Jay-Z and the Struggle to Define Black Manhood in America

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Jay-Z recently became the first billionaire rapper. What is significant to me about Jay-Z’s success is not how much money he has made, but the path that he has taken to get there and what his journey reveals about how black manhood is defined in American society. In some ways I see Jay-Z as an embodiment of the struggle to define a constructive and healthy understanding of black manhood in a racist society which has always restricted the potentials of black people. Jay-Z himself addressed some of his own struggles with this in his song “December 4th,” in which he speaks about the pain of his father abandoning him and how that forced him to develop a very defensive personality to cope with that pain. In the song Jay-Z goes to explain how he began selling cocaine. This was a booster for his ego. Not only was Jay-Z earning money, but he describes receiving love from “wavy light-skinned girls.”

For many young black men like Jay-Z, money becomes a substitute for the pain and low self-esteem that comes with being raised in an impoverished and single parent households. Women, especially light-skinned women, are seen as status symbols, which also serve as a coping mechanism for the self-esteem that many young black men experience. This too creates problems for black men as they struggle to establish meaningful connections with women.

Jay-Z is one of the few rappers that has opened up about having these challenges. This is important because underneath the tough façade that many rappers display in their music are insecure young black men who are struggling to survive in an American society that is hostile to black men. The focus on this article is about Jay-Z, but I will mention Tupac Shakur here because I wrote on essay on Tupac titled “The Complex Dimensions of 2Pac.” In that essay I demonstrate that Tupac was someone who had a very difficult upbringing, which included not having a stable male influence in his life and a mother who eventually became addicted to crack cocaine. At one point Tupac was homeless and had to depend on drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes to survive. These people became Tupac’s role models because they were the only ones that took care of him.

Tupac was very open about how not having a father in his life adversely impacted his development. Tupac stated that he would have had more confidence and discipline if he had a father in his life. Tupac also explained: “All my songs deal with the pain that I’ve felt from my childhood. That’s what makes me do what I do.” I would argue that most rappers that come from the background that Tupac came from have dealt with these challenges, which is why I mention Tupac here because he was one of the few rappers who really opened up about how his childhood impacted his development as a man and influenced his work as a rapper.

To return to Jay-Z, I think Jay-Z has been motivated by some of the same personal challenges that drove Tupac, but there are significant differences between the two artists. Unlike Jay-Z, Tupac came from a family of revolutionaries and this inspired much of his work as an artist; particularly the early phase of his career. Jay-Z has donated to organizations such as Black Lives Matter, but Jay-Z himself is no political revolutionary or political activist. In fact, he is very much part of the establishment. He has maintained a personal friendship with Barack Obama and campaigned for Hillary Clinton. In his song “Renegade” Jay-Z claimed that he delivered the news from a “ ghetto point-of-view”, yet as he campaigned for Hillary Clinton, Jay-Z raised no concerns over the impact that the crime bill — which Clinton supported — has had in the very ghettos which Jay-Z claims to represent.

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This is significant because Jay-Z is often painted as a voice for the black struggle. One article suggested that Jay-Z is trying to build a movement to change the world, and that he is following “in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela.” Mandela was a political activist and a revolutionary freedom fighter who spent over 20 years locked away in prison for waging an armed struggle against an oppressive and racist system — others like Chris Hani, Steve Biko, and Joe Gqabi were assassinated for their role in fighting against apartheid. Jay-Z is a drug dealer turned rapper, who has been using his wealth for philanthropy. There is a vast difference between giving money as charity and engaging in the type of activism that Mandela engaged in. Jay-Z himself has helped to foster this image by suggesting that charity is his presence in the community, as if charity is a substitute for real community activism and engagement.

Jay-Z has also suggested that he is “like Che Guevara with bling on,” but there is little real revolutionary substance in any of Jay-Z’s work — Jay-Z certainly does not share Guevara’s hostility towards capitalism and imperialism. This is significant because whereas Tupac’s understanding of black manhood was rooted in the notion of revolutionary struggle against an unjust capitalistic system, Jay-Z’s understanding of black manhood is one which seeks to find a place within that system and to be recognized by that system.

It has been suggested that Kanye West suffers from the type of envy which Frantz Fanon described when he wrote: “The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man.” I would argue that on some level this applies to Jay-Z as well because so much of what he does is rooted in his desire to be accepted by the colonizer.

In “What More Can I Say” Jay-Z explains that he boasts about his wealth so that white people can recognize him: “I don’t mean to boast, but damn, if I don’t brag/Them crackers gon’ act like I ain’t on they ass.” In my essay on Tupac I wrote about how black men often come to view themselves through the eyes of white people, and to some extent this is what Jay-Z does. He measures his success by his monetary wealth and his ability to operate as a consumer within the capitalist system, and to ensure that white people recognize that Jay-Z has “made it” he boasts about his wealth in his music. For Jay-Z it is important that white people recognize his success.

Michael Eric Dyson attempted to interpret Jay-Z’s lines from “What More Can I Say” as follows: “Jay-Z can still use ‘cracker’ as a term for white supremacist corporate capitalism, even as he forges strategic alliances with the people who dominate that culture, for the purpose of defending his black brothers and sisters.” The problem with this assessment is that Jay-Z is forging these alliances for the business reasons, not for defending black people. Jay-Z practices a form of trickle down liberation in which he enriches himself first, and then donates some of his money in the form of charity.

Jay-Z himself has acknowledged the limitations of his own consumerism in “The Story of O.J.” Jay-Z explains:

I bought every V12 engine
Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’
I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo
For like two million
That same building today is worth twenty-five million
Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo

Jay-Z explains here that when he was younger he wasted a lot of money buying expensive items when he could have instead invested that money into something that would have earned him more money. Jay-Z explains later in his song that this is precisely what he does with the expensive artwork that he buys:

I bought some artwork for one million
Two years later, that shit worth two million
Few years later, that shit worth eight million
I can’t wait to give this shit to my children

The entire song is framed around accumulating individual wealth. In fact, the entire 4:44 album is a celebration of individual wealth accumulation. In “Family Feud” Jay-Z concludes that two billionaires are better than one billionaire. Jay-Z’s primary focus is wealth accumulation for the purpose of personal enrichment. Defending black people is a secondary concern for Jay-Z.

Jay-Z’s definition of himself as a black man in American society has also been profoundly shaped by his attempt to emulate white criminality. Jay-Z was among the many 1990s rappers who adopted the persona of an Italian mobster, which can be seen on the cover of Jay-Z’s debut album. This attempt to portray himself as a type of Italian mobster has been a consistent theme in his music. In “La Familia”, for example, Jay-Z portrays himself as godfather like figure and in “Threat” Jay-Z references burying his dead enemies in the desert of Las Vegas, which is a reference to the gangster movie Casino.

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In my book Essays Towards Restoring the African Mind I write about how the self-destructive tendencies among African people stems from the fact that many of us do not have an identity of our own, so we embrace the identities of those that have oppressed us and end up imitating their worst traits in the process. I gave the example of Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic. Bokassa was a very brutal dictator who attempted to emulate Napoleon Bonaparte of France. The same thing is true of many of the rappers that have attempted to embrace the identity of Italian criminals. As I explain in Essays Towards Restoring the African Mind: “Rather than looking at their own African identities for inspiration, these rappers seek to imitate European criminals because they seek to identify with the perceived success and wealth of these criminals.”

The gangster rappers of the 1990s often portrayed themselves as romantic outlaws who achieved great wealth and fame, while defying law enforcement. In “Brooklyn’s Finest” Jay-Z raps: “Peep the style and the way the cops sweat us/The number one question is can the Feds get us.” This song was recorded in collaboration with the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, who also played the role of a Italian mobster. In Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” Biggie raps: “Federal agents mad ’cause I’m flagrant/Tap my cell and the phone in the basement.”

Typically there are two type of black people which the “Feds” have targeted; black criminals and black activists. Jay-Z, like many rappers, pattern themselves after the criminals rather than the activists. Therefore, it would be more accurate to compare Jay-Z to Frank Lucas than to political activists such as Nelson Mandela. Jay-Z himself invoked this comparison with his album American Gangster, which was inspired by a movie of the same name which was about Frank Lucas.

Jay-Z’s own political views are so shallow that he made this statement: “I think that hip hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons have, save Martin Luther King, because his ‘Dream’ speech was realised when President Obama got elected.” To reduce King’s dream to the election of Obama is a complete misrepresentation of what King believed and the idea that hip hop has done more for race relations than every cultural icon but King is so misinformed that it’s almost laughable. This statement by Jay-Z is precisely why he has adopted the persona of a gangster; political activism requires a more informed analysis of politics and race in America than what Jay-Z possesses.

Some have tried to compare Jay-Z’s capitalism with the do-for-self ideology that was preached by the likes of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, or Elijah Muhammad, but this is not a satisfactory comparison. Washington, Garvey, and Muhammad were all concerned with building institutions for the survival of black people. The businesses that Garvey’s organization managed, for example, employed hundreds of black people in the United States. Washington managed the Tuskegee Institute, which promoted a type of education which was designed to teach black people to become more self-reliant and to be producers rather than simply being consumers. Jay-Z is more focused on investments and personal accumulation of wealth rather than institution building, so to even frame his brand of “black capitalism” in comparison to Booker T. Washington or the Nation of Islam is just as improper as trying to compare Jay-Z to Mandela. As I stated, comparing Jay-Z to Frank Lucas would be more accurate. Or perhaps a comparison with Frank Sinatra since Jay-Z declared that he was the “the new Sinatra.” But Booker T. Washington or Marcus Garvey, Jay-Z is not.

In “The Story of O.J.” Jay-Z states: “I’m a field nigga.” This is rather curious given that at the time that Jay-Z released this song he was already one of the richest black men in America and he was someone who maintained relationships with some of America’s most powerful politicians. Most field niggas do not have access to the White House. Now that Jay-Z is a billionaire is as about as far removed from being a field nigga as one can be.

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Jay-Z’s philosophy regarding wealth is a product of the American society in which he was raised in. I say this to make the contrast between the capitalistic and individualistic values of American society with the values of many of the African societies from which African Americans were originally stolen from. In traditional African societies individual wealth accumulation was celebrated only to the extent that the individual’s wealth benefitted the collective society. Audrey Wiper explained:

Igbo society valued achievement for both men and women. A “big wom[a]n”
and a “big man” combined good character, wisdom and common sense with wealth, generosity, articulateness, and persuasiveness. Wealth in itself did not bring prestige; wealth spent to benefit the community did.

In Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays I wrote about the “Maigira” who ruled over the town of Kogu, in present day Nigeria. This title was bestowed upon a daughter of the previous ruler of the Biu kingdom. Many women turned down this position because they were too poor. The Maigira was expected to distribute gifts and to feed her people. Rulers in African societies were often expected to utilize their wealth for the service of others and those who did not have the resources to afford this responsibility typically turned down the position. Walter Rodney gave another example:

Take the structure of authority, whether it be the chief, or a king, or a ruling group. They too have certain very clearly defined responsibilities with respect to the action of giving, the key being hospitality. So much so that I came across a very interesting incident of a small chief in a Sierra Leone system who they were about to elect into a king and the guy says, “Well sorry, I’m not going to take that job. I just don’t have the funds to carry out the type of hospitality which is normally expected from a ruler.” That’s his job — to keep an open house. Guys just turn up there and, as I said before, a brother is a brother, a sister is a sister.

I mention this because Jay-Z, and other rappers like him, not only grow up in poverty and broken households, but they grow up in societies which value the individual accumulation of wealth, even if it is done at the expense of the society at large. This is why so many black men turn to dealing drugs and to crime because they are seeking to enrich themselves, even if doing so means harming the community. This is what Jay-Z did as a drug dealer before he became a professional rapper. Therefore Jay-Z’s embrace of capitalism is not only an rooted in a desire to escape from the poverty that he was raised in, but it is also rooted in an acceptance of the very Western values which have exploited African people for centuries.

There is another element of Jay-Z’s music which rappers are frequently criticized for that I will mention as well; that is misogyny against women. As I noted before, Jay-Z saw light-skinned women as a type of status symbol which helped to raise his self-esteem when he began selling cocaine. Women are objectified through much of Jay-Z’s music. After all, Jay-Z is the rapper who popularized the phrase: “I’ve got 99 problems, but a bitch aint’ one.” Jay-Z’s misogyny in “Big Pimpin’” was so appalling that Jay-Z himself expressed regret for it. Jay-Z asked: “I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing?” Jay-Z’s “Supa Ugly” freestyle was so offensive that his mother made him apologize for it. Ironically, “Supa Ugly” was recorded as a response to Nas’ song “Ether.” In “Ether” one of the things that Nas criticized Jay-Z for was “ dissing women.”

Jay-Z himself explained that much of his misogynistic treatment of women was due to having to shut down his emotions as part of the “survival mode” that developed due to the circumstances which he grew up in. This has made it difficult for Jay-Z to form emotional connections with women and is something that became a challenge in his marriage to Beyoncé. This too is something that I address in my essay on Tupac. The society that black men are raised in is one makes it very difficult for men to form meaningful connections with women. Jay-Z is not unique in this regard, but he does stand out for the fact that he (like many other rappers) has used his music as a platform to display his views about women.

The significance of Jay-Z’s success as a rapper is not that it demonstrates an improvement of race relations in America, as Jay-Z as suggested. Rather, it demonstrates how deeply entrenched racism and white supremacy is in America. Jay-Z is someone who was profoundly impacted by the trauma of racism in America and much of his success as a rapper has been motivated by his desire to escape from this trauma. In order to escape this trauma Jay-Z has embraced the values and the worldview of European capitalism and criminality. John O’Neal explained: “Racism systematically verifies itself when the slave can only break free by imitating the master: by contradicting his own reality.” This is precisely what Jay-Z has had to do to achieve the success that he has achieved as a rapper. No doubt many will celebrate Jay-Z’s historical accomplishment, but we should never lose sight of the fact that Jay-Z’s success is ultimately yet another example of how much of a struggle it is for black men to develop healthy and productive views of our own manhood and our own humanity in a society that degrades us.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

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