Shawn Carter, more commonly known as Jay Z, is an example of a celebrity caught in the delusion of fame and fortune. He is exceptionally wealthy and sees himself as a messianic figure due to his success and influence.
In actuality, he has done little more than provide a few catchy songs.
An example of his delusion occurred on Oprah Winfrey’s TV network, OWN, as part of a celebration of civil rights leaders. On this special, Jay Z was quoted as saying “Hip Hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons.” This statement is both narcissistic and false. Hip hop was and still is an element of the fight for civil rights but to say it is the prime influence is simply an overstatement.
Even more, it is an insult to the HBCU students, past and present, who are both civil rights activists and Hip Hop consumers.
Artists are inspired by their surroundings and experiences. The actions of others are their muse for songs and often these actions come from cultural icons. Medgar Evers, the former field secretary of the NAACP, was killed in his driveway by a Klu Klux Klan member on June 12, 1963. Inspired by this, Bob Dylan created the song “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” The title refers to organizations such as the KKK being “pawns” in the hands of white elites who use Klan members to do their dirty work.
Dylan is not a Hip Hop artist, but the premise of the song is the same as Hip Hop songs such as “Be Free” by J. Cole that comments on the recent killings of young black men.
Some Hip Hop serves as catalysts for the procurement of civil rights. J. Cole’s lyrics may have helped inspire many to take to the streets and protest the Mike Brown verdict, including students at my school, Florida A&M University. I believe this motivation, along with his statement on Hip Hop reaching multicultural audiences, is what Jay Z is referring to in his commentary.
Societal issues motivated the song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1982. The song describes the unlivable conditions in the ghetto. This song was among the first of its kind to describe the socio-economic issues in the black community. From this song arose a movement of socially-conscience artists who used music to bring awareness to issues in society.
But the music itself did not single-handedly create change.
Activism creates change, and no one knows this better than HBCU students and alumni. It was members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the late 1960’s, a group which included Fisk’s John Lewis who attended Fisk University Shaw’s Ella Baker, who spurred massive youth participation in the civil rights movement.
So when Jay Z speaks of cultural icons, he is speaking of HBCU students past, present and future. When past HBCU students are spoken of, current HBCU students are included by default, because we cherish our history and those who created it.
When current HBCU students are spoken of, the Hip Hop fan base is spoken for, because we are the audience which supports and spreads Hip Hop culture. Essentially, Jay Z has bitten the hand which feeds him. He is preaching about the fame, affluence and culture blending within Hip Hop, instead of the legacy and history which made Hip Hop’s appeal and prosperity possible.
Jay-Z is saying every student who was, and is, inspired by past protests and rose together to protest the recent killings of young black men are not as valuable as beats and rhymes. This message is simply not true, and it is not the ideology of black society as a whole.
This type of ideology says more about Jay Z than our culture. The fact is, Jay-Z has sadly forgotten where he came from, which is exactly what we are taught not to do as Black individuals. Without the actions of actual cultural icons, he would not be able to perform for individuals of other colors or have his music on the radio. His fame was made possible by every activist that left the classroom and took to the streets in search of change and achieved change.
Hip Hop can never surpass the value of civil rights activists because it is a product of their work and sacrifice, along with many other benefits which all Americans enjoy. My apologizes Mr. Carter, but you are because they were.