Jay Z is the Michael Jordan of hip-hop.
Now, before you spew skinny mocha latte all over your keyboard, scream-tweet RAKIM! BIGGIE! TUPAC! NAS! at me in KANYE CAPS, or type so hard you just might break your Macbook Air, I’m not talking about the age-old G.O.A.T. argument. I’m talking about the Wu-Tang-minted C.R.E.A.M.: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
Just like His Airness, Hova is a calculated businessman whose every public move is, it seems, governed by the almighty dollar. After all, he’s the guy that once rapped, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” So it doesn’t behoove Jay to alienate large swaths of his fan base by wading in divisive waters. It’s a big reason why Jay, despite being the world’s preeminent rap ambassador—and as such, a highly influential figure within the African-American community—is noticeably silent when hot-button news events like Ferguson or Baltimore flare up. He’s a hustler, baby, not a firebrand; he has no interest in being this generation’s Muhammad Ali, taking the white establishment to task for its perceived iniquitousness. Just like Jordan.
You see, back in 1990, a black Democrat by the name of Harvey Gantt waged an uphill battle against Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C). Gantt sought to unseat Helms, an avowed racist who vehemently opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and once even whistled the slavery-era tune “Dixie” to a black congressional member to push his buttons. As the story goes, Gantt reached out to Jordan, a University of North Carolina legend and sports god, to help support his campaign against Helms. Jordan turned him down flat, allegedly telling a friend, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
The other day, performance artist Marina Abramovic called out Mr. Beyoncé for allegedly reneging on a charity donation promise. Almost two years ago, Jay conducted a six-hour performance art piece at New York’s Pace Gallery to promote his new single “Picasso Baby” off Magna Carta Holy Grail. It was a repurposing of Abramovic’s acclaimed 2010 MoMA exhibition “The Artist Is Present” that saw Jay rapping for six straight hours to a gaggle of admirers, including Abramovic herself. In exchange for biting her work, Abramovic claims she was promised a donation from Jay to the Marina Abramovic Institute.
“I am very pissed by this, since he adapted my work only under one condition: that he would help my institute. Which he didn’t,” Abramovic told Spike Art Quarterly. “The day before, he came to my office and I gave him an entire power point presentation [sic] and said: okay, you can help me, because I really need help to build this thing. Then he just completely used me. And that wasn’t fair.”
Team Jay called BS, with Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the rapper’s art adviser, reading a receipt from the Institute over the phone to Artnet, leading the Marina Abramovic Institute to issue an apology to Jay Z (and Marina) for the glaring oversight. Also this week, Jay Z biographer/crony Dream Hampton claimed that the rapper and Beyoncé shadow-donated “tens of thousands” of dollars to bail out jailed Ferguson and Baltimore protesters.
Hampton later deleted the tweets, calling them “error-ridden,” but reiterated her stance that Jay had donated money to bail out protesters in a follow-up interview with The Guardian.
There is, however, a wide gulf between the public perception of Jay Z with regard to charity, and reality.
When asked by The Hollywood Reporter in 2012 whether he’s “happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today,” Harry Belafonte fired a cruise missile at music’s first couple.
“Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking,” Belafonte said. “And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”
But it was Jay Z’s response, delivered in an interview with Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson, which proved even more shocking:
“I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am,” Jay said. “Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.”
My presence is charity. It’s a quote that, like Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too,” has followed the hip-hop mogul around like a dark, ominous cloud.
There’s just one big problem: It’s not true.
Jay has, over the years, donated plenty of time and money to charity. According to the celebrity giving site Look to the Stars, he’s supported 10 charities, including the Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the Global Poverty Project. He’s also reportedly paying for the tuition of the children of NYPD shooting victim Sean Bell, and a Washington Post report in 2013 revealed that his Shawn Carter Foundation had donated “over $1.3 million” to some 750 low-income students in individual grants of $1,500 to $2,500.
The problem, it seems, is one of visibility. Because Jay likes to remain publicly mum on these weighty social justice issues, donating silently, all we see are his gaffes.
We see a photo of several NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in memory of slain civilian Eric Garner posing with Jay Z, who isn’t sporting one. But we don’t see that he procured those very T-shirts—80 of them—to be worn by players at the game (Jay was allegedly shirt-less because he didn’t want to “put on a 2XL that goes down to his knees,” according to Russell Simmons' political adviser Michael Skolnick, even though at 6’2” he’s only an inch shorter than Deron Williams, who posed in the photo).
We see that Jay refused to take his clothes off Barneys store shelves after the retailer was accused of racial discrimination by two African Americans, but we don’t see that it was part of a deal that was struck to have the proceeds from his line go to the Shawn Carter Foundation—donations that totaled over $1 million.
And we’ve witnessed Jay coopting and profiting off the Occupy Wall Street movement by crafting T-shirts bearing the slogan “Occupy All Streets,” even though no money from sales of the shirts went to the Occupy movement itself, and Jay openly admitted to The New York Times that he didn’t support OWS. “I’m not going to a park and picnic, I have no idea what to do, I don’t know what the fight is about,” he said. “I think all those things need to really declare themselves a bit more clearly. Because when you just say that ‘the 1 percent is that,’ that’s not true.”
Just this week, Jay made a very rare public political statement at a concert in New York, calling out cops for killing Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin.
The problem? It was woven into a defense of his pricey artist-owned streaming music service, Tidal. And it was a private show exclusively for Tidal subscribers.
It was just business, man.