In the aftermath of the backlash against the Trayvon Martin verdict, Jay Z recently made headlines when he attended a New York City rally condemning George Zimmerman’s acquittal. His approach was classic Jay, although not in the way one might think. Whereas Jay Z the rapper, the God emcee, is borne of braggadocio and boundless confidence; Jay Z the public figure is far more measured. He rarely soapboxes, an acknowledgement of the almost king-like position he holds in popular culture that also recognizes the public’s sometimes wary view of drumbeating celebrities (think Sean Penn in a row boat).
Thus, instead of dominating the rally — making it an extension of the ubiquitous Jay-Z marketing machine — Jay instead chose to quietly attend alongside his wife, the charming and equally influential Beyonce.
Some wish Jay would do more with his clout inside the board room and amongst the MTV generation. Last week, civil rights icon and Calypso crooner Harry Belafontelashed out at the rapper-entrepreneur, admonishing him for not doing more to advance social causes.
There is much wrong with Mr. Belafonte’s stance. If nothing else, I recommend he review the lyrics to the raunchy “Big Pimpin’” before he lays out any expectation of social activism on poor Jay. Further, if he does not think Jay has done enough for the greater good of humanity, I wonder what he could possibly think of someone likeCam’ron, or the legion of other seemingly nihilistic entertainers pervading our Spotify playlists.
Belafonte’s recent criticism emphasizes the profound, generational misconceptions surrounding hip hop and its relationship to black culture. Hip hop is composed of artists who — despite being labeled cultural atheists — actively, consistently pay homage to obscure soul singers from their childhoods pioneers who made them proud of their heritage. Think Tupac’s namedrop of Marvin Gaye in “Keep Ya Head Up,” or the foundations of Kanye West’s entire discography in the early 2000s.
No artist better embodies this than Shawn Carter (AKA, Jay Z, J-Hova, Jigga Man). Not only does he link the current mold of entertainers to their musical forefathers through songs like “Ain’t No Love (In the Heart of the City),” but he consciously places himself within a larger context of African American lineage. He is, by his own admission, the fulfillment of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s respective visions for black America.
He is both proudly self-made and self-sufficient, while also being a uniter:
I feel like a young Cassius Clay/ …tell them rumble young man rumble/ …Martin had a dream, Hov gotta team — “FUTW,” Magna Carta Holy Grail
I’m representin for the seat where Rosa Parks sat/Where Malcolm X was shot/where Martin Luther was popped — “The Ruler’s Back,” The Blueprint
I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died — “Murder to Excellence,” Watch the Throne
Evoking these leaders of the modern civil rights movement is a tipping of the hat to the sacrifices they made, and recognition that Jay has become an extension of their legacies. Or at least a fulfillment of the sort of opportunity they sought out.
For years as one of the most prolific entertainers on the billboard charts, Jay Z quietly laced his albums with verses containing chock loads of social commentary (the Greek tragedy and sermonizing of “Meet the Parents,” the indictment of Reaganomics in “Blue Magic”) and, occasionally, political thought.
But, lyrics alone do not capture the way Jay Z has immersed himself in the political process, especially since the emergence of a politician by the name of Barack Obama. In his book Decoded, Jay-Z said of Obama:
“He was my peer, or close to it, like a young uncle or older brother. His defining experiences were in the nineties in the projects of Chicago… he’d seen me — or some version of me — in those Chicago streets.”
He goes on to further describe his deep admiration for Obama, as well as his own growing involvement in politics, mainly through promoting voter registration. This election cycle, he raised $4 million in one night alone by co-hosting with his wife a fundraiser for the president, charging $40,000 for entry to his 40/40 club. The feeling is clearly mutual — last fall, Obama said Jay Z exemplified “what Made in America means.”
In an era where almost every celebrity seems to have their own pet cause, Jay Z’s work with water purification in third world countries — and subsequent appearance before the United Nations — reeks more of the typical celebrity ego massage. Indeed, Jay Z’s understated work for this cause (and his foundation), coupled with the way he supported Obama without upstaging him, reveals a celebrity quite serious about social justice.
So why do we hear more about Blue Ivy and Jay’s controversial trip to Cuba than we do about his philanthropic efforts? To a degree, it is by design. Jay’s brand is the engine behind his growing $500 million empire. And no one has been savvier at defying expectations and remaining relevant than him. But, as he recognizes in Blueprint 2:
Every time there’s a tragedy, I’m the first one to help/
They call me this misogynist, but they don’t call me the dude/
To take his dollars to give gifts at the projects/
So if it is true that a mogul of Jay Z’s stature has yet not “done enough” it is only because he has co-opted himself into being a post-racial figure… with an explicitly racial past. Just like Obama — who he views, alongside Oprah Winfrey, as a public figure that must balance activism with an even hand. In fact, it is this fusion of activism and celebrity that could be the right modern template for the way stars conduct themselves politically moving forward.
The recent book Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics provides a history of the way celebrities have impacted political discourse. From Charlie Chaplin through Warren Beatty, the author explains that stars have seen mixed results when dabbling in national discussions bigger than their art. Harry Belafonte probably is best situated in the Jane Fonda category. Many celebrities make the same mistake, damaging their brand while expounding on their personal beliefs to the point where they are pigeonholed.
Jay Z seems to be adhering to the path first pursed by someone like Paul Newman, a celebrity who never let his politics overwhelm his hard-earned persona. Balancing business, politics and entertainment is like dancing on the razor’s edge. But if done correctly, this approach certainly ensures for maximum impact in the years to come. And no one today seems better suited for these times than the worldly, entrepreneurial Mr. Carter.
And if you can’t respect that/your whole perspective is whack.