by BAR contributor Danny Haiphong
Jay-Z’s album 4:44 confirms his deep loyalty to the capitalist system and profound disdain for the people that buy his records. He is a parasitic preacher of I-gotta-get-mine politics, like other celebrities whose existence does “nothing to alleviate the wealth disparity between White America and Black America.” His lyrical talent is superb, but his social analysis is worse than useless.
Jay-Z and the Rest of his Class Belong in the Dustbin of History
by BAR contributor Danny Haiphong
“Jay-Z's ideology has been shaped by the rise of a parasitic class that stands in total opposition to the liberation of not just Black people, but of humanity itself.”
There was a time when this author listened to Jay-Z's music with the utmost enthusiasm. His early work, especially his premier album Reasonable Doubt, romanticized the image of the Black deviant so prevalent in US history generally and the Clinton years in particular. During the 1990s, the hop-hop industry sought to rake in exorbitant profits from a Mafioso image of its artists. Jay-Z was one of many rappers who became rich by mixing into his rhymes both Mafioso themes and vivid imagery of the harsh realities of Black life within poor urban centers. His lyrical talents were matched by few. Years later, success in the corporate hip-hop industry has brought Jay-Z great personal fortune at great cost to the collective fortune of Black America as a whole.
Jay-Z's newest album, 4:44, has been the focus of much attention since its release on June 30th. However, few have really analyzed the political significance of the album. And unless one subscribes to Tidal, Jay-Z's privately owned streaming corporation, then actual access to the album is a chore in and of itself. This author did not listen to the full album. In fact, all it took was one play of the track The Story of OJ Simpson to understand why it is time to place Jay-Z the rest of his class in the dustbin of history.
The track's lyric about how Jews have forged a comfortable existence in the US has received the harshest criticisms. The assertion that Jews have ascended economically due to access to credit has brought the charge of anti-semetism to Jay-Z's reputation. However, just like anything else, the whole is always more critical than the part. The lyric not only decontextualizes history but also promotes his particular brand of Black capitalism. That Jewish success in the US could somehow serve as a model for Black social uplift is nothing more than a diversion from the realities facing Black America today.
“It would take 228 years for Black Americans to amass the wealth of white Americans.”
Jay-Z says he can buy the block, but the reality is that the existence of Black celebrities and entertainers has done nothing to alleviate the wealth disparity between White America and Black America. According to Attorney Antonio Moore, the notion of celebrity wealth is nothing but an illusion. A mere few hundred Black families can claim millionaire status while nearly half of all Black households in the US possess a net worth of just $1700. It would take 228 years for Black Americans to amass the wealth of white Americans. Jay-Z may own Tidal, but his personal glory does little for anyone other than himself.
Jay-Z has been allowed to become rich because he serves white capital with the deepest of loyalties. The Black political class, what BAR deems the Black misleadership class, was nurtured in the bowels of white capital to provide an outlet for Black politics after the state-sanctioned destruction of the Black liberation movement in the late 1970s. While Jews and other European American workers have historically leaned on whiteness to relieve economic insecurity in the US, Black Americans have never possessed such an anchor. Class divisions within the Black polity have always been marked by varying levels of poverty, imbuing a state of cognitive dissonance described by E. Franklin Frazier's study of the Black bourgeoisie. This changed in the 1970s when a select few Black Americans were given access to varying forms of political power, giving more credence to the notion of upward mobility within US capitalist society.
However, the cognitive dissonance within the Black political class only worsened as a result. Increased access to the halls of political power has come at the expense of the Black economic condition. It has required Black people themselves to supervise the affairs of white capital. White capital hoped that Black politicians would become the faces of police repression, war, and barbaric capitalist exploitation. And this is exactly what happened. The ascendancy of Black police commissioners and mayors in majority Black cities like Philadelphia and Detroit has brought with it even more severe enforcement of police brutality and privatization on the Black masses broadly. Jay-Z's ideology has been shaped by the rise of a parasitic class that stands in total opposition to the liberation of not just Black people, but of humanity itself.
“Jay-Z may own Tidal, but his personal glory does little for anyone other than himself.”
That is why Jay-Z raps about Jews and credit but not white supremacy or capitalist exploitation. It is also why he urges listeners to pursue personal wealth instead of a struggle against the forces that loot the Black poor. Artists and entertainers like Jay-Z have joined a class that owes their existence to the exploitation of poor and working people, especially Black America. They promote outdated and reactionary ideas about racial progress because anything else would discredit them as enemies of the people. And Jay-Z desperately needs to remain in good standing with his fans, lest he become another financially bankrupt celebrity such as Swizz Beatz, 50 Cent, or Floyd Mayweather.
A new era is upon us that threatens to expose the fallibility of the Black political class. For one, no longer can Black politicians and leaders fail to address the concerns of Black people. Black preacher and political figure Al Sharpton has all but lost his relevancy to Black America after the Black Lives Matter movement called him out for playing the role of arbiter between the police and the Black community. The Democratic Party was equally hit hard by the new terrain in the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton's attempt to curry favor with Obama failed to give her the number of votes needed to win the general election. Black celebrities have taken note of the situation and have tried to capitalize on the spirit of upheaval to advance their careers.
“Black Lives Matter one day and calls Black liberation legends like Harry Belafonte a ‘boy’ the next.”
As a result, Jay-Z, Beyonce, and a whole host of Black corporate artists have been forced to respond to the Black condition. However, their class position disallows them from offering leadership in the struggle against oppression. Jay-Z is thus compelled to channel popular attention toward his personal life and his worldview about Black America, both of which are grounded in the experience of his class. He claims Black Lives Matter one day and calls Black liberation legends like Harry Belafonte a “boy” the next. The reality is that regardless of their statements or token actions, celebrities and corporate artists will always believe their presence to be "charity."
Some may say that Jay-Z has changed and that he is making an effort to relate to the Black masses in the current moment. But Mao Tse Tung was right when he said that there ". . . is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.” Jay-Z's album 4:44 should not be ignored, but rather placed in its proper perspective. The Black misleadership class is desperately trying to validate themselves to the masses in a period where their role in the oppression of Black America and poor people generally is being increasingly publicized. It is the task of all who proclaim themselves revolutionary to advance this process toward the goal of transferring power from the oppressor to the oppressed. Culture can be a tool toward such a goal, but it can also be a formidable weapon against it. The questions are: who wields culture, and for what purpose?
Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached email@example.com