Barack Obama. Politicians. Critics. Zoolander. All are invoked in “Open Letter,” the track released by Jay-Z Thursday directly addressing the controversy over the hip-hop mogul’s trip to Cuba with his wife, Beyoncé.
Earlier this week, photos surfaced of music’s First Couple out in Havana on a trip timed to their five-year wedding anniversary. Cuba, as every American who took third grade social studies knows, is an isla non grata. It’s been illegal for Americans to travel there for more than 50 years. Once the photos hit the web, lawmakers, including Florida senator Marco Rubio, demanded to know how the celebrities made it into the country and didn’t let up on the criticism even after it was found out that Bey and Jay entered Cuba legally.
Now, Jay-Z is responding to their outrage through rap.
“I turned Havana into Atlanta,” he says in the opening verse to “Open Letter.” He goes on:
“..Boy from the hood but got White House clearance
Sorry y’all I don’t agree with y’all appearance
Politicians never did shit for me
Except lie to me, distort history”
The Treasury Department told Politico on Wednesday that Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s trip was approved as part of a cultural learning exchange meant to strength ties between Cuba and the United States. The department wasn’t aware, however, that two such famous names were on the list, as the group that organizes the mission isn’t required to provide a list of travelers. Still, that wasn’t enough to satisfy Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who pointed out that travel to Cuba for tourism purposes is still illegal and those photos of the Carters checking out Havana’s top restaurants for their anniversary certainly imply tourism.
“That was a wedding anniversary vacation that was not even disguised as a cultural program," she said. "If the tourist activities undertaken by Beyonce and Jay-Z in Cuba are classified as an educational exchange trip, then it is clear that the Obama Administration is not serious about denying the Castro regime an economic lifeline that U.S. tourism will extend to it."
But again, there’s an explanation. Cultural exchange trips are approved after the licensed groups organizing them provide itineraries of the group’s schedule to the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) showing “a full-time schedule of education activities.” In the downtime? Basically, have fun, OFAC says: “travelers pursuing a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities may engage in non-educational activities off-hours.”
Licensed groups must provide itineraries of trip schedules to OFAC showing "a full-time schedule of education exchange activities" for such meaningful interactions. But that doesn't mean American visitors can't have some fun in Cuba, according to the letter "travelers pursuing a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities may engage in non-educational activities off-hours'
That Beyoncé and Jay-Z appeared to painting the town when they were supposed to be educating Cubans is only part of the controversy. Many on the right are adamant that the celebrities were allowed to gallivant in Cuba only because of their high-powered ties to Obama. (They’ve fundraised for him, Beyoncé sang for them, they’ve all publicly expressed how much they love each other.)
“If you are in with Obama, you don’t just get to stay in the Lincoln bedroom, provided tax payers [sic] money for failed green energy businesses or allwed [sic] in the White House to party while ‘We the People’ are no [sic] allowed tours…you get to go to Cuba for your wedding anniversary under the guise of an educational trip,” writes the popular conservative blog Scared Monkeys.
Jay stoked the fire by implying in “Open Letter” that he spoke to Obama himself about the trip before embarking for Havana: “Obama said ‘chill, you gonna get me impeached’ / But you don’t need this shit anyway / Chill with me on the beach.”
But at a press conference Thursday, White House Press Secretary—quite cleverly—insisted that the White House, and certainly not the president, had anything to do with approving Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s trip. So why did H.O.V.A. insinuate it did in his song? “I guess nothing rhymes with Treasury,” Carney said. “OFAC, Treasury: theses are hard words to rhyme. It’s a song.”
OK, so the trip was legal, Bey and Jay were allowed to frolic a bit for their anniversary, and the Carters’ love affair with the Obamas’ played no part in their being granted licenses to travel to Cuba. But as the controversy slogs on for so long that Mr. Z even had time to write a rap about it, the glaring question remains: Why go to Cuba at all? Beyoncé and Jay-Z are probably very aware people: aware that a storm cloud of photographers follow them wherever they go and aware that Cuba is politically-sensitive location and travelling there is a touchy endeavor. So why invite controversy by going somewhere—where they knew they would be photographed—so controversial?
“It doesn’t matter how they got to Cuba,” writes James Varney in The Times-Picayune. “It matters they went…Enjoy the splendors of the Caribbean, but do so in a beautiful, historically rich city run by folks that deserve your support."
And even those not particularly offended by Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s trip still wonder what is being gained by launching a hip-hop attack on critics. “I do recognize that the trip may have sent the wrong message to many, but they were granted a license from the Treasury Department, so they didn’t break any laws,” writes Janet Shan at The Moderate Voice. “Still, Jay-Z is thumbing his nose at his critics over the trip, but why bring President Obama into this dogfight? It’s childish.”