“If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be / Lyrically, Talib Kweli / Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did 5 mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since / When your cents got that much in common / And you been hustling since your inception / Fuck perception / Go with what makes sense / Since I know what I’m up against / We as rappers must decide what’s most important / And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them / So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win.”
That’s Jay Z’s conversation-starting verse on “Moment of Clarity,” off 2003’s Black Album. He was taking on the “conscious” vs. “ignorant” hip-hop debate that was still a big deal at the time, and offering up a free-market argument for why he was more powerful and significant engaging rap’s mainstream than he ever could be as part of the more mindful and preachy underground. In short, that “conscious” shit doesn’t sell and, well, “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them.” But how has Jay Z helped the poor? Is it enough to suggest that by simply being a rich black man in the world and, therefore, an inspiration, he has done enough? That’s what he told Harry Belafonte last week.
Since 2003, Jay’s influence has gotten ever more massive, and his post-retirement career, however musically spotty, has revealed him as a savvy entrepreneur, a borders-blurring spokesman for hip-hop, and a game-changing Obama supporter. You could make the case that a hugely successful African American couple like Jay and Beyoncé being as visible as say, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, is important, and fairly unprecedented. Jay has penetrated the establishment like no rapper before him. It’s valid to argue that his influence could be more overtly “positive” if he rapped more like Talib Kweli (that is, with more social awareness and less rich-guy boasting) now that he has the chance (as Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker suggests in this week’s cutting, mindful, excellent piece “This Charming Man”), but Jay isn’t exactly slumming it when he turns himself into a symbol for African American success and progress. Watch the Throne, in particular, was an aggressively political record; it’s just that its values tended to reflect Booker T. Washington’s (a concession to capitalism that believes hard work and monetary success will set you free, whereupon others will follow your example and all can rise up), and that’s no Kweli supporter’s vision of progressive rap.
Nevertheless, this recent Hova interview with Elliott Wilson was quite shocking. When asked about actor/musician/activist Harry Belafonte’s comments that current pop superstars “have turned their back on social responsibility,” Jay responded that his own “presence is charity,” as if that’s enough. The Belafonte comments are more than a year old, though Jay addressed them on the Magna Carta Holy Grail track “Nickels and Dimes” (“I’m just trying to find common ground / Before Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down / Mr. Day-O, major fail”), which is presumably why Wilson brought them up again.
Really try to think about Jay’s “my presence is charity” one-liner and those clunky MCHG verses for a moment. “My presence is charity” turns Jay Z into some Ayn Randian beyond-good-and-evil force who changes the world just by waking up in the morning. That he also compared his presence to Obama’s is downright offensive, because it isn’t just that Obama’s existence as president makes him inspirational, it’s that his role as president allows him to bring about change. The American presidency isn’t a symbolic abstraction like the Queen of England or the King of New York Rap. Meanwhile, those lines from “Nickel and Dimes” suggest that any critique of his actions just can’t be tolerated. Jay Z is a rapper, which means he’s a rhetorician, which means he knows exactly what he’s doing here. This isn’t money-grubbing rap-dude cluelessness, or even delusion. It’s a power move. He’s ending a conversation that should be allowed to continue, because ending it works to his advantage.
To be fair, Belafonte’s original comments weren’t exactly reasonable, either. Here’s what he said: “High-profile artists, powerful celebrities… have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.” You can see why Jay Z would fire back, even if he chose to do so months and months later. It’s unfair to suggest that a white rock musician is “black,” but Jay Z is not. NPR’s Gene Demby suggests Jay Z and Belafonte are “talking past each other” due to generational differences, which seems off, if only because Jay clearly hears Belafonte, while it’s not so clear that Belafonte hears Jay or even wants to hear him. Their back-and-forth seems more reflective of the way that the old-guard black intelligentsia is quick to express dissatisfaction, often in aggressive ways, with the new guard. You can also spot this in Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s constant critiques of Obama, or even the persistence with which veteran rappers dismiss younger rappers as entirely beneath them, claiming that the kids today aren’t even making “hip-hop” anymore. (Though when it’s convenient, Jay’s been on the get-off-my-lawn side of that divide, too.) It’s a within-the-culture conversation pushed into the mainstream with no subtlety or concern for how those words will be flipped. And they will surely be flipped.
Because Jay Z has trained himself to never be controversial anymore, his expression of frustration with Belafonte in that interview came out as wrongheaded as his “my presence is charity” defense. “You’re this Civil Rights activist, and you just big-upped the white guy against me in the white media,” he explained to Wilson, addressing Belafonte. “And I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m just saying what it is. The fact of what it was. And that was just the wrong way to go about it.” This is the kind of corpo-speak he’s learned: Not only do you never say something is racial or racist because it alienates people, but if you must, go out of your way to tell people it isn’t about race, even when it’s obviously about race. It’s a messy balancing act that won’t end well, and Jay should know better. Or at least, be a little braver. He certainly has the profile to take this issue on with more sophistication. And his hedged comments just lack the balls of Belafonte’s bold though problematic assertions.
Still, Belafonte’s comments play into a cultural distrust of hip-hop, and maybe that’s what set Jay off. Rappers remain easy targets, and when Belafonte indulged that impulse and then praised a rock musician like Bruce Springsteen, beloved by liberals and conservatives (who presumably put on their cognitive-dissonance caps while listening), it does no one any good. And Belafonte (currently in Florida protesting the Stand Your Ground laws, inspired by the injustice of George Zimmerman’s acquittal) should be wiser, or think a little harder. The Zimmerman trial was a case of hip-hop culture and its supposed vapidity, ignorance, and irresponsibility being implicitly used to make the innocent Trayvon Martin seem less than innocent. Not that critiquing Jay Z is anywhere comparable to the ugliness surrounding that situation, but it’s on the hip-hop-phobia spectrum, for sure.
Ultimately, this one works out like this: One one side, there’s Jay Z, rapping about a Hollywood and Civil Rights legend’s comments one year after the fact, and then addressing them some more in an almost rehearsed interview wherein he promotes his new album (which he sold to Samsung) and cluelessly compares himself to the president. On the other side, you’ve got Harry Belafonte fanning hip-hop-phobia, but also spending time in Florida protesting a social injustice, putting his money where his mouth is. Belafonte comes out as the sound one here, even if his Springsteen zing, which set this discussion in motion, was a cheap shot.