This article is about JAY-Z and not about JAY-Z. It’s not a review of Jay-Z’s platinum certified album, 4:44, but it riffs on 4:44 since everyone is talking about the album, which takes the acquisition of Black wealth as one of its primary themes. This article is really about Black capitalism and it’s ability to heal, or not. And this is certainly not a hater’s take on Jay; it’s a reflection on what is possible when we love Black people. And Jay is Black, so this is love.
Jay-Z represents a branch of our fam that is #blackcapitalism personified. And by that, I do not simply or only mean that he self-identifies as a billionaire. I mean he has called himself “a business, man” (not a “businessman”). Sit with that and note the difference. He has deemed himself an enterprise— not the brother working for a company but the company itself. He’s also clear that in the U.S. he’s “still n-gga,” billionaire be damned, under the conditions of white supremacy. But I can’t help but to ask what is produced when Black folk pay a self-identified billionaire, a business, for our healing?
What is capitalism, however, and why is it bad for Black people in particular? Simply put, capitalism is an economic and political system where a small minority of white elite conglomerates own the land, factories, technologies, transportation, and labor necessary for the making, building and selling of things. These are the folks who seek to own the past, present and future. The motive for producing goods and services is to sell them for a profit, not to satisfy people’s healing needs.
American capitalism is rooted in slavery, murder, rape, patriarchy, land theft and indigenous genocide. Black capitalism is still rooted in white supremacy, even if it seems to be about representing the race well. The feel-good of Black capitalism is rooted in the false belief that we can buy our way to freedom, when we cannot. Singing “I’m sorry” songs, however deep or romantic, however therapeutic or transformative, and selling those songs for the purposes of billionaire profit-making, is still capitalism. In other words, just as we begin to sense the opportunity for sonic healing, we peel back the curtain and realize capitalism will never set us free—only we together, can do that (otherwise, “..even when we win, we gon lose”).
Artists need to support themselves. Everyone does. All people deserve a dignified life free from the panic and stress of insecure housing, hunger, debt and sickness. But because we identify with a brother, who riffs on Black women’s suffering—possibly as a full-circle recognition of his failings as a partner and father, or for the purpose of making more money—we are loathe to face facts: the same systems which produce the business that is Jay-Z, produce the insecure housing, hunger, debt and sickness Black people suffer within capitalism. Paying a self-identified business for healing, produces ill-effects. It’s possible some listeners will be healed. It is also possible we might get confused that what is produced as we pay for songs, is healing, but what is most produced is distance: distance from material love, the kind that responds to our suffering.
Because ultimately, our healing requires community—not a paywall, and Jay-Z’s healing requires community, too, not a greater empire.
It is not that buying art negates the opportunity for healing; it’s that the processes which produce art as commerce are implicated in the processes which trap us all and they require some critique, even if we do not have all the answers yet. Figuring out what might be wrong with this situation helps us build a better future—one that doesn’t rely on turning to the market for healing. Because ultimately, our healing requires community—not a paywall, and Jay-Z’s healing requires community, too, not a greater empire.
Jay-Z didn’t create capitalism, or the collective love of capitalism that produces our inability to hold him accountable. He just knows how to exploit these systems like a pro. He’s also not the “only” self-identified billionaire out here focused on paper for the sake of gaining more. Capitalism, Black or otherwise, is a historically and presently violent, anti-Black experience, and it’s one in which we are all daily implicated. But since 4:44 has provoked conversation on paper and Black comeuppance, it’s illustrative to consider how Jay is positioned in our worlds.
Subscribers to Tidal are not actually “paying” Jay for his art. Subscriptions provide him with a regular source of capital through which he will make money, buy more property, make more money, repeat. This is the meaning of building an empire. But Black empire is still empire. Charitable donations do not even begin to speak to the universe of wealth Hov does not share with those who seek healing through his art.
You may be wondering: so what should the brother do? Jay said it himself, “Take your money and buy the neighborhood. That’s how you rinse it.”
If Jay were to ask me how he might show material love in more expansive ways (which is not to say he isn’t doing some of these things already), I would ask him the following: Might Black love look like the development of Black community land trusts for Black artists to live and create without the evils of capital debt chasing them down? Black artists could always have a place to live, and produce the gift of art, without seeing themselves as primarily a business. Because Jay was right when he said, “Gangsta and rude-boy still living in the tenement yard.”
Jay could use his clout to buy up what’s left of gentrified Bed-Stuy and turn those blocks into can’t-be-bought-by-rich-people housing (these models exist), so Black people can thrive, without the evils of capital debt chasing them down. That might include turning market-rate buildings into safe havens for Black and brown women who need homes as they navigate toxic relationships. Because Hov is wrong when he says he “..missed the karma that came as a consequence.” We, the consequence.
I hear you Jay — you say:
….fuck the Federal Bureau
Shout out to Nostrand Ave., Flushing Ave., Myrtle
All the County of Kings, may your ground stay fertile
Just help us keep it fertile, Jay.
Perhaps he might have from the start, followed Public Enemy’s lead in releasing his music for free download, since he does not need our paper and we have bills. I have brilliant, prolific and gifted Black and Brown friends who are deeply depressed and struggling in this evil-capital world. I’m not saying that is Jay’s fault. It’s not. But since he has capitalized on this capitalist system, I am asking why we don’t hold him accountable to doing more to make his art change the world, and not just his bank account. My questions are ultimately about a desire for sustained Black love. We need more love – the long-term gift of healing love in its most rich and communal sense, because we are suffering.
Just help us keep it fertile, Jay.
Art is a gift and art in our world is also commerce. The overwhelming power of art-commerce influences our practice of gifting each other with the kinds of collective, material love we all need to get free. Ultimately 4:44 is a push for us to ask ourselves what our respective responsibilities are in materially caring for each other, for Black and Brown people. I believe this is the daily revolution we must cultivate—caring for each other in sustained, everyday ways. And yes, I believe that the responsibility is far greater for those who continue to enrich themselves from a system bent on killing us. Even billionaire Black folk got a work to do, too! This doesn’t take away from working hard and earning your life. But I feel in my soul that our daily revolution must begin with doing away with notions of the “talented tenth” mentality, and facing the deep material divides in our Black worlds as if we really and truly matter to each other. Are we ever going to treat each other like we should—because Jay is right: nobody wins when the family feuds.
Mia Charlene White is an Afro-Asian New Yorker, mama of 2 kids, and activist-scholar who teaches race geography at The New School. She is currently working on a book on Black cooperatives and community land trusts, with a focus on the Deep South.