It sounds like a perfectly impossible bit of drollery, one that would have Manhattan’s old guard turning in their graves: Jay-Z at Carnegie Hall. Like something created from the Twitterverse ether (remember Radiohead at Zuccotti Park?), this incredible if unlikely pairing has had HOV fans abuzz for months.
The intimate concerts will benefit Jay-Z’s charity, the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund, and New York’s United Way (UWNYC). The Observer spoke to Gordon Campbell, the President of United Way’s New York City branch to learn more about the historic performances scheduled for next week.
Mr. Campbell admitted that when the idea was first floated, it sounded like “an oxymoron.” A proposed concert with Jay-Z at Carnegie Hall with United Way left many people looking for a punch line. “You would not expect Carnegie hall to be partnering with Jay-Z,” he said. After discussions, however, it seemed that the unlikely threesome could in fact be an ingenious collaboration. “It’s not about the organizations, it’s about the cause,” Mr. Campbell explained. “This is really directed at a different demographic group and that’s something we need to do.”
Gone are the days of upright uptown charity benefits patronized by New York’s most pedigreed families. This is something different, very different, and sets a precedent for high-profile benefit events to come.
But what about Jay- Z’s lyrics? Some of his songs, particularly from his early days when he hit the scene in the nineties, discuss themes not befitting charities supporting childhood education and health. While the issue was discussed, United Way deserves praise for seeing man behind the music. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of HOV’s lyrics (some of them admittedly controversial), the organization chose to concentrate on the rapper’s actions since his rise to fame, particularly in the past several years. Advocating education and promoting college attendance for at-risk teens with his scholarship fund, Jay-Z has become a model of how fame can be harnessed for good.
Mr. Campbell said that instead of parsing each Jay-Z verse, United Way looked at the bigger picture. “The overarching message is that young people need to be in school, they need to graduate to be productive members of society,” he said.
In fact, United Way explicitly sought out Jay-Z for the series, Mr. Campbell explained. In addition to his philanthropic support for educational causes, his deep New York roots made him the perfect candidate. “He’s a new Yorker through and through,” Mr. Campbell said of the rapper. Born in Brooklyn, Jay-Z was raised in the Marcy projects, in Brooklyn. His songs frequently allude to the difficulties he faced growing up in the rough environment.
We wondered if Carnegie Hall was wary about allowing a rapper to perform on its hallowed stage. “Carnegie Hall really embraces the opportunity,” Mr. Campbell said enthusiastically. “We wanted to have something intimate, something that would create the buzz that people would talk about. Truth be told, Carnegie Hall said sign us up. It wasn’t a sell at all.”
And could he share any details about the “special guests” slated to join Jay Z on stage? Pretty please? “No, that’s under lock and key, but stay tuned for some big big, big surprises,” he said coyly.
Tickets for the concert go on sale today and according to Twitter, are selling out fast.