Jigga Please: when the chicanery of black capitalism comes home to roost
There’s this grainy old tape of Biggie Smalls when he first came out in the early 90’s. In it, he’s got his arm hanging casually around the shoulder of one of the rappers from an infamous group at the time named Onyx. His eyes are characteristically low, one cockeyed as he looks into and simultaneously away from the camera. “Yeah,” he says,”we coming after all you Big Willie crackers…” and he continues on about how he and his generation of rappers plan to make their big come up into riches through the rap game. His fellow Brooklyn “God MC” Jay-Z was still a few years from catching up with him as a household name. But in that brief moment, Biggie had already told us everything we needed to know about what his cohort Jay-Z and all of the up and coming rappers of his day would mean to the rap game and ultimately (Black) American culture at large. For that matter, Biggie had just unwittingly defined an ethos for an approaching generation or two of black folks (especially men). For better or for so much worse…
Biggie would die in an infamous shooting in LA only a few years later which would leave his legacy epic yet incomplete. His mother, Voletta Wallace, would file a wrongful death lawsuit for millions of dollars in an attempt to claim the lost earnings that Biggie was projected to have earned had he staid alive. In his absence, and the absence of his rival hip hop king Tupac (killed under equally specious and notorious circumstances in Las Vegas six months prior), the rap world was left to be governed by the remaining top MCs in the game. Between the years of 1998 and 2002, culminating with a nasty and hugely publicized bout with fellow heir apparent to the hip hop throne, Nas, Jay-Z would emerge victorious and ultimately earn the seat as king of the nigga kingdom. If for no other reason than he said so, Jay claimed the title as “best rapper of alive” while simultaneously parlaying his rap related business ventures into a multi-million dollar empire.
It’s like if Sam Cooke had chosen to partner with the boxing industry the year that his friend Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for taking a stance against the Vietnam War.
As of this year, 23 years after the release of his first album, his empire has amassed a net worth of a billion dollars. And just like that, Voletta Wallace’s dreams for her dead son are more than doubly realized by one of his old rap companions. The not so silver lining on it all lies in the fact that as soon as Jay stepped into the billionaire class, he pulled one of the most questionable moves in his career as he coopted the social justice work of this generation’s foremost activist athlete, Colin Kaepernick, by partnering with the very NFL that white balled Kap out of a career simply for standing — errr, kneeling against injustice.
It’s like if Sam Cooke had chosen to partner with the boxing industry the year that his friend Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for taking a stance against the Vietnam War. By no stretch of the imagination would that have been okay back in the 60s. And Jay-Z’s actions are by no means acceptable now. Die hard Jigga fans can’t be convinced of any wrongdoing on his part. To quote the man he claimed to become the black version of, Jigga could literally shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad day and his fanbase would find ways to rationalize it. For less zealot fans, their jaws may be a bit slack and floor leaning as of late in regards to Sean Carter the Hustler. But if they look closely at Jay’s track record, there’s no room for surprise. Jay’s been showing us who he is from Day one.
Jay-Z’s morality always treaded the fine line of reasonable doubt since his first album when he boasted of his successes as a drug dealer selling his own people up the river for an individualist come up out of poverty in the Marcy Projects. He went on to transfer his capitalist penchant for exploitation from the block to the boardroom and once again bragged about it as he claimed to be passing the “Blueprint” on to his people through his music. (It’s that same illogic that would push him to naïvely encourage his people to invest in million dollar Basquiats as a way of escaping poverty. ) And while he always possessed the intellectual acumen and cleverness to clap back on accusations of him being shallow with shade like, “Magazines say I’m shallow i never learned to swim/ Still they put me on they covers cause I earn for them,” he seemed to lack entirely the metacognition, or perhaps merely the education to understand that employing the very system that oppresses your people to try to liberate your people is impossible.
But to that end, I will grant Jay that he’s far from alone in his misunderstanding. If hip hop aesthetics (for starters) are any indication, very few of us can lay claim to fully appreciating the direct connection between the ills of capitalism (as both an ideology and an economic system) and its direct child to parent relationship to American slavery. And if slavery in the Western world is capitalism’s parent, then colonization is the grandparent, European imperialism the great grandparent, and European monarchy and feudalism the great great grandparents. But I don’t suppose much of this was taught in Brooklyn public schools in the 80s. I certainly didn’t learn it while I was there. Likewise, I’m sure neither the schools nor the block taught Jay that one cannot be freed from the master’s house with the master’s tools. If anything, Jay probably learned the opposite on the block “where the hammers rung, news cameras never come, [and] the grams are slung…” It was government sanctioned guns and drugs that Jay and many others hustlers used as a way out.
He’s “not a businessman,” (as in a human who does business), he’s a “Business… Maaaan!” (as in a business who does humans). Right? Never a truer capitalist mantra spoken.
So far be it from young Jay to realize that as a “victim of Reaganomics… Ollie North and Iran Contra” while selling “contraband that they sponsored,” he was actually a wiling accomplice in a global strategy designed to destroy his own people. All for the love of money and the comeuppance of him and a few people close to him. The real problem kicks in decades later when a more seasoned Sean Carter the Hustler has enough hindsight to realize that “way before this rap thing we was in concert.” We as in Reagan as a symbol for all of western white male capitalist rule within the corporate controlled U.S. government. Yet in his recognition of his long standing relationship with the rich ruling class from drug dealing to rap, Jay conveniently overlooks his deep complicity with the destructive oppression the rulers dole out on his people daily.
Reagan gave us crack and used hustlers like Jay-Z to do it. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gives us movement cooptation and silencing of the most catalytic voice of any athlete of our time and uses Jay-Z to do it. In between all this, the sports industry met the commercial real estate industry and gave Jay’s hometown a gentrifying black eye in the form a 700 Million dollar sports complex in downtown Brooklyn that helped displace thousands of residents and guess which blackface they smuggled this venture in under. That’s riiiight: Jigga Man. Whether holding court on the corners, in NFL boardrooms or Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Jay’s always played the same game no matter the arena. Whichever move results in the biggest cash out for him (and the limited few around him), that ’s the move he’ll make, no matter the unseen, unknown, untold damage his actions have on the masses. But hey, he’s “not a businessman,” (as in a human who does business), he’s a “Business… Maaaan!” (as in a business who does humans). Right? Never a truer capitalist mantra spoken.
So since we the people, the exploited masses, the ones on the receiving end of capitalism’s jagged, short end of the stick, can now clearly see Jay-Z’s patterned manipulative ways for what they are, the onus is on us to set our sights on something more beneficial to our collective wellbeing. But first we must liberate ourselves from the Svengali like spell Jigga Man has been casting on us for decades now. In order to do that, we must first holistically diagnose the situation. Which requires puling back the veil on this modern day Myrtle and understanding the source of his magic.
We have been just as spellbound by what Jigga has said throughout the years as how he’s said it.
It lies not only in the aesthetic value of his content and the ways in which we are all susceptible to the seduction of a good rhyme on a hypnotizing beat. But also in the qualitative value of the lyrics themselves. Which is to say we have been just as spellbound by what Jigga has said throughout the years as how he’s said it. When he boasted of “1 million, 2 million, 3 million, 4, in just five years, forty million more,” we felt all of our deeply engrained desires for an escape from the brutal realities of poverty soar on the wings of his lyric. We followed his words as they floated in the skies of our caviar dreams and champagne wishes to live the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Then he doubled up on us with “18 months, 80million more” and even implored us to “add that number up with the one I said before.” And then ensured us that we were “now looking at one smart black boy/ Momma ain’t raised no fool/ Put me anywhere on God’s green earth/I’ll triple my worth.” And we damn near licked our fingers to flick imaginary stacks of Benjamins off our empty fingertips, as we reveled in the realization of one black boy’s braggadocio turned one black man’s rich reality. Hell we’d been singing these types of mantras of capitalistic fantasy since Special Ed told us he “Got it Made” with “land in the sand of the West Indies.” But Jigga Man’s fantasy was all grown up into a fully fleshed out reality that we tried to vicariously live through. I myslef will cop to having pressed mom dukes for a Movado for a graduation gift in high school on the strength of Jay-Z the Don’s mentions of it on his first album.
Like many, I admired the skinny, gangly young man leaning on his Bentley in his career’s nascency when we all still wondered, “how is he for real, is that nigga really paid?” as he bragged of “the Ferrari and Jaguar switching four lanes with the top down screaming out ‘money ain’t a thang’.” But as he reeled off his monetary exploits and literally counted his cash in our face, few of us stopped to account for the processes by which that money came to him and how it all stacked up. We were too busy praising the block boy who “smarten(ed) up, open(ed) the market up,” as we rushed to Macy’s or our local hip hop fashion store in the hood to cop the new S Dots or Roc-A-Wear gear. Some rappers talked about their money. Jay put receipts in our hands, literally.
So long as our “God MC,” Jay Hova, reigned supreme, reflecting the collective capitalist dreams of our zeitgeist, we didn’t bat an eye at the foreign worlds helping bolster his expanding little empire.
And just like with our obsession with Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, Versace, and other “things we buy to cover up what’s inside,” as his little brother Kanye once termed it, precious few of us checked the labels of our fresh new gear, presumably made for us and by us, to consider where it all came from and how. Cause “Made in Vietnam” and Indonesia, and Taiwan and Peru don’t bear the same karmic weight in our minds as made in a crackhouse in the projects in a hood near you. So if acknowledged at all, we pardoned whatever minor sin may have been associated with the creation and transport of the merchandise that helped furnish the throne of our newly self-elected king of the nigga kingdom. So long as our “God MC,” Jay Hova, reigned supreme, reflecting the collective capitalist dreams of our zeitgeist, we didn’t bat an eye at the foreign worlds helping bolster his expanding little empire.
Did we ever bother to ask ourselves where this language of opening the market up came from? How analogous it was to the WTO and NAFTA talk of the time when globalization rose like legions of dark clouds over the so-called third world. The same world hip hop entrepreneurs like Jay went to to build up their clothing businesses. The same world that clapped back on neo-colonization in the form of the Zapatistas’ stalwart resistance against NAFTA’s launch in 1994, or the Hugo Chavez led Bolivarian Revolution that reclaimed Venezuela in 1992, or perhaps the most crucial of all, the Movimiento 26 de Julio of 1953–1959 that seized Cuba from the U.S. supported Batista dictatorship — a revolution led by none other than Fidel Castro, Emilio Cienfuegos, and the iconic Che Guevara, whose likeness would one day end up on a tee shirt worn by Jigga Man himself as he performed his unplugged version of the Blueprint album on MTV.
“I’m Che Guevara with bling,” Jay foolishly rapped. I remember when I watched it back in college I couldn’t help but think of the words of another problematic symbol of black capitalistic masculinity: “Theo that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” Even in the relative political naivety of my college youth, I knew that didn’t make no damn sense. Che Guevara would never have bling on. PeriodT. Especially not the conflict diamonds of the bling bling era. If Che had lived to see that day, he’d probably do what any good communist would do and partner with the Angolan army again and send Cuban troops to help descend on Sierra Leone and seize the means of production only after slaughtering the guerrilla troops employed by big corporations and the corrupt government to chop off children’s limbs for not meeting their bling — ahem, production quota. I mean I get the whole Che with bling thing was a simile. But it was also an impossibly bad simile, like comparing yourself to Hitler with a Star of David on. That. Would. Never. Happen. The two are polar opposites like capitalism and communism. PeriodT.
Jay was there to “show you how to move in a room full of vultures.” Only he didn’t tell us, and we failed to see, that you had to become a vulture to do so.
Meanwhile, our black and brown brothers and sisters from Africa to South America who provided the various labor — from militarized diamond mines to guerrilla enforced sweatshops — got little more than a blip on the average black or brown North American’s radar. We were too busy chasing the American dream that sponsored our distant kins’ lived nightmares. The American capitalist dream of rags to riches of which our “Jay-Z the icon” was living, breathing symbol. Never mind that in those distant worlds that propped us up, “niggas bleed just like us,” as Jay-Z’s predecessor king Biggie once told us. Alas, “Fuck them other niggas, cause I ride for my niggas,” was the mantra of the day. And “Jiggaaaa… My Niggaaa” assured us that he was “raising the status quo up… overcharging them for what they did to the Cold Crush/ [making them] pay us like [they] owe us for all those years that [they] hoes us.”
And we believed him. We had to, we thought. Couldn’t be no more greats like Sly of the Family Stone falling off the charts and then the edge of the earth only to be found living out of a van, stranded, mentally ill and alone decades later. No more Buddy Bouldin tragedies ending with a musical genius twisted into madness in an asylum in a country town in Louisiana without a red cent or a recording to his name. Jigga’s success rung authentic and necessary to Black folks on the cusp of a new era of repackaged exploitation in the form of globalization with a side order of localized gentrification. It may have been murky times we were slipping into but hey, Jay was there to “show you how to move in a room full of vultures.” Only he didn’t tell us, and we failed to see, that you had to become a vulture to do so.
So when his implicit crimes of business as usual loomed in closer as he transitioned from an accomplice to globalization (we overlooked that one cause we were complicit too), to now localizing his egregiousness by aiding gentrification in his own hometown, we barely noticed anything wrong. Instead we clung to his words like hopeful children waiting for the breadcrumbs of an absentee father when he said “in a couple of years I’m gonna bring you some Nets.” He‘s gonna “do it for the culture,” we rationalized.
But at least some of us winced at the Barclays deal while others gasped in disbelief. Others nodded our heads in recognition of what we knew and expected all along. We remembered the guy who bragged on taking a fellow rapper down a few notches by paying the record company to which Nas was signed to sample Nas’ voice and then ragging on him more for not owning his own publishing. We recognized that while all was fair in love and hip hop war, this was a unique brand of dissing that seemed to employ the aesthetics of a Wall Street tycoon as much as a battling MC. So we weren’t that surprised when he was willing to apply the same shrewd arrogance to his bigger business dealings.
And we’re not that surprised now, when Jay’s willing to once again steamroll over a fellow black person, and partner with the institution controlling that black person all for his own personal gain and empire expansion. When he’s willing to take up new strange bedfellows for the sake of another buck. It ain’t the first time. This is the same man who kept company with sexual predators like his once tour mate R. Kelly. Who got social justice cool points for making a documentary with a monster like Harvey Weinstein. And now he can add Trump supporters like Robert Kraft and Stephen Ross to that list of strange bedfellows. All in the name of social justice.
Is this how you move in a room full of vultures Jay? Are you really showing us? By feeding on the corpses of Mike Brown, Rehkia Boyd, Aiyanna Jones, Renisha McBride, by remixing the echoes of Sandra Bland’s war cry, the last breaths of Eric Garner and his daughter now reduced to watermarks on the pages of your freshly inked multi-million dollar contract? Over a thousand black bodies in the last five years all in exchange for some million dollar icing on Jay’s billion dollar cake. How much are the bodies worth Jay? From the 80s till now. Do you “still hear fiends scream in [your] dreams”? Do they have an added chorus of bullet ridden bodies of black folks whose blood now baptizes your billions?
And as for us… we, the builders of the culture that Jay-Z claims to represent, we are left with no one to look at but ourselves. We can continue to scream “Black Lives Matter” out of one side of our mouths while simultaneously forking our tongues with subscription to the evils we condemn. Or we can recognize that like a great ancestor once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The same ancestor that warned us that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” And with that knowledge look more closely at where the slippery road of complicity with capitalistic oppression has lead us.
Because just like it’s too easy to blame Trump for the state of America, it’s way too easy to pretend that Jay wasn’t actually speaking for a significant portion of us all this time. Like he still isn’t, if the Interwebs are any indication, a spokesperson for many black folks who still would like to rationalize this whole move. Many who would still like to believe that the work of systemic change can be done from the inside. Which is to say we still think we can integrate into a burning house. But one of these days we’ll have to reckon with Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Audre’s wisdom and leave that house to burn along with all its masterful tools and all the seats at all the tables in it. Recognize it was never built for us, or any human beings desirous of sustaining humanity on this planet, PeriodT.
It would require a separate essay to divulge the literally scientific and mathematic reasons as to why capitalism, the literal economic embodiment of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and militarism will never work for any mass of people anywhere. (For now just trust me on it and in the meantime google some Chomsky, Richard Wolfe, Marx, and surplus value.) But if nothing else, we can use this Jigga fiasco as a teachable moment for introspection as we slay our heroes.
Our heroes are not bigger than the systems crushing us everyday and therefore, will never be equipped to save us. Not Nas’s $40 million investment in Amazon nor Colin Kaepernick’s Nike deal. Not Saul Wiliams’ Nike commercial nor Oprah’s billion dollars nor Michael Jordan’s and most certainly not Robert Johnson’s. This is capitalism. Big bank take little bank. And at the end of the day, come for those Big Willie crackers though they might, our heroes are small fish in a bigger pool of loan sharks. Only the power of collective resistance can shift the tide enough to drown a beast that big. It’s gonna take a nation of millions to hold it back. I think a rapper told me something like that once…