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"This is What America is Built On"

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

by RAVI KATARI

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.