Jay Z Throws His Celebrity Power Behind Prison Reform

Jay Z performs during the Beyonce and Jay Z — On the Run tour at AT&T Park on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in San Francisco. CREDIT: MASON POOLE/INVISION FOR PARKWOOD ENTERTAINMENT/AP IMAGES
Jay Z performs during the Beyonce and Jay Z — On the Run tour at AT&T Park on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in San Francisco. CREDIT: MASON POOLE/INVISION FOR PARKWOOD ENTERTAINMENT/AP IMAGES

Moments before performing his 1998 hit, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” in front of over 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl last weekend, Jay Z expressed support for a California ballot measure that would shift state funding away from prisons and toward schools and enrichment.

“Prop 47, California: Build more schools, less prisons,” Jay Z said. “More schools, less prisons, California. They’ll never be able to stop us.” If approved by state voters in November, Proposition 47 would reduce most nonviolent crimes — including petty theft and drug possession — from felonies to misdemeanors. Nearly 10,000 prisoners could also see reductions in their sentences. The savings accrued by the state, projected to reach at least $150 million, would go into a Create a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.

The fact that Jay Z would use as prominent as stage as the much-buzzed-about “On The Run” tour to comment on prison policy is surprising, as many have criticized the rapper in recent years for failing to take a stand on social and political issues of great prominence to people of color,

Jay’s remarks come nearly a year after millions lashed out against the rapper on social media when he entered a partnership with Barney’s in spite of an ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit the national luxury department store faced. In 2012, professor and author Cornel West publicly challenged Jay Z to disclose his stake of ownership in the Brooklyn Nets, which at the time stood at 1/15th of a percent before he sold his shares to Jason Kidd. And in 2012, veteran actor and social activist Harry Belafonte gave a diatribe about how he thought Jay Z and Beyoncé didn’t use their celebrity status to lead social and political movements. During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Belafonte said:

“[Today’s entertainers] have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. 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. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”

Jay Z shot back at Belefonte days later in an interview with Eliott Wilson, CEO of online hip-hop magazine RapRadar. “I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity,” said Jay Z. “Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is.”


Jay Z has lent that presence to some political causes. Last year, he and Beyoncé gave a show of support to the mother of Trayvon Martin during a candle light vigil in Manhattan. He also stood behind then-presidential candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 election, sparking a friendship between the artist and political figure. Whatever the reason for his more direct comments on the prison system, they might help satisfy some of his critics.

The United States still has the highest prisoner population in the world with a total of more than 2 million people behind bars, many of whom committed nonviolent offenses. Our federal and state governments spend more than $74 billion each year to maintain the prisons. While many tough-on-crime philosophers may consider that a worthy investment in compelling criminals to change their ways, studies show that stints in the criminal justice system deepen illegal involvement and make society less safe for all. Michelle Alexander likened the prison system to the “new Jim Crow” in her 2010 book of the same name. In an interview with NPR, Alexander drew a parallel between mass incarceration and the constant marginalization of people of color in American society.

“People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages… typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes,” said Alexander. “[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.”