President Obama meets Beyonce and Jay-Z during a 2012 fundraiser
Jay-Z, international rap star and husband to pop diva Beyonce, took out his frustration against Republicans’ attacks on him and his wife Thursday in a new rap track, mocking their anger over their recent trip to Cuba.
Florida Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have been attacking both the celebrity couple and the Obama administration for almost a week now, claiming that the trip may have violated U.S. sanctions against Cuba. The new track — titled “Open Letter” — extensively references and mocks those attacks as well as highlighting their ties to the Obama administration:
“I done turned Havana into Atlanta,” Jay-Z raps in “Open Letter,” which he released Thursday. “[…] Boy from the hood, I got White House clearance… Politicians never did s—- for me except lie to me, distort history… They wanna give me jail time and a fine. Fine, let me commit a real crime.”
Listen to the track here:
As Jay-Z noted, the two actually did not commit a crime in visiting Havana. Instead, their trip was approved under a “people-to-people” license from the U.S. Treasury Department, which handles policy related to the Cuba embargo. Under the terms of the license, Jay-Z and Beyonce stuck strictly to an approved schedule, forgoing normal tourist behavior in favor of walking tours of Cuban architecture. The entire “scandal” simply highlights the ridiculous nature of the fifty-year old broken policy the United States has towards Cuba.
Republicans continued on Tuesday to call on the Obama administration to answer questions surrounding superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba, inadvertently showcasing the massive failure that is U.S. policy towards the communist island nation.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Monday joined those demanding answers from the White House on just who approved the celebrity couple’s trip to Cuba for their fifth wedding anniversary. Meanwhile, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) — co-author of the letter to the Treasury Department that kicked off the “scandal” — appeared on CNN on Tuesday morning to continue to fan the flames, questioning whether the trip was taken illegally:
ROS-LEHTINEN: No one is above the law even if you are the diva Beyoncé. That’s wonderful that she is famous and rich, and Jay-Z — everybody loves him too, but no one’s above the law.
Reuters is reporting the Treasury Department didapprove of the trip, under the “people-to-people” licenses the Obama administration first created in 2009. Under the provisions of the licenses, travelers cannot participate in typical tourist activities such as beachgoing. Instead, according to Reuters’ source, every minute of the power couple’s trip was planned out to comply with the rules, where even “a walk around the Old City of Havana, mobbed by crowds of excited Cuban spectators, was led by Miguel Coyula, one of the city’s leading architects.”
Though it seems inherently ridiculous and political for Florida Republicans to target Mr. and Mrs. Carter, the whole instance shines the spotlight on one of the most lengthy failed policies in U.S history. The U.S. embargo on Cuba was first put into place with the rise of communist leader Fidel Castro into power in 1960. A total ban on trade with and travel to the island just ninety miles off the Florida coast, the intention was to suffocate the Castro regime while still young, allowing the restoration of democracy. More than fifty years later, Castro is still alive, though no longer running the country, with no signs that the system he set up will collapse any time soon.
The rules currently in place surrounding the embargo are easily — and frequently — dodged by Americans seeking to visit the isolated island. Additionally, only rarely are those who slip into Cuba actually punished, with only two having to pay the fine associated with illegal travel. Had Beyoncé and Jay-Z actually broken the law in traveling to Cuba, they would have paid a combined $15,000 — hardly an amount that would be worthy of Congressional investigation.
Experts at CAP and the Cato Institute alike agree that the policy has been an abject failure at achieving the goals the United States set out. On taking office, President Obama sought to roll-back some of the harsher restrictions the previous administration placed on Cuba, including removing a ban on remittances from Cubans in the U.S. to their families back home and reducing travel restrictions on Americans with immediate family in Cuba.
Every step towards reforming Cuba policy, however, has been met with kicking and screaming, mostly from the GOP with some Democrats joining in. While the human rights violations the Cuban regime continues to perpetrate are most certainly a concern, campaign funding may play a strong role in the perpetuation of U.S. policies. A 2009 report from Public Campaign highlighted the nearly $11 million the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, along with a “network of hard-line Cuban American donors,” spent on political campaigns since 2004. In the report, those candidates who received funding displayed a shift in voting patterns on Cuba policy in the aftermath of the gift.
Two Florida Republicans are prompting the Obama administration to open an investigation into Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent trip to Cuba, arguing that the couple may have violated sanctions against the communist country.
Former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and her colleague Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sent a letter to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on Friday, calling for an investigation into whether any laws were broken during the celebrities’ trip:
We write to express concern and to request information regarding the highly publicized trip by U.S. musicians Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Beyoncé) and Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) to Cuba. We would like to respectfully request, within all applicable rules and guidelines, information regarding the type of license that Beyoncé and Jay-Z received, for what purpose, and who approved such travel. [...]
Cuba’s tourism industry is wholly state-controlled; therefore, U.S. dollars spent on Cuban tourism directly fund the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people.
Despite the clear prohibition against tourism in Cuba, numerous press reports described the couple’s trip as tourism, and the Castro regime touted it as such in its propaganda.
Beyonce and Jay-Z did recently travel to Cuba for their fifth anniversary, a move that has upset many in the Cuban-American community. Ros-Lehtinen in particular represents a large Cuban population, and has been a major factor in preventing lawmakers from lifting the fifty-year old embargo on Cuba, despite both international and domestic support for such a measure.
Travel from the United States to Cuba strictly for tourism purposes is currently illegal under the U.S. embargo, but the ban is frequently flouted. Americans who want to legally travel to Cuba can use “people-to-people licences,” visas that allow for education exchanges between the two countries. In their letter, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart question whether the Obama administration provided Mr. and Mrs. Carter with such licences and for what purpose.
Both Beyonce and Jay-Z have been outspoken in their support for Obama, making them easy targets for Republicans. The couple hosted a star-studded fundraiser for the Obama campaign in 2012, and both have performed for the President on numerous occasions.
With the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the case against California’s Proposition 8 yesterday, the consensus seems to be that deadline for politicians to come out in support of equal marriage rights and to get some sort of credit for it has passed. But beyond the field on which legal equality is adjudicated, stands for equality can still be interesting. And there’s something particularly telling about this Interview magazine conversation between rapper A$AP Rocky and Alexander Wang in which Rocky both speaks up for gay rights and outlines an important tipping point. He believes it’s now worse for hip-hop’s overall brand to appear homophobic than it once was for rappers to be perceived as gay-friendly:
So now that I’m here and I’ve got a microphone in my hand and about 6,000 people watching me, I need to tell them how I feel. For instance, one big issue in hip-hop is the gay thing. It’s 2013, and it’s a shame that, to this day, that topic still gets people all excited. It’s crazy. And it makes me upset that this topic even matters when it comes to hip-hop, because it makes it seem like everybody in hip-hop is small-minded or stupid—and that’s not the case. We’ve got people like Jay-Z. We’ve got people like Kanye. We’ve got people like me. We’re all prime examples of people who don’t think like that. I treat everybody equal, and so I want to be sure that my listeners and my followers do the same if they’re gonna represent me. And if I’m gonna represent them, then I also want to do it in a good way.
It’s preferable for people to be affirmatively welcoming because they truly want their lives to be full of different kinds of people and want the communities around them to be the same way. But even if they’re not, it’s one of the great victories of the gay rights movement to make an embrace of gay rights better for business than the alternative, both by articulating the size of the gay market itself, and by expanding that figure by adding in the market of straight allies, such that that combined buying power dwarfs that of anti-gay boycotters.
The full recognition of gay humanity and gay purchasing power for a wide range of products go hand-in-hand. Once you recognize that gay people are people who deserve rights, you will probably realize that gay folks are also not a monolithic block who listen only to house music, live only in New York and San Francisco, vacation only on Fire Island, and amuse themselves only with faaaabulous clothes. Like heterosexual people, it turns out that gay people live everywhere. They buy tickets to sporting events—and at those sporting events, buy beer, and hot dogs, and jerseys. They take out mortgages in places other than Chelsea, often for homes that require things like drywall, and gardening prodcuts. And they buy hip-hop records and hip-hop singles and tickets to hip-hop shows. There’s a more attractive order in which to recognize these things, and it’s the one that recognizes the diversity of the gay community first and its purchasing power second. But you can’t recognize one without being confronted with the other. Hip-hop may be slower than Home Depot to shift its brand. But it will be a relief when no homo, a phrase as lyrically lazy as it is intellectually cowardly, becomes an anachronism.
My friend Alan Pyke eviscerated Sen. Marco Rubio’s understanding of the issues that animate hip-hop, a genre he repeatedly claims to love, and that’s become the basis of his claim to be youthful and relatable, in a post here a month ago. In the time since, it’s been amusing to watch Rubio embrace this part of his cultural tastes that the mainstream media seems to find amusing, even to the point of absurdity, as happened when he joined Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency, earlier this week.
Now, filibusters often have a reputation for silliness, whether it’s Senators reading from phone books, the question of how someone can go that long without relieving him or herself, or merely because of the futility of the event. But Paul’s filibuster, for all that I disagree with him on nearly every issue, and for all that I wish his concerns about the use of drones wasn’t limited to the use of them against United States citizens on U.S. soil, was a substantive, serious affair for the most part. So it was entertaining, and maybe a little jarring, to watch Rubio use the event not just as a way to poke the administration with a sharp stick, but to reinforce his credentials as a hip-hop head.
And make no mistake, he was diving for opportunities to mention rappers like a Hail Mary pass was on its way to his fingertips. When Rubio took the floor, he started out by telling his colleagues that: “In that question, he used Shakespeare references, he used a reference to the movie Patton, which is one of the great movies. I didn’t bring my Shakespeare book, so let me just begin by quoting a modern-day poet. His name is Whiz Khalifa. He has a song called ‘Work Hard, Play Hard.’ If you look at the time, it’s a time when many of our colleagues expected to be in the home state playing hard, but I’m happy that we’re here still working hard on this issue.” Later, discussion how former President George W. Bush’s use of drones would have been received by the Senate, Rubio mused: “That takes me back to another modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z. In one of his songs, he wrote ‘It’s funny what seven days can change. It was all good a week ago.’ I don’t know if it was all good a week ago, but I can tell you that things have really changed. Because if the question was George W. Bush and this was a question being asked of him, and his response was the silence that we’ve gotten, we’d have a very different scenario here tonight.” Rubio even pulls hip-hop’s own cultural obsessions into the mix, saying he’ll “Go to a movie, one of the great American movies, The Godfather. There’s a quote in this movie—I don’t have the Patton quotes, but I have The Godfather quotes. This is one of the best-known ones. It says, ‘I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.’ To me, these are offers you can’t refuse.”
There’s something terribly middle-brow about Rubio’s attempts to demonstrate his cred, the equivalent of a college freshman proffering up Atlas Shrugged quotes as proof of erudition and a sophisticated worldview. It’s even tackier to watch him scramble, Patton quotations aside, given the general seriousness of Paul’s filibuster. And it raises the question of what Rubio expects to get out of the fact that liking hip-hop has become a critical part of his brand.
Is it supposed to signal that he’s young? President Obama is ten years Rubio’s senior and has had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that he hasn’t just surfed Rap Genius, he’ conversant with ongoing issues like the genre’s gender politics and has beefed with Kanye West from the White House podium. Is it meant to reel in rappers as endorsers when 2016 rolls around? Somehow I doubt that Jay-Z will be so flattered that Rubio knows the lyrics to “A Week Ago,” even if he’s reversing their order—interestingly enough for a song about drone strikes, the track is about snitching—that he and Beyonce will suddenly switch parties. It’s not bad campaign strategy that Rubio knows how to surf a meme, as he did when a sale of water bottles raised $125,000 for his political action committee after he got gif.-ed reaching for a drink during his State of the Union rebuttal. But cleverness and snappiness aren’t the same things as wisdom. And if I were Rubio’s advisors, I’d be concerned that the candidate’s fondness for hip-hop and ability to roll with a joke were becoming the core of his brand. Those are better credentials to be someone’s frat brother than to be president.
Although he said in a 2008 interview that he saw a place for hip-hop in the national dialogue, his engagement with it has largely consisted of slips and quips—calling Kanye West a “jackass” for interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammy’s, joking at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that he sings Young Jeezy to Michelle, revisiting the Kanye remark, and so forth. Yes, he has maintained a close relationship with Jay-Z, self-proclaimed hip-hop royalty, but perhaps more telling was his 29-song campaign playlist for 2012: It didn’t have a single rap song on it. This year’s inaugural playlist is revealing as well; while it does have songs by Nick Cannon and the Far East Movement that would qualify as rap, these aren’t exactly the names you’d expect from the man who claimed to “love” hip hop…
Other rappers have been far more ambivalent in their support. Speech, of Arrested Development, supported Obama in 2008, but came out for Ron Paul in 2011, saying he’d become disillusioned with Obama. But then, as the election approached, Speech hopped back on the bandwagon, taking to social media in support of the president and encouraging others to vote for him. Killer Mike came out in support of Obama in 2008, but on R.A.P. Music, one of the best albums of 2012, he went on the attack. On the song “Reagan,” he characterizes Obama as “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters” and goes on to compare his foreign policy to the Gipper’s. Yet, even as that song was raising eyebrows across the country, Mike was insisting in interviews that he wanted Obama to win reelection, going so far as to claim that black voters would sell out their race if they didn’t support him in 2012: “If you don’t vote for Obama this time you’re a fuckin’ race traitor,” he said.
Nielson seems to assume that there’s such a thing as a coherent hip-hop community that determines both what does and doesn’t count as rap—even though MCing is a vocal style that’s thoroughly penetrated (and to a certain extent, been assimilated by) pop music—and that sets out a coherent political agenda that rappers collectively endorse. One of the things that’s been musically and politically fascinating about hip-hop in recent years has been its fragmentation, rather than its coherence. The East Coast-West Coast polarity is a thing of the past. Jay-Z made the transition to respectable mogul. Kanye West exemplifies the path of middle-class MCs. The internet’s made it easier than ever before for aspiring rappers to make tracks go viral—it’s a lot easier to email or tweet a link to a YouTube video or a SoundCloud playlist than to pass cassettes hand-to-hand. Hip-hop’s status as a giant business means that the antipathy for government Nielson talks about can mean a distaste for paying taxes as much as rage against the police. Credibility fights flare up all the time, but it’s not as if Nicki Minaj isn’t going to sign a giant American Idol judging contract because a Council of Hip-Hop Elders might look askance at her for it.
And ultimately, it’s totally possible for rappers, like the rest of us, to weigh disparate elements of a presidential candidate’s agenda and record and decide that, in a two-party system, a guy with, say a foreign policy record you find deplorable might be worth voting for anyway because of his domestic agenda. It makes total sense that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (who by Nielson’s standards might only “qualify as rap”) might be more excited about President Obama’s evolution on marriage equality than the kinds of guys who toss around “no homo” disclaimers, that Jay-Z might be paying more attention to the economy given his work in moving the Nets to rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn while Lupe Fiasco prioritizes the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes in the war on terror.
Saying hip-hop has a part in the national dialogue is an acknowledgement of what’s already happening musically, and a useful if overdue declaration that rappers aren’t pariah artists, excluded from the political conversation by virtue of their art form’s origins. But an openness to listening to new voices isn’t a commitment to a dialogue or a musical style. And Lord forbid hip-hop codify itself musically or politically as the price of getting to be heard politically.
Jay-Z, warming up a crowd for President Obama in Ohio today, rewrote the lyrics to his much-analyzed song 99 Problems to declare that he’s got “99 problems, but Mitt ain’t one”:
I have to say that, if with the distraction of Mitt Romney off the table, we could end stop and frisk after the election and thereby get Jay-Z down to 98 problems, that would be an America I’d be pretty happy to live in.
As Maureen O’Connor explained at The Cut yesterday, something very strange is going on with a Billboard profile of Christina Aguilera. Us Weekly reported, and lots of outlets repeated, that the profile contained the following passage:
I got tired of being a skinny white girl. I am Ecuadorian but people felt so safe passing me off as a skinny, blue-eyed white girl … [In 2002,] I had gained about 15 pounds during promotion and during my Stripped tour. They called this serious emergency meeting about how there was a lot of backlash about my weight. Basically, they told me I would effect [sic] a lot of people if I gained weight — the production, musical directors. They claimed people I toured with would also miss out if I gained weight because I would sell no records or tickets for my shows. I was young, so I lost the weight quickly and was toothpick thin during [2006's] Back to Basics promos and touring.
I told them during this Lotus recording, ‘You are working with a fat girl. Know it now and get over it.’ They need a reminder sometimes that I don’t belong to them. It’s my body. My body can’t put anyone in jeopardy of not making money anymore — my body is just not on the table that way anymore.
Except it doesn’t exist, and no one’s sure where they come from. And while the fakery is deeper, the whole incident reminds me a great deal of something that happened in January. After the birth of Jay-Z and Beyonce’s daughter, a blogger named Renee Gardener wrote a poem about the use of the word “bitch” in Jay-Z’s music that made it sound like he was swearing off that particular epithet in his music: “Before I got in the game, made a change, and got rich/ I didn’t think hard about using the word b*tch/ I rapped, I flipped it, I sold it, I lived it/ Now with my daughter in this world I curse those that give it.” The poem was widely attributed to him and occasioned an out-pouring of praise. The idea of one of hip-hop’s biggest icons taking a conscious stand against misogyny and repudiating his past casual use of it was clearly powerful to a lot of people, except it wasn’t true.
There’s a clear hunger for celebrities who speak the truth about their industries, who shake off trends like fat-shaming, or the denigration of women, a hunger so intense that people will fabricate things, or buy into relatively implausible misattributions in order to satisfy those cravings. You’d think that incidents like these would show the power of authenticity and honesty as a product, demonstrate the demand for artists who don’t look like they starve themselves and singers whose views on women evolve, for a celebrity culture that’s more human and less homogenized, less shackled to its past.
By Mychal Denzel Smith, Guest Blogger on Sep 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm
I’m a huge Jay-Z fan, and equally as big an Angela Davis fan, so my immediate response to this news was “awesome.” From Deadline.com:
[Will and Jada Smith's] Overbrook Entertainment and [Jay-Z's] Roc Nation will lend their clout to the Realside Productions/De Films Aiguille-produced documentary Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, which was directed by Shola Lynch. They will become executive producers on a film that premieres at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival and marks the 40th anniversary of the acquittal of Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy….
Roc Nation founder Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, added: “Shola Lynch has crafted an intricate and compelling film about Angela Davis. Roc Nation is honored to be a part of a creative collective that can present such a riveting story.”
It’s awesome because a documentary about Davis, from my view, is essential, and the fact that Jay-Z, alongside Will and Jada, is lending his name to this project means it will receive considerably more attention than it would left to fend for itself.
But I also can’t escape the incongruity of hip-hop’s most successful capitalist executive producing a project about one of America’s best known communists. There’s little to debate about Jay-Z’s talents as an artist; he’s one of the genre’s greatest. However, his idea of black power rests in corporatism and obscene wealth accumulation, where his greatest contribution is giving a piece of what he earns back to those at the bottom (“I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them/so I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win”). It’s unsustainable model and one at direct odds with the ideology of the film’s subject. You have to wonder what Davis has to say about Jay-Z’s NBA team contributing to the gentrification of Brooklyn.
It also brings to mind the criticism recently lobbed against the mogul by the legendary entertainer and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the 85 year-old lamented the loss of social responsibility among the current generation of entertainers, saying, “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example.”
This isn’t a new charge, and high-profile celebrities, especially black ones, are used to hearing it by now. No matter the number of charities they establish and/or organizations they lend their time and support to, there’s a contingency that feels they don’t do enough to champion the most pressing political and social issues of the day. They make headlines for giving birth but don’t use that same attention the press affords them to speak out against American foreign policy. They aren’t marching in the streets for Trayvon Martin. They squander their celebrity on themselves.
Jay-Z has spoken back to these critics in rhyme, but also noted that he could do more (check “Minority Report” from the Kingdom Come album). I don’t know the man personally, but I believe he has a genuine desire to lend his voice to causes higher than himself, for the good he can do, but also for consideration of his legacy. When his book, Decoded, was released a couple years ago, a friend and I noted that Jay-Z has entered a phase of his career where he is playing hip-hop’s cultural ambassador to the rest of the world. The book didn’t offer anything new to those fluent in the language, but was an explainer of all things hip-hop to those who still think it’s all guns, drugs, and destruction. Considering that alongside his executive producing of the hit Broadway musical Fela!, and now this Angela Davis project, it’s possible Jay-Z’s greatest contribution in this semi-retired stage of his career will be ensuring black culture has a place to live in the greater American imagination.