JAY-Z has always been outspoken. Over the years he’s rightfully condemned everything from the US prison system (referred to often by activists as ‘legalized slavery’) and police brutality to institutional racism and anti-immigration rhetoric, but the last few months in particular have seen him become one of few voices of reason in an increasingly turbulent world.
Arguably the best-known example of his recent activism came when rapper 21 Savage was arrested in Atlanta earlier this year by ICE, the US immigration and customs enforcement agency described by Cynthia Nixon as a “terrorist organization.” Reports revealed that Savage is a UK national whose US visa had lapsed in 2015, but as the story developed it transpired that his applications to stay had been delayed, and that the lapse was – in his own words – “through no fault of [his] own.” Perhaps coincidentally, he had criticized ICE’s cruel treatment of immigrants on new track “a lot” just days earlier; the video dropped two days before his arrest.
Activists reacted immediately with fury and dismay, sparking the hashtag #free21savage to call for his release on bond. That’s when Jay stepped in. Not only did he describe the incident as “an absolute travesty,” he hooked up Savage with world-class lawyer Alex Shapiro and released an official statement through record label Roc Nation, in which he echoed the demands of campaigners. “Person only charged as ‘visa overstay’ is bond eligible,’” it read. “21 Savage should be released immediately.” The demand was soon met, with Savage being granted a release from detention upon payment of an alleged $100,000 bond.
It’s not uncommon for musicians to be written off as activists – sometimes for good reason, sometimes not – but Jay has consistently stepped up and spoken out for what he believes in. One thing he definitely doesn’t believe in is the US criminal justice system, which often turns a blind eye to police brutality and disproportionately criminalizes black youth. It also tends to punish prisoners after their release by imposing harsh restrictions on them.
One man that knows this well is Jay’s friend Meek Mill, who has been imprisoned on numerous occasions over the last decade for relatively minor offences. Jay spearheaded the successful #FreeMeekMill campaign and, once Mill had been released, teamed up with the fellow rapper to launch the REFORM alliance, which “aims to [advance] criminal justice reform and [eliminate] outdated laws that perpetuate injustice, starting with probation and parole.” The group pledged an enormous $50 million earmarked for prisoners caught up in what has long been described as an institutionally racist system. (Ava DuVernay outlined this history excellently in her Netflix documentary, 13th.)
Of course, Jay can afford to help others – he’s literally the richest musician in America, and when his net worth is combined with Beyoncé’s they are easily an actual $1 billion couple. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously claimed that “every billionaire is a policy failure,” and she’s not wrong – worldwide income inequality creates a crippling divide which favors some and murders others. But Bey and Jay work to close this gap; his Shaun Carter Foundation has given millions of dollars worth of scholarships to underprivileged students, and Beyoncé’s humanitarian relief has been well-documented.
These efforts aren’t unique to Jay, but his willingness to clearly outline his beliefs and defend them makes him an anomaly in today’s music industry. The last few years have seen a rise in ‘woke-washing,’ a term used to describe celebrities co-opting social justice movements for reputational and financial gain.
It’s not exactly controversial to say that marginalised people shouldn’t be shot by police officers employed to protect them, or that a pussy-grabbing politician isn’t exactly the best choice for one of the world’s most powerful positions, which is why some artists were happy to tweet their support for #blacklivesmatter and make superficial statements in favor of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. But this activism often didn’t go much further. It tended to be shallow, hashtag-driven and carefully engineered by PR teams cherry-picking the demographics they wanted to appeal to.
This often means that artists are reluctant to call out toxic organizations by name, but Jay – alongside a handful of other musicians including Rihanna and Cardi B – openly boycotted the Super Bowl and encouraged other artists to do the same. He was protesting the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick after he famously refused to stand during the national anthem, later explaining that he refused to symbolically endorse a country whose racism ran so deep. Naturally, plenty of other artists stayed silent – presumably for fear of being blacklisted by one of the world’s biggest companies.
Jay’s commitment to charity has been questioned in the past – as have his occasionally heavy-handed comments – but he tends to put his money where his mouth is, and often anonymously. When Surviving R. Kelly creator Dream Hampton revealed that he and Beyoncé had bailed out anti-racism protests in Baltimore, nobody was surprised. When the duo accepted their BRIT award earlier this month in front of a renaissance portrait of Meghan Markle – a recent addition to Britain’s royal family whose position has made her a target for consistently racist media coverage – their statement made sense. It was a subtle nod rather than a self-congratulatory statement, which is typical of Jay.
It’s not unusual for artists to donate money, but it’s infinitely more unusual for them to directly call out powerful organisations and risk alienating their fanbase by making controversial political statements. His support of 21 Savage isn’t just tweetable, it’s tangible; there are no pithy soundbites, just a world-class lawyer and a demand for release from detention. Governments aren’t protecting marginalized people right now, they’re criminalizing them; they’re detaining them; they’re stigmatizing them and then restricting the services they need to recover. In an ideal world, musicians wouldn’t have to call for criminal justice reform or highlight the ongoing prevalence of systemic racism. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Luckily, until that day comes, we have some high-profile artists who are unafraid to use their platform to put the world to rights.