, nationalism, currency, and the rules to a particular sport. Sociologist Rutger Bregman considers how these stories build outward from individual people to shape society, finding that data convincingly shows “ideas are never merely ideas … [and] few ideas have as much power to shape the world as our view of other people.” In this way he connects the function of stories to the real world – from an abstract story (ex. Christianity) to the people who can potentially suffer as a result of said story (ex. non-Christian individuals). Phrased in the words of scientist and Indigenous teacher Robin Wall Kimmerer, “the stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.” Clearly, then, it is advantageous for everyone if stories producing beneficial behavior are shared, popularized, and accepted in society. This is where art can step in, helping us recognize the role of stories and shaping, or building, narratives that will best serve
The original version of Long Way Down, a novel written in verse, contains many
anagrams (words containing the same letters that relate, like canoe and ocean) which perfectly encapsulates the idea of a radical change that doesn’t result in a loss of identity, but rather a new form of being. In this narrative, readers follow the story of a 15-year-old boy, Will, following the shooting of his older brother, Shawn. We get to see how “The Rules” influence his thought process and actions immediately following this tragic event. The Rules are simple: 1) no crying, 2) no snitching, and 3) get revenge if (when) someone you love is killed. Will recognizes that this structure wasn’t invented by anyone who had his interests in mind, saying “The invention of the rules / ain’t come from my / brother, / his friends, / my dad, / my uncle, / the guys outside, / the hustlers and shooters, / and definitely not from / me.” but he knows that “They weren’t meant to be broken. / They were meant for the broken / to follow.” (34, 35). Through the rules, readers see that grief (crying) is not an adequate way to fully deal with such a loss. Justice must come to the killer. Simply giving information to the police about the suspect (snitching) –even though Will thinks (knows) that it
had to be a man named Riggs— is also not an acceptable option. Will later states that in the wake of this horrible event he “had purpose / and [knew] that this was about family” because of being taught The Rules (141). The Rules, which told him that “If someone you love / gets killed, / find the person / who killed / them and / kill them.” (33). However, the ghosts of those killed before him seem to have different opinions about The Rules, though they never explicitly state as much in the book. Through visits from 6 ghosts of people killed by gang violence (3 of which are Will’s own immediate family) the reader is shown how as a result of The Rules innocent targets die (due to stray bullets or a wrongly identified culprit), how those left behind (such as Will’s mom) suffer from it, and how this tragic script never stops (Will doesn’t seem to change his mind).
Except that it can. If Will recognizes how The Rules perpetuate violence rather
than justice, he can change or replace them. This requires a destruction of what is
known, what is taught as fact. It requires the skilled rearrangement of an anagram. It
requires the recognition that even a new set of beliefs can hold related meanings –
through ties such as the importance of family, for example. Of course, in real life
changing this story would be further complicated by layers of societal stories outside
Will’s control. Things like laws and policing, others in his community, and so on – but that doesn’t negate the potential power of revising the stories people like Will are taught to believe in and follow. It’s no accident that this story features a young man, and is aimed at young audiences, either. Young adults are less likely to already find their lives wound up in intricate ways with stories like those The Rules represent. In this novel, Reynolds is acting as a guide, showing that stories like The Rules—no matter how powerful and entrenched in a culture—are just stories and can be changed or rejected by the individual. Long Way Down’s adaptation into the format of a graphic novel has further added to its ability to communicate the significance of changing such stories as the images bring this story to life in heart breaking fashion. Further, it is likely to garner more interest and resonance from young readers, who may not be interested in what is essentially a book of poetry.
The way that a story gets told can alter far more than just the audience that it
attracts though. The song “G.O.M.D.,” featured on hip-hop artist J. Cole’s most well-
known album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, is a glistening example of the malleability of
stories. On an initial listen, the song appears to mostly be about him coming to terms
with the differences in his life after becoming a celebrity – and the chorus of “Get off my dick” appears to be aimed at people from his home community, calling them out for being fake, not focusing on the importance of love, treating him different, etc. In
fact, the only hint of a discussion about broader issues comes in four lines near the end of the song, where Cole says: “Why every rich black n*gga gotta be famous? / Why every broke black n*gga gotta be brainless? / That’s a stereotype, / driven by some people up in Ariel Heights.” Beyond this brief statement about the hegemony that elites use to perpetuate racist stereotypes to this day, the song appears devoid of any reference to larger social issues.
However, with the release of a music video, a whole new story was breathed into
the song. The video shows Cole on a slave plantation, working in the house rather than the fields – in context likely due to his lighter skin tone, but in conjunction with the song showing his different status as a celebrity. In the video, Cole takes advantage of an opportunity to steal the key to a gun safe and – aided by a young woman of the slave owner’s family – leads a successful rebellion against the members of the household. This adds two significant dimensions to the message of this song. The first, of course, is a recognition of the history of his ancestors. This is
done in a way that seems to show how far they have come, while implying that they still have battles to fight. A worthy message, certainly. However, the second dimension seems altogether more significant and fitting with the lyrics of the song. It is also a message that Cole himself has affirmed regarding this video when he stated that “the video is…a commentary on the need for unity and togetherness.” 8 This makes the lyrics of people no longer treating him as one of their own cut far deeper, as it now seems to represent all divisions among Black communities across America. Similarly, the repetition of lines like “Get off my dick” and “Everyday I thank the man upstairs / that I ain’t you and you ain’t me” now appear to
extend to anyone who is against him in these fights for equality. Cole seems to suggest that with a more cohesive community, and an emphasis on love, forward progress can be made; that their history and culture can be revived today and used as a tool for togetherness, ultimately for liberation. The video closes with a scene of the newly freed dancing together. Coupled with the lyrics this implies that through recognizing the way stories about each other (stereotypes) keep them divided, they can choose to abandon these divisions, embrace each other, and find success through this unity.
This way of approaching change may sound like a politician telling everyone that
together we’ll achieve wonderful things before hiding away in their office, never to be seen again – but the key difference here is that the stories being told by these artists are attuned to resonate and fit within these peoples’ actual realities. These are
messages that don’t shy away from the ugly reality of gang violence, generational
trauma, or racism. Instead, they take this suffering and ask the question – how can we take actionable steps to make this better? The answer starts with stories. These stories will necessarily be diverse – some creating the illusion of destruction as they are rearranged to form a story that is an anagram to the original, others reclaiming elements of historical stories to be used for a modern purpose, and others still being changed, rearranged, or built anew in ways ranging from mundane to radical. What matters is that we see the power in all these stories, paying attention to what is being said and brought into being through them. In the case of both examples given here there is a grand narrative, and a radical call to adapt our ways of thinking about the people and systems around us. This makes it easier to see the significance of considering such stories, and easier to examine – and hopefully improve – our own stories about these social issues. Oftentimes, though, the antidote to stories with the most dramatic effect on human suffering are hidden right on the library bookshelf, our phone screen, or the speakers in our car; packaged as entertainment and thus never entertained by people with a serious mind. Luckily this issue is easy to address: read, listen, watch, think, and share with an awareness of the connection between stories and human experiences, actions, and outcomes.
1. Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down (Atheneum, 2017).
2. Jason Reynolds and Danica Novgorodoff, Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel
3. Jermaine Cole, “G.O.M.D.,” Dreamville Records, track 8 on 2014 Forest Hills
4. Jermaine Cole, “J. Cole – G.O.M.D” March 23, 2015.
5. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21 st Century (Random House, 2018), 240.
6. Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury, 2020), 9.
7. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions, 2013), 30.
8. Rob Markman, “J. Cole Reveals the Deeper Meaning Behind his ‘G.O.M.D.’
Video.” MTV, March 27, 2015. https://www.mtv.com/news/g244yt/j-cole-gomd-