*I have been an unabashed fan of Jay-Z for a long time so I can admit that I may be approaching this topic from a biased perspective. But I have a few reasons why he shouldn’t be under the pressure he is to disassociate himself from the clothier Barney’s.
First and foremost is the fact that as much as we like to fill in the blanks and imagine our favorite celebrities have the same sensibilities as we do, the truth is we don’t really know them. When someone argues that Shawn Carter should react to certain stimuli in a certain way, often what they are really doing is saying “this is how I would react and I identify with Jay-Z so he should react the same way.”In reality we don’t know how similar we are to our favorite athletes and entertainers so to conclude we know how they should/would react is actually quite conceited.
A related scenario is that we think we can anticipate Jay-Z’s actions because we know all of his music and hasn’t he chronicled the plight of urban African-Americans? Hasn’t he given voice to the people who are reduced their skin color in multiple songs? Didn’t he write 99 Problems where one verse was about being racially profiled while driving? It would seem that because of certain song music that it is a fair to conclude that Jay-Z would be against racial profiling. And this argument is persuasive but there are two wrinkles that need to be accounted for.
Jay-Z might be simply writing what he knows his fans will respond to. I think it is undeniable that Jay-Z is a skilled wordsmith, very good at brand management, and great at sensing what is popular. It is therefore possible that his song list is a product of these three skills and not really reflective of his personal feelings. For the record: I don’t think this the case and I hope it isn’t, but I must allow for the fact that he is an extremely skilled musician and nothing more. And in that case I can’t say what he should do when faced with an association with a retailer that may have racially profiled some young people.
Along that same logic line, there is the fact that he presumably has a contractual agreement with Barney’s that obligates him to certain things in exchange for certain things. Who knows what stipulations there are in this presumed contract but I doubt there is a clause allowing for Jay-Z to terminate the agreement if Barney’s gets some bad publicity. And if I am not about to come down hard on someone on the chance that his lyrics truly reflect his feelings, then I am especially hesitant to fault someone for fulfilling their contractual obligations.
The statement released by Jay-Z actually negates my last argument in his defense. I am basically saying that he stands to make money through his contract with Barney’s and/or lose money by breaking it. Jay-Z has given the impression that whatever revenue Barney’s is giving to Jay-Z, they are actually giving to his charity. He went on to explain that his charity funds college scholarships for economically disadvantaged students. The point being that while Barney’s appears to be trying to hold back or hold down African-Americans, his charity is trying to lend a hand.
All of these reasons – we don’t know how Shawn Carter really feels about racial profiling; Jay-Z might be a persona created to sell records and it would be silly to hold Shawn Carter to a standard based on this persona; Jay-Z is probably under a contract that involves some sort of penalty if he reneges on the agreement; Jay-Z is actually benefitting young African-Americans by retaining his association with Barney’s – would suggest that there shouldn’t be the outrage over his relationship with the retailer.
And lest we jump to conclusions only one side of this story has been heard.
Having said all of that, I would hope that should these allegations against Barney’s be substantiated, that Jay-Z would take a stand, denounce them, and sever his relationship with them. If they are engaging in racial profiling and he draws this line in the stand whatever money he loses would probably be covered by the next song he makes ridiculing Barney’s.
And if it doesn’t, by his own admission $30 million can’t hurt him.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.