Trading his microphone for a camera, Jay Z is raising his voice. The rapper, turning his hand to filmmaking – bankrolling and producing not one but two timely documentaries about America’s criminal justice system and its relationship with young people of color – is slowly but surely distinguishing himself as an increasingly important chronicler of stateside racial politics; affirming his position as (low-key) one of hip-hop’s most vocal social commentators.
Pigeon-holed for the vast majority of his career as less “conscious” and enlightened than his expressly political and back-packing peers, the rapper-turned-mogul has consistently demonstrated a deceptively censorious streak; taking Reaganomics and the Rockefeller Drug Laws to task with his vividly rhymed recollections of life on the corner; positioning himself as something of an unlikely social critic.
Teaming up with The Weinstein Company – the mini-major film studio behind features such as the Oscar Grant drama, Fruitvale Station – the 47-year-old Bedford-Stuyvesant native has put together a startlingly poignant docu-series about the life and death of Kalief Browder, a young man who committed suicide after being imprisoned for three years on Rikers Island at the mere age of 16, spending much of his sentence in solitary confinement.
Directed by up-and-coming documentarian Jenner Furst, the six-part miniseries, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, recounts its subject’s painful ordeal; exploring the tragic impact of his incarceration on his mental health and wellbeing. Providing heart-rending insight into his time on Rikers, the series examines Browder’s life before and after his incarceration, zooming in on the traumatic effects of his imprisonment on his family and loved ones. Voicing the concerns of civil rights and prison reform activists, the production sheds an urgent critical light on the American Prison-industrial Complex; addressing the negative consequences of the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of disadvantaged people of color – like much of Jay Z’s deceptively charged catalog.
Having cleared his throat with producer credits on an assortment of video anthology and TV movie projects – not to mention hood classics such as Streets Is Watching and Paid in Full – the rapper has taken to speaking up about a range of issues with a number of films and documentaries like Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners and Black Sorority Project: The Exodus. Refusing to rest on his laurels with Time, the industrious Brooklynite is currently hard at work, partnering with the Weinsteins once more to develop a new six-part event series and feature film about the life and death of another young black man: Trayvon Martin.
Reportedly based on two books – Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It, and Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin – the in-development documentary series and narrative feature film are sure to explore the racial and legislative implications of Martin’s murder and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the 33-year-old man (then 28) who shot and killed the teenager in February 2012; no doubt sparking further debate.
That Jay Z is one of the driving forces behind such necessary and socially significant projects should come as no surprise. The rapper’s records have always been underscored by a street-smart political awareness that not every critic or hip-hop fan seems to register or appreciate.
“Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” he once asked. The question – posed on the searing Blueprint classic “Renegade” – bringing another legendary New Yorker to mind; the lyric recalling a line from James Baldwin’s devastating short story, “Sonny’s Blues”. “All I know about music,” Baldwin wrote, “is that not many people ever really hear it.”
Despite being one of the most recognizable rappers of his generation and arguably hip-hop’s most celebrated lyricist with 21 Grammys to his name and over 50 million records sold, a surprisingly strong contingent of critics and fans – both casual and devoted alike – still fall prey to one of hip-hop’s most trying misconceptions: that Jay Z – the mouthpiece for hustlers, the Mariano of the Marriott – is a businessman first and foremost, the leading proponent of superficial entrepreneur rap, an artist more concerned with commerce than art.
Those firmly ensconced in this camp do not rate or recognize the finer points of the rapper’s repertoire; the substance and complexity of much of his music falling on deaf ears. Synonymous with glamor, affluence and glitz, the name Jay Z has almost become a byword for hip-hop grandeur; his assured delivery and accomplished wordplay serving up nothing more than fun, playful fodder for fans who regard him as a skilled but largely materialistic mainstream emcee. When he rhymes, what most seem to hear is dollar signs, the continental roar of fast foreign cars and the expensive, celebratory sound of Armand de Brignac bottles being popped. What they hear is the swaggering mack of “Big Pimpin’”, the enterprising fat cat of “Money, Cash, Hoes”; and the spendthrift show-off of “Tom Ford”.
To the contrary, there is plenty to relish about Jay’s cocksure brand of aspirational rap; much to savor about his pencraft and approach to song making. Amid all of that flossing and stunting, there is so much that is pressing, prescient and topical in his music; so much that is socially relevant present in his rhymes – but, to quote Baldwin, not many people ever really hear it.
Distracted by the sexiness and sway of his slick money talk and macho Brooklyn braggadocio, it is easy to miss the more revealing and substantive aspects of Jay’s work. For every witty boast or cocky quip he reels off, he shares an insightful rhyme about the toils of life in project housing, disclosing intimate truths about how he hustled, dealt and slung his way to success, attaining a version of the American Dream – much like the man whose name he often borrows: Iceberg Slim.
A notorious pimp who transformed himself into something of a folk hero and political commentator, publishing books, memoirs and essays providing eye-opening accounts of the Chicago underworld, Slim – born Robert Lee Maupin – broke free of poverty’s shackles, escaping the trap to achieve a level of success with his facility for words.
Listening to Jay Z is not unlike reading Maupin; the rapper’s life not dissimilar to that of the author’s colorful characters. Jay’s records – akin to Maupin’s writings – spotlight the struggles of poor, black, disenfranchised America, detailing the precarious highs and harrowing lows of street life with his hard-boiled rags to riches rhymes. Self-made and larger than life, Jay Z serves the all-important function of holding up a mirror to the broken system that is capitalism in the States; reflecting the lengths to which many black people have to go to (relatively few doing so with such success) to make something of themselves – to make something out of nothing.
Still, a fair share of fans have always been, and remain, prone to skipping the reflective, personal pages of the rapper’s story, focusing on his more frivolous passages. Often struggling to reconcile Jay Z the hit-maker with Jay Z the pavement poet – chronicler of project life and all its iniquities – many fail to hear him. To really hear him, to pick up on the intonations and inflections of his voice; the rich subtext and undertones of his finest records. They do not detect the pensiveness of “You Must Love Me” and “This Can’t Be Life”; or note the outspoken cynicism of “Meet The Parents” and “Minority Report”.
A master of the double (even triple) entendre, naturally, there is more to Jay Z than meets the eye. Beneath the glacial cool and calm of rap’s Iceberg Slim lurks a sharp, critical observer with a fervent rebellious, pro-black zeal. This, after all, is the man who declared “all black everything”; the man who rhymed, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk/Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run/Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly”.
This is also the man who – along with his equally influential better half – donated to the Flint water crisis relief and wired bail money to free Black Lives Matter protesters arrested in Ferguson and Baltimore. The rapper who once described himself as “Che Guevara with bling on”.
From his Reasonable Doubt days to his Roc Nation years, Jay Z – the tree that grew in Brooklyn – has remained firmly rooted to his rough and humble beginnings in Marcy, framing his discography as a roadmap to success, his lyrics proffering a way out of an almost inescapable cycle of poverty.
Recognizing that his story, his social advancement and mercurial rise to prominence, remains the exception not the rule – the all too rare example of a young, gifted, black man from the projects realizing his potential – the influential rapper is putting his star power to use, calling attention to the fact that (as the NAACP points out) African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites; constituting nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million inmates currently serving time behind bars.
Having contextualized these struggles and injustices in his music, the Iceberg Slim of rap is now speaking to those very same ills through a different medium, potentially reaching and touching new audiences. Trading his recording studios and mic booths for film sets, Jay Z – as with Ava DuVernay and her excellent documentary, the Oscar-nominated 13th – is raising his voice. The heartbreaking but vital message of projects like Time playing like the most tragic and bittersweet of music to our ears; we should all be listening up.
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