Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Zadie Smith, Jay-Z, Russell Simmons & Occupy Wall Street


recent interview with rapper and millionaire Jay-Z in T Magazine of the New York Times has caught fire not for its luminary centerpiece, but rather for his clumsy dismissal of Occupy Wall Street.  While discussing the rise of a new generation of Pitchfork-friendly indie rap e.g. Odd Future, he recognized that “people have a real aversion to what people in power did to this country…so they are lashing out, like: This is the son that you made…look at your son…look at what you’ve done.”

In a way, this is a reasonable, albeit crude, assessment of the Movement from the outsider’s perspective.  However, he soon revealed himself to be awkwardly out of touch.

“I’m not going to a park and picnic, I have no idea what to do, I don’t know what the fight is about. What do we want, do you know?  I think all those things need to really declare themselves a bit more clearly. Because when you just say that ‘the 1 percent is that,’ that’s not true. Yeah, the 1 percent that’s robbing people, and deceiving people, these fixed mortgages and all these things, and then taking their home away from them, that’s criminal, that’s bad. Not being an entrepreneur. This is free enterprise. This is what America is built on.”

The interviewer’s internal response to the mogul’s remark was, simply put, stunning: “It’s so weird watching rappers becoming elder statesmen.”  Such prosaic tact is to be expected given that the interviewer was none other than Zadie Smith, award winning fiction author and professor at NYU.  Her fiction titles include White Teeth and On Beauty.

No one really noticed though, alas.  In fact, most references to Jay’s comment make it seem as if this were an ordinary celebrity interview appearing in NYT.  Smith happens to be luminary herself, though, albeit in obscurer circles namely intellectual-slash-literary ones.  It’s worth noting that the Occupy comment is but a tiny fraction of the 3000-word piece which explores rap and black culture (can the former be discussed without the latter?) as seen through Jay’s eyes, yet filtered through Smith’s pen.

Jay is famous for his ultra-confident style and wit.  However, there are moments when it seems that Smith, as an outsider, understands his persona more than he does.  They are hard to pinpoint; Smith’s writing is apprehended in fleeting moments rather than segments.  She notes that “He likes to order for people” and reflects, “Apparently I look like the fish-sandwich type” with more amusement than sarcasm.  We never discover if she likes fish sandwiches or appreciated the gesture.  I’m confident, however, that Smith is wise enough not to turn down free lunch at a fancy restaurant.

Regardless, most readers found the bulk of the interview superfluous.  Smith, recognizing Jay-Z as more a persona than activist, was able to take the Occupy comment with a grain of salt and move on:

“But still I think “conscious” rap fans hope for something more from him; to see, perhaps, a final severing of this link, in hip-hop, between material riches and true freedom. (Though why we should expect rappers to do this ahead of the rest of America isn’t clear.) It would take real forward thinking. Of his own ambitions for the future, he says: “I don’t want to do anything that isn’t true.” Maybe the next horizon will stretch beyond philanthropy and Maybach collections.”

The other hip-hop mogul that isn’t Puff Daddy, namely Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam record company, took it more seriously.  Indeed, Jay’s comment was actually a reference to a conversation he previously had with Simmons, a long-time friend.  In response to Jay’s insensitivity, he noted “As the same man that said he would pay more taxes if it helped educate more children and create affordable healthcare, Jay-Z’s words matter” and thus took it upon himself to clarify things for his friend.  Couldn’t be a better man to do it given Simmons’ active engagement with Occupy.

After listing the 99 problems including healthcare reform, prison-industrial complex, war spending, GMOs, gay rights, immigration reform, the tuition crisis, and wealth inequality and describing the disastrous effects of Citizens United vs. FEC on American franchise, he closes with the bottom line:

“So, Jay, here’s the deal. You’re rich and I’m rich. But, today it’s close to impossible to be you or me and get out of Marcy Projects or Hollis, Queens without changing our government to have our politicians work for the people who elect them and not the special interests and corporations that pay them. Because we know that these special interests are nothing special at all. In fact, they spend millions of dollars destroying the fabric of the black community and make billions of dollars in return.”

Jay-Z’s verse, prose, and life have demonstrated that he is a passionate authority on the subject of poverty, entrepreneurship, and the American dream.  And Zadie Smith’s interview-essay gracefully reveals that the mystery of Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z transcends celebrity and riches.  Simmons has tactfully appealed to his understanding to coax a rebuttal which may never come.

If it does, it will be from the perspective of a man that affirmatively hustled and clawed his way to the top in a society that systematically sought to keep him down and in many ways still does.  He may begrudge the system, but he doesn’t need to answer for it.  It’s worth remembering that he is neither a Princeton academic nor a militant subversive.  He literally beat the system not by lamenting its injustices, but by circumnavigating them and recording the odyssey chapter by chapter.

“No one came to our neighborhoods, with stand-up jobs, and showed us there’s a different way. Maybe had I seen different role models, maybe I’d’ve turned on to that.”

Ravi Katari works for a health law firm  in Washington D.C.  He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Biomedical Engineering. 



More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Tom Clifford
Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China
Uri Avnery
The Peres Funeral Ruckus
Reyes Mata III
Scaling Camelot’s Walls: an Essay Regarding Donald Trump
Raouf Halaby
Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
David Yearsley
Trump and Hitchcock in the Age of Conspiracies
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”