Friend or Foe 2019: Jay-Z & the Need to Re-Evaluate the Role of Celebrity Activism in Hip-Hop

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The Legacy of Kaepernick’s Movement

Last week, on August 14th marked three years to the day that Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers began his peaceful protest of taking a knee during the national anthem; and act that was a direct protest specifically in-regards-to police brutality against African-Americans and racial injustice in the United States. It was an act that sent shock waves throughout the league and the entire country. In one fell swoop, after taking what is probably the most passive, subdued course of action one could take to protest something as vile and horrific as police violence and racial injustice in this society; Colin Kaepernick became a symbolic figure speaking out against police brutality and advocating for racial justice in the U.S. Almost immediately Kaepernick became public enemy number one for conservatives, law enforcement, cop apologists, Donald Trump and every bigot, racist, and xenophobe imaginable. It was a protest, so simple and subtle in its execution it was nothing short of genius. For years every detractor of the Black Lives Matter movement had chastised its architects, leaders, and supporters; demanding peaceful, non-violent protests. But, when Colin Kaepernick made the simple act of taking a knee, like a hot needle from flame it set off a reaction in white America which recoiled in furious anger more than any protest or march imaginable; and it perfectly highlighted this nation’s stubborn unwillingness to confront, let alone acknowledge racism and systematic injustice in this country.

In essence, the protest struck a particular nerve within the confines of the country, particularly conservative, white America. A segment of the nation who could not believe that a black man, an accomplished, prominent athlete who had taken his team to the super bowl could have the audacity to dare use his platform not just to take a stance boldly condemning police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S.; but doing it on national television during the national anthem to highlight the fact that this country has failed to deliver on its most basic principle that ‘all men are created equal’. This, of course, is not true and has never been true in the U.S. The notion that all people are viewed, let alone treated as equals in our society is a farce; and no more true now than it was when the constitution itself was drawn up. And perhaps no instance highlights this sad reality with more clarity, more insight and such raw accuracy than the injustice of police violence and brutality which day in and day out is perpetrated against black and brown men, women, and children every single day, seven days a week, three-hundred sixty-five days a year without end. The protest itself sparked a movement. With dozens of fellow players from teams all throughout the NFL joining in solidarity alongside Kaepernick unified in the goal of bringing awareness to injustice, and eventually in support of Kaepernick himself and the freedom for other players to express themselves through peaceful protests in the league. Following his departure from the 49ers at the end of the 2016 season, Kaepernick went unsigned through the off-season and into 2017 training camps, leading to allegations that he was effectively being blackballed by NFL team owners because of his on-field protests as opposed to his performance. By November 2017, both Colin Kaepernick and fellow team member Eric Reid filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing the league and NFL team owners of collusion to effectively ban Kaepernick and other players who took part in political protests on the field and permanently keep them out of the league. Kaepernick and Reid’s case against the NFL was actually set to go to trial; but earlier this year on February 15, 2019, it was announced that both players had reached a confidential settlement with the NFL and withdrew the collusion case against the league. The exact number of the settlement is still unknown, due to a strict non-disclosure agreement between the players and the NFL. However, it has been estimated that the settlement could possibly be anywhere between sixty to eighty million dollars; while others have placed it at no more than ten million.

 

Jay-Z & the National Football League

Fast forward three years later, little has changed. As of this publication, it has now been over nine hundred days since Colin Kaepernick has professionally played as an NFL quarterback in the league. Fellow players such as Eric Reid (who now plays for the Carolina Panthers) and others across the league are still protesting; not just in support of Kaepernick’s original cause against police brutality and systematic racism, but also in support of Kaepernick himself who has effectively been blackballed from NFL and by all accounts will likely never play another day in the NFL. Mind you, not for football reasons; but for using his platform to take a silent, peaceful protest against injustice in this country. As if things couldn’t get even more strange, three years to the very day that Colin Kaepernick first began his peaceful protest, the NFL formally announced that it had formalized a deal with Hip-Hop artist Jay-Z; where Jay-Z and his entertainment company Roc Nation would serve as consultants to help “advise on selecting artists for major NFL performances like the Super Bowl”. Likewise, the NFL also announced that Roc Nation would play a pivotal role in the NFL’s recently launched “Inspire Change” initiative, a collaborative effort between the NFL and the Players Coalition, a group comprised of NFL players whose mission is to advance social and racial justice. It also just so happens that the initiative’s three flagship causes happen to be, “education and economic advancement; police and community relations; and criminal justice reform”. Needless to say, many people were taken back this short-sighted and seemingly self-serving move from Jay-Z; who over the past several years has meticulously crafted and honed a fine tune image of a philanthropist of sorts and using his platform as an advocate for social and racial justice here in the States.

 

Needless to say, many have found it puzzling that in light of the fact that over the past several years Jay-Z made a considerable amount of effort to publicize his philanthropic activities; even to the point of actively and vocally supporting Kaepernick in his protest that Jay-Z would come to find such a partnership with the NFL appropriate. If the deal itself wasn’t bad enough, things only seemed to get worse as more details about the agreement began to come to light. As it turns out, Jay-Z and the NFL had been in continuous talks and negations, working out the fine details of the deal for over a year! Pictures of Jay-Z and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell laughing it up like schoolboys at a meeting certainly didn’t help either. But, perhaps the most damning and telling revelation came from Jay-Z himself. During an interview with reporters at a press conference, when asked about the deal and the fallout that had come in wake following the deal’s announcement Jay-Z said this:

“I think we’ve passed kneeling…I think it’s time to go to actionable items.”

That’s what he said, Jay-Z a billionaire recording artists who never kneeled a day in his life, a man who has done nothing personally to put himself on the line said “we’ve passed kneeling”. As if kneeling wasn’t in itself an action that didn’t get Kaepernick effectively banned from the league. As if it wasn’t an action that didn’t draw the bigoted ire and scorn of Donald Trump. As if it wasn’t an action that has irreparably tarnished and damaged the reputation of the NFL for abysmal handling of the situation from 2016 all the way to today. First, this statement from Jay-Z not only comes off as condescending; it is willful and intentional ignorance on his part. Completely ignoring and disregarding the fact that Colin Kaepernick donated over one million dollars to black and brown organizations nationwide as well as organize his own Know Your Rights camps for the youth. Second, never mind the fact that players such as Eric Reid of the Carolina Panthers, as well as Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins in spite of the death threats, virulent backlash and constant blowback still continue to protest on the field in support of Colin Kaepernick and his original protest against police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S. It goes without saying players have not remained quiet, the day of the announcement of the Eric Reid laid into Jay-Z on twitter saying, “…It looks like your goal was to make millions and millions of dollars by assisting the NFL in burying Colin’s career”. The following day Reid tweeted once more saying, “Jay-Z doesn’t need the NFL’s help 2 address social injustices. It was a money move 4 him & his music business. The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin. #NeoColonialism”. Reid, like many others, made it abundantly clear that hypocrisy of the deal was not  lost on him saying, “Jay-Z knowingly made a money move with the very people who’ve committed an injustice against Colin and is using social justice to smooth it over with the black community.”

 

We Should Not Be Surprised

Now I’m not going to lie. Over the last few years, while cautiously skeptic, I really thought we were beginning to see Jay-Z turning a new leaf both in-regards-to the newly emerging nuance in his music and his overall consciousness and awareness to social movements outside of his own music as well. In 2017, Jay-Z executively produced a documentary series Time: The Kalief Browder Story chronicling the life and death of Kalief Browder, a young black man who had been detained without a trial at New York’s jail Rikers Island for three years. Browder committed suicide a little more than a year after his release, catapulting his story into the mainstream and spurring renewed efforts for prison reform and the end to mass incarceration. In 2018, Jay-Z executively produced yet another documentary series, this time about Trayvon Martin a black teenager who was stalked and killed by George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watchman in 2012. Amazon also recently released Free Meek, a docuseries co-produced by Roc Nation that chronicles the near decade long legal battle Hip-Hop artist Meek Mill, who is also signed to Roc Nation break free of U.S. probation system. Both Jay-Z and Meek Mill have also partnered as founding members of the REFORM Alliance, a group that advocates for limiting the number of people serving unfair probation and parole sentences and reforming sentencing guidelines. On top of all of this Jay-Z has also spoken on numerous occasions publicly voicing support for Kaepernick’s protest. Back in 2017 while performing on Saturday Night Live, Jay-Z wore a custom-made Colin Kaepernick jersey; and later that same year dedicated his song ‘The Story of O.J.’ to Kaepernick while performing in New York City. There have even been reports that both Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé bailed out protestors during the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings. However, an exact dollar amount and just who or how many people benefited from that donation has yet to be confirmed. Whether it has been through helping finance documentaries exposing injustice or shedding light on the indignity suffered by those caught up in the U.S. criminal justice system, donating money to bail out protesters; Jay-Z had shown behavior that the world had yet to see from him during his two decade-plus careers. Even his music was beginning to take a new turn for the better, becoming in small ways more conscious. Addressing topics and issues that many of his musical contemporaries had talked about in their music for years but just somehow never really managed to find their way into his own music. Hell, I even named his 4:44 album as my personal top mainstream album of 2017, not just for its return to form production but for the drastic switch of pace content-wise that Jay-Z packed into the album. Well, all I have to say is this, unless this deal in some way or another helps remedy the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and other players who continue to be ostracized for protesting; then all of what the man has done in regards to social justice is one hundred percent bullshit. It’s an act, a ruse. You cannot be pro-justice, pro-criminal justice reform; or even as an artist be pro-self-expression and do business with an organization like the NFL after what they’ve effectively done to Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid and other players throughout the league that dares to protest racism and police brutality on the field. You cannot pretend to be pro-justice when somebody that supposedly is your friend is being silenced by the very entity you have decided to partner with talking about the very issues you now supposedly plan to address.

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Celebrity, Hip-Hop & Activism

Here’s the thing though, if you are genuinely surprised by this move on the behalf of Jay-Z, then you clearly have not been paying attention to the man’s music for the better part of the past twenty-three years, at least. Jay-Z the man, not the hustler street image portrayed in his music, not the philanthropist or pseudo activist image crafted over the past several years. Jay-Z the flesh and blood man, who makes the day to day decisions is a hyper-capitalist to a T! The accumulation wealth and power, no matter the costs, by any means necessary is not just a reoccurring theme in his music; it is the primary theme and has been the central focal point to the subject manner and nature of Jay-Z’s musical catalog for more than two decades. It has been the primary theme of his entire career, and it is well documented across thirteen different albums at least. Honestly, nobody should be surprised that Jay-Z decided to conduct himself the way that he has. This is the same artist that said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man”. Jay-Z is a capitalist, and if a deal he likes comes along; even if it means working with the NFL at the expense of players like Colin Kaepernick, he’ll make the deal. To be honest, the move itself doesn’t surprise me, but the way in how blatantly, obvious, hypocritical and self-serving this deal is certainly does. It’s the reason why while optimistic, I have been wary of his entry into the social justice movement from the very beginning, and at the end of the day, that weariness seems to have been justified. So, am I along with plenty of social justice advocates, Hip-Hop heads and music fans disappointed by this turn of events? Absolutely, it’s the type of shameless, soulless, unscrupulous bargaining made at the expense of others that could only take place within the confines of a hyper-capitalistic, self-aggrandizing and cannibalistic culture like that of modern U.S. society. But, am I surprised? No, absolutely not.

 

If anything, remotely positive can possibly come from this ordeal it may be the fact that it has opened a potential opportunity to seriously examine and re-evaluate how much significance and value we place on so-called celebrity activism, specifically that from prominent figures within Hip-Hop. There’s a big problem with musical-artist in general, but for the sake of specificity, we’ll focus primarily on Hip-Hop artists in particular. Due to the nature and history of the music and culture itself; Hip-Hop artists are routinely referred to as ‘the voice of the streets’, ‘the voice of the people’, ‘voice of the voiceless’ etc. etc. In some instances, today that may still be true on a case by case basis, and in past decades those platitudes and titles may have carried even more truth to them; especially while Hip-Hop was a relatively new and underground musical genre that has yet to gain mainstream acceptance in U.S. society. However, in 2019 saying that a billionaire Hip-Hop artist like Jay-Z with the full backing of major record labels, media companies, clothing endorsements, book deals, and god knows what else is anything remotely close to being the ‘voice of the streets’ or ‘the voice of the voiceless’ its like saying somebody like Donald Trump is the voice of small, honest, independent business owners. Likewise, thirty years of corporatization, mass-marketing, and musical gentrification has transformed literally Hip-Hop into a billion-dollar industry and along with both the landscape and unfortunately even the fundament values of the culture.

 

Hip-Hop artists are regularly allowed to ride and sometimes even lead the wave of social justice movements with relatively little personal investment, and by large with relatively little to no risk to their own financial stability or physical well-being. In essence, opportunistic entertainers are allowed to ride and even capitalize off the wave of these progressive social movements. And because of their influence, access to people and proximity to material wealth are able to masquerade as of pseudo-intellectuals, faux revolutionaries and self-anointed leaders; reaping untold benefits without having put in the work, nor having to endure any of the risks fraught by actual activists, organizers or high-profile figures that actually stand to pay a heavy price for taking and maintaining a serious, principled stand against racism and injustice in this country. As much as fans, critics and even artists themselves want to pretend that we are living in a golden age of renewed social conscious in Hip-Hop, we’re not; at least in-regards to mainstream Hip-Hop music. And certainly not in-regards to Jay-Z caliber musicians and performers. 2019, is not 1989. There are no KRS-Ones, Public Enemies, Brand Nubians or even an N.W.A. in today’s current, contemporary Hip-Hop music scene. For every one artist like Immortal Technique, there are ten more like A$AP Rocky; that completely revel in ignorance and disparage protest like the Black Lives Matter Movement. Or, for every one artist like Killer Mike, there are more like Freddie Gibbs who last weekend took to Instagram saying, “I’m riding with Jay-Z, straight up, man. Fuck Colin Kaepernick. All y’all n***** marched for Colin Kaepernick and he took a settlement and ain’t tell y’all what he got or nothing. He settled. So there it go. Y’all hating on Jay-Z for trying to own something in the NFL. Y’all n***** is some motherfucking crabs.”

 

Activism, Charity & Business

I am a hip hop head, I am a fan of Jay-Z; I grew listening to his music. But, I never would have considered Jay-Z or his music to be conscious, uplifting Hip-Hop. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a single fan, music critic or Hip-Hop historian that would seriously from an objective position call Jay-Z’s brand of Hip-Hop ‘conscious’ music. Yet, Jay-Z has effectively positioned himself to become the new face of the NFL’s social change initiative, doing so by disingenuously capitalizing on Kaepernick’s protest and taking advantage of the NFL’s desperate, manic desire to deflect criticism regarding protests which in the end ultimately generates more money and social capital for himself. Jay-Z is essentially allowing himself to be as a prop (an expensive one, but, one nonetheless), just as countless other Hip-Hop artists of the past have been used by the rich, powerful and elite of this country. To the NFL, Jay-Z’s partnership gives them the tiniest sliver of reasonable doubt in the court of public opinion. In essence, Jay-Z henceforth is now mythical ‘black friend’ that from here on out the NFL will cite, tout and parade around any and every single time that any talks of bias and racism regarding the NFL are now brought up.

 

And let’s set something straight, the NFL itself has no power, nor the desire to further the rights of anybody in this country. Colin Kaepernick’s protest was never about that; it was always about bringing awareness, that’s what most protests are designed to. The NFL is a sports league run by billionaires for billionaires, and for Jay-Z to try and justify this partnership on the grounds that some sort of institutional change will arise from a football contract is an insult to people’s intelligence. If this deal was truly about improving anything, even just within the league itself Colin Kaepernick surely would have played a much larger role in those conversations. And from what we’ve seen, as he’s been in the NFL he has been all but completely shut out of the conversation altogether. Anybody that genuinely believes that a group of obscenely rich, entitled good ol’ boys are willing to allow one black billionaire like Jay-Z casually infiltrate NFL, and implement change clearly does not understand the systemic oppression and hurdles that people like Colin Kaepernick have been trying to bring to light. Jay-Z is not going to help fix the system from the inside-out, nor does it appear that he even remotely cares about doing so. By all accounts, it actually appears that Jay-Z is attempting to leverage and position himself into potentially acquiring minority share ownership stake in some still unnamed team. Again, if true such a move that is not designed to fix the system, it likely wouldn’t even remedy even the most immediate issue the NFL actually has the power to rectify; which is reinstating Colin Kaepernick into the league.

 

Just to be clear, money by itself does not equate to activism. Being wealthy, or in close proximity to power does not by any means automatically make anybody a decent person. Jay-Z is no more an activist in practice than any of the billionaire owners in the NFL that have effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick from the league. Likewise, Jay-Z’s ability to finance projects, express vocal support and in rare cases donate money to individual causes does make him above reproach or questioning of his intentions. As this past week has shown, Jay-Z and Hip-Hop artists in general, just like the rest of us are not immune to moral weakness. It is for this exact reason why we should have a healthy amount of skepticism and be leery of any celebrity that does not have an established history and dedication to materially fighting for justice; especially as fans of such artists, celebrities and public figures attempt to place them on these grand pedestals. History has shown as soon as the work is no longer trendy, profitable or becomes damaging to their brand; celebrities will jump ship in a heartbeat. They’ve done it before. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about to these figures. Sooner or later, when social activism is no longer trendy, or a more profitable position arises all of these supposedly ‘woke’ celebrities trying to fake the funk inevitably jump ship. While it remains to be seen who aside from the NFL will benefit from this deal as a result; one thing is clear. And that is before anyone else Jay-Z first and foremost will be the primary beneficiary of this deal. Not Colin Kaepernick, not players protesting in the NFL, not the greater community. Jay-Z. But, again, as I’ve said we should not be surprised. Anybody who’s kept track of Jay-Z’s career knows this is who he is and this is what he does. And until we begin to hold wealthy celebrities and elite public figures that knowingly and purposely position themselves to benefit off protests and movements only to abandon them when they’re socially convenient or they are no longer financially beneficial to themselves we will continue to see more or the same from Jay-Z and others.

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