On Tuesday, Columbia University kicked off its new Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter Lecture Series with a conversation between Jay and journalism professor, New Yorker staff writer and author Jelani Cobb, and at one point during their chat, they addressed the rapper’s decision not to stand for Demi Lovato’s performance of the American national anthem at the previous Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Cobb asked if that was “meant to convey a signal,” to which Jay replied, “It actually wasn’t. Sorry. It really wasn’t. What happened was it was not premeditated at all.”
Instead, Jay says, he and Beyoncé were in “artist mode.” “What happened was, we got there, we were sitting, and now the show’s about to start. My wife was with me and so she says to me, ‘I know this feeling right here.’ Like, she’s super-nervous because she’s performed at Super Bowls before. I haven’t. So we get there and we immediately jump into artist mode… now I’m really just looking at the show. Did the mic start? Was it too low to start?” Apparently, Jay didn’t realize they’d missed the whole national anthem until his phone rang after the performance.
Yeah, I’m not buying it.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge sports fan (despite what I’ve been writing about over the past couple of weeks), but I have been to football games and I know what it feels like when an entire stadium stands for the national anthem. In fact, the cultural power of that particular song is so great that people were horribly offended when athletes—like, I don’t know, Colin Kaepernick?—knelt to protest police brutality while it played. But somehow, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, two people who are incredibly good at controlling their public images, just… didn’t realize what kind of message they were sending, and no one on their respective teams did either. Riiiiight.
I think it was totally meant to be a protest, or at least a signal that, despite his entanglements with the NFL, Jay was still down for the cause. But here’s the thing—I’m not sure he is. Or rather, I believe that he cares about police brutality, but he’ll never allow his activism to interfere with his business interests.
Remember last August, when Jay’s entertainment company, Roc Nation, entered into a partnership with the NFL? That deal meant Jay, through Roc Nation, would “advise on the selection of artists for major NFL performances like the Super Bowl [and] nurture and strengthen community through football and music, including through the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative,” which is a collaboration between the league and the Players Coalition, a group of players working toward social and racial justice.
It also meant that he was now financially intertwined with a deeply racist institution.
The NFL is run primarily by old white men—there are few minority coordinators, head coaches and general managers, and all but two team owners are white. Quarterbacks are overwhelmingly (78%) white, too, even though most (66%) of the league’s players are Black. According to University of California, Berkeley sociology professor emeritus Harry Edwards, this dynamic allows owners to “essentially… view their players as property, not human beings with rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Oh, and let’s not forget that we’re talking about a league that still has multiple teams with racist names or mascots, including this year’s Super Bowl winners, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Signing this deal was a surprising—and widely criticized—move. For many fans, Jay was selling out, prioritizing his cash over his community. What’s more, it seemed like a direct slight against Colin Kaepernick, who has been blacklisted from the NFL since 2017. Before the NFL deal, Jay was one of Colin Kaepernick’s most ardent supporters, wearing the player’s jersey on Saturday Night Live and rapping, “Once I said no to the Super Bowl, you need me, I don’t need you. Every night we in the end zone. Tell the NFL we in stadiums too” on 2018’s “Apeshit.”
Now, he has a financial stake in the success of the NFL—and he thinks conversations about the NFL and racial justice need to move beyond only Kaepernick. At least, that’s what he told the New York Times. “No one is saying he hasn’t been done wrong,” he went on to say. “He was done wrong. I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now—because people are still dying?’” (Of course, Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job, so I’m guessing it’s not a problem from three years ago for him.)
But what is this partnership accomplishing? Because from what I can tell, it hasn’t led to a lot of other activism. A few weeks after he and the NFL announced their partnership, Roc Nation made another announcement: Meek Mill, Rapsody, and Meghan Trainor would be the first Inspire Change advocates, which as far as I can tell meant they performed at the Sept. 5 NFL Kickoff Experience in Chicago’s Grant Park and… that’s it. Oh wait, there was also an apparel line.
I don’t think Jay-Z is a bad person, or that he doesn’t care about police brutality. In fact, I think he cares a lot—you can tell by the things he talks about in interviews, the causes he donates money to and the fact that he created Team Roc, a division of Roc Nation that specifically focuses on social justice. It has stepped in to help an 11-year-old Black boy who was arrested after he refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance and a young Black couple who were harassed by police after their one-year-old daughter allegedly stole a doll from a dollar store. Last week, it tweeted a video exposing inhumane conditions at a Mississippi prison. But there’s a natural tension between capitalism and community and it seems like, for the right amount of money, Jay’s willing to make choices that aren’t good for his community.
That’s not so unusual. Lots of celebrity activism is constrained by this dynamic. Selena Gomez, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet have all talked about gender equality—and worked with Woody Allen. And Russell Brand has called for “massive redistribution of wealth,” but that doesn’t seem to apply to his wealth. (He says he has given “a lot” of his money away… but he also still lives in a house that cost roughly $6 million Canadian, so…) And we all grapple with the same thing on a much smaller scale: how do we balance our values with our own personal financial needs? Is there ever a time when it’s okay to compromise in order to get that bag? And what happens if you don’t actually have a choice because you have rent or medical bills or some other non-negotiable expense to deal with? But the thing is, celebrities are so famous and powerful that their missteps take on far greater weight than a regular person’s errors in judgement.
What I’m torn about is what to do with all this information. I don’t think we should discourage stars from activism—there is absolutely a value in raising awareness and calling attention to injustice, in using your platform and privilege to raise money for worthwhile causes, in making a documentary about working for prison reform (heyyy Kim K). But we need to think critically about people’s motivations, too, and talk about it when they mess up. Just because Jay can justify partnering with a problematic organization because he’s doing other good work doesn’t mean we have to accept it, right?
But what do you think?
And Did You Hear About…
Jameela Jamil coming out as queer after online backlash to the news that she’d be a judge on Legendary, a new HBO show about vogueing. This is a good breakdown of why some people are suspicious of her timing.
The dinner parties where white ladies pay $2,500 (US!!) to be told how they’re racist.
The best opening sentence of all time.
Zola, the movie based on #TheStory, a 148-tweet thread about strippers and murder that went viral in 2015. It’s one of the most talked about films at Sundance—and if you missed the original thread or the Rolling Stone feature on it, maybe read that next?
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