Black And: Reopening Jay Z’s Open Letter

A little more than a year ago, Jay Z announced that he was relinquishing his minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. Delivered through his scathing song, “Open Letter” and then later confirmed via press release, the announcement was a strange conclusion to an epic saga that had been unfolding since 2003. Up until that point, the saga had been chronicled extensively by The Atlantic Yards Report and moderately by The New York Times. Yet, when it came to chronicling the feeling of the saga, rather than the details, it was Jay Z himself who told the story, animating it with tales of rising from the ashes and giving back to his community. Given Jay Z’s emphasis on history and pride when narrating the “return” of sports back to Brooklyn, his latest announcement was shocking. The Nets hadn’t even played in the Barclays Center for an entire season; how could Jay leave when things were just getting started? Didn’t he care about Brooklyn? To say it differently: Was he really just “a business, man” above all?

From Jackie to Jay Z”

On March 11, 2010, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Barclays Center, Reverend Al Sharpton stood before a racially mixed crowd and gave a brief speech in which he praised the sports arena’s construction and the jobs and money he believed its construction would eventually produce. Citing his Brooklyn origins (Brownsville), Sharpton declared that “This project will bring long-term change to the borough that I came from.” Moments later, he mentioned the Brooklyn Dodgers, revealing that when he was a boy, his mother often spoke of how she felt when she saw Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field. Robinson, Sharpton explained to the crowd, “played his first games right here in Brooklyn and broke the color line in terms of Major League Baseball Players.” He then went on to assert that he is glad to have lived to see rapper Jay Z break “the color line in ownership in Brooklyn.” “We’ve gone from Jackie to Jay Z!” he exclaimed. As told by Sharpton, the comparison of Jackie Robinson, Ebbet Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers to Jay Z, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively, is a triumph.

Jay Z invokes a similar comparison on his song “Brooklyn Go Hard”: “I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them/I jack, I rob, I sin/Aww man, I’m Jackie Robinson/’Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen/Lucky me, luckily, they didn’t get me/Now when I bring the Nets, I’m the black Branch Rickey” A la Branch Rickey, the legendary Major League Baseball executive who negotiated Robinson’s entrance into the league, Jay Z becomes a hero, the redeemer of a lost Brooklyn legacy that was exported to Los Angeles in 1958. While Sharpton is a little more tactful (presumably because he is speaking before a mixed audience), both his narrative of Jay Z and Jay Z’s narrative of himself suggest that the triumph they both celebrate is racial — a black victory.

There is nothing wrong with this celebration, but race and history don’t quite tell the full story. Yes, the Nets’ relocation to Brooklyn and Jay Z’s role in their organization are somewhat admirable, but the groundbreaking of the Barclays Center is more than a proud moment in race relations. It is also a moment that is only possible because of certain financial and political relations.

These relations are on full display in the image provided below. At the same groundbreaking ceremony discussed above, Jay Z stands with  Bruce Ratner, the CEO of the real estate company that built the Barclays Center; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former New York State Governor David Paterson; former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; and former president of financial firm Barclays plc, Robert R. Diamond.

Barclays Center Groundbreaking Jay Z

Groundbreaking, March 11, 2010. Via NY Daily News

While Jay Z’s presence in this flank of power is certainly evocative, especially when compared with Jackie Robinson’s equally evocative presence in photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, this easy slippage between Jackie and Jay Z is suspect. When Jackie Robinson was reluctantly accepted into Major League Baseball, he was not a multi-millionaire investing money into a sports organization that might generate him private capital; he did not have multi-million dollar record contracts; he was not an internationally recognizable brand with stakes in multiple industries. Simply put, he was not Jay Z. When blackness alone is used as the criteria for comparing experiences, these crucial distinctions get overlooked.

Debates over the importance of these distinctions within black people’s lives raged long before Jay Z picked up a shovel or a microphone. Black Southerners who migrated North during the 20’s, black Caribbeans who migrated to the the United States during the 80’s and black women, especially feminists, are just a few of the black groups who have spoken of the myriad ways of experiencing blackness. Strangely, despite the persistence of these debates blackness is still spoken of in the singular. How do all of these contingencies get overlooked?

“Black And”

During the last night of the inaugural concert series that christened the Barclays Center, Jay Z responded to a perceived slight by the New York Times with the following words: “I’m a young black African male who was raised in a single-parent home in low-income housing and I stand before you as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets.” In this one brief statement he connects his blackness to his simultaneous experiences of growing up poor, growing up as a black male and growing up in a single-parent household. His clothing, a customized Brooklyn Nets jersey, further connected his blackness to his hometown, Brooklyn.

These connections are found throughout Jay Z’s extensive discography and in many instances, they are precisely what make his story so interesting (in addition to the skill with which he tells it). “99 Problems,” for example, features some dialog where a white cop disrespectfully refers to Jay Z as “son” and implies that Jay is uppity for not immediately ceding to the cop’s authority. There’s a deep history embedded in that exchange and Jay Z does an excellent job of invoking that history by subtly emphasizing that he’s being stopped as a black male, not just a black person. There’s no need to exhaust these kinds of moments (there are many), but considering how often they come up in Jay Z’s music and hip-hop in general, we should consider why these other markers of identity – birthplace, gender, class – are always subordinated to race despite being just as present in black people’s experiences.

On one hand, race’s primacy when it comes to understanding black life is simply a function of history. Black people have always been “black and,” but these internal variances were neglected when black people “became” black through slavery and colonialism. This can’t be overemphasized. Blackness was born from a literal gathering up of people and their differences and rendering them all the same. Of course, these differences were not eliminated entirely – music, manners of speaking, personal belongings and memories, among other things, miraculously survived – but being black under colonialism and slavery entailed a degradation of your humanity, no matter where or who you were. And even if you somehow did manage to feel human, as Solomon Northrup’s reminds us, this humanity was always tenuous. Whether freed or enslaved, if you were black, you were always one border, one document, one transaction, one bloodhound away from being torn from humanity.

Black and Rich and Invested

These are the conditions that shaped blackness and continue to shape it. Consequently, blackness has typically been framed homogeneously. There was little time for internal variances because to be in the category itself was to be on the edge of existence.

Yet as Jay Z’s case reminds us, this homogenous frame has limits and always has. At a 2011 press conference for the Barclays Center, which was currently under construction, Jay-Z briefly spoke about what the Barclays Center meant for him and for Brooklyn. Before he gave this speech, he brought up some students from his native Marcy Projects to stand behind him on the podium. It was a heartfelt moment and Jay Z’s pride and happiness are undeniable, but what is left out of the frame or maybe even pushed out of the frame is just as important.

In that particular instance, what is omitted are Jay Z’s incentives for supporting the Barclays Center: the money, the exposure, the bragging rights. Even more obscured are the people footing the bill for these benefits: taxpayers, dislocated residents, business owners, landholders. With these differences and their effects in mind, can we really say that Jay Z and the kids of the Marcy Projects are one in the same? Do we really know what we’re doing when we group such disparate people all together?

Jay Z and kids of Marcy Projects

Via The (Exact date unknown)


We Shall Overcome [Selectively]

If we take the naive view of history, the answer is yes, we know exactly what we are doing. One of the more popular understandings of the Civil Rights Movement is that it was successful precisely because it overcame more hostile and militant approaches to ending black plight. This is certainly true, but this “overcoming” wasn’t quite the spiritual perseverance detailed in “We Shall Overcome.” Labeled  “un-Christian,” “radical,” and “communist,” black people who didn’t quite align with the doctrine of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were actively pushed to the margins. They weren’t invited to meetings, marches and cookouts, and they weren’t allowed to participate in demonstrations. Overcoming was a very active verb.

The benefits of that particular overcoming are clear: I probably wouldn’t be typing this if the SCLC had failed and various splinter organizations (and their particular goals) had been the faces of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, I wonder how necessary it is to continue the homogenizing tradition of the SCLC when it [over]came at the expense of the goals and methods of organizations like SNCC, CORE and later the Combahee River Collective.

To go further, I wonder what we miss when we see Jay Z just as a successful black man, a guy who “made it,” when he is both a guy who made it and a guy who makes it by selling, music, concert tickets, clothing and sports teams to kids like the ones on that podium. This doesn’t mean that Jay Z is some kind of evil businessman; he really seems to have been acting with the best intentions. But when blackness is understood singularly, like a cloak that veils all other differences, the business that Jay Z was involved in vanishes. This vanishing makes us unable to think critically about Jay Z’s involvement in the Barclays Center without claiming that he has “betrayed” black people, which is a gross oversimplification. The guy clearly loves Brooklyn.

In the end, if the world is indeed “under new management” as Jay Z says on “Open Letter,” I think we need to adjust how we work. If we continue to use the same familiar techniques and routines when the world is changing around us, our ability to solve problems is diminished. This doesn’t mean starting from scratch – race still shapes the world in undeniable ways – but it does mean looking at the complexity of the world and confronting that complexity head-on, not lamely reducing it to just race or just gender or just class or just evil. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reduction or even having priorities, but there are consequences. If life is hard knock, why pretend that it’s easy?


On Jay-Z, Brooklyn and The Barclays Center

Last semester (Spring 2013) I wrote a paper on the role of race and class in the relationship between Jay-Z, Brooklyn and the Barclays Center. I stumbled across it earlier today while looking for a writing sample for an internship thing and I thought I should share it.

The title of the paper is “Producing Brooklyn: Race, Place, Capital and Jay-Z” and it is essentially about how sports are sold to cities through strange campaigns involving identity, history and other things. Read it here.

There is also a version of the paper that I tailored specifically for a web that is more concerned with how blackness can be reductive if not used strategically or in conjunction with other facets of social identity. Read it here.

On Doris 

Earl Sweatshirt - Doris - Cover Art

Doris is the latest album by Odd Future member, Earl Sweatshirt. I reviewed it for RESPECT., but I want to get personal.

For me, the personal appeal of Doris is its insignificance. Debut albums tend to be these big, grandiose affairs that are telegraphed to us by a lengthy, calculated stream of ads, lame press appearances, bombastic statements like, “This is gonna change the game” and now, commercials during the NBA finals. But Doris kind of just materialized. Of course, it wasn’t a pure emergence; I knew Doris was coming because of general hype, marketing, interviews, tweets from Earl, music videos and funny videos. Those things are expected. But despite the combined efforts of all the requisite parts of the modern hype machine, Doris was never quite defined. Leading up to Doris, all I knew was what it would not be. It knew it wouldn’t be “Rap(e) Chronicles Part Two,” a plausibly-named sequel to Earl’s old project Earl (2010), his engaging, but profoundly fucked up first outing. I also knew it wouldn’t be a trap-centric celebration of molly. So when Doris got here (August 20), it really wasn’t a big deal.

The music follows suit, with Earl rapping almost exclusively nonchalantly. I’m sure he cares about his work – it’s way too detailed to be the product of indifference – but I never get the feeling that Earl has bought into his own hype. He knows that this – rap, hip-hop – is just a blip on a larger grid with far more important axes, so he sees no interest in convincing us to “care,” in that hollow and common sense of demanding our attention a la Kanye West. He makes music because he wants to make music and because he’s good at it. What we do with it as fans is epiphenomenal to the music being created.

I think that this is the biggest lesson that he’s taken from one of his known idols, MF DOOM. People often make the Earl-DOOM connection because of their shared penchant for internal rhymes, slanted rhymes, obscure references and “straight rappin” (rapping without choruses, bridges or refrains), but I think that Doris shows us that this connection is more than aesthetic. DOOM taught Earl that making rap music doesn’t mean catering to rap fans and their strange and often hostile whims (“There’s not enough bass, man!” ; “That’s way too much bass, man!”).

The risk of making music for the sake of music is high if you’re trying to make a career out of it: if fans are epiphenomenal to the creative process, money will be too – DOOM is definitely not going to be in Forbes anytime soon. But that’s the point: fuck Forbes and fuck fans. If you’re in Forbes, I’m probably not going to buy your album. (Earl isn’t in Forbes)

Rap is the New Race: How The Hustle Obscures the Struggle

While 2012 brought us some of Kanye’s best verses since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, helping to erase the painful memory of 2011’s Watch the Throne, it also brought us some of his most despicable, insidious lines:

You know white people: get money don’t spend it/Or maybe they, get money buy a business/I’d rather buy 80 gold chains and go ig’nant/I know Spike Lee gone kill me, but let me finish!/Blame it on the pigment…

– “Clique”

I’m living 3 dreams: Biggie Smalls, Dr. King, Rodney King!

– “New God Flow”

In both of these songs, Kanye uses the fact of his blackness to elide the fact of his immense wealth. It is easy to dismiss these lyrics as further evidence of Kanye’s allegedly increasing arrogance, but I would like to situate these lyrics into the history of rappers collectively downplaying their socioeconomic status via their race, and then argue that rap itself has supplanted race as what Walter Benn Michaels calls a “technology of  mystification.”

Hustle Blood

All artists hustle. The necessity of the hustle is probably most brutally demonstrated by buskers. Unaided by advertisements, art agents or authority, they take their art directly to their audiences. Even when they are privileged enough to have a home to return to at the end of a long day, the relationship between their art and their audiences is still both highly intimate and highly saturated with the pressure to perform. In that indeterminate interval between the start of a performance and its imminent end via the arrival of a train or the disinterest of the audience or the arrival of the police (!), the artist must press forward, performing as if all conditions are ideal. The artists who fold to such external forces are hobbyists. The artists who don’t are hustlers.

As rap commercially bloomed in the late 80s and later flourished in the 90s, its origins in the inherent struggle of inner-city life eventually became its grand narrative. In other words, the struggle became a double signifier indicating actual life in the ghetto and life trying to make it in a genre that didn’t quite exist yet. As the genre grew even further, both in terms of the number of practicing artists in the field and wider cultural impact, the second meaning of the struggle started to trump the first, eventually colonizing it almost completely (A strong example of an attempt to capitalize off of this shift in meaning is SBK Records’ publishing of a fake autobiography for Vanilla Ice). The gradual result of this shift in meaning was the idea that all rappers are hustlers.

The problem with this notion of all rappers as hustlers is that it just isn’t true. The Jay-Z of 1992, a young kid from Marcy Projects trying to sell drugs to survive, faces very different problems than the Jay-Z of 2013, a media mogul, entrepreneur and renowned entertainer. Mediated by years of success, established credibility and the enabling triple threat of money, power and privilege, the Jay-Z of 2013 can overwhelmingly drown out the external factors that increase the pressure to perform. Even better, he can make audiences come to him. He may chant “all black everything,” but he’ll never be a Black Swan.

"Runaway" Single Artwork

“Runaway” Single Artwork

Similarly, despite a strange fascination with ballerinas, the Kanye West of 2013 is even less likely to become a Black Swan. Not only is he far from the streets, as indicated by his position on “the throne,” but he was never very proximal to them in the first place: he had a middle class upbringing. In other words, there is no College Dropout without the resources to attend college in the first place. In the end, the idea of the rapper as a hustler regardless of socioeconomic past or present is what enables Kanye to downplay his current and originary socioeconomic statuses and emphasize his race above all else. This is problematic.

Obsolete Technology

In his review of the book Who Cares About the White Working Class, Walter Benn Michaels makes the case that both right-wing and left-wing approaches to race facilitate neoliberal practices. Crucially, he writes:

…one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucially and specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial equally and specious relationship with rich black people.”

Given these uses of race by both racists and anti-racists alike, Michaels contends that race is a “technology of mystification.” His particular interest is how race problematically erases differential class experiences between members of the same race . I am also interested in this, but I’d like to take his argument a little further. My contention is that while rappers use race as a technology of mystification (And demystification. See “Mr. Nigga,” by Mos Def.), through this idea of the universal hustler, rap itself has become a technology of mystification. Furthermore, when it comes to downplaying class, rap has replaced race as the preferred tool.

Rethinking the Bottom

Though I started with Kanye, this isn’t an indictment of him. This is an indictment of the practice of rap and how that practice neglects the people at the bottom. “Started From the Bottom,” the new single by Drake is a good recent example. The song gives a brief and morose history of Drake’s ascension to the top, emphasizing the distance traveled from “the bottom.” The song is interesting and I actually like its mood and its brevity, but “the bottom” as used in the song casually glosses over the particularities of Drake’s fairly interesting life story, and rehashes the trite and mystifying narrative of the rapper as hustler. Drake is able to get away with such careless use of “the bottom” solely because of how rap is currently practiced.

Yelawolf’s song “Growin’ Up The Gutter” offers a nice contrast. In the third verse, we get a story about ascending from the dregs, but for the rest of the song, especially in the chorus, “the gutter” (the struggle), isn’t just used figuratively. It refers to an actual site of struggle, a locality where people are truly hanging on for dear life, not just being stressed or annoyed. This is responsible rap.

To clarify, this is not an attempt to ask rappers to “keep it real.” The argument for realism and authenticity in rap is a stupid notion that can only stifle creativity and silence interesting stories. In fact, some of my favorite rappers – MF DOOM, RiFF RaFF, Danny Brown, Azealia Banks, Royce Da 5’9″ –  say absurdly fictional things. My ultimate concern regards the people whose experiences rap claims to represent and empathize with, including rappers themselves. In a world where rap is increasingly the most powerful form of representation for both the people at the bottom and at the top , for everyone’s sake, “the struggle,” can’t just be some empty metaphor for trying to be successful. It absolutely has to mean something beyond, “Life ain’t easy.” Until it does, we’re going to continue to have some of the most talented artists of the day rapping some of the most inane lyrics of all time. Now that was an indictment.

Further Reading

Nostalgia Holds Hip-Hop Back