In Jay-Z’s 2001 song “Renegade,” He shares the following lyrics:
[People] say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels
Do you [people] listen to music or do you just skim through it?
I find these comments very poignant in light of Ms. Jenée Desmond-Harris’ article on the Root.com entitled What Young Activists Could Teach Jay Z. While Ms. Desmond-Harris bases her argument off of Jay-Z’s statement in response to Mr. Harry Belafonte calling on him to be more socially responsible, too many rap critics and fans alike base their opinion of rappers based on listening to one or two lyrics and use those lyrics to pass judgment on the entire life of a rapper. For his entire career, Jay-Z has been vilified as being only concerned about sex, guns, violence, and the glorification of his past days as a drug dealer. In reality, Jay-Z is more of a socially responsible activist than many of us know.
For my doctoral dissertation, I am writing an intellectual biography of Jay-Z from 1969-2012. In short, an intellectual biography situates an individual life in the context of ideas and perspectives as expressed and revealed in the life of an individual. The goal of this type of biography is not just to chronicle Jay-Z’s life, but also to contextualize his life within a broader historical framework. As I am growing in my expertise on the life of Jay-Z, I have found at least three examples of how Jay-Z has demonstrated service beyond just using his presence as a form of charity.
The first is Jay-Z’s trip to several African countries as part of the United Nations & MTV’s “Water for Life” project. In the summer of 2006, as president of Def Jam Records, Jay-Z partnered with these two groups to use his global influence to get young people especially involved in the fight against the global water crisis. In his efforts to be more of a humanitarian and less of a hustler, Jay-Z partnered with the United Nations to build 1,000 “play pumps” across the African continent. These pumps use a simple merry-go-round that pumps water as children play with it. While Jay-Z, did not build every pump, he did participate in the building of some of these pumps and used his influence to get kids in America thinking about this crisis.
Second is Jay-Z’s charitable project with The Shawn Carter Foundation. This foundation has raised millions of dollars for prospective college students, and created a toy & meal drive for Hurricane Sandy victims. My mentor, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, once told me that he personally attended one of these fundraisers with Jay-Z and his mother where over $2,000,000 was raised in one night. This is not Jay-Z just showing up. He uses his foundation to call other people of influence to action.
Lastly, one can look at Jay-Z’s efforts over two elections to elect then re-elect President Barack Obama as can be seen in this video of Jay-Z with Beyoncé praising, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Obama. Jay-Z did not just contribute financially to Obama’s campaign and raise millions of dollars for him through fundraisers at his restaurant, he also campaigned vigorously across the country encouraging others to vote. This is coming from someone who proudly claimed to never vote in his life.
By these three examples alone, one can clearly see that Jay-Z has gone way beyond using his presence as a present. While people criticized he and Kanye West for writing “luxury rap” during a recession with the video “Otis”, the Maybach that was smashed up was actually auctioned off to benefit victims of drought in East Africa. Jay-Z is using his platform to draw attention to issues that neither me nor our esteemed members of the Dream Defenders can do at an international level. It is not accurate for us to consider Jay-Z as someone who is not committed to creating change through his actions. He has clearly demonstrated the opposite.
At the end of the day, we should accept individuals for where they are in the level of service they choose to provide. We need groups like the Dream Defenders that Desmond-Harris references in her article to create change on the local level and international superstars like Jay-Z to draw attention to national issues such as the Trayvon Martin case and international issues such as the earthquake in Haiti. While I did object to Jay-Z referring to Harry Belafonte as a “boy” in his song “Nickels and Dimes”, I have learned through my studies to go beyond Jay-Z’s individual lyrics or songs to look at the entire life of an individual who is actively learning how to be a better humanitarian through mentorship of individuals such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
We should, as Jay-Z suggests, go beyond the music and look at an artist in his or her totality, which is the same thing we would want in our own lives. Love him or hate him, we cannot deny that Jay-Z is socially responsible and doing his own brand of activism. We need all hands on deck in our movement for social justice and I am glad that Jay-Z is on board.