Meet The Creative Women Behind Jay-Z's "4:44" Music Video [Interview]
Meet The Creative Women Behind Jay-Z's "4:44" Music Video [Interview]
Photo Credit: TK.

Meet The Creative Women Behind Jay-Z's "4:44" Music Video [Interview]

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Photo Credit: Boston Fielder. | Pictured (L-R): Melinda Nugent, Gina Harrell, Chaka Pilgrim, Elissa Blount-Moorhead.

The title track for Jay-Z's latest album release is perhaps his most direct public display at vulnerability to date.

It is less about a specific transgression or transgressions that required a public apology, it is more of a love letter to fellow former roughnecks who can't seem to shake their tough exterior to have honest conversations with one another surrounding heartbreak, failure, and loss. It seems, for Jay-Z, it as much an apology to himself as it is to anyone else.

READ: Jay-Z Announces The Official '4:44' Tour

The accompanying video to 4:44, arguablythestandout track of the album, is directed by TNEG production (comprised of Malik Sayeed, Elissa Blount-Moorhead and Arthur Jafa) and is an extension of the vulnerability displayed on the track. The video weaves in archival clips of Eartha Kitt speaking about relationships, a young boy singing along toNina Simone's "Feeling Good," couples fighting in the street via Worldstar footage and Al Green singing the love song "Judy," among other scenes of found footage.

The footage is framed by two dancing scenes that continue throughout the 8-minute video. One is of Storyboard P, whose usual acrobatics are downplayed here for more subtle and sensual movements andOkwui Okpokwasili who is also known for her direct, even bombastic movements. She is flowing, smoothly cutting through the air with determined ease. The second is Beyonc and Jay on stage dancing and smiling, but almost never directly at one other. In both stories of dance, neither of the dancers touch. It's hard to tell if it's a story of love lost and regained, or a story of honest love, where intimacy and distance can share the same household.

WATCH: The Footnotes For Jay-Z's "The Story of O.J." Music Video

We sat down with the three women behind the video, director Elissa Blount-Moorhead, a partner in TNEG, Melinda Nugent, the executive director of the production company Strangelove, Inc. and Gina Harrell, the line producer from Strangelove who all played integral parts in the making of the short film.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: TIDAL.

Okayplayer: The title track on the surface appears to be a public apology to Jay's wife, his kids and even to himself. How was it to tell this perspective with a woman's touch? What were some of the things you guys were thinking about?

Elissa Blount-Moorhead: We went through a few different concepts in the early brainstorming sessions. I'm not sure if it was a "gendered" perspective we took, though clearly, the content of the song lends itself to a cis/hetero conversation and perspective. For TNEG, it was more about trying to capture the vulnerability and honesty that we thought Jay-Z was trying to convey and to represent it through our particular lens. We started from there. Early on there were conversations about it being specifically an apology. I think at one point we heard the phrase, "a response to Lemonade," but that's not really how we looked at it. This was a specific and autonomous and obviously about contrition. But I think we wanted to take a more macro view of it. We tried to take it out of his more specific and personal agenda and match it to the wider conversation around blackness, relationships, and generational impacts throughout time and space.

Gina Harrell: At the very beginning there was another track that we came in to meet about specifically and what he was talking about was that men don't usually have these more revealing conversations with one another. Women tend to have them. I found that really interesting. I think the original track which was a James Blake track was him and Jay-Z communing with one another and saying they need those kinds of conversations as much as we need them. The track is a little different than the one we heard.

EBM: As a woman, I couldn't help but consider the introspection that went into the song. The lyrics, the lived experiences revealed. I also could not ignore the very insightful women on Jay-Z's team like Chaka Pilgrim and Inga Veronique who both had a clear voice and were very supportive of TNEG's autonomy. When women are in the building, of course, energy shifts and maybe different ideas and people get privileged. At least I hope so. I am guessing that there's no way around the fact that all of our gender identities seep out into the work and there is sensitivity there. But I can't say that that was something in the forefront of our minds when we were conceiving it.

Malik and AJ have been in a 25-year deep conversation from the technical point of view and aesthetics. We have conversations about our choiceshow happy we are to have folks on screen that people may have never seen in this context, in a popular music context.

As a black woman, when I see Okwui Okpokwasili she affirms me and the stories in my head. Her and Storyboard P's presence felt like a departure from what music videos usually do. AJ, a master at mining and curating images, was dying to create a place for Story and Okwui to demonstrate their particular potency together.

OKP: There were conversations on social media about the content of the video as a mixture of the sacred and the profane. I felt like, yeah, that's part of it, but it's also like at certain points those two worlds merge. So Basquiat and Blue Ivy, and Al Green. Showtime dancers on the subway and TMZ and Worldstar videos, I think those two worlds collide and borrow from each otherthe sacred and the profane, particularly when you're talking about the macro story of relationships and...

EBM: And us. The stories of us. TNEG's mantra is to create a cinema that, replicates the power, beauty, and alienation of black music. Blackness is complicated and relationships are complicated. This is what we care about as artists. We are not in this place of judging. Someone's sacred beauty is another person's profane. We just want it to be an honest depiction of what our culture embodies as opposed to thinking of things as these polaritiesthis is positive, this is negative. Some of the most beautiful and interesting images of us are in spaces like Worldstar. It's direct reportage. We exist thereresplendent and unmitigated.

With this work, Jay-Z seems interested in placing himself squarely with his people, not with some separate celebrity formulation. To me that desire seems congruent with the vulnerability and the strength of the desire of a group of people, only 150 years removed from slavery, now reconciling our place in this country, relationships, parenting, and love, in real time. We are all working it out together and apart.

OKP: Let's talk about the dance scenesthere's Okwui and Storyboard and then it goes back and forth between them and Beyonc and Jay-Z on tour. What I noticed about both is that in both of them neither of them touch each other. Can you elaborate?

EBM: Storyboard and Okwui in their own separate lives are incredible performance artists which is why we were so excited about having them. AJ has been excited about Okwui's work for a long time and hipped us to her. We have interacted with Story for awhile and really love him and have long wanted to create opportunities for his work. They didn't rehearse together, it was organic. The direction was a bit freestyle and a testament to more of what we saw in them individually and what we imagined in them together. We asked them to dance simultaneously, in tandem. It was more of a symbiotic happening in the same time and same space. That was really their artistry and them tapping into that more than our direction.

Melinda Nugent: It's interesting that you brought it up because I come from a dance background [as an Alvin Ailey dancer]. I was surprised that it wasn't talked about more, that we didn't have that conversation because I just internally felt that with Jay-Z this is the most honest he's ever been to the public and the family, yet he wasn't in the video.

I didn't see the dancing until we got to the edit room. That thought was a little bit in my head. It's rare to see two people dance with one another and never have them touch one another.

EBM: They did hear the music, so they knew, but they were just in the moment. They both operate at very high vibrational levels, so I am sure they can access all kind of things. We knew enough to know it would happen, so we were there to witness it, to frame it, but I wouldn't take much credit for more than that.

MN: It was like jazz.

EBM: Yeah, it was. I overheard Malik describing to one of the camera operators a need for their moves to be a correlating dance. I think that three-way movement is apparent; Okwui, Story, and the lens. I don't know that they are a literal stand-in for Jay-Z and Beyonc. I think it's more meta than that. It's like people working things out. It's funny, we didn't deconstruct it that much afterward either. It was just dope. I like reading/hearing what interpretations people have of it. If that's how people see it, then that's what it is.

OKP: Were there any behind the scenes stories with making the video?

EBM: Gina and Melinda temperament wise...I can't imagine many other people being able to produce something like this. I think people see it and they say "Oh, footage, clips, collage," so they don't understand it's more like making a painting or even a building. There are so many layers. All the clips are relational. They relate to each other in terms of scale, scope, tone, intensity and color and much more. It's a really complicated building of this thing in a responsive and fluid way. AJ has a touch as a result of making "Love is the Message," and also what he and Malik did with APEX but each one is so different and has so many elements. There was a lot of trial and error. So Gina was a life saver in terms of being a person that could support constantly shifting creativity while holding down practical realities like clearances and schedules. Jay-Z and his people were on some next level creative confidence shit. His constant refrain was, "Y'all do you." We were all very inspired by that. The way that Melinda and Gina allowed creativity was really respectful of the creative process. They put a lot line so it could be special, a departure from a typical music video. Jay-Z and his team were deferential to what we needed to make this art and for us to be our best.

GH: I think Jay-Z trusted the team of directors at TNEG, even after a very, very specific treatment dictating what this was gonna be. It definitely evolved from what was written on the page. Some of the things TNEG wanted to do included a mask of Jay-Z's face, which we were in the process of making. It was gonna be this young Jay-Z, early 20s Jay-Z and an older Jay-Z, but we didn't have enough time to get the mask exactly the way the directors wanted it, so we had to switch gears, eventually making it a lot more like "Love is the Message" at the end of the day. I think that was the best interpretation of all of it. It was such a difficult path to marry all of these imageseach image next to each other is meticulously built. It was a big project to work with all of this archival footage. I think at the end of the day this was the right way to go.

Watch the footnotes for "4:44" below + be sure to view the full video over at TIDAL:

Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor, and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train isavailable on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter@ErickaBlount.