“Like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex.” Jay Z, “P.S.A”
If I ever got the chance to interview Jay Z, I would ask about his definition of winning. He once said it’s better to love to win than to hate to lose — the rationale was that those driven by the negative feeling of losing would stoop to any level to avoid it; on the other hand, those driven by the positive feeling of legitimate success will rise to unimaginable heights to achieve victory. That dynamic is perfectly exemplified in the differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump‘s presidential campaigns and administrations. So if we’re looking for culture warriors capable of defeating The Donald, Jay and Beyoncé have as good a track record as anyone of out-witting corporate America without compromising their identities.
With recent power moves like the purchase and development of Tidal, the production of social justice-themed documentaries and the signing of Van Jones to Roc Nation’s newly-created “social activism” division, Jay and Bey appear to be planting the seeds to harness the world’s powerful zeitgeist of activism. Queen Bey’s infamous Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance was a clear sign that they’d found a new creative/corporate balance where doing good could be profitable. Still, both have been harshly criticized in the social justice space for commoditizing revolutionary ideas to benefit their lucrative business endeavors.
From Jay’s collaborations with Dead Prez to Bey’s proudly declared preference for Jackson 5 nostrils, they’ve gotten just as many side-eyes as salutes for their insistence on keeping it real while getting rich. Everyone from a hopeless presidential candidate to the great Harry Belafonte has questioned their sincerity as well as the ultimate impact of their pro-Black and anti-establishment media messaging — mainly because of the couple’s own deep roots in corporate capitalism is what makes their resistance possible. But is it time everyone stopped believing that activism and profitability must be mutually exclusive?
I’ve long believed their talent for entrepreneurship and retail activism should be studied as a blueprint for the next generation of artists and activists, both of whom must maximize impact with minimal resources.
The world tries to force artists to make a choice between being rich and being real. Jay Z and Beyoncé are hailed as pop culture deities because of their rare abilities to defy that unfair false-binary. Their unapologetic independence made each of them extremely successful in their individual realms before they joined forces — and together, they were just crowned Hip Hop’s first billionaire couple. But ever since the independent woman and shameless dope man made it official in 2003, they’ve exceeded expectations and understanding in every challenge they’ve taken on.
Both members of pop culture’s first billion-dollar couple have always been as unapologetically real as their mainstream ambitions would allow. A young Jay Z rapped cockily about rocking a du-rag to the MTV awards as a testament to his authenticity. And from “Bootylicious” to Lemonade, Bey has done everything short of releasing a luxury bonnet line to project a royal image of Black American femininity on the mainstream media stage. But many question how much their woke symbolism matters as our people are being shot dead in the streets and a geriatric reality star works daily to push America back to the 1950s.
“And I come with du-rags to your so-called awards… like fuck y’all all.” Jay Z, “Hova Song”
Looking to celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce as potential leaders in the resistance may be expecting too much — they don’t owe the world anything more than the dreams they sell — but they may be the few among us with the tools necessary to significantly impact the globe’s most pressing threat: A leader no human should feel proud about taking an alien race to meet.
The idea of the starving artist or embattled revolutionary is romantic to most. Many see money as a corruptive force and project their insecurities on those who are skilled with it. Baseless Illuminati speculation and residual distrust from music’s long history of artistic exploitation have cast doubt on the couple’s true ambitions and allegiances. Most understand that it takes assets to challenge social systems. But is it possible for anyone to maintain their revolutionary integrity while securing the essential resources of a revolution?
If the struggle for social justice is a literal war, the resistance won’t win without warriors capable of countering Donald Trump’s finely-tuned Jim Crow poli-tricks. We probably shouldn’t be looking to pop culture idols to save our world, but I’d ask Jay how many billions him and Bey would need to win the revolution. Not that I have it to invest, I just know the smart money’s been on the Carters since the days I was stealing their music from Limewire. And the pirate in me has been holding out hope that they are compulsively hoarding dead presidents because they plan on pulling an even greater heist than topping the Forbes list off drug money and soul music.
But even I have to remind myself they could just as well be narcissists of the same ilk as President Trump, selling a dream to the resistance while privately sipping champagne with the top one percent of the One Percent. It’s possible that studying their legacies for anything more than marketing genius is fruitless.
But who wants to believe that?