Should Jay-Z Run for Political Office?
Should Jay-Z consider running for political office one day?
Words: Keith Murphy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Just four days before the Nov. 8, 2016 presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was onstage at Cleveland State University rallying supporters at a Get Out The Vote concert. The high-profile Friday event, designed to energize Ohio’s much-coveted battleground state’s young Black voters, featured heavyweight performers like Chance The Rapper, Big Sean, J. Cole, Katy Perry and John Legend. But none shined brighter than arguably the most influential power couple of this pop culture zeitgeist: Shawn Corey Carter and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
It should be noted that Queen Bey’s buzz-heavy appearance in support of the first serious female candidate for the highest office—complete with backup dancers wearing pantsuits, no doubt a nod to Mrs. Clinton’s signature fashion style—was the perfect, um, trump card given that the seemingly unstoppable global force-of-nature is a proud, self-described feminist. But the appearance of her equally conspicuous husband, known to millions as celebrated hip-hop icon Jay-Z, was much more of a surprise.
While it’s true that Jay had already dipped his toe in the political waters when he heavily campaigned for Barack Obama back in 2012 (the Carters also hosted a fundraiser for the future leader at Jay’s 40/40 Club in Manhattan), that move was largely viewed as an emphatic public cosign for a historical figure who would go on to become the first African-American president. But for Jay, this was different.
“This other guy, I don’t have any ill will towards him,” the wildly successful music and business titan Jay-Z told concertgoers at the aforementioned Clinton rally. The Brooklyn native owns all the masters to his classic catalog—including Reasonable Doubt (1996), Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998), The Blueprint (2001), The Black Album (2003) and 4:44 (2017)—has sold more than 40 million records and has a net worth of $1 billion, according to a June report by Forbes. “But his conversation is divisive and that’s not an evolved soul to me,” Hov added. “So, he cannot be my president; he cannot be our president. Once you divide us, you weaken us. We’re stronger together.”
Since then, Mr. Carter’s increased visibility in the world of politics has folks actually talking about a run for office for the 49-year-old rap legend. And while it’s hard to hammer down exactly when the unlikely drumbeat of “Jay-Z for President” started to be discussed in serious terms, you could point to Hov’s reference that evening to the aforementioned “other guy,” polarizing Republican billionaire Donald Trump, who went on to beat Hillary Clinton and become president in arguably the biggest political upset in history. It was a shocking perfect storm fueled by at times violent, chest-beating rallies, misogyny, racism, fake social media bots, speculated shady Russian-Trump campaign ties and outside election interference plus alleged payoffs that are still the subject of a flurry of legal and congressional investigations at this very moment.
But while Trump struck a more conciliatory tone when he reacted to Beyoncé’s strong endorsement of Clinton, he saved his fire for a figure he presumed to be an easier target. “I actually like Jay-Z, but you know, the language last night,” Trump complained about the rapper’s lyrics to a Tampa audience in November of 2016, which he deemed as “filthy.” “He used every word in the book. I won’t even use the initials because I’ll get in trouble, they’ll get me in trouble.” And with that, Jay-Z got his first taste of the political clap back.
Indeed, should Shawn Carter ever run for office, he will discover that the political game is far more treacherous than the rap game. But first, you have to get around the seemingly wild idea that the same Brooklyn-born former drug dealer-turned-multiplatinum rapper-turned-music mogul-turned-celebrated hip-hop elder statesman—who once declared, “I know they gon’ criticize the hook on this song/Like I give a fuck, I’m just a crook on this song,” on his 1998 anthem “Money, Cash, Hoes”—could win a local, congressional or presidential race.
After Trump’s unthinkable triumph, the shocking election win had pundits and journalists publicly re-imagining other unlikely scenarios, including presidential runs by part-time MAGA stan Kanye West and media goddess Oprah Winfrey. If Donald Trump, an alleged grifting, porn star-chasing philanderer with children by three women, an assortment of bankruptcies and questionable business connections can become president, why not Jay-Z?
On Nov. 17, 2016, the Toronto Sun re-published a Radar Online rumor that the Roc Nation and Tidal founder had JFK-size ambitions. The click baity headline said: “Jay Z to Run for President in 2020?” “Jay-Z not only has star power, but he would have a ton of support from his fans, as well as from past administrations,” the post reads.
When Kendrick Lamar gave his acceptance speech for Best Rap Album Grammy in January 2018, the acclaimed lyricist humbly spoke of idolizing a trio of hip-hop giants that included the legendary MC from Marcy Houses, adding glowingly, “Jay for president.” Frequent Hov collaborator, friend and iconic R&B touring mate Mary J. Blige backed a Jay-Z run even before the 2016 election, telling Elle, “People listen to him and follow him. If he spoke, and it was something that could help people, it would have a huge impact. He’s a powerful man. He would be my first vote.”
There’s been no shortage of thinkpieces online mulling such fan fiction. The idea of Hov throwing his fitted Yankees cap into the political ring is fascinating. Marc Lamont Hill, a former CNN political commentator, author and current host of BET morning show Black Coffee, points to the ever-evolving superstar’s social activism as the catalyst for the growing interest in such a run. “It’s really been remarkable watching Jay grow as a critical voice, as an activist and as someone who’s really willing to wield the considerable power that he has now in ways that are in the interest of social justice,” Hill says.
Keep in mind, the staunch capitalist once admitted on 2003’s confessional “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense (But I did 5 mil)/I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” Jay-Z has since bailed out jailed police brutality protesters alongside his equally vocal wife Beyoncé, spoken out against the tragic, fatal police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and publicly called out the devastating role the failed War on Drugs has played in vastly increasing mass incarceration rates of Black and Latino men in prison in his support for Proposition 64, which called for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
“We want to be very clear, if someone commits a crime they should go to jail,” Jay-Z said earlier this year during a press conference with Roc Nation artist Meek Mill to announce a prison reform organization to fight unjust parole and probation violation sentences affecting people of color. “But these things are just disproportionate and the whole world knows it.”
“What’s been different and powerful is the way that he not only uses his voice to speak out against things that are wrong, but also uses his money and resources to make change happen,” Hill says. But it’s one thing to be Woke Hov, who blasted former NFL star O.J. Simpson for turning his back on Black people on the bruising 2017 statement “The Story of O.J.” Or Empowering Hov, who dropped a poignant freestyle tribute to slain West Coast MC Nipsey Hussle during his April 2019 B-Sides 2 concert in Manhattan, celebrating the Los Angeles rapper’s drive to invest in his beloved Crenshaw community. Yet the bigger question remains: Does Mr. Carter check all the presidential boxes?
Jay-Z certainly has the national name ID that dwarfs the ever-expanding roster of Democratic candidates, including current frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s over 35, the age of eligibility for any natural-born citizen of the United States willing to mount a challenge for the White House. Yet there’s still the matter of Jay’s 2001 first-degree attempted assault and second-degree assault charges that led to a felony record, stemming from his 1999 stabbing of record producer and executive Lance “Un” Rivera. Hov faced a possible 15 years behind bars but ended up with three years of probation. Surprisingly, there is nothing in the Constitution that says a president cannot be a felon. The Constitution also allows a convicted felon to be a member of Congress. But it does say that a person can be impeached upon conviction of a high crime, such as a felony.
A felony conviction didn't stop former New York congressman Michael Grimm from running for office last year. The Republican, who was first elected to the House in 2011, resigned in 2015, shortly after pleading guilty to a single count of felony tax fraud. After seven months behind bars, Grimm set out to reclaim his seat, yet he was handily defeated in the 2018 primary election by incumbent Dan Donovan. Four other convicted criminals—Joe Arpaio, Don Blankenship, David Alcorn and Rep. Greg Gianforte—ran for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. All but the latter lost.
Still, according to rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Jay’s legal past should be the least of his worries. Hip-hop artists like Killer Mike, 2 Chainz and Bun B have all played around with the idea of running for political office. This past June, Scarface announced he is running for Houston City Council. But Rhymefest, who won a Grammy for Best Rap Song for his co-songwriting credits on Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and an Oscar as co-writer on the Academy Award-winning number “Glory,” actually ran for a city council seat in his hometown of Chicago in 2011 (he lost to incumbent Willie Cochran). After that daunting experience, Rhymefest says Mr. Carter would be better off playing the role of political kingmaker.
“When I announced that I was running for office, people reacted like, ‘Man, you must have an album coming out,’” he tells. “That’s why when I hear people say that Jay-Z should run for office, that’s just for show. Jay is not supposed to be running for office. He’s supposed to be funding the run for office. We can’t start in politics from the top down. That shit is backwards as hell. We have to start from the community and from the families up. That’s the way you make real change.”
Even on the local level, a celebrity pursuing political office runs the risk of being labeled a publicity stunt. But if you are a rapper attempting to make a political jump, it can get even more arduous. “What you find is politics is really a grown person’s sport,” explains Rhymefest. “These people who I was running against were just looking for the raunchiest thing in my lyrics. They didn’t know the true context of my words. They were just like, ‘What’s that curse word he said? Look he said, ‘Shit!’ What you say as an artist can always come back to haunt you.”
Hill is equally cautious of Jay making a political run. “Do I think he has the brainpower and the talent to be president? Sure,” Hill says. “But I would much rather leave politics to the politicians and allow Jay to use his extraordinary gifts to leave the world better than he found it, which is what he is doing. I think the election of Trump shows that anybody can be president, but also shows that not everybody should be president. I mean being the president of Def Jam was limiting for Jay. Being the president of America would be even more so.”
Don’t tell that to Jineea Butler. The African-American Republican, who turned heads last year when she ran for a House seat in Harlem’s heavily blue 13th Congressional District despite eventually losing to Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan), views Jay-Z making potential political waves as a no-brainer.
“Where I’m stuck at is trying to teach our community that it’s not all about us being Democrats,” says Butler, a legit hip-hop head who got inspired to explore politics after serving as a social worker working with clients at HIV/AIDS Housing, Homeless Services and Rikers Island. “It’s about us leveraging our vote in order to get what we want. Somebody like Jay-Z, if he has a good team around him and puts together a strong economic agenda for the people, we can change America in one year. What do people think Jay was rhyming about on [Nas’] ‘Black Republican’?”
Butler is well aware that she faces a steep uphill climb courting Black and Brown voters to the party of Trump. Which is why she has taken matters into her own hands. Last year, Butler, with the help of Eric Barrier, one-half of the rap duo Eric B. & Rakim, founded the Hip Hop Union, a political party designed to energize the urban community with an agenda addressing economic disparity and prosperity-driven initiatives. She has even made attempts to recruit Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J to run for political office.
“Busta told me straight up he wanted to be the governor of New York,” Butler says. “But I got to a stalemate. And the stalemate was because they don’t understand the process. Their thinking was, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ There is a fear factor of, ‘Oh, she’s a Republican,’ which makes it harder [to bring in political talent from the hip-hop community]. But the interest was there.”
As Butler and the Hip Hop Union work on generating 50,000 votes necessary to land a guaranteed ballot spot the next four years, it’s important to note that three decades ago the thought of Jay-Z or any other rapper becoming involved in politics was unthinkable. Today, hip-hop dominates mainstream music and pop culture. But back in rap’s golden age, the rebellious art form, which birthed N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police,” saw itself as a check on the powers that be, often rebuking politicians.
The 1980’s rise of President Ronald Reagan’s so-called “family values” conservatism let loose the terrible crack cocaine epidemic and destructive, trickle-down theory economic policies on poor Black and Brown communities that still reverberate. On Public Enemy’s seminal 1987 single “Rebel Without a Pause,” group leader Chuck D made it known that Ronnie Baby needed to go when he roared, “Impeach the president, pulling out the ray gun/Zap the next one, I could be your Shogun.” Intelligent Hoodlum (a.k.a. rapper Tragedy Khadafi) took it to incendiary heights when he released the 1990 George H.W. Bush-inspired “Arrest The President.”
Ice Cube’s 1991 record “A Bird in The Hand” called out Bush and Jesse Jackson, lamenting the bleak economics of living in South Central, where Black men oftentimes see drug dealing as the only means for survival. And on Goodie Mob’s potent 1995 anthem “Dirty South,” Dungeon Family stalwart Cool Breeze flips William Jefferson Clinton into “Dirty Bill Clinton,” a drug kingpin who would “sick his goons on me” if he came up short. The rhyme was a direct nod to Clinton’s infamous 1994 crime bill, which included the three-strikes rule, significantly increasing incarceration rates for Blacks and people of color, even for minor offenses.
How did hip-hop go from criticizing Eazy-E for accepting an invite in 1991 to a White House lunch fundraiser held by George H.W. Bush to Jay-Z supporting Obama and Hillary? Rhymefest believes it’s natural evolution. “We’ve seen hip-hop grow as the artists become older, wiser,” he says. “As hip-hop grows older and these legends evolve, we are becoming the new ancestors. We have to move into realms of politics, economics and family. Anything that makes a civilized society run correctly.”
Even if the world never sees Shawn Carter in office, Jay-Z has hopes for the future beyond Trump. “He’s forcing people to have a conversation and band together and work together,” Jay told David Letterman in a 2018 interview for the talk show host’s Netflix special, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. “You can’t address something that’s not revealed. He’s bringing out an ugly side of America that we wanted to believe is gone… We still gotta deal with it. We have to have tough conversations—talk about the N-word, talk about why White men are so privileged in this country. I think we’ll see record-breaking numbers next election.”
All hail Hov.
Check out more from XXL’s Summer 2019 issue, including our XXL Freshman 2019 cover story interviews.
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