We shouldn’t be surprised by Jay-Z’s NFL move. He’s always been a capitalist & this is what capitalism looks like
It’s time to stop giving Jay-Z so much credit. He is who he's always been—an unabashed capitalist.
By Brittani McNeill
By now, we’ve all seen the news about Jay-Z’s new partnership with the NFL. The rap mogul, through a deal between the league and his company Roc Nation, will serve as an advisor, helping to select music for NFL events, including the Super Bowl, and lead conversations about “social justice.”
Since the announcement, there has been much guarded criticism. It’s impossible to ignore the terrible optics of this partnership with a league that doesn’t even pretend to care about Black issues, or Black people beyond how they can profit off of us. But instead of outright criticism, many have taken a “This doesn’t look good, but I’ll wait and see” approach. “Benefit of the doubt,” something Jay-Z gets all too often, has been a much-used phrase in the wake of the news. But the most interesting and frustrating aspect of the response to this news is the surprise.
Capitalism wins again. And again. And again. So why do we keep acting so surprised by it? Why do we keep letting it catch us off guard? Why do we keep excusing it and those with power who continue to uphold it?
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Considering Jay-Z’s recent projects such as the Kalief Browder documentary, his leading of conversations about prison reform through his fight for the freedom of fellow rapper and friend Meek Mill, his continuous donations to social justice causes, and his previous very public support of Colin Kaepernick and criticism of the NFL, it isn’t entirely absurd that people might be caught off guard by his decision to form this partnership. But should we be surprised? Jay-Z’s track record offers us a resounding “no.”
From being the face of a stadium much decried by anti-gentrification activists in Brooklyn—that displaced residents and business owners through eminent domain and raised rent—to defending and continuing a partnership with Barneys after Black teens were racially profiled in their store (sounding much like right wing police apologists with his assertion that he was “waiting on facts” before making a decision or speaking out to defend the teens), to declaring “my presence is charity,” in response to claims that he wasn’t using his platform to adequately represent and advance the history and causes of Black people—there are countless examples clearly illustrating that Jay-Z doesn’t quite understand the complex systems he claims to be working against.
At best, Jay-Z’s heart is in the right place, but he overestimates his knowledge. At worst, he’s willing to sacrifice any person or issue for his bottom line. As Andre Gee noted in Uproxx earlier this year, Jay-Z’s social consciousness is a paradox. If you are surprised by this deal, you haven’t been paying attention to his music or his career.
Jay-Z is revered. He is pretty much seen as an elder now, but still manages to stay relevant. Some might say his sixth studio album was self-titled—he is The Blueprint. It’s not hard for him to gain a public stamp of approval for any new idea—music, business, or justice related. But this is the same man who wrote an entire album about how he finally realized, at damn near 50, that he should stop disrespecting his wife. And that album, along with all of his others, was rife with references to respectability politics and Black capitalism.
We’ve seen and been told time and time again that respectability and capitalism won’t save us. But those concepts keep reappearing in attractive new packages—like hit rap songs—making us believe that we are inadequate as opposed to realizing that we are fighting systemic battles.
Those things have been so ingrained in us, that even though we know there’s very little chance of us mimicking Jay-Z’s success within our current systems, many of us still cheer for him when he spouts these ideas. There’s a cognitive dissonance—that we may need for our very survival—that simultaneously allows us to believe that if he did it, we can, and that he must hold some knowledge that we don’t. But believing that means believing that one person’s success, one exceptional story, is proof that we can work within this system toward a liberated future for Black people. And that just isn’t true.
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Some might say that harsh criticism of Jay-Z is unwarranted at this point, given his history of being vocal about the issues in the NFL and the lingering questions about this partnership. Sure, he wore a Kaepernick jersey and told other artists not to perform for the Super Bowl halftime show. He even wrote lyrics about not performing, or needing to perform, for the Super Bowl himself:
“I said no to the Super Bowl/ You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the endzone/ Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”
That was all well and good until the NFL offered him a deal. And while Jay-Z may fancy himself a shrewd businessman and a man of action, what he either fails to realize or fails to care about (I’m banking on the latter) is that this deal is simply to shut him up. The NFL recognized that his vocal support of Kaepernick heavily influences the rest of the country, particularly the liberal entertainment industry, so they threw him a bone. And just as they thought, it quieted his bark, which was clearly much bigger than his bite.
Whatever he let us believe about his motives for criticizing the NFL in the past, Jay-Z is backtracking now. The rapper says he didn’t tell Travis Scott not to perform at the Super Bowl because of Colin Kaepernick, but because Scott would have been playing second fiddle to Maroon 5. Regardless, allowing the news of his disapproval to be widely reported months ago, while staying silent as media outlets carried the story, gave him the space to downplay the protests as he walks into this partnership with an organization that he has been very critical of. There’s no way to know what his real reasoning was for his previous criticism, but either he didn’t care about the widespread boycott of the NFL then or he doesn’t care now.
Jay-Z added insult to injury when defending his decision to work with the NFL: “I think we’re past kneeling. I think it’s time for action.” How does a man who claims to want to lead conversations about social justice not understand that the kneeling is action? Without the kneeling, the NFL wouldn’t be talking about social justice. Without the kneeling, he wouldn’t even have a seat at the table. The kneeling was much more than symbolic—it opened literal and figurative doors for him and others to even be involved in these conversations. It also closed doors for Colin Kaepernick. As Hemal Jhaveri wrote in USA Today:
“While Jay-Z’s intentions may be good, this is about acknowledging the limits of how much progressive movements can achieve when they align themselves with entrenched systems of power.
Free market capitalism works in many ways to control political dissent, but one of its most insidious forms is by making protest, the kind that requires real, significant sacrifice, into something that is not only unnecessary but feels beside the point.”
Jamele Hill gave similar criticism, but still offered that same benefit of the doubt in the Atlantic. She presents a clear case on why Jay-Z has aided the NFL in banishing Kaepernick and “given the NFL exactly what it wanted: guilt-free access to black audiences, culture, entertainers, and influencers.” However, she ends by saying that she doesn’t believe Jay-Z is a sellout and that she doesn’t question “his commitment to social justice or his desire to empower African Americans.”
It’s time to stop giving Jay-Z so much credit. He is who he’s always been—an unabashed capitalist. And whatever paltry benefits we can find to highlight as a result of capitalism always pale in comparison to the damage it does. A few more Black performers at NFL events, empty conversations about social justice with owners who have made it clear they don’t care about these issues, or a few million in charitable donations to organizations who claim to be committed to social justice doesn’t amount to systemic change.
If this was all about naivete—which would not be excusable, but possibly more understandable—if Jay-Z was really doing this all in good faith, why didn’t he talk to Kaepernick first? The answer is easy. Because he knew that the stance he had previously taken wouldn’t align with the deal he’d been offered by the NFL. Those principles wouldn’t get him the most money. And a capitalist’s principles are always going to align with his money.
In response to questions and criticism during his news conference with the NFL, Jay Z asked, “So what are we going to do? You know what I’m saying. [Help] millions of people or we get stuck on Colin not having a job?”
Both, Jay. We do both. Because Colin not having a job is the glaring example that the NFL is not committed to social justice or allowing peaceful protests. It’s the evidence that Black bodies are not valued by the league outside of being commodities. And by aligning himself with the league, without requiring that Kaepernick be given a fair shot, and without pressing these conversations, Jay-Z allowed himself to be complicit in devaluing Black lives.
Repeatedly feigning—or worse, being – surprised by rich and/or powerful people aligning themselves with capitalism and white supremacist structures keeps us from moving forward. Every time we give them the benefit of the doubt, waiting for them to help us or save us, and find ourselves shocked, hurt, broken, or even stagnant when they disappoint us, we waste critical time in a never ending cycle that impedes our progress.
Instead, we should be steadfast in upholding a standard against those who sacrifice our needs to their capitalist desires. We can’t allow powerful people to straddle the fence. We must shift conversations from having a seat at the table or working within the system to dismantling systems. Whether we put our heads down and do what we feel we have to do to survive in this system, or lift our heads up and holla “we gone be alright” to make ourselves feel better about what we face—both allow us to avoid looking straight ahead at the Black souls, potential, dreams, and lives lost when we decide to work within this system rather than breaking it down.
Jay-Z isn’t smarter than everyone else. There are activists, scholars, writers, and even other entertainers who have opened the doors and can show him a better way. He has the power and the platform, but not the knowledge and understanding. He certainly doesn’t have wisdom. And he doesn’t quite have the heart. When he, and his fan base, are ready to admit that, then maybe he can make some real change in the world.
Brittani McNeill is a writer and musician currently based in Baltimore, Maryland. She holds degrees in journalism and voice performance from East Carolina University, Morgan State University, and Peabody Conservatory (Johns Hopkins University).