Jay-Z And The Politics Of Celebrity

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

[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.