FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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. 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

July 20, 2017
Sebastian Friedrich – Gabriel Kuhn
A New Class Politics
Patrick Cockburn
The Massacre of Mosul: More Than 40,000 Civilians Feared Dead
Paul Street
The Abandonment: Reflections on James Foreman’s “Locking Up Our Own”
Kim Codella
A Practical Education
Frank Scott
America’s Trump, Not Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Clancy Sigal Goes Away
Don Monkerud
The Real Treason in DC: Turning Our Lives Over to Corporations
Brian Dew – Dean Baker
Are Amazon’s Shareholders Suckers?
Ralph Nader
Detecting What Unravels Our Society – Bottom-up and Top-down
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Covering Islam, Post-Jack Shaheen
Binoy Kampmark
Uhlmann’s Trump Problem
Patrick Walker
In Defense of Caitlin Johnstone
Barry Lando
Those Secret Putin-Trump Talks
Sean Marquis
Thank You, Donald Trump
July 19, 2017
Adam Ziemkowski and Rebekah Liebermann
How Seattle Voted to Tax the Rich
Patrick Cockburn
Why ISIS Fighters are Being Thrown Off Buildings in Mosul
John W. Whitehead
Zombies R Us: the Walking Dead of the American Police State
Mateo Pimentel
Net Neutrality’s Missing Persons
Adil E. Shamoo - Bonnie Bricker
Yemen Policy is Creating More Terrorists
L. Ali Khan
U.S. Misreads Pakistan’s Antifragility
David Macaray
Fear and Trembling in the Workplace
Brian Trautman, Gerry Condon and Samantha Ferguson
Veterans Call on U.S. to Sign Nuclear Ban Treaty
Binoy Kampmark
Militarising Civilian Life: Australia, Policing and Terrorism
Ricardo Vaz
Venezuelan Opposition “Consultation”: Playing Alone and Losing
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Cold-Hearted Agenda is Immoral
Raul Castro
We will Continue to Advance Along the Path Freely Chosen by Our People
July 18, 2017
James Bovard
Obama’s AWOL Anti-War Protesters
Gary Leupp
CNN: “Russia is an Adversary, Ukraine is Not.”
Ryan Shah
Beware the Radical Center
John Carroll Md
Cold Hands Don’t Need Narcotics
Derrick Jensen
Endangered Species Don’t Need an Ark – They Need a Living Planet!
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Canadian Conjucture
Arturo Lopez-Levy
Trump’s Cuba Restrictions: a Detour, Not the Future
Russell Mokhiber
State Street Bentley University Business Ethics and Corporate Crime
Laura Finley
Being Too Much
Robert J. Gould
What is Our Experience of our Flawed Democracy?
Taju Tijani
The Burden of Indivisible Nigeria
Guillaume Pitron
China Now Leads in Renewables
Ted Rall
How I Learned Courts are Off-Limits to the 99 Percent
Binoy Kampmark
Militarising Civilian Life: Australia, Policing and Terrorism
July 17, 2017
Gregory Wilpert
Time for the “International Left” to Take a Stand on Venezuela
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Embrace of the Saudi Crown Prince, and a Qatar Nightmare Scenario
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Liu Xiaobo: the West’s Model Chinese
Terry Simons
Why I Did Not Go to Vietnam
Jim Green
Nuclear Power’s Annus Horribilus
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail