“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” — Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
When news broke that hip-hop mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter agreed to partner with the NFL, public response was mixed. According to Wolfe (2019), this partnership comprises Jay-Z’s Roc Nation serving as the NFL’s official live music entertainment strategists and amplifying the league’s Inspire Change platform, which involves the collaborative efforts of players, team owners, and the league to produce positive change in communities across America. Some applauded this decision, noting the potential impact it can have with social justice reform. This included sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, who initially stated:
“You got them [the NFL] officially involved. They’re not just paying off the Player’s Coalition or donating money to a cause. They’ve partnered with Jay-Z and they’re going to allow him to have a voice in that room when you’re talking about things such as brutality on the part of some police officers against members of the Black community or various other issues.”
Other supporters of Jay-Z’s decision included hip-hop artists such as Rapsody, who claimed change must be made from the inside.
Despite some support, however, this partnership has been largely criticized due to the NFL’s ousting and subsequent exclusion of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose work while in the league helped bring about the Inspire Change initiative (Bieler, 2019). Considering Kaepernick’s dedication to help marginalized communities, especially Black communities negatively impacted by police brutality, many have asked why the former player was excluded from the league’s partnership with Jay-Z and, more importantly, why he is still without a job in football.
What is often lost in discussions about the NFL’s commitment — on the surface — to helping marginalized communities and Kaepernick’s ousting from the league is that this all began with the former player’s decision to sit during his football games while the National Anthem played. When originally asked about this decision during August 2016, Kaepernick stated the following:
“I’ll continue to sit. I’m gonna’ continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
He later followed this by asserting:
“This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice. People that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change.”
See the video below for Kaepernick’s full interview about protesting:
Kaepernick would later begin kneeling during the anthem, at the behest of former NLF player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, to be more respectful toward those who fight for the US. In time, he would be joined by others in the NFL and beyond, which led to public scrutiny, criticism from President Donald J. Trump, and, seemingly, league banishment.
On to the Next One
Given Kaepernick’s fate at the hands of the NFL, in addition to many team owners’ ties to President Trump, prior to Roc Nation’s partnership with the league, many are doubtful that any progressive outcome toward social justice reform will happen. Furthermore, Jay-Z’s comments toward the matter, while sitting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others during a Q&A session to discuss this agreement, did not quell any skepticism.
At one point during this Q&A session Jay-Z stated:
“Where are we moving on next? And I’m not, again, so to be clear for the room, I’m not minimizing that part of it [protesting for social injustice] ’cause that has to happen. That’s a necessary part of the process. But now we all know what’s going on. What are we going to do? How are we gonna’ stop? ’Cause the kneeling was not about a job. It was about injustice.”
While the hip-hop mogul makes a valid point about working to produce change alongside protesting against social injustice, it should be noted that Kaepernick has been involved in community activism, having donated over one million of his NFL wages to social justice charities. This fact was brought to Jay-Z’s attention during the Q&A, in which he responded, “That’s his version of an action item. This is our version of the action item. We all do different things and we all work differently for the same results.”
While Jay-Z is entitled to his opinion about producing social change through other means — a partnership with the NFL set to generate great revenue and visibility — it should be noted that his last attempt at partnering with a large sports organization to make positive change did not end well.
In 2012, the Barclays Center was built in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, Jay-Z reportedly owned one-fifth of one percent of the Brooklyn Nets, who would be playing in this arena. During the role out of the Barclays Center, he was used for promotion and marketing, arguably because of his roots in Brooklyn and popularity as a celebrity. The new arena was presented as something to benefit the borough and provide work for locals in the community (Mlynar, 2012). Unfortunately, the Barclays Center did more harm than good, having a negative effect on original residents of Brooklyn. These effects included gentrification, more traffic in the area, changing of the borough’s culture, and disruptive fans.
No Church in the Wild
Revisiting Raposdy’s point about Jay-Z changing the NFL through being on the inside, it can be argued that this change refers to the treatment of players exercising their First Amendment rights, as Kaepernick did, and helping to better involve the NFL in social justice work across America. As a counterpoint to this, however, during an episode featured on the Roland S. Martin YouTube channel, sports journalist Jemele Hill asserted:
“All those things that if they’re [the NFL] talking about doing with social justice are things that Jay-Z was doing anyway. He doesn’t need the NFL to do that. He doesn’t need the NFL’s validation, he doesn’t need their platform, and he doesn’t need to broker another music deal.”
Adding to this, when asked what he wishes to change in the NFL from the inside during Roc Nation’s Q&A session, Jay-Z’s response was the entertainment and how hip-hop is perceived, as well as how entertainment can be used to speak about social justice.
If Jay-Z intends to change the culture of the NFL, then his partnership with the league is somewhat understandable. If he seeks to promote social change and help fix problematic areas of society, however, this deal is arguably unnecessary. In an article Hill wrote for The Atlantic, she explained that the hip-hop mogul has consistently used his platform to speak on injustices faced by Black individuals, helped produce documentaries on the slain Black teen Trayvon Martin and falsely imprisoned Black teen Kalief Browder, funded numerous initiatives related to professional development and education, and donated millions to multiple causes.
Moreover, regarding music Jay-Z did not need the NFL to help his artistry or record business. Just last year he made this known on the song “APESHIT,” in which he rapped, “”I said no to the Super Bowl/ You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the endzone/ Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” To be fair, during the Roc Nation Q&A, Jay-Z stated that he had a change of heart regarding this line. However, given his influence in the hip-hop community and beyond, this change of heart should have been communicated to the public ahead of his decision to partner with the league.
Jay-Z’s decision to partner with the NFL is complex and can be taken several ways. While many have suggested that the public “wait and see” what transpires out of this relationship, the optics are not favorable. Using entertainment to speak on social justice is something Jay-Z has been doing outside of the league for some time. Moreover, speaking about social justice without Kaepernick’s involvement, considering he brought this topic to the NFL’s attention, is misguided. If Jay-Z is looking to make a business deal, that is his prerogative. It does, however, come off as hypocritical considering his support for Kaepernick in the past and song lyrics that likely dissuaded artists from performing at the NFL’s Superbowl Halftime shows.
Regarding the NFL, its deal with Roc Nation greatly benefits the league. On the same Roland S. Martin YouTube channel featuring Jamele Hill, Reverend Mark Thompson, who was at the Roc Nation Q&A session, asserted, “Basically, the NFL is gonna’ try to marry itself to popular music and popular culture.” Jay-Z is a prominent figure in both the hip-hop and Black community, both of which took Kaepernick’s ousting from the league to heart. Gaining his endorsement could mean winning back support from both communities. Additionally, this partnership can use the hip-hop mogul as a cover for the NFL’s wrongdoings.
Nevertheless, the league cannot speak about social justice while simultaneously excluding the figure who brought it to their attention. Kaepernick’s inability to land an NFL team is one thing but the NFL keeping him from discussions about community activism is another.
See the full Roc Nation Q&A session below:
Bieler, D. (2019, August 20). Jay-z’s nfl kneeling comments criticized by kenny stills. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/08/20/jay-z-has-moved-past-kneeling-some-nfl-players-have-problem-with-that/
Mlynar, P. (2012, October 8). Point: Jay-z sold out brooklyn. Retrieved from https://www.villagevoice.com/2012/10/08/point-jay-z-sold-out-brooklyn/
Wolfe, C. (2019, August 19). Stills criticizes jay-z: He’s never been on a knee. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/27421748/stills-criticizes-jay-z-never-knee