“I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell
I am a hustler baby, I’ll sell water to a well.” – Jay Z
I must begin by admitting with full disclosure that Jay-Z is unequivocally my favorite MC of all-time. My opinion and endorsement comes from a place of longevity as a participant in Hip-hop culture for all of my life. Ever since I saw the “Dead Presidents” video and the members of Roc-a-fella Records crew pull up in Lexus 300s in 1996, I was a fan of what I believed they represented. As a teenager their sense of entrepreneurship, independence, business acumen, and their taste for the finer things in life appealed to me on so many levels. His famous lines like “I dabbled in crazy weight, without rap I was crazy straight, patna I’m spending money from 88” left an indelible mark on me. I’ve watched Jay-Z transcend and transform the image of what someone from our culture and community could represent in the American project and on a global level. From his self-produced videos and films to underwriting Broadway plays, headlining music festivals, clothing companies, endorsement deals, to releasing documentaries directed by Ron Howard, the meteoric rise of Jay-Z has played as the essential essence of the American Dream right before our eyes. I’ve watched him come from being the opening act for artists who have long faded into obscurity to rumors of his affiliation with secret societies and the Illuminati. His story captures the ethos of the “hustler” in every way imaginable.
Ever since its inception; Hip-Hop has been enamored with the luxurious and the materialistic manifestations of success. Doing well has always had a symbiotic relationship with looking good. On the first Billboard Top 40 Hip-Hop record “Rapper’s Delight” Sugar Hill’s Gang’s Big Bad Hank boast by declaring,
“You see, I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali
and I dress so viciously.
I got bodyguards, I got two big cars
That definitely ain’t the whack,
I got a Lincoln Continental and a sun roofed Cadillac.
So after school I take a dip in the pool,
Which is really on the wall,
I got a color TV, so I can see
The Knicks play basketball. Hear me talk about
Checkbooks, credit cards, mo’ money
Than a sucker could ever spend,
But I wouldn’t give a sucker or a bum form the Rucker
Not a dime ’til I made it again.”
That is the personification of Americaness. Early popularity of Hip-Hop conveyed and still reproduces this ideology. Sociological status and all the materialistic accompaniments have always provided a sense of symbolic access and acceptability to those who have been denied entry into power and prestige.
That’s why the recent discriminatory practices by Barney’s where Jay-Z has just inked a deal has so many layers. The contract between Jay-Z and Barney’s for a holiday collection is reportedly worth millions, and Jay-Z will design a line of exclusive products for the retail magnet. According to the New York Daily News the cheapest item is a $70 cotton T-shirt. A Shawn Carter by Hublot watch with alligator straps will go for an eye-popping $33,900. A Shawn Carter raincoat with gold snaps by Alexander Stutterheim will cost a hefty $675. The same store has implemented its own “stop and frisk” policy. A young African- American engineering student named Trayvon Christian, bought a $349 Ferragamo belt at Barneys and was promptly “stopped and frisked” because the police could not fathom that he could afford to make such an extravagant purchase. In America, young Black men and women are always crossing the “invisible lines” that are constantly imposed on them. This “invisible line” seeks to enforce and reinforce the limitations that inherently come with their Black identity. After this purchase, Trayvon was detained in a holding cell for two hours. Also, Kayla Phillips, 21, was swarmed by four undercover cops after purchasing $2,500 orange suede Céline bag. Two eerily similar stories in the same store where Jay-Z will launch his latest business venture. Isn’t it amazing that in Barney’s a Black man can produce and promote products, but other Black people who don’t have to benefit “visible exceptional Blackness” are apprehended after they’ve made their purchases?
Now it’s not fair or practical to expect Jay-Z to feel personally responsible for the instuitional racism of Barney’s. However, the danger of “Empire” building is apathy towards the collateral damage that may come about in the pursuit of wealth. Racial profiling and stereotyping of Black Americans is a reality of our everyday experience. Jay-Z is on a level where he can use his platform to make an incredible impact, or this will be just another shrewd business move that increases his net worth. Is this his duty or is it unarticulated expectation that comes by osmosis when Black Americans reach the zenith of what is considered to be success?
Capitalism, American style, is shrouded in the invisible garment of colonization. So as one expands their empire, they expand it on the backs of, and ultimately because of the most vulnerable. The weak are dominated and the strong clutches, embrace, and seek to enlarge their domination. Capitalism at its best will produce a Jay-Z and capitalism at its worst will sustain, fuel, and embolden a Jay-Z to the degree that a social responsibility ethos is never expected or cultivated in comparison with one’s wealth. His mere presence becomes charity and a narrative of justice is never taken seriously. Entrance into the upper echelon of wealth and high society comes with great sacrifice and sometimes that sacrifice has human cost.
Jay-Z is bi-vocational in public persona. He represents the hood and the boardroom, the 99% and the 1%, and the reality of systematic poverty and generational wealth. It’s moments like this that I believe that Jay-Z wrestles with what Du Bois called the “twoness.” He has domiciled at both extremes. How he manages this dilemma will forever imbrue in our collective memory whether he is a cultural icon or a cultural iconoclast. Only time will tell.