As a card-carrying member of the BeyHive, I attended two On The Run II concerts last summer. At the London concert, Jay-Z and Beyoncé surprised the world with their single APESHIT. There Jay-Z raps, “I said no to the Superbowl. You need me don’t need you. Every night we in the endzone. Tell the NFL we in stadiums, too.” Cameras zoomed in on black men in hoodies kneeling on the floor in protest style. These tributes were reminiscent of the black boy dancing in front of militarized police officers in Beyoncé’s Formation video two years before. She later performed the single at Super Bowl half-time, accompanied by black women wearing black power outfits with berets. The anti-capitalist aims of the Black Panther party loomed in contrast to the lyrics: “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making” and “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” Now, as part of the new, multi-year deal with the National Football League, Jay-Z will produce the Super Bowl halftime show, to the dismay of many activists.
The NFL is blackballing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and Super Bowl champion contender Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police violence. Kaepernick inspired others to kneel, protest, boycott and organize. He has given more than a million dollars to social justice organizations. Thousands have boycotted watching or attending football games and several celebrities declined to perform at the big half-time show. Given this, Jay-Z’s steps crossed a picket line. It stings. The announcement came days after the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder by a police officer.
Perhaps Jay-Z thinks he can profit from both sides of the picket line. He is a quintessential black capitalist: professing that freedom is one’s ability to own oneself and acquire wealth. Many people are surprised at best; betrayed at worst. Such reactions are less about whether he could broker this deal, and more of a disappointment in Jay-Z’s possible, yet woefully incomplete, political evolution. This reflects a similar American surprise that featured prominently in the last presidential election. We knew that the country had white supremacists; we didn’t expect that one would actually be elected that Tuesday.
During the press conference, Jay-Z preempted criticism: “I think that we forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice, correct? So, in that case, this is a success; this is the next thing. ’Cause there’s two parts of protesting. You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?’ So, for me, it was like, action, actionable item, what are we going to do with it? Everyone heard and we hear what you’re saying, and everybody knows I agree with what you’re saying. So what are we going to do? So we should, millions of millions of people, and all we get stuck on Colin not having a job. I think we’re past kneeling. I think it’s time for action.”
If we accept Jay-Z distinction between protest and action, why does he think that the “next steps” lie within a group of corporate billionaires? It does not. Hundreds of grassroots organizations have released statements and shared visions for liberation for all oppressed people. The Movement for Black Lives released a comprehensive policy platform. Dream Defenders dropped Freedom Papers and successfully organized against private prisons in Florida. There are campaigns to #CloseRikers in New York City, #CloseTheWorkhouse in St Louis, and #AbolishIce across the country. Organizers have bailed out Black mothers, stopped prison construction, and prevented city councils from investing more money in police. The “millions and millions of people” angry at the NFL for blackballing Kaepernick have been dreaming, building, and organizing for next steps for years.
NFL players have organized, too. In Things that Make White People Uncomfortable, activist and defensive end Michael Bennett emphasizes that activist-athletes, not team owners, create the most progressive change both on and off the field. They have protested, written statements, and created athlete impact organizations. Here is the irony: the NFL does not even care about the black athletes that make the sport a multibillion dollar industry. Rather, the League subjects them to preventable trauma on the field, racism in the locker room, and punishment for dissent in the boardroom.
Black legs matter; black lives don’t.
So why this move from Jay? From 2014 to 2017, the Black Lives Matter movement was at peak visibility. Scholars and organizers used The Carters’ artistry to teach about activism. Many people were affirmed by the display of black culture, sounds, and calls for freedom. The art reflected the times, but times are changing. Now, bipartisanship is on display.
Liberals are attempting to work across the aisle to accomplish anything and call it progress. This explains the strange criminal justice alliances between a founder of Color of Change, Van Jones; the Koch Brothers, conservative billionaires; Robert Kraft, a Trump supporter and the NFL Patriots’ owner; rapper Meek Mill; and Jay-Z. The Koch brothers only became interested in criminal justice reform after their oil company was indicted on 97 felony violations of environmental law.
Van Jones is signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, is the president of the Reform Alliance (funded by Jay-Z and Robert Kraft), and was the premiere champion of the First Step Act, an underfunded, moderate criminal justice package that a coalition of more than 150 black-led social justice organizations opposed. The coalition called the bill “custom-made for rich white men”. After Trump signed it, Jones tweeted that the white nationalist president was “on his way to becoming the uniter-in-Chief”. Jones is also working with the Koch brothers around prison reform.
Yet, I empathize with Jay-Z. I understand how someone from Marcy Houses projects would tell black people that “financial freedom [is their] only hope.” His work around Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin demonstrates concern and commitment to telling the stories of black men that the system traps and kills. But the same forces that create and maintain billionaires rely on what Jay-Z is seemingly critical of: racism, poverty, xenophobia, incarceration and homophobia.
We have police violence partly because we have billionaires; the former serves the latter. America is the most unequal nation in the world. Politicians employ police to punish the poor, protect the rich, and preserve property for a select few. So when Jay-Z asks, “What’s better than one billionaire”, the answer is not two of the “same hue”. It is a world free of the inequality and institutionalized racism that created the projects that he had to escape.
As one of the most influential voices in the world today, Jay-Z has a real chance to make change. He might consider looking to Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, and Muhammad Ali for guidance, or even to the liberation movements that existed long before Kaepernick’s knee ever touched the turf. The social movements today will continue to mobilize, and while they do not have the financial resources of Kraft or the NFL, they have the political will and moral imagination of freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Paul Robeson, Erica Garner, Dolores Huerta, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X. Jay-Z rapped that he “arrived on the day Fred Hampton died”. Hampton, a Black Panther party leader murdered by the police, insisted: “We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.” Perhaps we all could start learning there.