What Obama Can Learn From Jay-Z

The rapper, who campaigned for the president, addresses the gap between the haves and have-nots in a way that can bridge cultural divides.

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Barack Obama owes his re-election to smart political strategists, a dedicated staff, bad weather, an unpalatable opponent, rich people who gave him more than a billion dollars, and, above all, to more than 50 million Americans who may have been hurting but voted on Tuesday. He also owes his election, in part, to Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z—two brilliant and socially responsible American musicians, each of whom lent their hard-earned auras of authenticity to his campaign.

In the closing days of the campaign, Springsteen's appearances with the president helped neutralize the image of Obama as an uncaring and out-of-touch elitist among blue-collar white voters in battleground states. And the fact that New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie is a huge Springsteen fan may not have been solely responsible for the bipartisan photo ops that allowed Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy to seem caring and presidential and above politics, but it didn't hurt. Jay-Z, meanwhile, helped to shore up the president's base, which appeared to be notably less enthusiastic than in 2008. The rapper's tireless support for Obama became a constant topic of conversation on hip-hop-centric urban morning shows and likely went some way towards inoculating the president against the charge that he was a sell-out.

Yet looking forward, it seems clear that while Springsteen's America of shuttered steel mills and long drives down darkened turnpikes may continue to have an emotional hold over Democratic and Republican officeholders and voters alike, Jay-Z embodies the challenge of our political future—which must speak to an electorate that keenly feels increasing disparities of wealth but still dreams big. His prominence in Obama's campaign may be important not simply because the rapper maintained the president's credibility with urban black youth and white suburban youth alike. He is also a striking example of the gap that has opened up between star performers of all kinds and the democratic expectation of equality, and he offers at least one way that two strong but seemingly opposing drives in contemporary American life might be harmonized. In addition to his gratitude, then, the president may also have some lessons to learn from his most prominent celebrity endorser, lessons that could help him craft a governing sensibility that might appeal to both sides of an incontrovertibly divided nation.

Nowhere were the tensions caused by the wealth of the haves and the aspirations of the have-nots on more naked display this fall than at Jay-Z's own inauguration of Brooklyn's Barclay Center, an arena that he helped to promote over strong initial neighborhood opposition. The conjunction of the rapper's gritty verse with the luxury suites and champagne bars of a billion-dollar pleasure center named after a global financial giant was celebrated by nearly everyone in earshot, beginning with the performer himself. "I'm feeling a little bit overwhelmed by the moment," he announced more than once during the first of eight sold-out shows. "I'm living proof that dreams come true."

But how does a performer who earns $80 million a year and rhymes about his lavish spending on diamond-studded watches and Hermes shopping sprees continue to become ever-more popular with an audience that struggles to make ends meet? The challenge of how to bridge that gap—in wealth, in opportunity, in experience—now runs throughout every sector of American society, from finance, to sports, to intellectual and artistic life. The rapper's insistence on honest reporting at every stage of his rise, his continuing drive to excel at his craft, his need to locate virtue in difficult and often twisted circumstances, and his ability to transform social distance into an emotional bond with his audience make him the consummate artist of a society in which the lives of a swelling but statistically tiny elite have become increasingly removed from the lives of 99 percent of their peers.

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Jay-Z's rise to arena-level stardom began in 1997 with his hit song "Hard Knock Life," in which the rapper attached his street rhymes to a widely familiar song from the musical "Annie." In order to secure his base of hardcore rap fans, Jay-Z also included a shout-out to the rap star Biggie Smalls, linking the song with the legacy of his dead mentor and sometime competitor who no one could ever accuse of selling out. The shout-out to Biggie was for the black fans, whose approval is key to getting white fans, who in turn brought along their siblings and parents who may have hated rap music but liked "Annie." (What Biggie Smalls, a wheezing 300 pound mound of raw emotion and hardcore lyricism from Brooklyn who was shot to death by a gang-banger in Los Angeles would have made of Jay-Z's cold-blooded use of his name to expand his fan base is hard to say, although he probably would have admired the strategy behind it.)

As he gets ever-richer, Jay-Z's reliance on his rag-to-riches story has come in for its share of mockery from bean-counting reporters and critics. While the rapper presented himself at the Barclay Center as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team—and onstage even rechristened the arena "the house that Hova built"—critics began pointing out, too gleefully, that he in fact "only" owned a token 15th of one percent of the basketball team and a slightly higher percentage of the arena. Jay-Z seemed stung by the criticism, and in his final show insisted that his exact percentage of ownership was much less important than what it represented: a remarkable narrative high point in the biography of a former drug dealer who grew up in a single-parent home in a housing project only blocks away.

Indeed, the real reason Jay-Z can so openly celebrate his talent and wealth is not simply his genius at marketing, but the fact that his rags-to-riches story is, in fact, a true incarnation of the American Dream. On the last night of his run, with Jackie Robinson's widow Rachel in attendance, the rapper reminded his audience that he was indeed born poor and black in the Marcy projects in Bed Stuy, and then lashed out at those who would "try take away your dreams"—using a criticism meant to diminish his achievement as a way to further cement his bond with his audience, by establishing a shared sense of aspiration and vulnerability.

And yet reducing Jay-Z's popularity to the Horatio Alger-like facts of his biography (which includes a guilty plea to the charge of stabbing a music producer named Lance Rivera in 1999) denies both the rapper and his audience the credit that they deserve for confronting class and cultural tensions in a creative, even visionary, way. The rising disparity in income and opportunity generated by a market economy that is paradoxically more open than ever before to talent regardless of race, gender, or creed poses an obvious social and ideological contradiction that American politicians of both parties have struggled to resolve. Jay-Z's ability to stand before his audience without pretending to be any less skilled or less wealthy than he actually is, and to present his wealth and privilege as having been fully earned, while also identifying with the streets he grew up on, makes him the most important popular artist in America today. He's the only public figure who is willing to address the gap between the have-lots and have-less with anything other than stale rhetoric.

In an emotional moment near the end of his first show at the Barclays Center, he proclaimed that everyone in the arena had been born with "genius-level talent," but that only a few people are lucky enough to recognize and develop their gifts. "I ain't no motherfuckin' different from anybody here tonight," he said. "And I'm standing on this stage."

To those unfamiliar with Jay-Z's art, the pose may seem like a trick played by a rich and powerful celebrity performer on an impressionable audience: How is it possible, or right, for Jay-Z to flaunt his wealth, and yet insist that everyone in the Barclays Center was equal—and for anyone, yet alone everyone, to believe him?

This sort of literal thinking misses both the originality and the appeal of Jay-Z's message, which may come from but is not dependent on his fame, the color of his skin, or the fact that he grew up poor. What the rapper was offering his audience was a new contract that fuses capitalist meritocracy and its updated gospel of wealth with traditional American ideas of equality and the democracy of gifts. Everyone in the arena, he repeated at every show, was born with "genius-level talent." Yet it is the job of every individual to locate and develop their genius, which only a few people are able or willing to do. While everyone is born equal, the results of human endeavor can and should therefore lead to unequal rewards. Which is why you are sitting in the cheap seats at the Barclays Center while Jay-Z is strutting on stage.

Where other rappers and pop stars offer themselves up as symbols of victimhood or consumerist self-indulgence, Jay-Z privileges emotional honesty and hard work. Jay-Z is not inherently better than you are, he tells his audience: He simply worked harder than you did and developed his genius with greater precision and clarity. "Where I'm From," the song with which the rapper opened each of his inaugural shows at the Barclays Center, is one of the saddest, clear-eyed, and most emotionally responsible songs ever written about growing up in the big urban housing projects of the 1980s. "I'm from where the hammers rung / news cameras never come," he begins, in a downbeat voice whose urgency proclaims that there was nothing glamorous or desirable about the street life that he anatomizes with clinical skill. The platinum Rolexes and diamond-studded gold chains he celebrates with such exuberance are measures of the intensity of his struggle to get from the Marcy projects to the Barclays stage.

The fact that everyone is born with genius-level talent is a spur to effort, not an excuse for being lazy, which is why one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the rapper's shows at the Barclays Center was how much he demanded physically from his audience. He commanded them to get up, to bounce, to wave their arms in the air, and to scream their lungs out, on his cue. And he knew that a moment of personal attention from the stage is a powerful reward, and so should hardly be distributed at random, or to those who are sitting in the best seats or the worst seats. Audience members who fulfilled their roles with the greatest intelligence and brio—by giving him energy, by knowing his complex rhymes by heart, and singing along—found themselves recognized by one of the most famous men in the world, who pointed them out and complimented them before 18,000 fellow fans. The message is that hard work is necessary, but it feels good, too.

Jay-Z's very original synthesis of high-consumption capitalism and democracy suggests a future career as the voice of the American gospel of wealth (or as the next Michael Bloomberg—a talented politician who acknowledges the distance between himself and his constituency, and turns the fact of that distance into an aspirational symbol of excellence.) As for Obama, as the slog of the election campaign showed, he has earned a significant measure of trust from the American people, who feel bewildered and threatened by the new economy but are resistant to heavy taxes and increased federal and state control over their lives. The idea that the president has something to learn from this tension, and from the synthesis that Jay-Z offers, shouldn't seem far-fetched: While Americans may accept the great disparities of wealth that the new economy has engendered, they will not give up on their equal right to dream.