DIRT OFF YOUR SHOULDER

What Jay Z’s Songwriters Hall of Fame Milestone Really Means for Black America

The music icon made history in becoming the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But it’s these institutions that need hip-hop, not the other way around.

Jay Z’s legacy in hip-hop is near indisputable. He’s been so ubiquitous for so long, it’s easy to downplay or completely ignore how he got to be such a reverential figure in the first place. He influenced an entire generation of hip-hop stars who may have missed the romanticized fatalism of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. but who came of age in post-9/11 America and grew into themselves during the Obama era. Jay’s hook-driven songs about pressure, pain and prosperity became the soundtrack as a generation of young black people carved out entrepreneurial, academic and financial identities for themselves.

The cocky rhymer from Brooklyn has always represented the hustler’s ambition, and the world watched him go from ballerific upstart to luxury rap icon to multimedia mogul over a span of 20-plus years. There are those who consistently dismiss Jay’s ascendance as solely a function of timing: 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. got murdered and Jay Z simply slid into the vacated spot as rap’s top dog.

But that take slants Jay’s early days and the pecking order of late ‘90s hip-hop. Jay was on the cusp in ‘96/’97—despite meager sales of his debut album Reasonable Doubt—and other luminaries like Nas and Snoop Dogg were fully established superstars. And in 1998, it could be argued that no rapper was bigger than DMX—a charismatic and chaotic figure who broke out with two No. 1 albums and seemed to be everywhere that year.

No, Jay’s ascendance took smarts and time. He was savvy enough to tone down the then-trendy “shiny suit”-ism of his sophomore album In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 when recording the follow-up, 1998’s Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life. That album was his breakthrough, and he followed it with a string of hit singles that dwarfed what many of hip-hop’s veterans were doing at the time. And with 2001’s The Blueprint, he fully claimed rap’s crown, dropping an album with commercial appeal and artistic heft that announced Kanye West and Just Blaze as superproducers, and reinvigorated Nas as a creative rival.

And this week, Jay became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The rapper and his team made sure the moment was thoroughly celebrated via social media as a major leap forward for hip-hop. That idea was evident in Jay’s first reaction to news of his induction back in February.

“By the way this is a win for US. I remember when rap was said to be a fad,” he tweeted then. “We are now alongside some of the greatest writers in history.”

The ceremony was held June 15 in Manhattan with luminaries like Jon Bon Jovi, Berry Gordy and Ed Sheeran in attendance. The day of the ceremony, a TIDAL page dedicated to Jay’s induction called his inclusion in the Hall of Fame “the most important moment in hip-hop history,” with everyone from André 3000 to Chuck D saluting Jay’s moment.

“To finally have somebody in this culture—in this part of the game, this side—recognized, it’s long overdue, but I’m glad it’s him,” said Chance the Rapper in a video.

Jay Z wasn’t there himself—his legendary wife Beyoncé is expected to deliver twins any day now—but provided the evening’s most memorable moment courtesy of a video message from former President Barack Obama.

“I’m pretty sure I’m still the only president to listen to Jay Z’s music in the Oval Office,” Mr. Obama declared, drawing cheers from the crowd. Jay Z’s award was accepted by Warner/Chappell CEO John Platt, Jay’s longtime publisher.

“You see, when it comes to the industry’s biggest honors, the hip-hop community has a very long history of being told ‘You’re not songwriters,’ ‘You’re not quite there yet,’ ‘It’s not your time yet,’” Platt shared via Jay’s acceptance speech. “Well, to all the songwriters and artists from our community and our generation, Jay would want you to know that this induction is a signal that your time has come and your time is now.”

With all of the fanfare surrounding Jay’s induction, I realized something: I’d never paid much (if any) attention to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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Like, never. I couldn’t tell you who was inducted last year. I have no idea whether or not the ceremony is televised nationally. I don’t know what the requirements are for nomination or induction. I love music and I’ve never followed it. And Jay Z’s initial tweet started lingering in my thoughts.

“This is a win for us.”

Jay Z is one of the most popular figures in music and media. A megastar and a mogul who has sold millions upon millions of albums, is one-half of the biggest power couple in entertainment and who, TIDAL struggles notwithstanding, has had something of a Midas touch in brand building. The whole world knows who Jay Z is.

I dare say more people know who Jay Z is than have ever followed the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Jay Z’s induction into the hall generated more media attention for the ceremony than I can recall seeing before. How many former presidents have given video tributes to inductees before now?

On Twitter following the ceremony, Jay Z thanked Rakim, KRS-One, Ice Cube, Nas, Eminem and a host of other significant hip-hop artists from the past and the present. He mocked himself for constantly forgetting some of his favorites, admitting, “I just realized how many fresh people the culture has.”

When it comes to institutions like the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Grammys, honoring figures like Jay Z does more for their “cool” quotient than it does for Jay or even hip-hop. He’s here. We’re here. We’ve never needed these institutions’ co-signs and we still don’t. Not really. But they desperately need hip-hop and R&B artists, even when they don’t like to acknowledge it. These institutions crumble into irrelevancy otherwise, and I hope more artists, fans and media recognize that.

Jay Z isn’t the first rapper deserving of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The fact that he’s the first to be inducted says more about the Hall than it does rappers; almost 40 years after “Rapper’s Delight,” we still have “firsts” when it comes to hip-hop being venerated by mainstream platforms. That should embarrass the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That should truly embarrass the music industry.

Hip-hop biopics are big at the box office. Rappers are at the forefront of everything from fashion to politics. And hip-hop’s stranglehold on popular culture isn’t a “new” phenomenon. We’re now 20 years removed from the East/West beef and 15 years removed from the multiplatinum crossover success of artists like Eminem and Nelly in the early 2000s. There shouldn’t be doors left for hip-hop to kick down. The fact that there are makes one wonder if a sea change is actually happening or if these institutions are just playing catch-up to a shift that’s already taken place.

Props to Jay Z on his induction. And for shouting-out virtually every rapper who ever inspired him along the way. But it’s not really a win for us. We’ve been winning.

This was a win for them. Let’s see if they build on it.