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Lead designer on ‘Story of O.J.’ video tells us what it’s like to work with Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s visuals for “The Story of O.J.” feels like an important moment in the history of rap music.

The second track off of Hov’s controversial album 4:44 serves as an educational, racial, and financial depiction of the identity of African-Americans.

The video, which was exclusively available on Tidal, went public on Youtube last week allowing wide access to the content. If you haven’t seen it yet please take some time to peep it below. Warning: You need to watch this.

Directors for the video Mark Romanek and Jay-Z collaborated over the course of six weeks with a team of animators, 3D modelers, and designers to produce this mind-boggling masterpiece.

Can you imagine working on a project that holds so much racial subject matter? Rustam Hasanov, lead character designer on the project, can.

In an exclusive interview with Kulture Hub, we asked Rustam about his experience working on Hov’s latest masterpiece.

According to Hasanov, who has worked on the Game of Thrones intro concept design and as art director on the animated Netflix movie Trollhunter, “The Story of O.J.” was a special project,

“It was definitely different. More than anything else, the timeline of this was really tight and the budget was pretty tight. Basically, the whole project was finished in 6 weeks and if you are familiar with animation that’s a very fast turn around on something like this, especially for something this sensitive in terms of the subject matter.”

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Hasanov continued,

“There was a ballpark, a gray area, of what we could hit and if we didn’t quite get it right I knew it could be catastrophic and that it could be misconstrued and misinterpreted in terms of what the intention behind the video was. So, we were very careful about how we were going to address all the stereotypes and how we were going to clarify exactly what the designs were going to say.”

What was the biggest challenge? Hasanov had to imagine what it would be like to be a 1930s cartoonist.

“Imagine doing these horrible racial stereotypes and turning them into entertainment for children. If you are an artist you know exactly what you are doing and you know that it’s bad, but they did it anyway. That’s exactly what we were doing too. That was the part we were nervous about, are we just repeating the same thing and are we fetishizing these stereotypes or are we making a statement? To us very much, we were on the side that we are not regurgitating this content, we’re making a statement about it.”

Hasanov had no idea what he was getting himself into. All he knew was that he always wanted to work on something that had meaning behind it.

Rustam Hasanov

One day, Hasanov received an email from his colleague Lisha Tan, the creative director on the project.

Tan and Hasanov worked on projects together before and she knew he was the right fit. His experience creating environments and characters, as well as working with tight deadlines was exactly what the project called for.

It was when Tim Delvin, art director of “The Story of O.J.,” pitched Hasanov the project, showed him the storyline, and said it was for Jay-Z he knew that it was a great fit.

“I found out from Tim Delvin who was the art director. I basically came in, he pitched the project to me, what the idea was and said, ‘it is for Jay-Z.’ At that point, I didn’t know the song and I thought, ‘God this could go very wrong’ because he just showed some imagery – the racist references and cartoons were shown to me first. Yeah, that was a little unnerving.”

Rustam Hasanov

Hasanov continued,

“But, I was excited because this is exactly the kind of thing I should be working on. Up to that point, I was really anxious to work on something like this, something that had a lot of meaning behind it. As soon as he said that I was a little bit nervous, but then I was like, ‘Oh man! This is going to be great.'”

I wondered what it was like to see the imagery for the video before hearing the song that would go with it. I asked Hasanov what he felt like after he heard the whole track. This was his “Oh shit” moment.

“Once I listened to the song and understood what the message was, I was like, ‘Ok I have to do everything I possibly can to make sure this is done right because if it’s done right, this could be an incredible and powerful message.’ I think after I listened to the song that was my holy shit moment because that’s when I realized what the potential of this song could be.”

A lot of potential indeed. Race is definitely a very touchy subject. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be white and work on a project that brings racial tension to light like “The Story of O.J.” does.

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Hasanov doesn’t think being white is an excuse to opt out of the conversation.

“If you’re white I think it’s kind of a way to opt out of the conversation just by using the excuse, ‘I didn’t have these experiences, so I shouldn’t have an opinion about it.’ And I think that’s completely wrong. I just think racial relations or just race and the context and the history of all that is so important to the entire identity of this country. If you’re someone that doesn’t have an opinion on it or if you don’t want to have the conversation, I think, it’s almost irresponsible.”

“The Story of O.J.” is very complex and has a lot of underlying messages. It took me a couple of views to understand the context of the video.

One thing that stood out to me and Hasanov was the Nina Simone sample, “Four Women.” The four women represent four different generations.

Nina Simone is represented as the last generation in the song, the archetypal black slave woman that was taken from Africa brought to this country and sold on the block. There’s also the burlesque dancer and the Scrub Me Mama character.

Rustam Hasanov

In relation to the four generations presented in the video, Hasanov explained,

“We tried to echo the song with those characters and how they represent continuing generations, from one to the next. The song suggests that Jay is really speaking to the fifth generation. How do we build on what we learned from history and use that to define and own this new identity?

Hasanov wasn’t a fan of Jay-Z, until this project. Working on “The Story of O.J.,” Hasanov learned how to approach a sensitive subject in the right way and that you cannot side step away from the truth.

He found a new respect for the Marcy artist saying,

“One thing that made me respect Jay-Z a lot as an artist is there was a moment where we had an early version of the storyboard for the music video that we gave to him. We were waiting anxiously on a response and the response he gave us was ‘it wasn’t hard hitting enough.’ He wanted more of a gut punch with the imagery. That made me feel like ‘whoa, he really wants to say something intense he doesn’t want to side step anything'”

The song and video made Hasanov develop a new understanding of a culture that he stands outside of.

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There are no real solutions provided in “The Story of O.J.” but to Hasanov, what’s most important is that it starts a conversation.

“To me, I don’t necessarily think there are any solutions provided in the video of how we can move on but the power in the video is that it’s going to start a conversation and its going to make people more self aware of how to go about doing that. That’s very powerful.”

Peep more of Hasanov’s work over at his Instagram.

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