By: Gus Navarro
The first song on Jay-Z’s 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt is called “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” If you look at the rapper’s career, it is hard to do so. Born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 1969, Jay-Z comes from humble beginnings and attended the same high school as Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes. He first got involved in hip-hop by appearing with Big Daddy Kane at concerts in a “hype-man” role. He also appeared on multiple posse cuts with New York rappers, most notably with Big L in the song, “Da Graveyard.” Fast forward twenty years and Jay-Z is winning Grammy’s, getting himself involved with the “NBA 2K” video game franchise, is the co-creator of Rocawear and the face of the Brooklyn Nets, is married to Beyonce and is a father. This past week, Jay-Z started his own sports agency called “Roc Nation Sports,” an extension of his entertainment company, “Roc Nation.” Yankee second basemen Robinson Cano, it was reported, has left his current agent Scott Boras, and has signed with Roc Nation Sports. This is a huge development for Jay-Z, Robinson Cano and the city of New York. In a certain sense, Jay-Z has probably secured Robinson Cano a spot on the Yankees for the rest of his career. This is ultimately a good thing for the Yankee franchise as far as having a face for the club after current greats Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter retire. Nevertheless, how much of an impact will this have on the people of New York?
Sports franchises, not just the Yankees, are important for a city. They generate revenue, create jobs and are instrumental in developing a city’s identity. But is Jay-Z really giving back to the city of New York? I mean, is he really investing in the community and figuring out their needs through dialogue and collaboration with community members? Is he helping to fund creative outlets for students such as after-school programs and writing centers? Or what about opening grocery stores, with fresh fruits and vegetables? It seems that Jay-Z is more concentrated on making his money and doing his thing, and this situation is a classic example of American capitalism. This is not a crime; it’s a “free” country and Jay-Z is totally allowed to do so. But while he does this, people in his community struggle to make ends meet, are marginalized and are involved with drugs and gangs.
It should be noted that Jay-Z has given large amounts of money to various charities throughout the years. For example, similar to many other celebrities he pledged one million dollars to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After the 2005 storm, the city was in need of funds to assist in the rebuilding process. Hopefully, the money was put to good use, but New Orleans is just starting to make a comeback, eight years later. Ultimately, one million dollars is pocket change for Jay-Z. Cities such as New Orleans and New York need more than donations and volunteers. Instead, what is needed across the country is engagement and willingness to problem solve as a community. Fortunately, there are celebrities that practice this form of engagement.
Wendell Pierce–the New Orleans actor from David Simon’s The Wire and Treme–and a group of investors recently started and opened a grocery store franchise in New Orleans. The franchises, called “Sterling Farms,” services areas that desperately need fruits, vegetables and affordable alternatives to fast food. When there is a community without a food source, it is called a food desert. Food deserts are a serious issue and exist in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Atlanta (to name a few). These grocery stores are something that the community of New Orleans needed. Wendell Pierce has been there to fill the gap and provide a needed improvement to the community.
It’s not that anyone needs “help,” or charity. Instead, we need influential figures to invest in community. There is a lot of history and evidence that tell us corporations are not going to do so. This is where we have to come together with influential community members such as MC’s, artists, actors and educators to find a way to actually improve our communities. Wendell Pierce is doing this, and is attempting to provide a solution to a particular problem. I do not mean to suggest that Jay-Z or any other celebrity is responsible for single-handedly solving the world’s problems. However, considering the net-worth of the famous, it is not unreasonable to ask more of the entertainers, athletes and actors that we hold in such high regard. There are countless social, economic and political disparities that exist in our communities despite the social advances we’ve made in the past 40 years. There are, in spite of this, answers to community problems. There has to be dialogue and a willingness to solve these issues collectively. One person with money, power and privilege won’t be able to accomplish the social change we seek. There will however, be progress, by blending community, celebrity influence and collective action. As Jay-Z continues to profit from his involvement with sports franchises, video games and fashion it is imperative to ask, how will this ultimately impact the place he calls home?