Like so many celebrities before him, rapper Jay-Z ran into trouble last week with his support for Occupy Wall Street. People reacted unhappily when his apparel company Rocawear announced they were selling an "Occupy All Streets" T-shirt, but had no plans to donate profits to Occupy Wall Street. TMZ quoted an Occupy Wall Street spokesman, who crystallized some of the online anger, saying, "Jay-Z, as talented as he is, has the political sensibility of a hood rat and is a scrotum." Ouch.
Rocawear quickly pulled the shirt from the web site, but Jay-Z's defenders had not yet begun their fight. Friend and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who tweeted the original photo (above) of Jay-Z wearing the offending T-shirt, as well as Simmons's political director, (he has a political director?), Michael Skolnik took to the internet this weekend, but we're not sure their defenses are really helping Z's case. Here's the thrust of their arguments:
Rich people should be allowed to lend their support and cool-factor to the movement. Simmons tweeted this weekend, "No one hates [business] or success, the campaign is against corporations/special interests control of [Republican] government." Indeed, the bulk of OWS anger is toward those who made their money in finance. Yet a lot of celebrities have shown support for protesters and been met with snickers and cries of hypocrisy for supporting a movement concerned with income distribution while holding immense fortunes. (It didn't help that Kanye West wore so much bling on his visit to Zuccotti.) Simmons seems to find this unfair and his political director Skolnik expands on his thoughts, writing, "Throughout my life I have always admired great cultural figures who put their weight behind political movements ... And I respect Jay for supporting the movement and creating the t-shirt, cause that helps." This defense at least raises some interesting questions about just which rich people Occupy Wall Street should be targeting, and whether celebrities should be allowed to lend vocal support to the movement while continuing to earn a lot of money. It doesn't really do much to defend Jay-Z's co-opting of the OWS brand for profit. But then ...
Jay-Z always intended to give his money to Occupy Wall Street. They both also argue that this was mostly a logistical confusion. Rocawear said there weren't current plans to donate to OWS, but they never said there would never be plans ... Jay-Z was just deciding exactly where and how to donate his money, says Simmons. He says Rocawear won't actually pull the T-shirt (and indeed it is back up on the site today.) This feels a bit disingenuously like damage control, or an argument that should have been made by Jay-Z himself and only when he's ready to announce his donation. Nevertheless, Simmons also argues that ...
... This is a media manufactured controversy. "Media will do anything to separate the movement from people w/ resources. But we will not be pushed away we will stick it out," he tweeted. Skolnik also expanded on this theme, writing, "The corporate-controlled media is so thirsty for the blood of the celebrities that they try to find silly and frivolous things to separate great messengers from the people." Perhaps we are biased, but it wasn't the media that likened Jay-Z to a "scrotum," and reading through comments on media reports, you'll find many genuinely offended commenters. So perhaps Jay-Z always intended to sell the shirts and donate profits to OWS, but given that his company's statement didn't even remotely hint at that -- "At this time we have not made an official commitment to monetarily support the movement," the statement declares -- who can blame people for thinking otherwise.
And therein lie the problems with Jay-Z's defenders. Instead of focusing on the one thought-provoking defense -- that the rich should be able to lend their name and publicity machine to a movement even if it's one about income inequality -- his defenders are focusing on blaming the media and making confusing claims about how the controversy unfolded. We anxiously await a more detailed explanation from Jay-Z himself on all this, but we understand him taking his time. He's probably pretty busy preparing for the arrival of Sasha Fetus.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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