Critics of Jay-Z’s deal with the NFL simply misread the man
Excerpt from new book argues Shawn Carter has always been about his business
“Takes a nation of millions to hold us back / But when your boy reach a billion it’s a wrap.” — “A Billi” (“A Milli” remix)
“I’m a hustler, baby / I’ll sell water to a whale” — “U Don’t Know”
“I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” — “Moment of Clarity”
Funny thing happened when Jay-Z crossed the imaginary line of cultural consciousness and decided to cuddle up and get all cozy with the NFL: The black “anti-NFL” base that rides with Colin Kaepernick the way President Donald Trump’s base rides with Trump lost their #IMWITHKAP minds. Even those who were anti-Kap caught feelings.
“Sellout,” “backstabber,” “conspirator,” “treasonous,” “selfish,” “self-serving,” “hypocrite” were the terms used when the story broke, invoked across spoken and written platforms, both social and broadcast media. Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate, said the move was an “injustice” to the movement he and Kaepernick started; lawyer Mark Geragos, who represents Kaepernick, called the deal “cold-blooded,” saying Hov crossed the “intellectual picket line.” The New York Post claimed it was the “perfect cover for the NFL’s ‘social justice’ pandering”; The Undefeated wrote, “No matter where Jay [Z] started, he’s now got more in common with NFL owners than with NFL players”; Chance the Rapper, on “The Breakfast Club” radio show, said that if asked by Jay-Z to perform at a Super Bowl halftime show, that despite his love for Hov, “Naw, I wouldn’t … I don’t think the Super Bowl is my actionable item”; author and activist Shaun King openly said he was “deeply disappointed.” Even though people from Cardi B, Diddy and Killer Mike to Stephen A. Smith, D.L. Hughley and Michael Eric Dyson understood and publicly supported the Jay-Z/NFL partnership, the overall consensus was that Hov had turned Burr. #Traitor.
But what was missed the most, by most, was the inaccuracy of that belief. Hov never turned; Jay-Z never dissociated himself from who he was, who he’s always been. In the overtelling, undertelling and mistelling of the same story, somehow the conclusion was drawn that Jay-Z was now different from the person he had shown himself to be over the course of this life of his: Shawn Carter made that NFL deal, Jay-Z didn’t. Jay-Z founded Roc Nation, Shawn Carter runs it. Yet we fell for a fictional tale built on expectation — of a black superstar, a God MC — who throughout his career has told us constantly in his lyrics who he is and what he’s really about. And even though the media play on this was to find fault with Jay-Z, the truth is, the fault lies within us. Seeing what we wanted him to be instead of what he has always been.
Jay-Z, over his career, has masterfully presented himself as an icon of cultural change, but it’s what Shawn Carter positioned himself as that was at the center of the partnership with the NFL. And although the NFL should have been further exposed for race-shaming (think of Steve Harvey’s, Kanye West’s, Ray Lewis’ and Jim Brown’s photo-op meetings with Trump), the public belief that Jay-Z was a singularly socially woke/aware artist who represented Black and brown injustice was a narrative as misleading as the idea that Kaepernick’s protest was about the flag. When it comes to social and racial restitution, Jay-Z is woke; when it comes to money and power, S. Carter is wide awake! Just trace the path: Roc-A-Fella Records was followed by Rocawear clothing (which he sold for $204 million in 2007, yet he remains the CEO); followed by the opening of his 40/40 Club (a sports bar); followed by the partnership with Live Nation Entertainment that launched Roc Nation; followed by a four-year deal with Sony Music; followed by his purchase of Armand de Brignac (Champagne brand, valued in 2019 at $310 million); followed by the global partnership deal with Universal Music Group; followed by his acquisition of Aspiro (tech media, for which he paid $56 million), which he turned into TIDAL ($600 million value in 2017); followed by Forbes announcing him reaching the billion-dollar threshold in 2019. The hip-hop culture’s first “mogul” to do so. But we were out here thinking he was going to be a community within our community, that a mogul and his money would see things differently. In his own words: “That’s where you’re wrong.”
On one hand, there’s the underlying belief that the real story of the partnership lies in the intersection of expectations, insight and objectivity. That this is not Spencer Strasmore on Ballers trying to be the first black person to have ownership of an NFL team, this is a real brotha with real access to real money working his way to infiltrate the most exclusive (and arguably racist) club in American sports. As I wrote in a related piece for ESPN on the subject: “For Jay-Z, his seat at the table with Roger Goodell is not about cultural appropriation and racial reparations as much as it is a first step toward that exclusive power of ownership. As in: Jay-Z putting himself in position to be the first black team owner in the NFL. You can’t put it past Hov. You all had to know that’s what this was all about. This is what moguls do.”
On the other, his Roc Nation is the same company that had a partnership with The Weinstein Company (TWC) to tell “our” stories through film and has had a former TWC executive, Patrick Reardon, serving as the company’s executive vice president of television. It’s the same company that hired Demi Lovato’s and Nick Jonas’ manager, Patrick McIntyre, as the company’s president of management. Heavy hitters. Heavy hitting. Major business moves by a company on the come-up to be a major player in the game. With all of this in mind, with the diversifying of a business portfolio functioning at this pace and level, why should we be surprised by their saying “yes” when the NFL came calling?
Two years prior to the deal, in The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber gave us a cultural warning in his review of 4:44:
“Finding virtue in what appears to be selling out has, of course, long been part of Jay-Z’s package. His list of corporate partnerships over the years is lengthy, and Sprint is the third separate phone company through which he’s released an album. Many music listeners are, understandably, squicked out when an artist so enthusiastically links their work to corporate interests. But 4:44, Jay-Z’s best album in a long time, tries to answer those concerns. It’s the thoughtful refinement of a career-long argument that Jay-Z has made: that for him, making huge bucks serves a greater good.”
Dr. King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, wrote something that all blacks, regardless of class, status, income, fame or ambition, must accept as our reality: “ ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ” How long, in the mind of Jay-Z, must we wait? I’m sorry, must “he” wait? He, Shawn Carter. One of only four living black billionaires in America. Because, lest we forget, it was also MLK who said, in his 1967 speech, Casualties of the War in Vietnam: “There is an element of urgency in our re-directing American power. We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are faced with the fierce urgency of now.” And nothing says now to a black self-made billionaire than an opportunity to be a part of a real billionaire boys club. Jay-Z invested in Pharrell’s; S. Carter invested in R. Goodell’s.
Nothing speaks to the power moves that can be made through sports to attain power more than this. It’s just too bad the souls of black folks was the cost. As D.L. Hughley said about the NFL in the Roc Nation aftermath: “To them it’s, ‘If I can’t own a black man, I can rent one.’ ” Our problem is that we felt they were “renting” Jay-Z, forgetting that Shawn Carter is the one making the moves.
“Motherf—–r, I—will—not—lose,” (on “U Don’t Know”). That’s a Shawn Carter lyric.
At the end of the day, this whole thing should have been a non-story. Fake news at its cultural best. If we all just took the time to not make Jay-Z into someone he isn’t and stop expecting the NFL to function as something it really isn’t, then we’d realize all this was a strategic move by two businesses trying to take advantage of one another at the other’s expense. One billionaire trying to offset the other. Capitalists will do anything for clout. Because the chorus of Jay-Z’s focus decodes all we all needed to know: It ain’t ever been about where he’s been, but where he’s about to go.
Excerpted from The Game is Not a Game by Robert Scoop Jackson. Copyright © 2020 by Robert Scoop Jackson. Reprinted by permission of Haymarket Books.