This week, the NFL announced a multi-year deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. This deal allows Roc Nation control of the NFL’s music and social justice programs. And yes, that’s the same NFL that Jay-Z mentioned in “Apeshit”, his joint song with wife Beyonce, when he sang: “I said no to the Super Bowl, you don’t need me, I don’t need you.” Those lyrics, at the time so seemingly revolutionary in their claims that a black music mogul didn’t need an institution as huge as the NFL to elevate his worth by association, now ring rather hollow.
It’s not lyrical hypocrisy that has most people upset about the deal, though. Instead, it’s the fact that former NFL star Colin Kaepernick was blackballed after protesting the deaths of black Americans killed by the police. How can hip-hop’s first billionaire justifiably work with an organisation which destroyed the career of a racial justice activist?
During an interview announcing the NFL-Roc Nation deal with Jay-Z and commissioner Roger Goodall, Kaepernick came up a number of times. “We forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice. In that case this is a success,” Jay-Z said, before claiming that he’d spoken to Kaepernick before making the deal. Kaepernick’s girlfriend Nessa Diab denied he had done so. After claims and counter-claims from others, it’s become completely unclear whether the phone call happened or not; but it doesn’t necessarily matter either way.
If Kaepernick were to get his job back playing in the NFL – or if he did give Jay-Z his blessing to go forward with the deal – the NFL would still be a racist institution that doesn’t care about the lives of black people, despite 70 per cent of their players being black. Jay-Z has personally made a savvy business move in associating with them, but there’s no point in framing his involvement as good for social justice. It won’t be.
Last year, Kaepernick’s shadow loomed over the Super Bowl – especially when it came to the entertainment acts. Many were reported to have refused to perform, and Jay-Z himself even told Travis Scott not to perform alongside Maroon 5. Jay has subsequently said that that was because he didn’t want to see Scott playing the background to Maroon 5, leading to a few confused raised eyebrows. Does that mean it’s OK to work for the benefit of a problematic institution like the NFL so long as you’re the front man?
Earlier this year, Jay-Z performed at Webster Hall, where he did a freestyle speaking act about the late rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle. There was uproar on social media when he said, “Gentrify your own hood before these people do it”, strongly suggesting that this is what Hussle had been doing with his own community in South Los Angeles. Gentrification may not have negative connotations for Jay-Z, but it certainly does for the people who are priced out of their neighbourhoods by its effects, and few would agree that gentrification was the aim of Nipsey Hussle’s own activism. Many openly wondered whether this line pointed to Jay-Z’s motives in investing in the construction of the Barclays Center in his home city of Brooklyn, New York.
It’s important to note that the Barclays Center does have affordable housing planned for 2025. And Jay-Z does have a history of philanthropy and community-minded actions. He produced a documentary series on Trayvon Martin, the teen who was killed by George Zimmerman, in 2012, as well as a docu-series on Kalief Browder, who spent most of his teens in prison after being falsely accused (Browder took his own life less than a year after being released.) There’s no doubt that Jay put his money where his mouth is on these projects, and that they would never have achieved such mainstream recognition without him.
But then there’s the other side of the argument. Drawing attention to black trauma and the ways in which the justice system has failed black youth is all very well and good, but it hardly contributes to positive narratives about black people in America. And a few songs about his own success aren’t going to turn that tide.
“I think we’re past kneeling, I think it’s time we go into actionable items — I think everyone knows what the issue is and we’re done with that,” Jay said in his interview about the Roc Nation deal with the NFL. It wasn’t inspiring. Clarissa Brooks replied in a tweet that “Jay-Z is a billionaire, not a community organizer. He is going to protect his interests at all costs. I’m not putting stock in anything his team is doing because it won’t be to dismantle systems, it’ll be to reform a system he makes money off of.”â
Whatever good or bad comes with Jay-Z’s decision-making, the black community seems like it will be a tertiary recipient after himself and his bottom line. He has thrown us a couple of token gestures, but at the end of the day, he’s a “business, man”. And he’s not going to let us forget it.