The contributions of the successful vs. the effects of their life’s work. (A Jay-z case study)

Recently I have been thinking about one of the lines Jay-z put in one of his songs. In tandem, I have also been wondering about us as people and how the things we do in our professional and personal lives affect what we do in society.  Jay-z said “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them, so I got rich and gave back…to me that’s the win-win”

I have been wondering if this is true.

As a case study, Jay-z basically has earned most of his money making what he calls aspirational music. Basically it is music that exploits the capitalist themes of materialism and sexism. His hit songs have been songs like Big Pimpin‘ and Money Ain’t a Thing. Both songs  basically tell you how many material possessions Jay-z has, how many women he’s been with,and how much fun he’s having being a rich person. It’s called aspirational music because the music he makes puts people in his position and for about four minutes it allows people to feel like they are rich or “aspire” to that lifestyle.

Essentially it is music that allows most of us to indulge our escapist fantasies. At its best it can really inspire people such as his recent hit Empire State of Mind does. However, at its worst his music is  a soundtrack to gangsterism, exploitation of money, and a drug dealing hustler mentality which degrades as opposed to uplifts people. In any case, Jay-z has made quite a living off of his music and has received both accolades and criticisms for his approach to entertainment. He has been so successful that many young people have emulated not only the lifestyle he now enjoys, but they also emulate the lifestyle of a drug dealer he possessed before he became a successful rapper.

For his part Jay-z will argue that he has nothing to do with youth getting involved in drugs or drug dealing, since both were around long before there was a Jay-z. I argue that there is no doubt that the imagery associated with music has social effects and if Jay-z can name drop Bentley, Moet, Rocawear, and Gucci, in his songs and increase consumption of them why is it unfair to contemplate that maybe (just maybe) there has been an increase in drug activity due to the fact that these images are also included in his music and are part and parcel of the lifestyle he has been pushing? After all Jay-z himself claims he is the hip hop’s biggest trendsetter, is it not possible that maybe he helped set a couple of negative trends as well? (Quite frankly I don’t see any positivity in people who don’t really have money to blow spending hundreds of dollars on things they really can’t afford in order to perpetrate some image either, but I digress.)

My point here is that these are the negative criticisms of Jay-z, that his music promotes materialsim, criminal behavior and is degrading to people (particularly urban youth some of whom idolize Jay-z and his lifestyle for better or for worse.) Many critics may even say that these negative effects represent the larger achievement of his music. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but let’s just assume that it is true.

It is also true that with the money he has gotten from his music, Jay-z has done many positive things, namely he executive produced Lupe Fiasco’s first album (Lupe Fiasco is considered by Hip Hop purists to be a “real” rapper and most of his music is considered a positive alternative to gangster rap) His roc nation management team manages the career of a musical talent like Melanie Fiona who is a widely respected singer. He was one of the first people to donate money to the World Trade Center and Katrina funds. He has been seen in meetings with Kofi Annan discussing and raising awareness about the water crisis that is facing the world, and along with Will Smith he executive produced ie put up the money for the Broadway screening of Fela which is about the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti which raises awareness about the life of a prominent African. Professionally, he has directly or indirectly assisted the careers of several musicians, aside from the ones already mentioned we can add Rhianna, Kanye West (who then opened his own label and signed acts such as Consequence, John Legend, and Common) and the The Roots. In addition, add to this the obligatory charity which most rich people either fund directly or by proxy.

Therefore, we can see that in both his professional and personal career Jay-z has had a very positive effect on the lives of countless people at the same time his music has had what could be considered a negative effect on society, by perpetuating the worst characteristcs of our capitalist system.

Does his personal positivism and charity outweigh his public negativity?

This is the root question we must consider for Jay-z, but more importantly for ourselves. After all many of us are employed by large organizations which contribute to global warming, increase income inequality in this nation and others, pollute the earth, create products that have deleterious social effects, and lay off employees according to profit driven calculations. These are all widespread negative effects which many of us disapprove (and some of us work hard in our time away from these corporations to protest.) We use the money we gain from these jobs to support our families, pay for our children’s educations, support spiritual and civic organizations, and spread charity to friends and those we may not know. As a society we are all responsible for the ills of the social system we choose to live in and this social system supports all the things we do which we deem to be good. Does our good outweigh our bad? Should we seek to be more aware and deal more directly with the negative consequences of our actions? Or should we just continue to listen to songs made by artists like Jay-z as we aspire to escape from our circumstances?

“I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them so I got rich and gave back to me that’s the win-win.”

Is it really a win-win if the way you got rich is by exploiting the poor you want to get rich to help? I think it’s something we all have to think about at some point.