Jay-Z’s album 4:44 is widely known as a response to Beyonce’s blaring personal exposure of an album Lemonade. But the rapper’s album last year also got a lot of buzz for a poignant song called “Smile,” which featured a personal touch from his mother Gloria Carter.
After living his life with a seemingly “normal” mother, Jay-Z found out that all along his mother was living her life as a lie. She opened up to her son and said she had fallen in love with a woman, and had been a lesbian her whole life. The conversation led Jay to tears and sparked the song “Smile” with an outro from Gloria in part saying,
“Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be
No harm for them, no harm for me
But life is short, and it’s time to be free
Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed
The song and Gloria were honored at the GLAAD Awards this past weekend in New York. Good Morning America host Robin Roberts introduced Ms. Carter at the awards show with a wave of praise and thanks for telling her story to the world. She thanked her for “start[ing] a global conversation [about lesbian women of color] that has helped countless women.” She continued by saying, “There’s the courage of a mother whose life has been fenced in by stigma and financial challenges. This mother looks into her child’s eyes, and in this case, that child is embraced and exalted by a community that has traditionally not been accepting of LGBTQ people.”
Indeed her story is an inspiration for lesbian women of color, an unfortunate stigma which still exists for women and gay men of color. Gloria took the mic and began her thank you speech by first referencing the initial conversation with her son.
“‘Smile’ became a reality because I shared with my son who I am,” Carter explained. “For me, this was the first time I spoke to anyone about who I really am. My son cried and said, ‘It must have been horrible to live that way for so long.’ My life wasn’t horrible. I chose to protect my family from ignorance. I was happy, but I was not free.”
Jay’s perspective was revealed on his interview with David Letterman on his Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman asked about the song and his reaction to his mother’s statement and Jay said, “I was so happy for her that she was free.”
Here’s a snippet of the lyrics from “Smile” referencing Gloria’s struggle from Jay’s perspective as an adult and his feelings on her hidden life.
“Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian
Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian
Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate
Society shame and the pain was too much to take
Cried tears of joy when you fell in love
Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her
I just wanna see you smile through all the hate
Marie Antoinette, baby, let ’em eat cake”
Gloria felt compelled to finally tell her son her truth after falling in love with a woman, her current partner. “One day I met someone that made my heart sing – made me no longer want to sneak a peep at them but look at them with loving eyes,” she said. “Love gave me the courage to take the power that I allowed other people to have over my life for fear of them revealing a secret that wasn’t really a secret.”
She ended her acceptance speech on a positive note, and one coming from a place of great acceptance and growth. “Here I am,” she said. “I’m loving. I’m respectful. I’m productive! And I’m a human being who has a right to love who I love. So everybody: Just smile, be free. Thank you and God bless.”