Jay-Z and the NFL
Last week it was announced that Jay-Z had agreed to wide-ranging partnership agreement with the National Football League that may even may include possible part-ownership of an NFL Team. Both the deal itself and the fact that Jay-Z was even in a position to negotiate such a partnership in the first place speak to new realities in the relationship between the culture and business of hip-hop.
Should hip-hop artists critique the system from the outside? Or should they try to develop power within the system? Is it possible to do both?
Of course these issues are not unique to hip-hop. But hip-hop culture has developed a distinctive point of view and conceptual language for thinking about these questions. Unlike most strategies for success, hip-hop starts from the assumption that most situations will be stacked against you. The question isn’t whether you will be at a disadvantage – that’s a given – but which strategies you will use to overcome those disadvantages. And because of this orientation, conversations about Jay-Z’s choices tend to focus more on strategy than on philosophy. That doesn’t mean that people are not concerned about his intentions; it just means that they capable of discussing the issue even when those intentions are unclear.
I spoke with a few Next Level artists to get their perspective.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I don’t understand how people jump automatically to blasting Jay without letting it play out,” notes Team Turkey’s Lance Johnson. “I feel like he has earned a level of patience when it comes to social consciousness. He’s used his platform to fight for justice on many fronts. Why would people automatically assume it’s a money grab without it playing out over time? I personally am happy that he’s at the table. I believe he’ll bring other conscious voices to the table. Of course the level of trust with the NFL and Roger Goddell is nonexistent but I’m trusting Hov isn’t going in blindly for money.”
Team Cambodia’s Sanoism takes a similar perspective. “Jay-z is a capitalist so his involvement with NFL is no surprise. Likewise Colin Kaepernik made Nike $6 billion with his ad. It's sad to see people divided between Jay-Z and Kap... I support both of them, and I haven't watched an NFL game since the 90s and still would like to see an end to police/brutality.”
Both of these comments indirectly point to a strategic move that Jay-Z made almost two decades ago: By presenting himself as a ‘hustler’ who should be admired specifically for his ability to make money – not in spite of it - he found a way to reject the entire dichotomy between authenticity and wealth. When faced with the question of which was more important, making money or being who you really are, Jay-Z answered that who he really was….was a guy who wanted to be rich. And if what you sincerely want is to be rich, then doing whatever it takes to get there is authentic.
Team Mongolia’s A. Billi Free points out that this question is especially relevant in the current economic environment, where it may no longer be possible to make a living from music alone, even if you wanted to.
“Could the digital/streaming age and subsequent loss of sales be partially responsible for these musicians trying to make capital in other arenas to support their lifestyles?” she asks. “What are other factors that ushered in this shift in focus away from the music/art and into other areas? ‘A-list’ musicians/Hip Hop artists are moving away from doing music as a livelihood and branching into sports, fashion/beauty, etc., or using the art form to get branding and sponsorship opportunities. Lil Yachty recently said in an interview that this was his goal as he was getting into the rap game.”
Team Algeria and Tunisia’s Big Tara sees it as a manifestation of the inherent tension between the goal and the cost one must pay to attain it. “I feel like I want to give Jay the benefit of the doubt that he does have a strategy behind it that will benefit the black community and potentially help improve things,” she says. “But the imagery of the team owners looking like masters and the players looking like slaves and the control of their bodies to play, not dance in the end zone or kneel for the anthem, it’s a lot to unpack.”
In order to do that analysis, A. Billi Free points out, you have question everything, including some of our most fundamental assumptions about hip-hop itself: “Peace, love, unity and having fun are the foundations, but the definitions of these facets can be subjective,” she observes. “Are these elements even as relevant to today's ever-evolving Hip Hop? Did Jay Z enter into the current deal as a Hip Hop artist (standing on those principles) or as a businessperson (standing on principles of capitalism)? Or both? Or neither? Did Jay Z ever embody these foundational elements wholeheartedly (or in a performative way) in his music?”
For his part, Team Colombia’s DJ Raedawn makes a distinction between the moral and the practical sides of the equation, noting that even if Jay-Z has made a contribution to the community, that still doesn’t relieve him of his moral responsibilities. “I support Jay-z seeking to get his foot in the door of the NFL monolith yet I do not support him stating that ‘we are past kneeling’,” he says. “He definitely evaded the point about the actual anthem having a racist verse that is usually not sung being the core of the issue...so It seems he is the actual embodiment of the purely capitalist b-boy...having no interesting in getting the song changed. I will say that the aggregate affect of his image and actions have been positive for the Hip-Hop community and the world as a whole (especially his Tidal company) but on a microeconomic/microcosm level, he is operating without honor to his peers, elders and ancestors.”
All ultimately agree that what is important is to strike a balance between analysis and action, and not sacrifice one for the sake of the other.
“There is a national crisis of inequality, injustice and police brutality but this whole debate has taken the focus away from the root of the problem and potential solutions and squarely set up a battle of Kap vs. Jay,” says Team Thailand’s Dumi RIGHT. “I'm simplifying it, but in the stuff I have seen it's all about "Jay-Z abandons Kap" this one is a sellout or Jermaine Dupree said Jay told him not to play the superbowl. We need more discussion about increased violence by white supremacists and repeated acquittals of officers who have shot down black and brown people and yet manage to de-escalate and apprehend actual violent mass murderers and take them into custody alive.”
“Let's talk about that.”