It’s difficult for me to describe the full delights of Valerie Jarrett’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor to discuss President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to improve the prospects of young black men. We witnessed the spectacle of O’Reilly declaring that the best way for Michelle Obama to reach young women was for her to come on his program. We got to see Jarrett deal in a bemused, subtle manner with O’Reilly’s lectures to her on the best way to educate young people of color. And best of all, we got to see O’Reilly go on a hilariously outdated rant about the supposed dangers of “gangsta” rap:
There are real dangers to demonizing hip-hop as a force of social unrest, as an indicator for propensity to violence, or even as a confession of criminality. As I’ve written before, the increasing attempts by prosecutors to get rap lyrics admitted as evidence in criminal cases reinforces the perception that rap is literally dangerous, and justifies violence against the people who enjoy it. But O’Reilly’s fears of hip-hop and his fantasy vision of rappers’ values are comical precisely because of how much he has in common with the worldviews of the men he’s decrying.
To Jarrett, O’Reilly bemoans a culture promulgated by so-called: “Gangstas. You know what I’m talking about. There’s a culture of cynicism, like ‘We can’t make it, we’re not going to be a part of this, we’re going to sell drugs, we’re going to do what we want.'” I wouldn’t dare presume that O’Reilly is current on hip-hop, but I do wonder if he’s got the relationship between success in the illicit and licit economies backwards. After all, O’Reilly’s complaining about rappers like Jay-Z, who memorably declared in 2005 that “I sold Kilos of coke / I’m guessin’ I can sell CD’s / I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man / Let me handle my business, damn!”:
He’s not kidding about his enthusiastic embrace of capitalist success. In 2013, Jay-Z cut a multi-million dollar deal with Samsung for an early release of his most recent album. He sold his stake in the Barclays Center for $1.5 million, part of a divestment process he needed to go through to start an agency, Roc Nation Sports, which is aimed at helping his clients fully monetize their talents in the way its founder has. Jay-Z, rather than representing a culture of cynicism, in fact reps an outrageous optimism about the level of material success that black men can achieve in a capitalist economy.
And when it comes to policing sexual morality, Jay-Z and Kanye West also have records that he might admire. In “Hard Knock Life,” which Jay-Z released in 1998, the rapper literally brags about paying for neighborhood women’s education so they don’t have to work in strip clubs to make their tuition bills:
Kanye West released “All Of The Lights” in 2011, before he actually was a father, but that didn’t stop him from using the song to paint a self-lacerating portrait of absent fatherhood. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing a life that involves a “Restraining order, can’t see my daughter / Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order / Public visitation, we met at Borders” as something to aspire to:
In their personal lives, Jay-Z is married to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, with whom he has his only child, a daughter, born safely into wedlock. West proposed to his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian, after they had a daughter together, in an extravagantly traditional display that it’s hard to imagine O’Reilly disapproving of. The man even got down on his knee, with Kardashian’s family present to celebrate with the newly-engaged couple. Perhaps O’Reilly can begrudge West his timing. But it would be difficult for him to deny that West is doing what O’Reilly would prefer he do, stepping up and saying that when a baby is involved, wealth isn’t enough to guarantee stability: a child ought to grow up with parents who are married.
O’Reilly may grumble to Valerie Jarrett that: “You’re going to have to get people like Jay-Z, Kanye West, all these gangsta rappers, to knock it off. That’s number one.” But it’s hard to tell what, precisely, he’d like them to knock off. Neither of them wear “the hats on backwards,” for the most part, favoring designer labels and suits that are extravagant in their displays of sobriety. If they offer up “terrible rap lyrics,” the values they’re espousing aren’t exactly anti-capitalist, and their gender politics not so far from the vision of a fallen world O’Reilly espouses. If they talk about “the drug,” for Jay-Z, it’s mostly in sketching in his past, rather than advocating the continued selling of those kilos of coke. In fact, O’Reilly’s own views on personal marijuana use don’t seem terribly far out of line from that of most rappers.
“It’s the gangsta rappers, it’s the athletes, it’s the tattoo guys,” O’Reilly prophesies darkly. But if he’d relax, and listen to the music that freaks him out, he might find cause to celebrate. Jay-Z and Kanye West are already enthusiastic ambassadors for many of the ideas O’Reilly wishes America would embrace. He’s just too hung up on superficial signifiers like tattoos and cocked hats to notice.