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Barbershop: Jay-Z Partners With NFL


Now we want to turn to a big announcement this week - the decision by Jay-Z, the rap artist and business executive, to partner with the NFL to advise the league on artists for major events like the Super Bowl. The NFL - the National Football League, for those who just arrived here from another planet - is the country's most profitable and most-watched pro sports league and has entered into a multi-year partnership with Jay-Z's company Roc Nation. In addition to helping place artists, the press release said a major component of the partnership will be to "nurture and strengthen community through football and music." That's a quote.

The announcement came as the league is starting yet another season, and it came almost three years to the very day that former quarterback Colin Kaepernick started sitting and then taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games as a protest against police violence and other issues. That set off a huge controversy that really has not ended. President Trump weighed in and used vulgarities to describe players who supported Kaepernick. The league tried to clamp down on protests, and that caused other athletes even in other leagues to also take a knee.

So, as you might imagine, Jay-Z's decision to partner with the NFL is also controversial. The Carolina Panthers' Eric Reid, a longtime friend of Kaepernick's, has criticized Jay-Z's engagements with the NFL.


ERIC REID: Jay-Z claimed to be a supporter of Colin - you know, wore his jersey, told people not to perform at the Super Bowl because of the treatment that the NFL did to Colin. And now he's going to be a part owner. It's kind of despicable.

MARTIN: What he's referring to there is that there are unconfirmed reports that Jay-Z will take an ownership stake in an as-yet unnamed team while Kaepernick has not played in two years. So we thought the Barbershop would be a great place to talk about this because that's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. So joining us here in the studio in Washington, D.C., is Dru Ealons, political consultant, CEO of The Ealons Group.


DRU EALONS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Chenjerai Kumanyika is a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He's writing a book about the history of hip-hop and activism.

Professor, welcome to you.

CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: Hey. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Rodney Carmichael, who covers hip-hop for NPR.

Rodney, welcome back.


MARTIN: So, professor, I'm going to start with you because you are a Jay-Z fan, and you have said that you are disappointed in his decisions. Why?

MARTIN: Yes. I mean, I'm a fan of Jay-Z, right? He's a gifted artist. And, you know, his journey even in terms of financially and all these things is very compelling. But, you know, Jay-Z, when asked about this, one of the things he said was that he hoped that the Inspire Change platform would give people like Kaepernick a place to protest off the field. And when he said that, he aligned himself with a long history of people who have attempted to de-legitimize and shame justified protest by saying, basically, I support your issue but not your methods.

MARTIN: OK. Dru, what do you say about that?

EALONS: I think one of the things that I first of all thought about why have we all jumped on calling this man a sellout, listening to Eric Reid discuss his whole displeasure around, oh, you're going to partner with them - but he's playing on the field. Kaepernick is not. He did not say, I will not play unless Kaepernick plays, right?

And so here, you have an opportunity. Jay-Z sees an opportunity. He is not stupid. He understands his value. So he's going to actually do something and say, OK, listen. If you want me - didn't he say in a song that I don't need you, you need me? Well, the NFL said, yes, we do. We need you, and we're going to pay you to come to us and help us around social justice, etc. I think we are putting a whole lot ahead of things and not even know exactly what's going to happen.

MARTIN: OK. Well, Rodney, what do you say about that? And musically, I'm particularly interested in how this squares with what Jay-Z is all about. Dru just mentioned one of his lyrics from...

EALONS: I think it's a lyric.

MARTIN: ...A song title that I can't - it is from a song title I can't say on the air.


MARTIN: So it's - anyway, you know the song.

EALONS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I can't say it on the air...

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Very popular song. So...


MARTIN: Rodney, how does this square with what he's said?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, for one thing, I think we've got to remember that, you know, hip-hop has raised a whole generation of fans on this don't hate the player, hate the game ethos, right? Like capitalism...


CARMICHAEL: And Jay-Z - he's the crown prince of this, you know? And it doesn't even begin to account for how much the system itself is really rooted in white supremacy and inequality. So I think you have to start right there.

Now, Jay-Z has a lot of fans because we see him as a guy who has overcome a lot of that inequality, you know, for different reasons. You know, he has a talent that most people don't have that he's exploited, you know, to very successful means. But I think that really, a lot of what he's doing right now, despite a lot of his other efforts outside of music, is really kind of undermining the movement. And it's kind of surprising, to be honest.

MARTIN: But he's been criticized for not being - for example, Harry Belafonte, the great actor and activist, has criticized him and his wife Beyonce, saying that they really haven't used their platform to advance structural issues sufficiently. I mean, it's true that Beyonce has elevated a lot of these issues through her music...


MARTIN: And she has funded scholarships. And Jay-Z, for example, has started to support cultural works like the Meek Mill documentary that have explored some of these issues. But his argument is that they aren't doing enough given how prominent they are. So I guess I'll ask Dru, you want to weigh in on this?

EALONS: Yeah. I mean, that was, you know, several years ago. And then we also know that Belafonte had walked that back, and because he realized that what he said and how he said it - by lifting up Bruce Springsteen to being something - like, being more black than Jay-Z - so then he had to walk all of that back. And, you know, sometimes, you know, there's no good deed goes unpunished. And at some point, you don't know what all they did privately, and you don't know what all they did publicly. I remember once a long time ago when Oprah Winfrey was getting a whole bunch of flack about opening up schools in Africa - well, what about schools here? You know, can we stop counting people's money?

MARTIN: Well...


MARTIN: Professor, you know, that is - so here's the interesting question, I think. You know, the NFL controls the board, Inspire Change...


MARTIN: ...A social justice...


MARTIN: ...Initiative. Sports isn't really your thing, but social activism is. So the question I think, based on your research, is there any evidence that these kind of corporate-controlled initiatives actually do make a difference?

KUMANYIKA: Well, when you hear Jay-Z talk about actionable steps, what he's doing is erasing a whole history of social justice activism that's going on that is not simply like Beyonce on stage with a beret, although that was powerful. But, you know, I'm talking about, like, material action. And there's also a history of hip-hop activism - people like my friend Jasiri X in 1Hood Media. So the question for Jay-Z is this - when you say you stand for social justice, as he and Roc Nation have said, the question is, when you stand that way, and when you take that stand, and when the struggle needs you to make a sacrifice, do you choose profits?

MARTIN: OK, But I think what what Dru's asking - I think what her question is is that there's one thing to make performative gestures. If Jay-Z does, in fact, take an ownership position, wouldn't he then be in a position to vote on some of these issues?

KUMANYIKA: Well, exactly. And I think the thing is is that if the headlines that come out and say Jay-Z uses his position of power with the NFL to push to get something something doable like that policy removed about protesters - I mean, athletes not being able to express their rights to protest on the field, then we've dealt with it - like, that would have been Jay-Z using his power.

MARTIN: Dru's about to explode here.

EALONS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But she's...

EALONS: But I...

MARTIN: Her hands are going. The necks' going. Go ahead, Dru.

EALONS: I think that was the professor talking. I don't - I'm not sure.


EALONS: But one of the things he said was when he said it's time to do some activism, move forward to doing something outside, etc., that it undermines years of activism prior to - I don't think that's where he was coming from. Even in his statement, people have taken soundbites - because, you know, we're in a 30-second society. He said, you know, yes. Kneeling is one thing. Kneeling should continue.

However, we are - time to put things into action. And what we don't know is what we don't know. We don't know what else is part of the social action plan. If he has Reform Alliance already dealing with criminal justice, if he's doing all these other things externally, how is it that we know that there's not something actionable? I go back to my former statement. He is not stupid.

MARTIN: OK. Let me ask Rodney here - it was reported that a number of artists declined to perform at the Super Bowl last year and the prior year because of Colin Kaepernick still not getting a job or not getting a playing position. Now, you know, his - he hasn't played for two years. It's just unclear whether he is still in a position to play. But I wonder whether this - you know, Jay-Z has a lot of clout in the industry. Do you think that that would be enough to persuade artists to change their minds about this?

CARMICHAEL: Well, I mean, he has more than clout and influence. I mean, he has a major company - you know, Roc Nation, which parent company, Live Nation - they manage a lot of artists and control, you know, the paths of their careers. So I think the - what you see is him leveraging a lot of that power that he actually has in the industry. And I think, going back to, you know, when Belafonte criticized Beyonce a few years ago, I think another thing to remember, another comment that was eventually walked back by Jay-Z - his initial response to that was my presence is charity.

KUMANYIKA: Oh, yeah. I remember...


CARMICHAEL: And if you look at - he ended up walking that back and saying he wished he hadn't responded in that manner.


CARMICHAEL: But I think when you look at what he's doing now, it kind of holds true that he really does seem to believe it.

MARTIN: OK. Well, a lot of walking back going on. It's interesting to see what happens going forward. And also, it'll be interesting to see what the metric will be of - decision about whether this initiative is successful or not.

Unfortunately, we have to leave it there for now. But I guess - I bet we're going to be talking about this again. Joining us here was political consultant Dru Ealons. She's actually a former Obama administration appointee. Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika was with us, and NPR's Rodney Carmichael.

Thank you, everybody.

EALONS: Thank you.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks a lot, Michel.

KUMANYIKA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.