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As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.
JAY-Z isn’t a perfect man, nor is he a perfect businessman. His ability to address his flaws, make some sense of his harrowed past and overcome countless obstacles has helped him maneuver his way to the unprecedented top of the rap game. Over the years, the music mogul has inspired the masses with his rags-to-riches story, encouraging others to stay true to themselves, work tirelessly in pursuit of their wildest dreams and move forward at all costs and against all odds. When it comes to philanthropy, JAY-Z wrote his own blueprint for giving back and getting involved. Much like his career, his personal philosophy continues to evolve over time, finding perceptive, strategic ways to positively impact the society at large.
JAY-Z’s charitable efforts have essentially been under scrutiny by the public ever since he made his first dollar by putting rhymes together over a beat. Now that he is well on his way toward becoming hip hop’s first billionaire, the lens in which his every move is analyzed has only gotten sharper in resolution. While his relationship with money and success has been one that he has worked to process throughout the entire duration of his career, Hov’s 2013 track “Nickels and Dimes” comes to mind when exploring his intentions.
During the Magna Carta… Holy Grail cut, he spits, “The purest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous.” Such an approach to giving back to others has remained somewhat of a constant throughout all of his charitable efforts, garnering all sorts of criticisms from others. JAY-Z would rather not collect headlines for a check he writes or a community-building contribution he makes. Given his increasing celebrity and influence, remaining anonymous in his altruism has become that much more difficult.
Elsewhere throughout the Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua-produced song, JAY-Z explores how he occasionally feels survivor’s guilt for making it out of the Marcy Housing Projects where he grew up, as it’s something that he’s fully aware of not everyone being as fortunate to do. During the second verse, he ponders how financial contributions to the community that raised him may have contributed to the problem at its core, going on to explain why he feels providing an opportunity may be more beneficial than a monetary donation.
“Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt / I gave some money to this guy, he got high as hell / Now I’m part of the problem far as I could tell / Did I do it for him or do it for myself,” he raps. “Can’t lie to myself / I love my n—s more than my own blood / I die for my n—s and I love my cub, hope that’s not fucked up—I got a problem with the handouts, I took the man route—I’ll give an opportunity though, that’s the plan now.”
Later in his verse, Hov addresses the criticisms head-on that he received from legendary singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who vocalized his opinion that JAY-Z and Beyoncé “turned their back on social responsibility” during a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte asserted. “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.”
The strong words of the Civil Rights Movement activist stung and called for JAY-Z to defend his conscious decision to tactfully tread the line between making his charitable contributions in private and reserving the use of his public platform for when it will best advance the cause or situation at hand.
“I’m just trying to find common ground / ‘fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a n—a down / Mr. Day O, major fail / Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now,” JAY-Z raps. “Hublot homie, two door homie / You don’t know all the s—t I do for the homies.”
JAY-Z doubled down on his stance during a 2013 interview with Elliott Wilson, during which Hov explained exactly why he found Belafonte’s criticism to be both offensive and ill-informed. His comments set the media on fire, all while raising quite an interesting point.
“I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity,” JAY-Z explained at the time. “Just who I am. 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. Just being who he is. You’re the first Black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone. [But] of course we want to challenge him to do better. I felt Belafonte, he just went about it wrong. Like the way he did it in the media, and then he big upped Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, ‘Whoa,’ you just sent the wrong message all the way around. Bruce Springsteen is a great guy [but] you’re this Civil Rights activist and you just big upped the white guy against me in the white media.”
While some believed his comments merely just served his ego, JAY-Z’s philanthropic stance is arguably the opposite. He expresses that by breaking through glass ceilings and paving a way for the next generation of disenfranchised people, especially minorities. He is serving the greater good by living by example. Whether you agree or disagree regarding his stances and approaches to his own issues with embracing his undeniable visibility, inspiration is found woven into every component of his story and perspectives, as is the intention to continue improving and evaluating one’s self-awareness.
“And just for clarity, my presence is charity / My flow is a gift, philanthropist,” he spits. “Everybody ’round me rich, or will be / Baby boy I promise you this, or kill me.”
The concept of giving anonymously as a way to not taint the purity of the act itself is one found in the writings of the Jewish Philosopher Maimonides. While the world we live in makes the anonymous act of giving back to society that much harder, acknowledging the vast nature of the people and causes JAY-Z has supported throughout his career requires much time and attention to detail. JAY-Z’s tenured successes may make him an easy target for criticism when it comes to his every move — financial, professional or personal — but, his foresight to not let critics get in the way of his benevolent nature is both integral to his character and inspiring to the masses. The music mogul isn’t perfect in his approach to his charitable efforts, but that has never once stopped him from giving back.
As exemplified by his recent involvement in providing 21 Savage with a premier legal team, his work advocating tirelessly on behalf of Meek Mill and even his lending a hand to help Lil Wayne with his taxes; JAY-Z’s actions are often done without a statement from the man himself. Whether he is working through his Shawn Carter Foundation — which was founded in 2003 to provide scholarship opportunities for disadvantaged youth and communities — or meeting with politicians such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo to discuss criminal justice system reform, JAY-Z has consistently gone above and beyond to make a positive impact, even when we don’t always know the extent of his behind-the-scenes involvement.
From helping reunite incarcerated men with their children for Father’s Day with Southerners on New Ground and Color of Change, paying bail for dozens of protestors who were jailed while representing the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore, sending millions of pounds of supplies to Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico and more; the critique of JAY-Z not being as vocal as he could be is a valid one. But, when the focus on how he handles his visibility becomes more important than the example he is setting, there could be a potential misguided outrage problem to examine.
Whether he is raising money through his annual TIDAL X benefit concert or teaming up as part of the newly formed criminal justice reform organization REFORM Alliance, the business of JAY-Z is a multifaceted one that is built on a foundation of excellence, advocacy and philanthropy. JAY-Z may not be perfect. But, even at 49, he’s continuing to find ways to advance his legacy while working to leave the world a much better place than he found it. To call him out unabashedly for the flaws he’s acknowledging and working on is a disservice to all that he’s done and will continue to do.