A portrait of Jay-Z.
Greg Allen/Invision/AP

Now partnering with the NFL, Jay-Z centers wealth-building in his activism, as many African Americans have before him—but without much success.

The flap over Jay-Z’s controversial, kinda puzzling business dealings with the National Football League heated up over the weekend, following reports that the rapper/entrepreneur is now also a part-owner in an NFL team (which one hasn’t been revealed). The grievance: Prior to the news about his new team ownership stake, many people were upset about Jay-Z entering into a business partnership with the NFL to deliver social justice-entertainment programming, despite the fact that no NFL team has signed the quarterback Colin Kaepernick since he fell out with the league over his national anthem-timed police brutality protests three years ago.

Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid—a friend of Colin Kaepernick’s and a fellow protester—recently blasted Jay-Z, accusing him of aiming to “make millions ... by assisting the NFL in burying Colin’s career.”

Jay-Z has defended his NFL partnership, saying during a press conference with NFL executives last week that “we’ve moved past kneeling,” and that his new partnership was about using the NFL’s “huge forum” to address injustice.

“We all know the issue now—OK, next—what are we moving (on to) next?,” he said. “And I’m not minimizing [the protests] because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

For Jay-Z, engaging with the NFL, as opposed to helping cancel it, is also a necessary part of the process—in fact, the next level of the process. He is not the first African American to make a C.R.E.A.M. case for addressing racial injustice. Many black activists made similar market-based civil rights arguments through the 20th century, using the logic that wealth-building could undo the evils of racism. None of those arguments have quite panned out for black people, as here we are in 2019 still struggling with these issues. The question is whether Jay-Z has learned from the failures of the past or if he’s simply employing more of the same.

Historically, many prominent black leaders have espoused economic strategies to help African Americans at least cope better with racism—the Urban League was founded in 1920 under the mission “to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.”  

In 1968, black leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) proposed to Congress the Community Self-Determination Bill, which called for a World Bank-style community development corporation, funded by the U.S. Treasury, that would finance and guarantee home and business loans in black communities. It was actually introduced in the Senate that year, with the support of several Republicans, though it went nowhere. Roy Innis, CORE’s co-national director with Floyd McKissick, made a statement back then that sounded a lot like Jay-Z’s today: “We are past the stage where we can talk seriously of whites acting toward blacks out of moral imperatives.”

“If a Black man has no bread in his pocket,” said McKissick, “the solution to his problem is not integration; it’s to get some bread.”

This was within months of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, which also pretty much killed off the non-violent civil rights strategy that King championed. In the post-King milieu, African-American racial justice organizations began charting new strategies based on enhancing the health and wealth of black communities, while armed and ready to defend themselves against racist attacks. Some black leaders, like Innis and McKissick, adopted “black capitalism” tactics that were more explicitly about increasing profit gains.

In fact, McKissick eventually left CORE and nonprofit work altogether to form McKissick Enterprises, focused on commercial real estate development. He launched it with a manifesto entitled, “Dedicated to Building Black Economic Power,” stating in the introduction that “Black America’s struggle is for Economic Power and Self-determination”—McKissick was, literally, out to capitalize.

Today, we might say that Jay-Z is McKissick’s wildest dream. Shawn Carter (Jay-Z’s real name) is an actual billionaire who centers wealth accumulation in his theory of change and liberation. He mostly found his political voice in the Trayvon Martin era, after the names of numerous African Americans became hashtags and social media campaigns, all for the dishonor of being killed by the police—or, in Martin’s case, killed by a vigilante who thought he was a cop.

Jay-Z trolled Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, in his rhymes and bankrolled a documentary series on Trayvon’s life. This, along with a documentary series on Kalief Browder, a young African-American man who was driven to suicide after being unfairly arrested and held at the notorious Rikers Island jail for hundreds of days, represented Jay-Z’s official entree as a TV producer. Jay-Z partnered with Harvey Weinstein, now accused of serial sexual assault and harassment, for the Browder documentary.

As Jay-Z’s entertainment business Roc Nation blossomed, several activists who led protests in Ferguson, Missouri died, some under strange circumstances. Although the police found no evidence of foul play, some who participated in and followed the Black Lives Matter movement saw the deaths as political assassinations, for which no one was being held accountable.

Watching this from afar was the NFL quarterback Kaepernick, son of a white mother and black father. Kaepernick decided in 2016 that he wouldn’t participate in jingoist pre-game exercises like the singing of the national anthem: This was not a time for exhibiting allegiance to a country that appeared to be showing no similar allegiance to its black citizens. He kneeled during the “Star-Spangled Banner” for an entire season. In 2017, Kaepernick opted out of re-signing with the San Francisco 49ers, and since then no other team has signed him. He has been effectively and involuntarily retired from the league—a kind of political assassination of his football career.

Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé, or “The Carters” as they are affectionately known, inserted themselves in the political drama by pledging support for Kaepernick. When ESPN honored Kaepernick with the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, Mrs. Carter personally delivered the trophy to him, saying in her speech that “Colin took action with no fear of consequence or repercussion—only hope to change the world for the better.”

In The Carters’ song “Apeshit,” Jay-Z gloated about turning down performing at the Super Bowl, telling the NFL, “You need me, I don’t need you.”

Many people took that line to mean that he was in full solidarity with those boycotting the NFL to stand with Kap. They were disappointed last week to find out that Jay-Z might have only been leveraging a business deal with the league’s top brass. Jigga might have seen this as a bawse power play, but many took it as a sell-out move. Damon Young wrote at The Root that Jay-Z “just got paid to be the NFL’s help,” while The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN, wrote that “Jay-Z has given the NFL exactly what it wanted: guilt-free access to black audiences, culture, entertainers, and influencers.”

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli<br> Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense<br> But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since (wooo!)
― JAY-Z – Moment of Clarity

Anyone who’s been paying attention to Jay-Z over his 30-plus-year rap career, though, wasn’t surprised. Shawn Carter is, after all and above all, a magnate. A business. He has always woven his political activism with capitalist fealty. To expect anything more from him, even in this fiery moment, is probably to misunderstand what he has always stood for: a dollar.

This is the guy who gave us several money-mixed metaphors in his songs, from “I’m gon’ get richer, by any means, with that thing Malcolm palmed in the picture,” to “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex.

This is his worldview, but it’s not really that complicated. There are those who see justice in terms of truth, fairness, and equity. And then there are those who, like McKissick in 1968, see it in terms of wealth, power, and equity. The latter group is somewhat disillusioned with the intangible goods of “rights” and “equality”—asked to choose between “a Lexus or justice,” as the rap duo dead prez once asked, the Jay-Z–McKissick camp would answer, “Justice is forming a partnership with Lexus.”

McKissick Enterprises’ first major venture in 1968 was to build a city in North Carolina that was ostensibly for African Americans, called Soul City. To do it, Floyd McKissick had to make some questionable maneuvers. For one, he had to partner with then-President Richard Nixon—he in fact endorsed Nixon for president. Back then, Nixon was perhaps one of the most reviled political figures among many African Americans for his attack on anti-poverty programs and his militarized so-called “law-and-order” regime, and for criminalizing inner cities and black cities. Yet Nixon was the president who green-lighted Soul City and gave McKissick millions in federal funding to get it started. McKissick also had to make deals with Fortune 500 companies to make sure Soul City had jobs.

But it wasn’t long before Nixon ended up resigning, which led to Republicans starving out the Soul City project. Without federal funding, the corporations pulled out also, leaving McKissick and his team of black planners, architects, engineers, investors, and economists holding the bag—that is, the debt. The deals fell apart because McKissick never had the support of rank-and-file Republicans and chambers of commerce. Nixon used McKissick—and the “black capitalism” experiment—for political purposes, mainly pacifying African Americans in the years after King’s assassination.

This is far from the only story involving black capitalist aims to end like this. As Mehrsa Baradaran wrote in her book The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap:

It was clear that Nixon did not understand the segregation trap … when he promised that black capitalism would “[open] the full range of business opportunity to all by removing the inherited and institutional barriers to entry.” … At best, black capitalism was being used as state paternalism, but at heart it was deployed as a decoy instead of an honest account of a systemic problem.

And it didn’t stop with Nixon. As Baradaran told Aaron Ross Coleman in The Nation earlier this year: “Carter did it, Reagan did it, Clinton did it, Obama did it, [and] Trump is doing it now with Opportunity Zones. … Opportunity Zones is black capitalism. It’s been denuded of the word ‘black,’ but it’s essentially the same idea.”

Is Jay-Z aware enough of this history to avoid similar pitfalls? Is the NFL using this partnership to neglect other proposals for meaningful reform—both on and off the field—and weaponizing Jay-Z in a way that maintains racial inequality? Maybe Jay-Z is asking these questions. Or, he could be uninterested in them, and is just out for the bread.

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