When Jay-Z released 4:44 last year, millions of listeners heard the story of the rapper's mother, Gloria Carter: After concealing her sexual orientation for most of her life, Ms. Carter recently told her son she was in love with another woman. The conversation brought Jay-Z to tears and led to "Smile," which includes a stirring outro from the rapper's mother. "Love who you love," she says on the song, "because life isn't guaranteed."
Ms. Carter reiterated this message Saturday night at the GLAAD Awards at New York's Hilton Midtown, where she was honored for her role in "Smile." "I'm a human being who has a right to love who I love," Ms. Carter told an appreciative crowd. "Just smile and be free."
"Smile" was not a single on Jay-Z's album, but it has become one of the LP's most discussed tracks. When the rapper recently appeared on the show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, "Smile" was the one song that host David Letterman asked about. "I was so happy for her that she was free," Jay-Z said.
Good Morning America's Robin Roberts introduced Carter at the GLAAD Awards, praising her for "start[ing] a global conversation [about lesbian women of color] that has helped countless women." "There's the courage of a mother whose life has been fenced in by stigma and financial challenges," Roberts continued. "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. She says, 'Son, this is me' … If that doesn't accelerate acceptance, what does?"
During a brief speech read from hand-written notes – "I'm old school," Ms. Carter quipped – Jay-Z's mother remembered the conversation that sparked the song. "'Smile' became a reality because I shared with my son who I am," she 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," Ms. Carter stressed. "I chose to protect my family from ignorance. I was happy, but I was not free."
She said she was moved to come out to Jay-Z when she fell in love with 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," Ms. Carter explained. "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 speech with a series of emphatic statements. "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."
Ms. Carter was one of several honorees at the GLAAD Awards, along with the actress Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black, The Handmaid's Tale) and the director Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time). The event was hosted by Ross Mathews – "Happy Cinco de Gay-o!" he said – and also included appearances by Top 40 hitmaker Justin Tranter, who auctioned off two songs to raise $44,000 for GLAAD, and the singers Adam Lambert and Melissa Etheridge, who performed a duet of "I'm the Only One." Lambert sang with smooth grace, while Etheridge attacked each line with her trademark gravelly bite. After the two finished the performance with rounds of acrobatic vocal oneupmanship, Etheridge told the crowd, "That was as fun as it looked."
DuVernay was the night's final honoree and the most potent speaker. "I thank my LGBTQ comrades for your fight, for your resilience, for your defiance, for your daring, for your dignity, for your declaration of self," DuVernay said. " … in the words of Audre Lorde, when we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak."