We’re used to surprises from Jay-Z. One day he’s announcing his retirement, the next he’s growing new locks. But on Tuesday, when the National Football League announced a deal with Jay-Z’s company Roc Nation, fans of the hip-hop mogul raised their collective brow — and it went higher on Friday when TMZ reported that he may be about to become part owner of an NFL team. At the very least, Jay-Z seems to have forgotten the point of the social movement led by Colin Kaepernick; at most, he has set that movement back and cost it its solidarity.
In a long-term agreement, Roc Nation will assist the NFL with its musical programming and collaborate on social justice initiatives. Jay-Z is known for his business acumen. With his history of philanthropy and work on criminal justice reform, it’s no surprise that he wants to further those causes. The question is at what cost.
Although Kaepernick, a quarterback, hasn’t had a job since he took a knee on the field during the national anthem three years ago, Jay-Z thinks the protest was successful because “Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice,” as he put it in a news conference with the NFL commissioner on Wednesday. He added that protests come in two parts: “You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?’ ”
He’s right. Partly. When it comes to boycotting, for example, sometimes “hitting them where it hurts” more aptly applies to a corporation’s reputation than to its pockets. As in the case of the Montgomery bus protests, boycotts work best when followed by strategic actions that aim to change a company’s policies — or a country’s laws.
But it doesn’t appear that Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL called for any amends. The league didn’t have to release an official statement apologizing for the way it stifled its players’ freedom of speech. There was no change to the NFL’s policy requiring football players to stand for the anthem while on the field — a policy that was widely contested by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), 70 percent of whose members are black. And though the NFL’s TV viewership did decline, there’s no conclusive evidence that it was directly due to the protests. Mostly, the NFL got a ton of bad press, and to make it disappear, all they had to do was agree to fund another one of Jay-Z’s countless social justice programs and maybe offer Lil Uzi Vert a chance to perform at the Super Bowl.
This isn’t to downplay the potential impact of the NFL’s Inspire Change programs — or to ignore the undisclosed monetary gains for Jay-Z and for all of the Roc Nation artists who may benefit from the deal. Nor is it to understate the connection between money and politics. That’s a relationship Jay-Z understands well: He’s donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups, is working to end cash bail, and founded an organization for prison reform.
However, when it comes to ending police brutality, Black Lives Matter’s Campaign Zero platform states that a crucial first step is to enact laws that limit the use of force, ensure police officer accountability and establish an independent third-party review of police investigations. One wonders why Jay-Z wouldn’t just throw his money directly at legislation. Or at least negotiate a better way for the NFL to do it. For example, the NFLPA’s political action committee collected more than $700,000 from its players in 2017, and oddly, did not spend any of it on any political actions. Perhaps some of that money could go directly toward electing lawmakers who are specifically calling for police reform. Perhaps the NFL could match those funds the way they match social justice grants. Perhaps Jay-Z tried all these methods and they didn’t work.
And perhaps Jay-Z used social justice as a cover for his primary goal, personal profit.
The truth is, Jay-Z doesn’t need the NFL to be influential or socially active. Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James have been doing great work without football. And so has he. Making power moves is important, but not if it means co-opting Kaepernick’s social movement for his own financial gain. “It’s just business!” isn’t enough of a defense. Slavery was “just business,” but we’re not clamoring to bring that back. Truth be told, I can scarcely cite a time when a singular black person has gotten a “seat at the table” and in doing so changed the culture of a predominantly white entity — especially when that table is housed in an institution that is upholding its systems of oppression. It’s the same reason Kanye West was blasted for meeting with President Trump at the White House: All tables ain’t good tables. And to be fair, the onus isn’t on Jay-Z to save the black community. The onus is on all of us.
Change doesn’t happen by one person doing one big thing; it’s by collective work and responsibility, through everyday people taking hundreds of small steps — such as joining the local community board, voting in local elections, pooling money and resources and patronizing the small businesses in your local economy. It’s important to support the people who support you. As a Brooklyn native, I remember when the community fiercely protested the construction of Barclays Center, but with Jay-Z’s backing and the promise of jobs and affordable housing, the black community soon rallied behind him. It’s nine years later, and Jay-Z has sold his 0.15 percent ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets, who play at Barclays, while thousands of displaced residents are still waiting for the apartments that may not be completed for another six years. It may have been a smart business move for Jay-Z, but the community ultimately did not see the change that was promised in exchange for support. Fast forward to this recent NFL deal, and I can’t help but wonder if Jay-Z’s new initiative will suffer the same fate.