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The Politics of Wealth: Jay'z's Manifesto to Economic Justice in 444

The Politics of Wealth: Jay'z's Manifesto to Economic Justice in 444

Our class discussion this past week was on Jayz’s “444” album and the way in which Jay Z discusses and drops GEMs about financial freedom. 444 has a few themes in the album: Jay responds to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” by explaining and apologizing for his infidelity along with explaining his journey into manhood. In addition, Jay lays out a blueprint for Black people on how to accumulate wealth from some of the experiences he has learned as a Black rapper. Lastly, Jay encourages Black people to work as a community and highlights the importance of collective impact.

In this particular class we focused on the message behind 444 as it pertains to economic inequality, wealth and access. We focused on the following: Tone as a way of empowering, disempowering, or shaming, how language can be used as a form of liberation, and we decolonized wealth, equity, and the politics of economics as it is portrayed as throughout media within the United States.

In the song “The Story of O.J.” Jay discusses the importance of investments and the focus on purchasing expensive investment products such as expensive arts and apartments in Dumbo. We did an comparative analysis between the “Story of O.J.” and his 1998 song “Money aint a thing”. Although there was an evolution of Jay’s lyric there is still a focus on buying expensive products but a shift between buying expensive things that hold no value to ones that grow in value and ultimately result in equity.

All in all, this class session allowed us to unpack wealth and wealth inequality as it is portrayed in the media. We asked some challenging questions as it relates to access. Who has access to wealth? How does the intersection of race and class show up in Jay’s lyrics? How does the “haves” create barriers for the “have nots” to become dependent on a system that does not represent us?

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12 comments

Great post, Tiffany! I added the link to the video you showed us in class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM7lw0Ovzq0

Thank you so much for preparing great interactive activities for us! I learned so much from you and from the class. Do you have the link or background info on that amazing infographic you showed us? The one with a pyramid?

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This class brought about thinking about "How to be" Black in a different way than the week before. While 'Read a Book' took an aggressive tone, Jay-Z's lyrics provide a how to (so to speak) for acquiring wealth in a tone of "been there, shoulda done that" in a retrospective manner. While Jay offers examples of how to do it, The message may not apply to all. In thinking about the wealth divide in the Black Community, it led me to revisit episode one of Killer Mike's Trigger Warning on Netflix. In the episode he explains that before desegregation in America, if you were Black, you had a black Dentist, Black Doctor and bought food from a Black grocer, which created a strong top to bottom ecosystem, from a dollar perspective, that stayed Black. This, in his words, created a true Black working class, a true Black middle class and allowed folks to send their kids off to college. Where Jay-Z talks about it, Killer Mike offers a test to actually keep Black wealth in the ecosystem longer. He does this by spending three days using and consuming only products that come from the black community, a goal that leaves him hungry, sleeping on a park bench and other precarious situations. He shows just how difficult it is to keep Black dollars in Black communities. Around minute marker 2:30, Killer explains how long the dollar stays in multiple communities. The shortest amount of time is 6 hours for Black dollars compared to 20+ days in others.

In thinking of the mass inequlities of the wealth divide in the USA, it can feel overwhelming. However, I feel as though it all depends on one's definition of wealth. If we only look at the numbers, it seems devestating, but if we ask peolpe "How you livin'?" most might suprise you when they respond "LARGE!"

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I really appreciated the space to dig a bit deeper into the politics of Jay Z and his work. I think, like most artists, he is a work in progress in terms of his understanding of the ways race has and contineus to impact his life and the lives of those around him. Our conversation sort of continued a theme I have been hearing in our class discussions around how class hierarchies functions to create distance between people who may otherwise come together; in addition, the pattern of those who have "made it" taking a self-righteous approach in content and/or tone when speaking to those who have not. In thinking about the music video of the "Story of OJ" and then looking at the "Notes" youtube video- I did find his tone to be more approachable and to a degree, humble, when reflecting on his process of maturity and critical thought. I wonder how much the expectation of the "Money Aint a Thing" mentality by the larger [white dominated] music industry shaped some of his lyrics and tone in what he put out as a product. 

I think this is such a relevant conversation to the world of education in that educational "success" can also position people of color as comparatively superior or exceptional and significant damage is done to communities when people of color internalize this narrative in the service of the American myth of meritocracy. An ahistorical perspective seems to be one of the common factors in this dybamic. How are we integrating history/histories into our self-identities, what we teach- how does the media we interact with erase history? rewrite it? or allow us to unpack it accross temporal spaces?

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Though economic freedom and expansion of wealth was a prominent theme in this album, I think 4:44 generally reflects the "adult" version of J, speaking not only to a community and artform that hasn't really "grown up" with him, but also to how that lack of growth personally in some aspects caused much struggle for him.

4:44 starts with the song "Kill Jay Z," a song where I felt he was challenging himself to shed some of the old ideas and characteristics which made up the artist we all knew and appreciated for all these years.  Though many of the songs speak of how men seeking wealth should think and behave, the bigger message is how black men "growing up" should do so, in his opinion.  Wealth acquisition is the aspect he speaks of primarily, as that is where he has focused the most of his time doing the most notable growing.  In terms of family and personal relationships, he mentions those things too, but he continues to struggle in those realms, which is why he chose to speak on the struggles, and not any form of acheived success in those realms.  It can be helpful to others to see him struggling with things like commitment, pride, homophobia (referring to silence about his mother), etc., and appreciate that in him learning to move into deeper understanding and more mature perspective around these topics.  It makes the album take on a character of honesty and growth that make this work so important for black listeners, particularly black MALE listeners.

Overall, this album is an expression of his place in life, similar to his other works.  Jay's physical example is just as useful as his albums can be in illustrating the importance of black men aspiring for more for themselves and their loved ones.  As a contribution to hip hop though, I think this album is significant and important, as the voice of maturity gained is not really represented in this way at all in the music generally.  Honesty and insightfulness have always had a place in the history of rap music, but rarely do we see this type of growth happen in one single artist over an extended span of time.  The typical occurrence is the artist grows stale in their message, which never matures to reflect either new levels of achievement or new understanding (which in my opinion makes an artist more interesting over time).  I once was in a conversation with a friend who said that "you can always tell where a person stopped growing by how they dress."  I think in terms of music, Jay Z is the kind of figure who has made music representative of his mindset throughout his musical career.  His music has been there with most young black males for a very long time.  You can now tell where a person stopped growing by which album they think was his best.  The fact that his catalog is a put together of such a range of perspective is important, and I feel that the new Jay is just as important to the culture as the old.

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Using Jay Z as an entry point into talking about larger structural issues led to a very productive conversation about race, gender, class, and wealth. Particularly striking was attempting to place Jay Z on the spectrum of race offered by the “Hierarchy of Power, Privilege, and Oppression” chart. I believe that racial hierarchies cannot be understood without discussing the issues of labor and class. Historically, these issues have always been channeled into conflicts around race and sexuality, vise versa. Discussions of class are scarce. Race and class exist and function together in ways that almost undermine one another--there was brief conversation of Beyoncé's seemingly "white", vegan meal program where the issue of race took the forefront and class took a backseat. When the topic of discussion is about a person of color, race can often distract from a discussion of class. When the topic of discussion is about a white person, often times the only thing that is discussed is class and never race. Without having a meaningful discussion of both class and race at the same time, we are never going get a full understanding of how power, privilege, and oppression functions. This was truly an interesting class that left me with more questions than answers, which is always a good thing. 

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A few days after our class meeting, I saw this poster on the LIRR. One of the things that it made me think about is how much the idea of wealth is connected to ideas about family, and particularly, the idea of a legacy. To what extent does Jay Z's talk about "investing" have just as much to do with the idea of him investing in his daughter's future? We might read that literally, in terms of creating a trust fund for her, and also figuratively, like his more progressive gender politics (which many men tend to associate with the birth of their daughters). 

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My aunt still lives in the Marcy projects, where Jay Z lived before his celebrity status existed and when we were discussing "Money Aint a Thing" I kept thinking how this song reflected J's material ambitions before he got to his current status. An immature J is perceived whereas in "Story of OJ" it's almost like he's criticizing his old self. It is interesting to see J's transformation of ideas and how he portrays them for most audiences but specially for the African American. Making it to the music industry is hard enough. If he wants to teach the African American population on how to amass wealth, he better give more specific advice because the ones that he gives on "Story of OJ" are definitely not enough for this systemic inequality. 

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Hearing the different perspectives in class gave me a bigger understanding of Jay-Z. I’m not a particular fan of his, but I appreciate his lyrics and flow. I also believe you can’t talk about rap today if you don’t mention Jay. With that being said, listening to 4:44 was almost as if this was his “I made it” album. What struck me a bit was how much wiser and mature he sounded in this album. It was like every song was a story within this grander narrative that he was providing. I did agree with a majority of the class’s sentiments about “The Story of OJ,” sounding similar to “Read a Book,” which Z presented to us the week prior. However what was lacking was the parody aspect that “Read a Book” exudes. Talking about financial investments is not typical in popular rap songs, and it sounded genuine coming from Hov.

I also enjoyed our discussion of wealth, and how you could be wealthy is relationships, aside from earned capital. While a majority of our discussion focused on capital wealth, I too was left wondering about how wealth is distributed and to which racial and class structures people fall into, due to their access of wealth. I don’t think that the scale of wealth is distributed equally amongst all Americans, and what people don’t happen to talk about most often when discussing finances, are the intersections of race and class, and how accessible it is for people to gain financial literacy. I think that what Jay did in that one song helps folks understand that he made songs in the past where he was spending his wealth excessively, and if he knew how to invest it in a different way, he probably would have. “The Story of OJ” can be a start for people to reflect and think about how they want to spend their money, and which avenues they’d like to invest in. I think what’s hard for me to stop thinking about are surrounding factors like gentrification that makes property values go up, and thinking about racial and gendered pay gaps.

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Thank you for such a thought-provoking presentation, Tiffany! I loved the questions you raised about gentrification in connection to the lines about the multiplication of wealth through real estate in Jay-Z's "The Story of OJ." I am actually going to borrow some of your ideas for a lesson I'm teaching on The Great Gatsby that will include a discussion of the American Dream and wealth inequality. You gave me many ideas for how to incorporate hip hop into this lesson (an approach that I think is especially on point given the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's recent film adaptation of the book and its setting in the Jazz Age). Thank you again!

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What gets me turning when I think about Jay Z (as someone speaking who doesn't know much about his music but moreso sees him in relation to Beyonce and her success) is that no matter how I try to rationalize the ideas he puts forth in his music and his manner, I will never truly understand where it is coming from. Speaking on the idea of a trust fund for Blue Ivy, I sometimes jokingly wonder to myself if a person is even real if they have a trust fund. It's almost as if consequences don't exist, at least not in the same way that they do for people who don't have the security both financially and socially to get you out of any bind you may be in. And I think living with consequences is something that leads to very human things such as empathy and human connection. Figures such as Jay Z, living with much less of the consequences that you or I may live with, are hard to pinpoint artistically because this question always rises: can he actually understand or empathize with the people he is seemingly reaching out to with his words? Is it that easy to ask a person to buy a $2 million apartment, quickly before it becomes worth millions more?

Speaking also to Z's point about paying back to the Black community, I take issue with the idea that collecting art and buying real estate is a more "grown up" way to spend one's money, or that it is a signifier of higher taste or intellect. As I said in class, I quite disliked the lyric that pointed to spending money at establishments such as strip clubs was less valuable than investing in "high" art. Giving money directly to a person doing their job and working for their money isn't irresponsible, and can often fund the lives of people in marginalized communities. In some ways, that can be a greater investment in the future of a people than buying the artwork of a deceased painter, or buying in a low income neighborhood and contributing to larger scale gentrification. 

I agree with you Chandni--more questions than answers...

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Great post, Tiffany!!!!

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For better or worse, I am a big fan of the Carters. I understand their celebrity as complexly and uniquely both problematic and something to celebrate. This dualism has been a fascinating point of contention within my own psyche as I struggle to reconcile my disdain for neoliberal practices, my strive for “wokeness”, and my two-decade-long idolization of Jay and Bey. With that being said, I really struggle with Jay’s symbolic shift from “Money Ain’t A Thing” to “4:44”. Jay Z’s unflinching promotion neoliberal strategies rather than revolutionary tactics is, to me, extremely disheartening. As a fan, I was excited to listen to the album but as a Jewish woman who has experienced anti-Semitism and has known many Holocaust survivors, I was insulted by his suggestion that Jews have fully assimilated by purchasing of property that has increased in value. The lyrics present Jay Z as ill-informed as he erases the vast history of Jewish people as revolutionary social activists and fails to account for the tremendous barriers that his very own participation in gentrification and other neoliberal practices has presented for Black Americans. In the first track on 4:44, “Kill Jay Z”, Jay raps “You know you owe the truth to all the youth that felling love with Jay Z” which leaves me wondering what his young fanbase will do with the version of truth that he is offering.

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