Some Thoughts on Jay-Z and Those “Occupy All Streets” T-Shirts

28 Nov

Sometimes, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why we expect rappers to be invested in social justice. Rapping is a job.

This is not to say that they can’t be. I only ask why we expect them to be.

When Kanye showed up at OWS NYC, I thought this is interesting.

The US has an interesting history of Black celebrities using their voice to advance causes on the behalf of those who have less social power than they do.

Think Muhammed Ali.

Think Sidney Poitier y Harry Belafonte.

Think Lena Horne.

There are countless others.

There were also several other folks as well who are not necessarily Black. John Lennon and Yoko Ono come to mind.

The process by which a person becomes politicized, and by that I mean becomes willing to read, think and take action to change some janky shit (on an individual or a systemic level) varies from person to person.

It may come from participating in an event at your school and realizing that if you become organized you can change things.

It may come from registering folks to vote in your neighborhood and realizing that if you become organized you can change things.

It may come from working with a youth advocacy organization and learning that if you work together you can prevent the city from implementing a 17 and under 10pm weekday curfew and building a half a million dollar youth detainment center for those who were caught outside past curfew. That would be mine. We did this in ‘Frisco.

I do understand that given the history of rap music that there has always been a variety of voices, some progressive (PE, early mid career Ice Cube), some partying and misogyny (Too Short) some fun (LONS, Digital Underground) some darkness (Geto Boys). The point is that not only was their variety in content, but because it was largely marginalized music, remember MTV had to be convinced to play Rap videos, it existed on some pop stations and largely on college radio and mom and pop outlets.

My point is that I don’t romanticize rap music as some glorious do-right genre.

However, I do think that there is something particularly important about the fact that these t-shirts even exist (or existed).

When I saw the shirts, I thought of the contradiction.

With Jay-Z, here is a man, who embodies a rags to riches story, in possibly the most American sense possible. One of the richest Black men in this country. Low income kid from the hood who did good. We are similar in that way. Why is one of the richest Black men in the country making money off of a movement based on people taking action because many of them are not eating. The hood is not eating. Apparently neither are the suburbs.

For examples of people missing meals see:





In some ways those Occupy All Street T-Shirts reminds me of how capitalism, in its very DNA, will try and squeeze profit out of everything it comes into contact with, even if it is blood from a rock.

You know how Ross has Maybach Music? When I saw those t-shirts, I thought of Watch the Throne (Jay Z’s and Kanye’s new album) as 1% music. How could it not be?

All of these thoughts leave me with a few questions.

What do we stand to gain if we stop looking at rappers as “activists”?

Why do we even do that in the first place?

25 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Jay-Z and Those “Occupy All Streets” T-Shirts”

  1. Southside Supervillain November 28, 2011 at 11:30 AM #

    I really don’t have anything to add here. This is spot freaking on. I pretty much agree with everything you said. I was disappointed, but not shocked, when I heard about Jay-Z “Occupy All Streets” shirt fiasco. “Watch the Throne” is totally 1% music or, maybe it is for those who dream of being 1%. I still enjoy the album a lot, but it needs to be put in proper perspective. I remember some people felt “Watch the Throne” was some sort of new statement of Black Power or Black Militancy. I wonder if they still feel this way. Great Post!

    -Southside Supervillain

  2. jt November 28, 2011 at 12:17 PM #

    I think it’s because rap/hip hop intially started off very political and the old school rappers did tend to be social consciousness even when they represented fun (i.e. kid n play wasn’t “deep” per se…bt they did try to represent positivitey of youth culture). Even “hardcore” rappers NWA brought political thought with their songs such as f*ck the police. PE, KRS-1, Grand Master Flash etc etc. so, perhaps that’s why folks still expect “so much” from rappers due to this history. Also, the fact majority of rappers came from poverty and often speak of this in their music. Even to go as far to excuse their mygsoginy and vugalarity on coming from “poor” backgrounds. It is not far fetched to want these people that have come from nothing to understand where people are coming from right now. That’s why Jay Z stances seems even more dispointing/tacky

  3. kunzelman November 28, 2011 at 1:35 PM #

    I share the same frustrations that you do, and ultimately I have nothing to add to what you are saying; you are absolutely correct.

    The only thing that I can think of is that rap, more than any other kind of music short of hardcore punk in the 1980s, makes an effort to dissolve the gap between the listener and the art itself. I think that rap comes out of a commons of experience, and mostly that commons is based around poverty. I, who grew up poor, want to see people who “made it out” take up my political cause because I think that we have an intimate connection because we come out of similar backgrounds.

    But most of the time, people are people, rappers included, and they let us all down.

  4. Jen November 28, 2011 at 2:17 PM #

    I really like this article and the point about holding rap up as a do-right genre. In particular, these days, so many lack the substance, grit, and self-/social-awareness that groups of the past did. (I think this is true of entertainment as a whole, particularly in comparison to the athletes and entertainers you mentioned above.)

    I’m no scholar on the topic but I see the statement “Occupy All Streets” speaking to some of what I hear in “Watch the Throne.” Now, I have to admit that my husband is the real fan…I was really frustrated with the b**** and n**** words. I wanted them to play a little smarter and do something unexpected, that maybe my kid could here, but I decided to listen past all that. What I feel like I hear is a mix of 1% music and maybe some heartache about barriers to achievement for black/(and to a small extent)brown people and violence in our nations cities. I experience the whole Paris, car, watch stuff as irony because the system isn’t set up for people, especially like Jay-z, to succeed on his level. With that there’s some “F*** you, I made it,” stuff. I experience the cd as bittersweet, reflecting on wealth, race, violence and achievement, and wondering (if not all out asserting) that America and “American” is being redefined as more, though still too few, black people achieve financial success, because in the end, that’s the success America values.

    That being said, the t-shirt feels to me like Jay-z is saying, “There are huge problems out here, that go far beyond this moment.” or “Where were you when I was the 99%?” I don’t know and may be being optimistic here. His taking the t-shirts down and not making a statement suggest that I am, or his camp was ill-prepared for backlash, which doesn’t work if you’re trying to make a broader statement or start a new conversation.

    • Kjen November 29, 2011 at 11:27 AM #

      I wanted to think the best about the t-shirts as well. But the fact that he tried to sell ‘the message’ keeps bringing me up short from giving him credit.
      What was he thinking if this message really came from a desire to speak out? But I think you don’t become a near-self-made billionaire without seeing dollars wherever you look?

      *Also, pet peeve, strategically, it wouldn’t make sense to stage rallies in ‘all streets’ i.e. in the ghetto, staying in those places makes it easier to be ignored. The occupy movement is getting so much attention, vague messaging aside, because of where they have decided to protest.

  5. Jef November 28, 2011 at 6:36 PM #

    Appreciated the read, RJ. I have a different reading of the shirts, however. I do not see it as an affront to OWS, as much as suggestion to open eyes wider, broaden their scope. Although, that aim may be an affront to some of the individuals and populations under the “Occupy” banner. Heh.

    In any event, I have not read anything that even attempted to investigate possible meanings of the shirts in question – which seems lazy to me. Their appears to be a swift and harsh backlash to Black folk of means in this arena that is eerily similar to their treatment in other majority dominated IGs. For instance, Yoko Ono’s outfit was not sourced for brand names and price points.

    All that to say, reading this as just another capitalist appropriation might be popular, but it is by no means thorough.

    • Sweetilocks November 30, 2011 at 11:32 AM #

      I’m sorry but what other way is there to read Jay-Z’s attempted to gain capitalistically from a product that supposedly supports a capitalist-reform movement? The whole point of Occupy is making a statement about the greed of the wealthy and exploitation of the poor. Jay’s tee-shirts very clearly and unabashedly exploit the Occupy movement by turning a profit based on his popularity among consumer eager to wear anything affiliated with his name and yet, none of the shares go toward the movement that inspired the so-called message of his product? If there’s some deeper altruistic message, Jay-Z better speak now. But since he plans to hoard the proceeds from a statement inspired by this very real and grimy movement (people are being arrested and sleeping in parks, I don’t think they give a damn about fashion statements) so he can sell something cool to his thoughtless zombie fans, I don’t think it goes beyond that. Pretty shallow and plain if you ask me.

  6. Alisha M.Gray (@ZenMamaPolitic) November 28, 2011 at 9:01 PM #

    I am glad to see that I was not the only person to comment on how OWS has actually affected those for which it is supposedly representing; or mis-representing..I should say. And, the case is the same with Jay Z- ‘mis-representation’. I cannot say that I like or even have ever listened to one his CD’s in full, & I most definitely have never seen him ever be a representative for activism before OWS (Re-affirming White Liberalism is funny that just shows up unnanounced at the oddest of times). Capitalism creates a situation where many of the newer artists are still embed within a controversial game of ‘hood’ vs. ‘the Hyatt’. Can’t appear to identify with those Black and oppressed (as that creates a possible association); yet I can feign the ability to care about them, through ‘perceived’ Activism. And do not be fooled..this is not just Jay Z or Hip-Hop. Alicia Keys, Barack Obama, and many others are also capitalizing on the ‘vague’ association with others’ struggle. They were never activists like Tupac,and Hip-Hop was never the real culprit. If this were so..then his music would not have been studied at Harvard. So..don’t be so quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Tupac’s work was an example of real Capitalism; although later clouded by his own Capitalistic and Patriarchal Nightmares. However; it is just that, an African American fascination with Capitalism being the embodiment of self-worth and self-esteem. We look real pretty when we’re rich, Black, & have ‘good skin’… but are nothing more than hated- within the opposite paradigm. The real question is ‘why’, we choose in the African American community- Pathetically Liberal, Capitalistic ‘false idols’ ; who can easily feign activism in the first place. Exposing the exchange of false liberalism for activism, and elite classism for racism offers interesting insight into the answer to your question above- ‘why’.

  7. Alisha M.Gray (@ZenMamaPolitic) November 28, 2011 at 9:32 PM #

    Sorry.(Above Post) Tupac’s work was an example of real ‘Activism’ – (The day that I actually have time to Proof Read my Work). LOL.

  8. Nikita November 29, 2011 at 9:21 AM #

    Agreed. Truth is that Jay is now one of the 1%. He has on some level refused to understand the difference between do what you gotta do hustler to becoming a predator. Much like the bankers, he is bank rolling his future on the backs of those he should be helping and protecting and even standing up for – however he does not see the parallel between what he is doing and what they did. All he wants us to do is to not knock the hustle.

    He and Kanye’s CD is ok. Really, as most rap is these days, it is a regurgitation of what I got, what you ain’t got, how many girls I got, where I’ve been ….. Yep, the same BS with the same wording about women, n***as, and oh, yeah, things. There are a couple of songs near the end that say something, but at the same time nothing really that has not been said by rappers back in the day – and for some reason or another, he nor Ye seem to understand that they should have a problem with THAT. They are still rocking the same things said in the beginning by rappers and how many years have passed since those lyrics were rocked. Really son? Instead of rapping about new girls, new things, and trips, why don’t you say something new about that? Ain’t been too involved in anything pass your own nose, huh? Need to get back in contact wit the everyday people again in order to say something new about that, huh? But then again, he just may be following Uncle Russ.

  9. Reninaj November 30, 2011 at 10:44 AM #

    Thank you all for your comments. I have responded to a couple of people below.

    “But I think you don’t become a near-self-made billionaire without seeing dollars wherever you look? ”
    I follow the money. It is hard not to given how having or not having it structures our lives on a day to day, even minute to minute basis in 2011.

    “All that to say, reading this as just another capitalist appropriation might be popular, but it is by no means thorough.”
    Capitalism is premised on obtaining as much value from a commodity or property, at all costs, regardless of the consequences.
    What did I need to take into consideration, that you think that I have missed, in order for my reading of this situation to be thorough?

  10. SilencioBarnes (@SilencioBarnes) December 2, 2011 at 1:26 PM #

    …who looks to rappers as activists? I don’t. They’re entertainers. Occasionally one or two of em WILL be activists and every now and then some of em will activate their inner activist, but I think you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not safe to assume that anybody looks at rappers as activists, that’s a very large and diverse group of people complete with differing ideologies and political agendas (when there is one present). Therefore, this article confuses me.

    As for Jay-Z’s t’shirts…what of em? It’s not a huge campaign. And he isn’t the only one to try to get in on the OWS movement’s potential to generate a little cash. OWS is now a part of pop culture, it’s to be expected. In fact, I’d cop one! I think it’s clever. Can’t you even imagine how something like that could come about?

    J – Whatchu think about this Occupy shit G
    G – Fuck that shit, they wanna occupy wallstreet, niggas need to be tryna occupy ALL streets namean!
    *general laughter*
    G – Word, I should put that on a t-shirt or some shit

    There ya go. Pretty innocuous right? We read too much into stuff. And just like rappers, people tend to group the so-called 1% all together. Some people forget that some of those people that made it to the top worked SUPER hard to get there – blood, sweat, tears and all that – they are not the people that we should be concerned about. They are the people we should be trying to emulate if at all possible.

    Smoke and Mirrors – should we worry about Jay-Z pushing off a hooded out version of OWS on a t-shirt or should we be worried about the people that are really fucking us. Folks who we don’t even know exist most of the time.

    • ribble December 4, 2011 at 1:10 AM #

      my thoughts exactly.

    • Reninaj December 4, 2011 at 8:45 AM #

      First of all, this post is about the contradiction that arises when one of the richest Black men in this country makes t-shirts about a nascent social movement that is rooted in exposing the fact that hella people are not eating, their families are not eating and that they do not know who they are going to survive.

      Why should anyone be above critique when so many of us are catching hell?

      With regard to what we are “suppose” to be doing, Check the Crunk Feminist Mission Statement.

      This post is also about how capitalism is premised on exploiting/ or making a profit off of everything that it comes into contact with, regardless of the consequences.

      This post is also about why do young people of color or even young white people as well, expect rappers to be invested in anything having to do with social justice.

      This post is about how rapping is a job.

      This post is not about how other civil rights folks or civil rights imagery have been commodified, ie Malcolm X. Or the representations of Jesus on t-shirts. This is a conversation derailer.

      Check the Mission Statement.

    • L.D. December 5, 2011 at 12:26 PM #

      I think at the end of the day, I have to agree with Silencio in that the problem with bashing the 1% is that not everyone got there the same way. Especially when that 1% person is Black and poor themselves without the benefits that got the privileged white man in the same financial position.
      But I have to temper that agreement with the fact that though Jay-Z and Oprah indeed worked HARD to get where they are, they still had to participate in someway in the oppression and exploitation of others. Either from endorsements or investments, they too are in many ways participants of a system that leaves millions of people starving in the streets.
      My point is that the whole system is broken. There should be no reason that in order to get to the top, people at the bottom have to not feed their families. My point is that there is no reason there even NEEDS to be a top or bottom.

  11. emmittnervend December 2, 2011 at 6:12 PM #

    I guess I should be disappointed that Jay-Z made an album about what it’s like to be the 1% from the point of view of someone who isn’t even supposed to be the 1%. I guess I should also be disappointed that he made a shirt to make money off a movement that decided, in backlash to this, to make a dumb statue and turn a black man into the face of Wall Street.

    But eh I’m not.

  12. lala December 3, 2011 at 7:33 AM #

    I have seen Malcolm, Martin, the American Flag and artistic impressions of Jesus on t-shits–why no OWS? Oh godforbid a Black person makes dough off whites for a change? About time.

  13. lala December 3, 2011 at 7:35 AM #

    OK I misspelled and there is no correct here

  14. lala December 3, 2011 at 7:42 AM #

    …and let me say I am in college with hopes of being “one of the one percent” I think the whole slogan is so stupid. Is Oprah in the same class with all her works as the Koch brothers? Oprah, Jay whoever do not have to apologize for being talented and successful a lot of what I see in OCW is folks whining to get their priv back.

  15. dbza December 5, 2011 at 2:58 PM #

    I have to say, if he were contributing a percentage to something, or SOMEthing… I’d take him a little more seriously… it seems he and Beyonce talk about NOTHING — and I mean NO THING — but money, territory, corporate/earthly power, possession and material ‘authority’ to be jealously defended. Bleh… I wish it were Mos Def, he’d know what to do with the money!

  16. lala December 7, 2011 at 11:34 AM #

    You know what, if we’re going to play the exploitation card we all need to stop eating chocolate and wearing sneakers jewelery, hair extensions, make up, eating fruits and veggies..

  17. lala December 7, 2011 at 11:38 AM #

    So as a struggling student i am 1% …just like the cops that shot that unarmed man and the local KKK? Can we not see how dumb this is?

  18. lala December 7, 2011 at 11:40 AM #

    …this is why I can’t rock with liberals…

  19. G is for Gaudy (@GGlitchez) December 7, 2011 at 1:02 PM #

    He is definitely making money of this shirt. If I had money, I’d buy it. A majority of the nation, I can say pretty confidently, doesn’t know what the hell the occupy protests are about or who are behind them and why. They don’t care to find out, either. Because of that simple fact, I think Jay-Z’s shirt did more GOOD than bad (i.e. seeming hypocrisy of selling a shirt based off a movement) because the exposure it brought.

    Jay-Z’s celebrity exposed this movement to many who ARE NOT paying attention to it. I can’t tell you how many ppl/peers I’ve run into or passed by who didn’t know what the Occupy movement was about! But they know Jay-Z :))) If he deems it worthy to talk about, wear, etc., his fans who didn’t know will surely follow. Just how the world works. There will be followers. We just have to make sure we have great leaders.

    The controversy of this tshirt (reason why you created this post) has also brought more attention to the movement. That’s great, too!

    Also, as a musician/rapper/storyteller an artist grabs onto everything and references our culture. As a business man, he made money, yes but I refuse to believe he didn’t add positively to our society as well.

    However you feel about him is your freedom but I’m so glad he had the guts to wear that shirt knowing how ppl would def talk about it, good and bad.

    p.s. I have a clothing line and I would LOVE to design a shirt that gave ode to this historical movement and event. Capitalism is NOT the problem, it’s the corruption going on in it.


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