He Shall Overcome: Jay-Z Is $450 M Beyond the Marcy Projects. Where Does He Go From Here?

Not that he doesn’t mean it, but it is a distinct 180 from the sentiments of Mr. Ratner, a man sprung from an Ayn Rand novel, who told Crain’s in 2008, “Why should people get to see plans? This isn’t a public project.”

At the groundbreaking, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Mr. Ratner sat together on the platform. Everyone was smiling, and then Marty Markowitz, the bouncy Brooklyn borough president, stepped forward anxiously to introduce Jay-Z and gush over his beautiful wife. Cluelessly, Mr. Markowitz then praised him for making it from “bricks to billboards.” Sure, it was an allusion to one of Jay-Z’s lyrics, but bricks is one of the better-known slang terms for packages of cocaine. Jay-Z’s very formidable face froze and then bulged with shock. One wonders if he will ever be able to leave the bricks behind. If anyone will ever let him. When I emailed Marty Markowitz for a comment, he emailed me a paragraph that once again mentioned “bricks to billboards.” It is hard to know if Jay-Z’s past is a concern to him in business. Maybe he doesn’t even care.

 

IN A 1970 profile, Hunter S. Thompson observed, “O.J. [Simpson] is a Black Capitalist in the most basic sense of that term; his business sense is so powerful that he is able to view his blackness as a mere sales factor–a natural intro to the Black Marketplace.” Jay-Z’s business sense is more complicated than that. His brand of capitalism is a strange hybrid of his class origins and the figures in his bank account, acquired by any means necessary. It is an inversion that highlights Jay-Z’s intelligence and rhetorical skill: The words of Malcolm X are twisted into the mantra of getting money.

The same way that rappers turning 40 changed the music and its possibilities (see Ghostface Killah lamenting going bald, or Jay-Z’s line “And I don’t wear jerseys/ I’m thirty plus”), rappers turning fabulously wealthy will stretch the art as well. This perhaps will have to be Jay-Z’s most innovative turn. How to become not just a businessman but also, as he says, “a business, man,” that remains relevant and cutting. This is what LiveNation was banking on when they signed him to a $150 million, 10-year bundled touring-label deal. The hope is that, like the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z will be able to connect to his fan base as they grow up alongside him. Jay-Z will have to walk the fine line of maintaining a corporate veneer and actually being cool.

And as a power broker, he will have to decide if having workers from his 40/40 club in New York filing a class-action suit against him in 2008 for failing to pay them minimum wage is just another day of business or an unacceptable ethical lapse from a man who should know better.

 

IN DECODED, JAY-Z is at his most uncomfortable addressing a conversation that occurred between him and Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a journalist from The Voice who questioned him about the Ché Guevara T-shirts he took to wearing in 2001. He had one on at his listening party, an imprint of Ché’s face framed by rhinestones: “‘You don’t feel funny? You’re wearing that Ché T-shirt and you have–‘ she gestured dramatically at the chain around my neck. ‘I couldn’t even concentrate on the music,’ she said. ‘All I could think of is that big chain bouncing off of Ché’s forehead.'” He writes that he decided not to “dismiss her as a hater,” and he clumsily tries to make sense of the contradiction that led him to write “Public Announcement”: “I’m like Ché Guevara with bling on/ I’m complex.”

I recited those lyrics to Manning Marable, a professor of African-American studies at Columbia University and the foremost scholar on black economic life in America. I explained the intended paradox behind Jay-Z recasting himself as a Ché Guevara dressed by Jacob the Jeweler. Isn’t this black capitalism at its best?

“He may feel that.” Mr. Marable said. “And he does have a social conscience. … He is aware of the social implications of his art. And so, all of that is good, and I’m not critical of him as a artist or his social conscience; I’m just saying as a critic of capitalism, the strategy itself … It’s black only in the sense that he is black.”

He explained that Jay-Z’s becoming an NBA owner is a fine investment as a personal investment, and he has every right to do so, but “that doesn’t mean that it is a strategy for a black capitalism. There the question is how to develop strategies that maximize the growth of capital and ownership within the black community.” And then he said, chuckling, “Him buying up 1 percent of the Nets is not going to do that.”

The problem is how to create a self-sustainable model that he himself controls. For Mr. Marable, the most insistent failure of black capitalism is the question of ownership: “The more successful you are, you will ultimately get brought out by larger white-owned companies. And that has historically always been the case. The wealthiest black capitalists in the United States would be Robert and Shelia Johnson [founders of BET], but they don’t even own their own company anymore. They got bought out. Even for them, their strategy has resulted in a loss of black ownership. And that is the irony of it.”

 

“I SAY IT all the time. African-Americans are the best consumers in the world. Because we buy things that aren’t even marketed to them!” Mr. Stoute’s confusion about whether to use “we” or “them” when he discusses the black consumer was still there, but his post-racial business neutrality was gone. He was talking about Carol’s Daughter, the hair and skin care company, which was founded by Lisa Price, an African-American business owner, in her house using her mother’s formulas. He is, rightfully, quite proud of that investment. “Jay, myself and Will Smith are investors in this woman from Brooklyn’s dream. Because it is like, when does that happen? Who is supposed to give her money? I mean, we gotta do it, right? It is almost an obligation.” This is the sort of capitalism that Jay-Z is atypically well funded to undertake; it is cyclical funding, and there is something communal and innovative about it. It doesn’t have the thrills and gloss of Wall Street, but it is so revolutionary, so novel, that it is difficult to conceive what it would even look like if it occurred on a large scale.

Malcolm X said, “The ghetto people knew I never left the ghetto in spirit,” and Jay-Z uses that quotation as footnote 13 for his song “Public Service Announcement” in Decoded. Malcolm X was assassinated almost four decades before the Johnsons became the first black billionaires, in 2001. This is how much things have changed not just for Jay-Z but for the black agenda since the civil rights era. The world is new, he knows this; as he infamously rapped hours after Barack Obama was inaugurated, “My president is black and my Lambo is blue.” In the same way that Jay-Z is almost certainly the first former Marcy Projects resident to own a Lamborghini by legally achieved means, he is also the first to have enough power to shape the future of the borough. And it very well may be that his revolution is that of a billionaire whose spirit never left the ghetto, but whose class interests did. Or he may become an arts patron whose deep pockets softly fund an entire cultural revolution, as Madame C. J. Walker, the first black self-made female millionaire, did for the Harlem Renaissance. “An artist like Jay-Z, with the consciousness he has, could make a real qualitative difference; he could develop human capital, skills,” Mr. Marable said. “Otherwise, he is more symbolic than substantive. He reminds us that a talented and gifted individual can make a big difference, and that is good, but doesn’t really transform people’s lives in any kind of radical way.”

Not oblivious to this, Jay-Z has said, “What myself, Puffy, Will Smith and Denzel are doing, it’s all new territory for [African-Americans].” It is a strange city of possibilities he lives in. 

Ms. hampton, a self-described socialist, told me in our last conversation, “Am I on some food, clothing and shelter shit like any good socialist? Sure. Am I friends with one of the most successful capitalists of my generation? Of course. All those things are happening simultaneously, and that is just distinctly American.” And now Shawn Corey Carter, like many before him, has entered the land of American firsts, where folks don’t always have blueprints but know the streets and the folks back home are always watching.

editorial@observer.com

CHECK OUT OUR LATEST JAY-Z SLIDESHOW HERE