Jay-Z, Dr. Martin Luther King's Dream Has Not Yet Been Realized

by Michelle Y. Talbert

Today, as we reflect upon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and ultimate sacrifice in his quest for equal rights and freedom for all, I am reminded of a video snippet from an episode of “Oprah’s Master Class,” that was recently heavily circulated. In the clip, Jay-Z lays out why he believes hip hop has done more for “race relations” than any other cultural movement. He also states that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” was realized when Obama was elected President.

While hip-hop has definitely had an undeniable impact on making Black culture mainstream, that doesn’t mean it’s improved and/or ended “racism,” as racism is complex and insidious and operates on multiple levels. Jay-Z’s observations, although understandable given his worldview as arguably the most well-paid and widely consumed rap artist on the planet, are difficult for many of us to palate given that as 2014 drew to a close our country had seen movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe emerge in response to the killings of unarmed African American men.

When Jay-Z and I were coming up in Brooklyn and Queens respectively (we’re the same age) hip-hop was birthed, not solely as a music genre, but as a culture comprised of graffiti, rap, breakdancing and dj’ing. In the words of the Teacher KRS-ONE, “Hip Hop itself is not a person, a place or a physical thing; it is an awareness. You cannot actually go to Hip Hop, or wear Hip Hop, or eat Hip Hop. Hip Hop exists as a shared idea; it never enters physical reality, it is a way to be.” Hip hop is powerful and has brought people together, but to say that it has done more for race relations, “than any other cultural icon save Dr. King,” is to disrespect the ultimate sacrifices made my Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and so many others, not to mention living civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.

America’s race problem has NOT been and WILL NOT be ameliorated by 16 bars and a dope beat. What hip hop has done is given mainstream America unparalleled access; a perch on the windowsills of urban environs across the country from which hip hop artists share their “hood tales”—or what hip hop artist Bishop The Eastside Nappyhead says is, “Like National Geographic to some white people who have never been in the ‘hood before.” Jay-Z’s take on hip-hop’s impact on race relations, by his own admission, “a strong one” is overbroad and also incomplete.

In the video snippet he gives the anecdote that a white parent can’t successfully teach his child to hate Black people when the child looks up to Snoop Dogg. MC Enigma, who along with Bishop Nappyhead comprises the NJ-based bilingual hip-hop group Negros Americanos, disagrees stating white people can and have for decades consumed our music and art with an air of, “‘I like what you create but I don’t like you, I don’t like your people. I tolerate you.’” Much like the pivotal N-word scene between John Turturo’s and Spike Lee’s characters in Do The Right Thing, when Turturo’s character states his favorite basketball player, actor, and singer are Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince respectively, who to him are ‘different.’ Therefore he has no problem liberally using the N-word toward and to describe African Americans.

MC Enigma goes further to say that Jay-Z’s assertions are deficient because “music alone can reach people and it can galvanize people and bring people together and definitely start things…but we need activists and the community to bring about real, lasting change.” Another argument put forth by Jay-Z is that hip-hop has brought Black and white people together through their consumption of hip-hop together in clubs and at concerts. While I agree that when you interact with people personally and share common interests, such as a love of hip-hop, you can create bonds that will ease racial tensions and in some cases keep them from sprouting at all, again Jay-Z goes to far. We need only look at how the ‘love’ of hip-hop has given rise to a number of white artists who are completely disconnected from the roots, struggles, and basis of hip-hop as an art and as a movement.

To this point, other rappers have also weighed in recently. Most notably Azalea Banks and Q-Tip, who have been very public in response to the ignorance of hip-hop’s history by white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. In a series of 40 140-character-restricted tweets, Q-Tip gave Iggy and many others an eloquent history lesson in hip-hop:

And, we need not even look back 40 years. Just recently in Tucson, Arizona a high ranking school official argued for the removal of hip-hop in certain school curricula arguing it “promotes ethnic solidarity,” when in fact those “culturally relevant courses” were ordered by a federal court as part of an agreement to resolve a decades-long desegregation lawsuit against the school system. (It’s 2015!)

Sorry, Jay, but you're wrong. While hip-hop has certainly had a massive cultural impact, we still have a long way to go before race relations are improved enough to make claims that Dr. King's "dream" has been realized.

Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Michelle Y. Talbert is a recovering corporate attorney turned relationship strategist and social media content producer. She’s NYC born and bred, but you can find her living and loving in Washington, DC. She founded Her Power Hustle for women entrepreneurs. Connect with Michelle on Twitter @MichelleTalbert and on LinkedIn.

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