Don’t let the natty hair and Bob Marley shirt fool you—Jay-Z is surprisingly conservative. Brian Ach / Getty Images Entertainment
On August 13, rapper and billionaire Jay-Z announced that his company, Roc Nation, struck a big deal with the NFL that basically did two things: One, Roc Nation would work on the NFL’s music problems (described as a “live music entertainment strategist”), and, two, its race problems (described as a “social justice campaign”). Jay-Z not only excluded Colin Kaepernick from the second part of the deal but also claimed that NFL players had “moved past kneeling” and that we have become “stuck on Colin not having a job.” It was time to get unstuck and take action. The kind of money involved in the deal has not been reported.
This week, the rapper also known as Hova—who is married to Beyoncé, has a stake in Uber, and owns real estate in the Hamptons—got a lot of heat for the statement about kneeling and his exclusion of Kaepernick from the partnership. He has been called a “sellout” by NFL player Eric Reid and “cold-blooded” by Kaepernick’s lawyer. The oldest leftie magazine in the US, the Nation, contributed this straightforward opinion: “Jay-Z Isn’t a Sellout, He’s a Capitalist.” It’s as simple as that. He is “a billionaire who wants to be an NFL team owner, and erasing Colin Kaepernick is the price of admission.”
But I want to offer a different approach to the matter. One that draws from the red harvester ants studied by Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon.
The most fascinating finding reported in her 1999 book Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized is that old ant colonies do not behave the same as young ones. Even if the population and composition of an old colony is the same as that of a young one (an ant in the species she studied, the harvester ants of Arizona, lives for about a year), they do things very differently. Meaning, it’s as if the colony has a mind of its own, a mind and personality that’s independent of its own composition—many interacting ants. Meaning that aging is not just an individual-level process but one that occurs at the emergent level of a colony and city.
With that in mind, let’s turn to hip-hop, a culture that’s now more than 40 years old. We can see how it has aged through the years. When it was a child (1978 to 1984), it was all about fighting for your right to party. When it was young (1985 to 1993), it was about fighting the power. During its transition from youth to the middle years, 1994 to 1997, it soberly claimed that cash rules everything around me. In the ’00s, it was about chilling out in the club and smoking blunts. Today, it has become conservative—that is to say, it’s about the business of business.
There is nothing like the youthful radical politics of Public Enemy in hip-hop anymore. It’s too old for that kind of thing. It has moved on from kneeling. Colin needs to grow up, like hip-hop has grown up. It’s now about making partnerships with major sports institutions, or getting a Republican president to call the leader of a European country to get you out of a bind, or about visiting that Republican president in the Oval Office, or writing self-help books, or buying soccer teams, or supporting those who enforce the laws that protect property, or selling technology to a Silicon Valley tech corporation. As Dre, another hip-hop billionaire, said back in the day: “No more living hard.”
But it’s not just that Jay-Z is a billionaire. It also the fact that hip-hop is no longer young. Yes, there are young rappers (A$AP Rocky, who received help from Donald Trump, is only 30), but none of them seem to give a damn about radical politics. They all feel as old as Jay-Z. They are capitalists, they want to make that bank, they are planning for their retirement.