JAY-Z’s Latest Problem: Performative Activism

This is far from the billionaire rapper’s first time “selling out”, but this is “a huge disservice” to black and brown youth everywhere.

A Screencap from JAY Z’s “The Story of O.J.”, featuring its character Jaybo on the Brooklyn Bridge.

In September 2017, I was graced with last minute tickets to go see the Meadows Arts & Music Festival, where JAY Z was headlining. It was an awesome show and of course, the Citi Field area was packed to see the rap superstar mere weeks after the release of his 13th studio album, 4:44. I happened to start recording when he started performing the critically acclaimed “The Story of O.J.” when he took a moment to address the crowd:

“I wanna dedicate this song to Colin Kaepernick tonight…I wanna dedicate this song to Dick Gregory right now…sing along.” The crowd, myself included, cheered this shout out. Once my video was out and I shared it with permission to the @TeamColinKaepernick Instagram, it spread like wildfire and was picked up by LoudGenius and The Shade Room, among other places, where it’s gained a compiled 600,000 views to date. The story was picked up by national publications all weekend.

“I want to dedicate this song to anybody that was held back and you overcame whatever it was, feel me?”

For me, as a supporter of Kaepernick and a lifelong Hov fan, it was an unexpected but needed recognition of Kaepernick’s activism, and a seemingly combination of two important forces championing for black people. Kaepernick started drawing massive headlines in 2016 when he began to kneel during the performance of “The National Anthem” before his NFL games. The quarterback, who had been on the losing side of Super Bowl XLVII just 3 years before, became the leader of a movement that spread like wildfire, transcending the issue of racial injustice and police brutality beyond American football and sports alone. The next week, Donald Trump would express his disgust toward Kaepernick and other protestors by saying kneeling was “a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” The week after that, Jay opened the next season of Saturday Night Live with performances wearing a custom black Kaepernick jersey.

A screencap from the video for “The Story of O.J.” By Newsbusters.org.

Two years since, Jay is now rapping a different tune. He had turned down a Super Bowl Halftime Show offer and publicly taunted the NFL with his lyrics in “APESHIT” — “You need me, I don’t need you.” The $75 Billion dollar league realized that in some ways, this was true, so they struck a deal with Jay and his Roc Nation enterprise to be the official live entertainment strategist for the league. This includes consulting and planning of the Super Bowl Halftime Show, which is considered to be the largest and most watched annual concert in the world. The NFL has struggled, especially post-Kaepernick, in attracting non-white audiences to the league. With the exception of Beyoncé — JAY Z’s wife — in 2013 with Destiny’s Child, the last 8 Halftime Shows featured predominantly white pop acts (Bruno Mars in 2014 served as the latest non-white headliner, and his show included the Red Hot Chili Peppers). The NFL has struggled to put together a show desirable for all audiences in polarizing times. Month after month, numerous reports of superstar acts from P!nk to Rihanna turning down the coveted gig (which, to this point, does not pay performers) in alleged support of Kaepernick were headline news. Last year’s show, Super Bowl LIII starring Maroon 5, became the most criticized to date. The choice of the California mostly-white band for the Atlanta show instead of a performer that represented the rich, predominantly black music heritage in the local area caused a PR nightmare for both the band and the league. They tried to remedy this with including Big Boi and Travis Scott in the show and throwing chucks of money at social justice campaigns, to little avail for the most part.

With hip hop now recognized as the most popular genre in music and much of its target audience being black and brown youth, The league of nearly 70% African-American/Black players can’t ignore the non-white sect of its audiences anymore. The fact is, there will be a portion of viewers that will refrain from watching as long as Colin Kaepernick is unsigned and many within the league proudly support the Trump administration. With the XFL coming hot and heavy as a potential alternative, the pressure is on for the NFL. Even Trump, Kaepernick’s loudest critic, has changed tune, claiming last week that he would be ‘love’ to see the quarterback playing again “if he’s good enough.”

Last year, Kaepernick and former teammate Eric Reid settled with the league regarding the latter’s alleged blackballing of the two, and the NFL probably expected that would bring an end to the matter — but that’s been farthest from reality, as the issue still plagues their public perception. They have quietly continued to try to remedy the issue ever since, and getting Hip Hop’s richest man and first billionaire joining sides with them is its largest attempt yet.

With this announcement also came a claim from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he had “invited” Kaepernick to speak to the league regarding social justice, to no response (as of yet). JAY Z also commented to the Wall Street Journal that “We like to think that the way we build the [NFL’s social-awareness program] Inspire Change platform, that if anything close to that would happen in the future, then Kaepernick would have a platform where he can express himself and maybe it doesn’t have to take place on the field.”

Make no mistake, JAY Z has and always will be about his money first, just like any corporation — “I’m not a business man, I’m a business, man,” as his own lyrics go. Here within lies the problem for both Hov and the NFL — they are not, and have never been, willing to compromise their bottom lines to actually work toward social change. Both earn a large amount of money through performative activism, as JAY Z did with his Kaepernick shout out that night in September 2017. With this move, JAY Z is not instituting reform in the league — he is becoming a part of them, and his new tune is in defense of his organization’s profit margin. JAY Z is the NFL, and no phone call to Kaepernick, especially after the fact, will change that. They are returning the pressure on them onto Kaepernick to publicly reunite with the league with little furor. This move is a huge disservice to Kaepernick, his activism, but most of all, the black and brown youth that these protests are largely in defense of and the league target demographic.

If JAY Z was actually interested in making major change within the NFL or its entities, he would’ve at least consulted or spoke to Kaepernick, which Variety reports he did not, as does Reid. He would not be vocally pushing the company line in promotion of the league’s performative ‘Inspire Change’ operations, which is a direct product of the questionable leadership of The NFL Players’ Coalition by Malcolm Jenkins, which Reid has heavily criticized, culminated in a near-fight on the field between the two last season. Reid regards Jenkins as a sellout who is protecting the NFL’s interest over the actual activism. Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills is still protesting on and off the field directed at the league’s indifference toward racial injustice, specifically including his own team’s owner, Stephen Ross. Stills is one of several players who does not take part in the Coalition, partially for the same reasons as Reid.

If Jay Z hopes to help Kaepernick back into the league on his own terms, he wouldn’t be publicly suggesting he should compromise by moving his activism “off the field” as he did in his statements. As many have noted — Barack Obama among them — Kaepernick has the right to kneel or sit during the performance of the anthem; it is his choice, and his choice only, on how he manages his rights. Any suggestive tactics by the NFL and its associates directed at him to do otherwise is the exact problem within the league. Telling activists ‘how to’ protest is a disservice to their activism, and defeats the purpose: If activists wanted to avoid upsetting people with their actions, they wouldn’t be activists.

This is nothing but the furtherance of the NFL’s attempts to put pressure on Kaepernick to compromise his ethics to this point and encourage him to not kneel if he were to return to the league. Suggesting that he should “express himself” off the field also completely ignores the work that Kaepernick already does “off the field” in actual communities, such as with his Know Your Rights camps. As Yahoo! Sports columnist Charles Robinson writes, “Unquestionably, the ‘moving the protests off the field’ effort was a significant part of the NFL’s aim in 2017 and 2018…Jay-Z almost appeared to be reading from that league playbook…”

What’s most troubling about Jay’s statements was his claim that he has “no control” over the political motivations of those he does business with.

“I’m black. That’s my world…I can’t control, no one can control the world that we live in currently and people’s choice to vote self interests…” He even goes on to talk about “very, very rich people” in this context, as if he isn’t one of those people. This is his latest performative remarks, but far from the first. From publicly assisting the displacement of hundreds of fellow Brooklynites for the construction of the Barclays Center, to investing in a company that would offer GPS tracking of parolees to police and government departments two years after producing Time: The Kalief Browder Story, this is directly on brand for the rapper. JAY Z will promote or support a movement until an opportunity for a larger check comes. He is far from the only one, but the notion that he has “no control” over politics or other rich people is nonsense. America runs on money, and being a billionaire business, JAY Z knows he has the cultural and financial influence to make a significant difference in whatever he chooses. If he wants to take the money, that’s his right to do, but he shouldn’t encourage the compromising of actual activists’ work and in the same breath claim he can’t do anything about his business partner’s politics. ‘Politics’ is not even the issue here, and that’s the further disruption being promoted here: combating police brutality and racial injustice in America transcends the ballot box, and has no partisan line. The idea that Kaepernick’s protest is politically motivated as opposed to actual advocacy for marginalized youth in America is NFL propaganda designed to discredit his activism.

In his explanation behind “The Story of O.J.”, JAY Z told IHeart Radio that it “is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward. We all make money, and then we all lose money…[b]ut how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger.” I can’t say whether Hov was really invested in his support of Kaepernick or if it was faux activism from the start, but either way, JAY Z’s new problem is his turncoating. People will always love and support him due to his music and money. I’m not suggesting we throw his music in a pitfire and erase it. We simply need to be clear — he’s sold out black people before and that’s a huge part of his success and motivations.

Something that the NFL — Hov included — have missed in their statements is that this movement did not begin nor will it end with Kaepernick, he is simply considered its largest public figure. Even if he does return to the NFL soon, that won’t end the reality about racial injustices in this country and it won’t stop the thousands of other activists who are continuously fighting across the country against racism, xenophobia, police brutality and, evidently, the co-opting of their fight by “woke capitalism”. Remember this “no control” notion the next time Hov dedicates a song to those who have been ‘held back’ or ‘overcame whatever.’

In Eric Reid’s own words: “We had no beef with the NFL until they started perpetuating the systemic oppression that we are fighting by blackballing…I won’t quit playing but I will be a royal pain in the NFL’s a** for acting like they care.” If’s safe to now extend the same notion to JAY Z.

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