Jay-Z and Social Advocacy: Is He Helping Us, Or Helping Himself?

In 1996, Jay-Z forged his way into the music industry with the snarky, cocky, yet intriguing and thoughtful album, Reasonable Doubt.

23 years and 15 platinum albums later, with several smart business deals, and a marriage to arguably the most popular entertainer on the planet, Jay-Z is now a billionaire.

One of the most polarizing aspects of Jay is his business deals, and how they align, or don’t align with his social advocacy efforts. His most recent business deal with the NFL has created a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions on Black Twitter and the social media fingers of Jay-Z and Beyonce fans everywhere.

Jay-Z The “Sellout”

When Colin Kaepernick’s decided to kneel at a football game in support of black police brutality victims and found himself without a job, he began to receive support from other athletes and rappers like Jay-Z.

Jay was extremely vocal about other musicians not being involved with the NFL in any way, particularity not performing or creating events around the 2019 Superbowl Half Time Show.

Fast forward to now and Jay-Z has seemingly done what he told others not to do. He has linked up with the NFL’s Inspire Change project that supposedly addresses economic advancement, criminal justice reform, and police and community relations.

He’s also inking a deal to be the first black person ever to have a major ownership stake in a football team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers.

Time and time again the NFL has shown us who they are by way of Roger Goodell and teams owners. The true identity of the league is in total contrast to their “Inspire Change” project, which sounds more like a PR front than an actual initiative, given their track record.

The NFL has tried their damnedest to sweep the CTE conversation under the rug and disregard the quality of life for their retired players. They have shown no interest in holding accountable players that abuse/sell drugs and that abuse their wives, and with the blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick from the NFL (his attorney Mark Geragos found enough evidence of this to warrant a hearing), it’s extremely clear they have no interest in social justice issues as it relates to the majority of their players- pronounced “Black Men”.

Inspiring Change? Okay.

Knowing all of this, for Jay-Z to then partner with the NFL has garnered the “sellout” and “coon” calls from black people who feel like he turned his back on the movement Kap started to make a dollar, or in his cause, another billion dollars.

I understand how it looks. Based on some of Jay’s past actions, it would seem like he’s a person that will always put his needs above the needs of.. well.. anyone. With the NFL having about as much money as God, and probably the same amount of power that they are more than willing to wield against players of color who don’t “stay in their place”, what does Jay Z think a partnership with them is going to do other than earn him more money? The NFL has shown they have no interest in dealing with Kap or anything social justice related. Can Jay really take them on and make change or is it just a front for him creating another stream of income?

This all looks, smells, and quacks like a duck, and makes Jay’s motives seem extremely personal, but there’s the other side of the coin.

Jay-Z The Social Advocate

It’s clear Jay-Z wants to do.. something for black men. He helped Lil Wayne with back taxes, he was Executive Producer of “Rest In Power”, The Trayvon Martin Story and “Time: The Kalif Browder Story”, he hired a lawyer for 21 Savage, and he has been a hero of sorts for Meek Mill’s legal issues, which has resulted in “The Reform Alliance”, a partnership between Meek and Jay to address inequalities black men face in the criminal justice system. The documentary Jay produced, “Free Meek” was his way of tying together Meek’s legal battles with those of black men across the country.

These are just the moves we know about. People with the kind of money Jay-Z has also make other charitable/social justice acts in private.

All of this brings out the question of why black people are being so quick to call Jay a “sellout” when he has clear interest in the plight of black men in America, even if his desire to make change isn’t laser focused in it’s execution.

There has been major focus on Jay-Z saying “I think we’ve moved past kneeling…”, but in the clips and quotes, as media outlets would of course have it, what he said after that has been glossed over.

He immediately followed that statement with, “I’m not minimizing that part of it [kneeling] cause that has to happen. That’s a necessary part of the process, but now we all know what’s going on. What are we going to do?”

Even with his Executive Producer credits on films that explore some tragic stories of black men, he is by no means an Ava DuVernay of Hip-Hop. He won’t be going down in any one’s book of major social justice advocates of the time, but his efforts stills shouldn’t be negated.

What Does It All Mean?

Admittedly there are a lot of questions.

There has long been the debate over whether or not a person with financial means such as Jay-Z can be a social advocate. Dare I say yes, but with the caveat that anything looking like financial insularity (honestly a problem the Jay-Z camp has in this area) can be problematic and go against getting support in efforts to do good.

Being rich and actually using the money for good is one thing.

Being rich and using the money to make it look like you’re helping is another, more problematic thing entirely.

Of course, this in no way means that social injustice towards black and brown people in this country can be solved by throwing money at the problems, but having financial reach is a definite advantage, as one of the reasons those currently in power (pronounced “white people”) are able to get away with the mistreatment of black and brown people in this country in the first place is because they control the money and use that and their privilege to keep us away from the table.

Detractors of Jay Z’s efforts have also been quick to look at several things in his past.

They will point out the fact that he sold drugs to his family. The contradiction here though is the fact that fans will praise Jay-Z for being an amazing artist that has rapped about selling drugs, but then when he makes efforts in the social justice arena, the same fans will say, “Wait, you can’t be an advocate! You sold drugs 30 years ago!”

So Jay-Z can rap about selling drugs, but now that he’s no longer selling them, he can’t do good because he sold them? Is entertainment more important to us than someone actually trying to make positive moves on our behalf? That’s a dangerous assumption I don’t want to make, but isn’t far off from this line of thinking.

It’s not that Jay-Z selling drugs is an excusable act, but it should’t take away from the fact that he clearly wants to do something constructive at this point in his life.

Plus, if we go down the road of cancelling rappers that want to do good but have sold drugs, or are still selling them, we would probably have to eliminate about 99% of all rappers that have made social justice/advocacy efforts.

Some will link his selling drugs to him cheating on his wife. The thinking is he is always looking out for his needs, so who’s to say that he isn’t doing the same thing with the NFL deals? Perhaps a bit of a reach, but I can understand the logic.

Are we saying then that people don’t change for the better? Are we saying any efforts Jay Z makes for the greater good should be negated by actions he’s made in the past that he’s taken accountability for?

There’s also talk of Jay-Z having told Jermaine Dupri not to take a very similar deal with the NFL, but this has only been confirmed by a tweet from Funkmaster Flex saying he spoke with Jermaine.

Jermaine himself has made no comment on the subject, and as vocal as Jermaine has been about other non consequential issues as of late, I think if he had something to say on this matter, he’d speak on it himself.

This all taps very heavily into the subject of black leadership.

We all know people like John Lewis, Barack Obama, Stacey Adams, and Maxine Waters are clear leaders, but I think there is a strong desire from black people to have musicians be leaders as well. Beyonce is fully aware of this, having used her art as a performer to make some very powerful statements on behalf of black and brown people in very white spaces including the 2013 Superbowl Halftime show, and Coachella in 2018 where she was the first woman of color to ever headline the event.

Whether or not our musicians can be leaders is a layered subject. I will stop just shy of giving them the title, but Beyonce and Jay-Z for example are two of the biggest culture shifters of this generation. There’s definitely something to be said about their reach and their level of influence.

There is also an intense amount of pressure on those that step up to the plate of social advocacy.

They have to be Booker T Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Malcolm X and Martin.

They can’t be rich, but they need to have access that having money can provide. They can’t work for corporate america because that’s “selling out”, but if they make money from speeches and appearances, they’re monetizing the struggle, and that doesn’t align with the struggle.

They need to be able to find out what’s happening inside the operation of the opposition, but they can’t join forces with the opposition.

Ava DuVernay and the good folks at Queen Sugar could not have depicted (if not predicted) this scenario any better.

Charley Bordelon, a very successful and rich member of the Bordelon family made business inroads with the Boudreauxs, her family’s nemesis, so that she could get inside information on a business venture the Boudreauxs were undertaking that would endanger her family’s land and business. Her intentions were good as she wanted a seat at the table to head off the Boudreaux family at the pass.

Another black politician and community leader initially refused to work with Charley, calling her “duplicitous” because of her relationship with the Boudreaux family, and because of her past, which was written about in a book by Charley’s sister, Nova.

Charley ended up getting burned in the end. Literally.

Though not yet proved, someone affiliated with the Boudreaux family burned down Charley’s family mill.

Will Jay-Z get burned in his dealings with the NFL, providing more reasoning to not trust his efforts?

The thing of it is, it remains to be seen.

So why can’t it just remain to be seen?

Writer of life, Actor, Host/Comedian, and Spoken Word Artist. The last great Atlanta native.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store