As it turns out, Jay-Z was not starting a protest. He was making a sales pitch.
In his 2018 song "Apes---," the lead single off the Beyonce/Jay-Z collaboration EVERYTHING IS LOVE, rapper and mogul Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter summarized his now-infamous rejection of the Super Bowl halftime show: "I said no to the Super Bowl/You need me, I don't need you." On Wednesday, the NFL admitted Hov was right when it announced a multi-year agreement with Jay's Roc-Nation to lead the NFL's music and entertainment endeavors.
This is a shocker. For some. Carter has been a vocal proponent of criminal justice reform. His frustrations with law enforcement's mistreatment of black men embed his music, as intimately connected to Jay as self-appreciation for his business endeavors. He's written an op-ed for the New York Times about nonviolent drug offenses, produced documentaries on Trayvon Martin, Kalief Browder and fellow hip hop star Meek Mill. Now here he is laying down suppressive fire for the NFL while the most glaring symbol of the league's ambivalence to such topics languishes out of sight.
Three years ago this Wednesday, Colin Kaepernick began a protest. The quarterback sat (and later knelt) during the ceremonial performance of the national anthem to protest social injustice, specifically police brutality. He has not stepped onto an NFL gridiron in three years, despite having the statistical record and playoff pedigree to be a starting quarterback. He was blackballed. The league would eventually settle a grievance over Kaepernick's inexplicable unemployment, but the quarterback remains unsigned, despite his insistence that he is interested and in shape.
"We forget that Colin's whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice. In that case, this is a success. This is the next phase," Carter said Wednesday, despite immediate scrutiny from reporters in attendance. On social media, Kaep's former Niners teammate (and closest ally) Eric Reid accused Jay of helping the NFL "bury Colin's career," while his girlfriend, talk radio host Nessa, expressed her "disappointment and disgust" with Hov's latest hustle.
Straddling sincere and cynical, Carter defended his partnership with the league that permanently ended Kaep's career during his press event. "We are past kneeling," Carter said, visibly annoyed anyone would "get stuck on Colin not having a job" and miss the potential of setting up shop in the lion's den.
Why not sell anti-racism to a business built atop a white fanbase wary of allowing their children to play the brutal sport while cheering on black and brown bodies engaged in the destruction they fear for their own? Why not sell fire in hell?
Shawn Carter is worth nearly a billion dollars. I paid $30 more than the minimum on my credit card this month. Carter and I have different perspectives. We're in the same skin, but we're not in the same world. To him, there are few problems not solved by throwing money at them and the NFL's dollars spend the same as anyone else's. It doesn't work like that for everyone, even when they share the same hue. Kaepernick's settlement money has not spared him the indignity of being frozen out of his chosen profession.
Buying your way out of the most violent customs inflicted upon black Americans for exactly 400 years is nearly impossible. For a few lucky souls that make it, personal wealth is illusory and conditional, but it's an understandable reprieve.
It's why my father, who grew up in an East New York he watched crumble under decades of municipal neglect, left the hood to raise me in an affluent Queens enclave. To no one's surprise, especially not Dad's, officers patrolling the neighborhood often questioned the skinny teen he raised, just to make sure I belonged in the neighborhood and, presumably, that the sleeve of Oreos I bought from the corner store belonged to me.
Money did and didn't save me from my last exchange with the police: a crazy Uber ride that almost left me a hashtag, or perhaps the subject of a Jay-Z docuseries. In the middle of a simple one-mile ride to a friend's Bed Stuy apartment, a cop car flashed its lights and instructed the driver to pull over. Instead, he ran. He zipped between side streets and oncoming traffic on Myrtle Avenue, blowing multiple red lights before finally giving up and pulling over.
The car was clearly marked as an Uber, but the plainclothes cops who approached greeted me and my friend with guns drawn. To the officers ready to light up the sedan's backseat, we were accomplices, not hostages. With my hands pressed against the trunk, I calmly told officers about the Fortune 500 company we worked for, and gently asked them to pull my work ID card from my wallet. They saw my smiling face above the familiar corporate logo and let us walk home with our leftover slices (and bodies) intact. Corporate money talked, but only after the damage was done.
And yet, Hov's sales pitch wouldn't work if it weren't attractive. On the "In My Lifetime" remix, released in 1997, Hov drops a timeless and timely verse making it plain: "I'm tryna make all of my dreams materialize, so I sorta / Say my goodbyes to the straight and narrow / I found a new route, you 'bout to see my life change / I make the means justify the ends."
Jay made good on the promise. But the means cannot justify the end – they are the end. Kaepernick sparked his conversation, and I walked away from the worst cab ride ever, but the indignities inflicted on both of us are just as much the point. Someone should protest that.