In researching Mr. Carter, it’s like an endless pit of complexity. What’s a fan to write about? His street credibility and upbringing, his strong family and friend ties, his business acumen, his above average intelligence, his efforts in moving Rap and Hip Hop culture to reach the highest stage, his ability to create songs in a matter of minutes, his ability to cement himself as the GOAT and establish a leading record label? What I’m trying to say is that in searching for ‘Themes’ to expand on, they appear to be endless and this depth is very rare to find.
This particular piece will cover a foundation element of Mr. Carter’s ‘personoe’: an activist leader for his delegation and a revolutionary. After reading Decoded, I’ve formed my own views of the Mr. Carter as a revolutionary and social activist and the argument is laid out below. My aim is to simply present the theme as a whole and supporting information and make my own observations for what I perceive to be the truth.
Throughout Mr. Carter’s life, he has taken an active part in remembering the political movements and revolutionaries before him
“I’m representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat/where Malcolm C was shot/where Martin Luther was popped…” - ‘Ruler’s Back’ from The Blueprint. Here Mr. Carter advanced the stage to the highest level – the black civil rights movement.
Mr. Carter is well versed of the history and interests prior to him: In ‘Decoded’, he writes:
“It was king of a natural move, really. The 1970s were a time when black art in general was being used as a tool for social change, whether it was in poetry of people like the Last Poets or in the R&B of Marvin Gaye or Donny Hathaway or in movies like Shaft. And politics had a real cultural angle, too. The Black Panthers weren’t just about revolution and Marxism, they were about changing style and language. Jesse Jackson recited poems like ‘I am Somebody’ to school children of my generation. Art and politics and culture were all mixed up together. So it was almost obligatory that any popular art include some kind of political message. Some early rap was explicitly political, like Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation Movement. But other rappers played it safe and nonspecific. They’d throw in a line about peace, or supporting your brotherman, or staying in school, or whatever. It took a while before rappers as a whole really sharpened their commentary, but, again, it was hard not to – there was so much to comment about if your eyes were open to what was going on around you.”
Mr. Carter not only acknowledges the contribution of other rappers but also places these Artists on equal footing in advocating for political causes – a prime example of one of HOVA’S primary traits – to put the spotlight on others. These artists, namely Run-DMC, Melle Mel, KRS-One, Brand Nubian, Ice Cube, Poor Righteous Teachers, Queen Latifah, Salt ‘N’ Peppa, Ed O.G. & DA Bulldogs in identifying such issues as crooked crops, drug dealers and addicts, shady churches, misogyny, safe sex, and being a good parent to your kids.
“These songs changed things in the hood. They were political commentary, but they weren’t based on theory or books. They were based on reality, on close observation of the world we grew up in.”
However, there has always been a duality, a balance if you will, between Mr. Carter’s own experiences growing up in Marcy projects and spending countless hours hustling on the streets on the one side, and the suffering of His people on the other. It now becomes a play of the full identity of a hustler with political and revolutionary glimpses, rather than solely the latter.
In ‘Public Service Announcement’, JAY-HOVA clearly sets out his identity and comes across as a man with intimate knowledge of self. He is not individually responsible for the revolution or advocating for rights, but rather, he is a complexity and man of many layers and depths. In PSA, Mr. Carter emphasizes that the game is about money and living one’s own current realization of truth. In this stage of Jay Z’s career, his realization was to earn wealth and speak his truth. His realization was to progress Hip Hop and earn a healthy living while doing so. An adaptation of Malcolm X’s slogan, ‘By any means necessary’ clearly sets out his prerogative.
“I’m like Che Guevera with bling on, I’m complex/I never claimed to have wings on my n***a I get my/ by any means on whenever there’s a drought/get your umbrellas out because/that’s when I brainstorm/ you can blame Shawn, but I ain’t invent the game/I just rolled the dice, trying to get some change/And I do it twice, ain’t no sense in me/lying as if I am a different man/And I could blame my environment/but there ain’t no reason/” - ‘Public Service Announcement’ from The Black Album.
In response to Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s essay stating that Jay Z is more a hustler than a revolutionary, Shawn Carter replied: ‘No doubt, it’s a simple truth, but complex, too. Identity isn’t a prison you can never escape, but the way to redeem your past is not to run from it, but to try to understand it, and use it as a foundation to grow.’
And it’s this very foundation which I am attempting to understand and learn from. The layers of Mr. Carter’s identity, growth and ultimate evolution of Mr. Carter and how he has handled the competing pressures of the external world around him.
However, despite the said complexity, the where the social issues are pressing, Mr. Carter has no hesitation in spitting raw truth.
‘Decoded:’ “Artists of all kinds have platforms and, if they’re any good, have a clearer vision of what’s going on in the world around them. In my career I’ve never set out to make songs that function as public service announcements (not even the song ‘Public Service Announcement’ with a few exceptions, one of which is the song ‘Meet the Parents’. But in honoring the lesson of my father – to pay attention – and the lesson of hip hop – which is to tell the truth – I’ve been able create my own kind of social commentary. Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people, distracted by the blur of life, might miss. Just sharing the truth can be a powerful thing.”
One such pressing issue is the social commentary behind parents being there for their children. ‘Meet the Parents’ from the Blueprint 2 is a hauntingly written story providing intimate details of a young boy growing up fatherless and eventually, while on the street hustling, encountering the same father who had abandoned him on the streets. The boy’s mother had dipped into drug addiction. Upon encountering his father on the street, the boy freezes and that moment of hesitation costs the boy his life: “The old man didn’t think he just followed his instinct/six shots into his kin, out the gun/ n****s be a father, you’re killing your son”. A public service announcement from the depths of the Poet meant to shake the roots of parents with clear instructions to care of their children.
From my research, I feel Poverty and the realization of wealth relative to others is truly a block within the said foundation. In ‘Decoded’, Mr. Carter speaks about the very minute he realized that his family didn’t have as much. and the feeling that came along with “One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty…it’s embarrassing…the burden of poverty…feeling of being embarrassed…you’d do anything to life that burden…the sad shit is that you never really shake it all the way off, no matter how much money you get.”
Perhaps a good place to continue is to state what Jay Z is not and one thing that he is not, is afraid. Shawn Carter has openly criticized politicians and governments and brings the raw truth to the forefront.
Excerpt from ‘Decoded’: “Back in the eighties and early nineties in this country were literally battlegrounds. Kids were as well armed as paramilitary outfit in a small country…the deeper causes of the crack explosion were in policies concocted by a government that was hostile to us, almost genocidally hostile when you think about how they aided or tolerated the unleashing of guns on poor communities, while at the same time cutting back on schools, housing and assistance programs. And to top it all off, they threw in the so called war on drugs, which was really a war on us. There were racist new laws put on the books, like the drug laws that penalized the possession of crack cocaine with more severe sentences than the possession of powder. Three strike laws could put young guys in jail for 25 years for nonviolent crimes. The disease of addiction was treated as a crime. The rate of incarceration went through the roof. Police abuses and corruption were rampant. Across the Country, cops were involved in the drug trade, playing both sides. Young black men in New York in the eighties and nineties were gunned down by the cops for the lightest suspected offences, or died in custody under suspicious circumstances.”
I mean, let’s understand these words. Mr. Carter compares the crack explosion policy of the Government to near genocide of its own people. The reality of the situation is stated with clear, cutting truth: “And Government, fuck Government, n****s politic themselves” – ‘Where I’m from’ in the Album ‘In My Life Volume 2’. Mr. Carter felt that the government was irrelevant because the neighborhoods “organized, resolved conflict and took care of ourselves.“
Another social injustice Mr. Carter has often spoken about is police targeting and brutalizing blacks. In ‘Decoded’, he recalls his own experience after a show where the Police stopped his car with unjust intent.
“When I lifted the partition I saw half a dozen squad cars surrounding us. My bodyguard was already out of the car and a detective was showcasing his gun up in the air like he had found something. But my bodyguard claimed the gun and showed them his license. I was in the backseat laughing because they were so overdoing it, but the next thing I knew someone was opening my door and putting their hands on me, trying to drag me out of the car and make turn around. I tried to talk to them, ‘You know this is not necessary; he has a license, he claimed the weapon. What’s the problem? The cop looked back at me with that shut up, n***a screwface, but I could tell he was confused. ‘I got Jay Z’, he said into the phone, with a sense of accomplishment.”
Crooked Officer, Why You Wanna See Me in a Coffin, Sir?
However, in the spirit of Truth, there is not misguided cynicism or bitterness towards the Government. In fact, there is this unwavering recognition of the Truth, be it good or bad and the fortitude to express the Truth, even the accusation of genocide, against the Government.
In MCHG ‘Nickles and Dimes’, Shawn Carter noted eloquently: “I walk the line between beauty and beast”. When living in the realm of Truth, there are always two sides to the coin – the contrary argument – and I feel Mr. Carter’s connection with the Truth is deeply rooted in understanding that although inner city kids come from a severe disadvantage, in todays’ times, the opportunities are still present and nonetheless there. It’s on us to rise up, work hard, attend schools and secure employment to increase the quality of life and build and wealth , status and opportunities for future generations.
In 2008, Mr. Carter strongly supported President Barack Obama’s campaign despite clearly being “sick with what happened with the Country since 9/11′ (listen to ‘Blue Magic’ from Kingdom Come album), the wars and torture, the response to Hurricane Katrina (listen to ‘Minority Report’ from Kingdom Come album), the arrogance and dishonesty of the Bush administration“. The position was formed from intelligence having thorough discussions about policy and a fundamental belief in President Obama’s ability to solve problems. and influence a generation of youngsters. HOVA also recognized that seeing a black president would “change the lives of millions of black kids who now saw something different to aspire to”.
Mr. Carter performed free shows throughout the country to encourage young people to register and vote. He further took a back seat and admitted that his interests were merely in seeing President Obama win the election and was content in directing the attention of the campaign to the President.
From ‘My President is Black (Remix)’: ‘My President is Black/My Mayback too/..Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk/Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run/Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly/…Hello Ms. America/Hey Pretty Lady/that red and blue flag/wave for me baby/never thought I’d say this shit baby I’m good/you can keep your puss I don’t want no more bush/no more war/no more Iraq/no more white lies/the President is Black’.
Again we see the same duality we saw in PSA and HOV’s response to Elizabeth Mendez Berry’ with the likening of a black Maybach indicating wealth with the new black President indicating major socio-political advancement for minority groups.
Political activism can come in even subtler forms and an example of this is Mr. Carter laying out a verse in Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys)’. This came out in 2003, early in the Iraq invasion and the track itself had a distinctly Arabic sound to it which potentially could have. Mr. Carter laid out a marked criticism against the War and also laid siege on other political fronts: “We rebellious we back home/screaming leave Iraq alone…/Before bin Laden got Manhattan to blow/Before Ronald Reagan got Manhattan to blow”.
In my opinion, this is truly pure love for One’s Country – a love that transcends interests and political motives. A love that peers beyond the veil of one’s own interests. Mr. Carter was clear to criticize with stark truth in clear language when he felt the Government was wrong, and adversely, was willing to put a lot of time and energy into a cause that he felt would help his Country.
Continuing with the theme of Truth, we see a similar depth in ‘Open Letter’ where the backdrop of the track is set to US Senator’s criticism of Mr. and Mrs. Carter from entering Cuba: ‘Politicians never did shit for me/except lie to me and distort history/fine, let me commit a real crime/I might buy a kilo for Chief Keef/Out of spite, I just might flood these streets/Hear the freedom in my speech”. HOV will visit a country and people that he loves – Mr. Carter has recently visited Cuba again for philanthropic and charitable purposes.
The same deep resonating truth reasoned during the Hurricane Katrina crisis: in ‘Minority Report’ from the album ‘Kingdom Come’: ‘The same idiots that can’t get water into a major American city in less than three days are trying to win a war..’
HOVA puts some real perspective on the situation in ‘Decoded’: ‘I’m sure there were a few idiots stealing plasma TVs, but even that has context – anger, trauma. It wasn’t like they were stealing TVs so the could go home and watch the game. I mean, were they going to plug them shits on?’
Perhaps the realest form of empathy is numbness in feeling the pain of those suffering so deep that there’s nothing truly you can do other than pray and donate: “..described as ‘refugees’ in their own country, waiting in vain for the government to step in and rescue those people who were dying right in front of our eyes, and we took it personally. I got angry. But more than that, I just felt hurt. In moments like that, it all starts coming back to you: slavery, images of black people in suits and dresses getting beaten on the bridge to Selma, the whole ugly story you sometimes want to think is over. And then it’s back, like it never left.”
An even deeper numbness set in after Mr. Carter’s visit to Africa. After seeing life in the Angolan slums, Mr. Carter put his own upbringing in context: “We’re not in the hood. By any means. Not even close.” Whole families would live in a small room and children would be forced to ferry buckets of water for miles on end and play ball next to an open sewage system. In ‘Decoded’, Mr. Carter notes the experience and especially the fact that the money which was donated was actually used for the correct purpose: to bring water to the village residents. Mr. Carter has acknowledged frustration over charitable money that does not reach its true end; in ‘Nickles and Dime’s in MCHG, the visual was clearly laid out: “Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt/I gave some money to this guy, he got high as hell/Now I’m part of the problem as far as I could tell/Did I do it for or do it for myself?”
My Flow is a Gift, Philanthropist
-Mr. Carter on his arrival to Africa
In Mr. Carter’s latest work ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail‘, I feel that Mr. Carter’s voice is resonating with a power I’ve never heard before. It’s difficult to describe but Mr. Carter’s voice sounds…deeper, vibrating at a higher level….
“New Black with New Stacks” - ‘Somewhere in America’ from MCHG.
Slave ship imagery in ‘Oceans’ from MCHG
“Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/ I don’t even like Washingtons in my pocket” - ‘Oceans’ from MCHG
“Knowledge, wisdom, freedom, understanding we just one eyed equality/Food, clothing, shelter, help a n***a find some peace” - ‘Heaven’ from MCHG
“America tried to emasculate the greats/Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes, Wait, tell them rumble young man rumble/Try to dim your lights, tell you be humble” - ‘FUTW’ from MCHG
There’s probably a reason I started at the theme of ‘political activist and revolutionary’ rather than many other titles that can be attributed to Mr. Carter. It’s an internal feeling that’s been rising for quite some time. To truly understand the layers of greatness, one must achieve a certain level of success and greatness himself and perhaps this why I admittedly struggle with understanding the said complexities at a deeper level.
What I see is a legend living the American dream all while deeply voicing his truth on social issues. What I also see is a man who’s accumulated power and influence through hard work and such influence is not abused arbitrarily but, on the contrary, spoken from a space of silence, thoughtfulness and truth with no fear.
What I admire is Mr. Carter’s pragmatic approach. Growing up in Marcy projects, a core lesson was that it’s all about money. The level of one’s impact, power and ability to enact change is directly linked to wealth and stature. In Truth, I’d use the word ‘real’. HOVA is a collection of his experiences and upbringing with competing priorities and a sense to do what’s real, true and ultimately right for himself, the people he loves and the people he represents.
I feel it’s the legend and stories of the greats that inspire young inner city kids to become lawyers, doctors, architects and so on. Such accomplishments will no longer be a one off success story but a societal norm thanks to examples and leadership provided by the greats. Future social injustices against Mr. Carter’s people will be open criticized with a deep reasoning voice of truth. I look forward to seeing the continued journey of a highly evolved man that is Shawn Carter and soul and especially learning from his footsteps.
So I Got Rich and Gave Back, To Me That’s The Win-Win