Justice

Some of Jay Z's Statements on Racism Will Make You Cringe

In a recent appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s “Master Class,” rap music icon Jay Z credited hip hop with doing more for race relations in America than many activists and cultural icons.

He stated:

"I have a very interesting take on the cultural impact of hip hop and it's a strong one, so I just want to prepare people at home … I think that hip hop has done more for cultural relations than most cultural icons. And I say save Martin Luther King because his ‘Dream’ speech we realized and President Obama got elected, but the impact of the music, this music didn't only influence kids from urban areas; it influenced people around the world. People listen to this music all around the world and took to this music."

In the same interview, Jay Z also credits hip hop music with bringing the races together in clubs and said, “Racism is taught in the home. I truly believe that racism is taught when you're young … It’s very difficult to teach racism when your kid looks up to Snoop Doggy Dogg.”

While Jay Z’s heart is in the right place, his mind is quite off. 

By reducing progress to an “I Have A Dream” speech and Obama’s historic election discounts the decades of work conducted by multitudes of activists and everyday people who stood up against discrimination. He also forgets that hip hop is not the first musical genre that integrated clubs. One could actually credit 1970s disco with that, as disco was a genre performed by both black and white artists in integrated clubs. And before disco, rock n’ roll – while still marked at times by segregation – was immensely popular with white Americans whether performed by black or white artists.

Which brings us to the even bigger issue with Jay Z’s statements. He’s confusing “liking” black music and black artists with “liking” African Americans as a people and seeing them as human beings when history demonstrates it is pretty easy to enjoy the art one creates while actually caring nothing for the artist.

It’s true that hip hop has been influential in the fight for racial equality – from the powerful works of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” to the modern day activism of artists like Lupe Fiasco, Dead Prez and Talib Kweli. But since the late 1990s, hip hop has been dominated by commercial, brand name rap, a kind that Jay Z helped proliferate, that focuses more on bragging about wealth and women, than telling the truth about our society. To conclude that listening to Snoop Dogg could counteract racist notions learned about African Americans “in the home” is a little naïve. One can easily enjoy rap music – especially if it confirms their worst biases about African Americans – while still not personally caring about black people.  It’s not like Snoop was the Stokely Carmichael of Long Beach, teaching impressionable white teens about black history – he was rapping about “hoes,” smoking blunts and drinking 40s. While most of that may have been the hyper-fantasy of the gangster rap lifestyle he wanted to project, it didn’t exactly diverge from racist notions already held about black people. 

Also this idea that the entertainment black people create can fight racism on its own, is silly sounding when you consider the white majority in America has always enjoyed some form of black entertainment – from slaves being forced to perform for their masters, to minstrel shows, to Jack Johnson beating up people, to Scott Joplin’s rag time, to Amos and Andy, to Jazz and Blues, to Nat King Cole. Liking Nat King Cole or Jack Johnson didn’t make anyone progressive unless they also “liked” Nat King Cole and Jack Johnson so much they would also allow them to have a meal inside their homes or date their daughters.  Black people “performing” is a role racists are comfortable with because it doesn’t challenge the status quo and fulfills the original intent of slavery – for black people to solely exist for the service and enjoyment of anyone but themselves. It’s only when the dancing, grinning entertainer uses their platform to say something about black life that things get interesting as political views interrupt the fantasy and illusion that black people are happy with their second-class status position. 

Black art without context at times risks being not progressive or transformative at all, as it can be twisted and contorted to confirm one’s previously held racist worldview. 

Jay Z hasn’t always been the most politically or progressive minded of rappers, but in recent years he has spoken out on the prison industrial complex and police brutality. Some of this came in the aftermath of being blasted by civil rights icon Harry Belafonte when Belafonte argued that someone in Jay Z’s position could do more for the black community.

At the time Jay Z’s tone deaf retort could be summed up to that his presence was a present to race relations in America.

Jay Z told Rap Radar’s Elliot Wilson: “(My) presence is charity.”

While Jay Z is entitled to his opinions, he simply doesn’t “get it.” He doesn’t grasp the historical context or complexities around racism and art. He doesn’t grasp the nuances. He doesn’t understand that there are white people who love his music and still think Eric Garner deserved to die because he questioned the police’s authority to arrest him. That his “presence” did not erase their biases, but that they used fragments from his life story and music to confirm their biases. He may think that everyone sees what he sees – father, husband, business man, success story, but there are others who have always been drawn to him because of his negatives, of how he used to sell drugs, uses the N-word, has in the past disrespected and objectified women, and seems to only value material things. Jay Z thinks his fans are seeing him as a whole person when some only see what they want to see, stripping him of his humanity and reducing him to a racial cartoon as they bop their heads along.

It takes more to kill racism than a song.