Home Featured President Obama’s New Campaign Ad … Featuring Jay-Z

President Obama’s New Campaign Ad … Featuring Jay-Z

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“All Us Blacks Got Is Sports And Entertainment?”

On Monday, the campaign to reelect President Barack Obama released a new campaign ad featuring everybody’s favorite rapper, Shawn Jay-Z Carter. The clip, nearly two minutes long, features a suited Jay discussing how the divisive nature of our American political system has fueled generations of voter apathy amongst certain populations and how a great deal of that apathy was transformed with the election of Obama.

“For so long, there was this voice that was silenced out there as far as exercising your right to vote. I think it was a voice that was silent because people had lost hope. They didn’t believe that their voice mattered or counted. You know, we thought it was just politics – people going back and forth and at the end of the day, it never really trickled down to where… we live. Now people are exercising their right and you’re starting to see the power of our vote .”

A common refrain when singing songs in praise of Hov is one along the lines of  “it’s amazing to look at just how far Jay-Z has come.” And while that by itself is a true statement, I don’t believe it’s true for the reasons most folks believe. The general arch of Jay’s story has, over time, come to resemble the prototypical Horatio Alger ‘rags to riches’ tale. It’s not quite that simple.

The problem with that characterization is that Alger’s characters were noted for their hard work, perseverance and generally good nature. It is those stereotypically ‘American’ ‘values’ that fueled their ascent. And even in ascending, they were going not from, rags to riches, but from rags to middle class. What makes Horatio Algers’ tales so troubling is that underlying message always seemed to be that if you work hard and be a good person – you’ll make it.

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And this is why casting Jay in the light … or Jay allowing himself  to be cast in this light, is a bit disconcerting. There’s a fine line between using your experiences honestly – to inspire others, and selling people a dream they are unlikely to achieve. Jay isn’t just someone who, through hard work and determination, found the key to unlocking his American dream. Jay is a capitalist through and through. He hustled, not because there were no other options – by all accounts he was a good student and could have excelled in the classroom had that been his focus. He hustled because by his young mind, the risk/reward cost/benefit analysis proved worthwhile. It was a business decision.

When Jay started rapping, it wasn’t because he had some sort of epiphany around social responsibility or that he’d been plagued by the guilt of contributing to his community’s destruction; it was a business decision. By the mid-nineties the crack game was starting to dry up and rappers he felt he was better than were making millions. Most folks think his first real ‘hit’ — Can’t Knock The Hustle — was him trying to explain to the mainstream masses why he’d been selling drugs. The reality is, that single was him talking to street hustlers, explaining to them why he’s decided to rap.

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And in all his business decisions, the goal was never to just reach the comfort of American middle-class. Nah. Jay would ‘rather die enormous.’

To me the idea of America is that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try. Jay-Z did. He didn’t come from power or privilege, he got ahead because he worked hard, learned from his mistakes, and just plain refused to quit. That’s the promise of this country.

And now as he ages and reaches new heights as an artist, performer and entrepreneur, aligning himself with someone like Barack Obama – having the President of the United States speak highly of him in ads like this – is a business decision. It washes away much of what would be for many, the more unsavory aspects of his ascent and recasts them in the light of some universally achievable ‘American Dream.’

This isn’t to say that Jay is a villain. It’s not to say that Jay is this cold, calculating guy who’s done whatever he’s had to do to get rich. That’s not the point. Because while the moral relativism that has underscored much of Jay’s career – both hustling and rapping has driven much his success, he’s also been very consistent and honest about what is his primary motivation: the accumulation of wealth. And in that being his stated, purpose — Jay has avoided compromising himself. He’s done exactly what he set out to do. The fact that he’s been able to do this while maintaining a certain level of respect from the various circles he’s moved through is unprecedented. He’s still respected in hardcore hip-hop circles. Billionaires appreciate his entrepreneurial spirit. He still gets us all out our seats in the club and even the President seems to have bought in.

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What is lost in over simplifying the nuances of Jay’s story in trying to paint him as one of Horatio Alger’s bootstrapping characters is the recognition of just how savvy and exceptional he is. It’s not as pretty a tale. It’s not tale that can replicated by anyone with a great work ethic and a solid moral foundation. Most people can’t be Jay-Z. Pretending that everyone has the ability to achieve anything close to what he’s achieved is dangerous because it dilutes our country’s responsibility to provide its citizens the equality of opportunity at the foundation of the American dream. It also ignores the near impossible situations many of citizens are living out. Jay-Z’s story is much more than the rags to riches tale he’s peddling these days.  It’s the unique story of someone who’s found a way to move and achieve in this America full of vultures; it should serve as an inspiration, not as a blueprint. And so while it pains me to see Jay moving away from the ideology of him being a complex, exceptional individual toward this ideology of universal American Exceptionalism … at the end of the day … I can’t knock the hustle.

Comment(18)

  1. "I'm not a business man, I'm a business, man." -Jigga.

    Jay-Z passed exceptional individual a while ago, he's become an undeniable brand. He's the perfect marketing figure, few people flat out don't like Jay-Z. He's a timeless rapper who happens to hail from the biggest media market in the US, who happens to be married to the biggest pop star of the era, who happens to be black and can appeal to the urban masses. Nets stadium opening, Glastonbury, CNN, political ads you throw him anywhere and it still fits. Very few artists has that type of appeal.

    1. As he pointed out he is a business, man…as such I hope the "happens'" you used refers to the strategic planning/movements a man that is a business (any sustainable one at least) must employ. If people out here think Jay and B is not a collaborative business strategy dream come true then pigs do indeed fly. This is not to say that their " romantic relationship" is not real or genuine. Guess what love is a CHOICE! Beside marriage is the first institution of business.

  2. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about Jay-Z. But I do recognize I don’t know Jay-Z the person, I only know Jay-Z the persona, so I will not claim to know more about him than I know. I personally don’t consider him a role model and I’m not positive I would want my daughter dating a Jay-Z type. Again, this is under the premise that I don’t know Jay-Z the man, I know Jay-Z the character. I’m on the fence about the Obama’s open affiliation with Jay-Z (or honestly, any rapper). Like you, I respect the hustle but I find this questionable given the content Jay-Z did, does, and will continue to promote as a rapper. However, men have been getting rich in this country and have been in the circles of politics through means as or more questionable than Jay-Z for centuries and I imagine that will continue for years to come.

    It is what it is.

    1. I think this story of Jay Z (the persona, not the person) is one of those literal rags to riches type of stories that people like to say "only in America" about. I mean, I think of his story more than say a Pac or a Biggie or a Nas or any of the rappers from the 80s or from today because of how high he's risen, and its debatable how much he's changed (or at least his persona). I mean its something to be able to walk with the President of the United States and still have the guys on the street corners thinking they connect to you. Whats funny is that I listen to Jay's lyrics and, especially stuff like Blueprint 3 – so Ambitious, where he basically describes most Black men's life story from childhood to success, especially those of us from the hip hop era. And the fact that Jay is on this level of success makes him different from a KRS-One saying it or a Rakim, or any of the other greats. Its like Jay said on Never Let Me Down, "Who else you know been hot this long, Started from nothing but he got this strong, … "

      Would I want my daughter dating a guy like that? I'd hope my daughter has a similar hustle type mentality where she knows that she doesn't have to limit herself to the options that people say are available to her. That doesn't mean I want her selling drugs or dating a drug dealer. But If she has the choice of paying $30,000 for school or starting a business that can make her millions, I'd hope she has the "common sense" to make the wise decision.
      My recent post Shade The Cells Puzzle

  3. I get what you're sayin, not sure if I totally agree but yeah, there is a fine line. I think it's funny too that if JAyZ's story is being pushed like that by the establishment as an example of American exceptional ism, theyre missing the part where Jay had to deal drugs at the beginning and rap about it to get where he's at. It's not necessarily a story of how he went from being in the drug trade to riches, but the fact that he and many other people have turned to this trade to improve their quality of life. That needs to be acknowledged in the narrative as well.

  4. I just don't think people should go to Jay-Z for anything except for Entertainment. I don't care what he has to say about politics, gay marriage, or anything else for that matter. I've always felt that way and if it wasn't completely clear to everyone else, when Jay-Z recently revealed that he didn't know anything about Occupy Wall Street it was time to tell him to go sit his ass down somewhere and just be a rapper.

    1. I don't think we gotta pigeonhole him. Are there certain topics he shouldn't be looked to as an authority on? Yes. Should he be able to voice his opinion and deal with whatever backlash may result? Yes. As a business owner and former CEO of Def Jam, I'm guessing there are topics he could speak intelligently on that relate to politics. Most of us came up in recent years writing on a relationship blog. Doesn't mean we should be relegated to only speaking on issues of love. I respect the opinion though. #WeHustlin
      My recent post How I Used LinkedIn As My Career Consultant

    2. Agreed!!! His business is Entertainment, not politics. Just like Kanye giving his two cents in about Bush. Some in our generation loves to look up to celebrities and find them the voice of reason when really…we need to do our own reading to formulate our own political opinions.

  5. I agree with Dr. J, but I also think Obama should have chosen someone with more charisma and with a better ability to attract people. Jay-z is dry and doesn’t have that ability at all since he has gotten old.

        1. I'm not sure how this is a rebuttal. I dont think it would have sold as much w/o Kanye. I also dont think it would have sold as much w/o Jay-Z.

        2. It was not meant to be one I'm just trying to make a point. You want someone who can influence the undecided voters to the maximum. He would have been better off using beyonce. {I'm just saying}

  6. I don't really like Jay Z. But this particular video I think is inspiring to get young people to exercise their right to vote. I really can't think of no other rapper right now president Obama could have gotten right now to appeal to all audience across the board. so you can't knock Obama hustle

  7. While I agree with many points that you made in this piece I take issue with one. Early in the piece you said "He hustled, not because there were no other options – by all accounts he was a good student and could have excelled in the classroom had that been his focus."

    I dont see how the aforementioned sentence can be in the same piece as "Pretending that everyone has the ability to achieve anything close to what he’s achieved is dangerous because it dilutes our country’s responsibility to provide its citizens the equality of opportunity at the foundation of the American dream."

    To me they dont mesh well because one acts as if he had an equal opportunity to succeed using education as a vehicle, and then the later secedes the notion that opportunity is not equal.

    1. I think both quotes fit with the general theme of the post that Jay is an exceptional individual, possessed with an intelligence and savvy that's carried him to success at every endeavor to which he's dedicated himself — be it school, hustling, rapping, or building businesses. Jay is a winner and winners win.

      My point is – not everyone is like Jay. In any classroom there are average kids and below average kids. In any office there are the achieves, the unambitious subject matter experts and there are the pikers. In america, being black and average is a recipe for disaster whereas – you can be white and average and end up being a 2 term president. This is what I mean by equality of opportunity.

      Throughout his career Jay has always embraced his exceptionality and has often cited it as the primary reason for his success. ("Alright but, I'm different, I can't base what I'm gon' be off of what everybody isn't."). But in this video, and in a few recent concert speeches, he's begun to make this subtle shift away from it being about him being special, and more about America being special. About America being this place where anybody can be anything… as long as they work hard and try. The problem is, that's just not reality for a whole bunch of people.

      I think all of that fits together nicely in the post… if I may say so myself.
      My recent post Don’t Call Me A Female!

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