Why Jay-Z’s Roc Nation–NFL Deal Is So Puzzling

The rapper’s partnership with the league bolsters his repertoire of social-justice work, but its corporate sensibility sits uneasily with athletes’ more direct forms of advocacy.

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On Tuesday, the National Football League announced a splashy new venture: a partnership with Roc Nation, the label run by Jay-Z (a.k.a. Shawn Carter). In his new post, The Wall Street Journal reported, Jay-Z will help to directly shape the NFL’s social-justice program and oversee much of the league’s entertainment programming, including the halftime show. (Jay-Z will not be required to perform, but Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, has expressed his hope that the rapper will soon.)

The Brooklyn entertainer and businessman, who just last year rapped the line “I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me, I don’t need you,” is now lending his cultural cachet to the sports institution that has often inhibited its players’ expressions of solidarity with their own communities. Taken optimistically, Jay-Z’s latest move could be read as a calculated choice to bolster his (and Roc Nation’s) broadening repertoire of social-justice work. The rapper has already served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal-justice system. The Kalief Browder Story (2017) traced the life of a young man who’d died by suicide after his years-long detention on New York City’s Rikers Island, often in solitary confinement, for having allegedly stolen a backpack as a teenager. The Amazon series Free Meek, released last week, follows the 12-year legal saga of the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, who is signed to Roc Nation (and around whom many NFL players have rallied in recent years). Both of these artistic works are clear-eyed narrative productions; they invite viewers to learn about and see the human beings affected by the daily indignities of an obfuscatory system.

But the NFL partnership, as announced, doesn’t seem to point outside Jay-Z’s wealthy cohort—or home in on the communities most affected by the issues he says he wants the league to champion. The rapper’s initial comments to the Journal focused on his unique ability to bridge the gap between the people affected by these injustices and rich businessmen, especially in the highly polarized arena of sports. “I can’t control, no one can control the world that we live in currently and people’s choice to vote self-interests,” Jay-Z said of his decision to align himself, via the “Inspire Change” initiative, with the NFL’s team owners and its beleaguered commissioner. (Of Colin Kaepernick, who was awarded a settlement from the NFL after withdrawing his collusion grievance earlier this year, Jay-Z spoke with reverence, but also remove: “We like to think that the way we build the Inspire Change platform, that if anything close to that would happen in the future, then Kaepernick would have a platform where he can express himself and maybe it doesn’t have to take place on the field.”)

The mogul’s remarks to the Journal focus on his musical expertise and business acumen, with periodic gestures to the lived experiences that motivate his interest in criminal-justice reform. (“I’m black,” he noted pithily.) Even the language of the deal—with its emphasis on strategy and ventures and promotional spots—registers as a favorable transaction among the very wealthy. (Financial terms were not disclosed.) As details of the deal emerge, such as the pivotal role of the Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Roc Nation’s activist leanings become all the more confounding. Kraft, like many other NFL owners, is an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly antagonized players seeking social-justice reforms, including and especially Kaepernick. (The Patriots owner was also tied to an alleged prostitution ring earlier this year.)

During a press conference held yesterday at the Roc Nation offices in New York, Jay-Z and Goodell said they’d spoken to Kaepernick, but demurred on several questions about the former 49ers quarterback, including what his participation in the initiative is. (His girlfriend, the radio personality Nessa Diab, later disputed Jay-Z’s and Goodell’s claims.) Jay-Z also shied away from answering how, exactly, he saw the partnership as a form of protest. “America in general looked at rap as a fad, and it’s the No. 1 genre in the world. You just can’t hide the statistics now because of streaming,” he said when asked about whether the deal is a way to disrupt the league from within. “But in 1998, rap was the No. 1 genre going forward to today, so I would love for these platforms to be more inclusive of our music.”

With this focus on the vague ideal of inclusivity and the imperfect parallel of musical popularity, the partnership shares an uneasy corporate sensibility with the rapper’s investment in Promise, an app that bills itself as a tool for decarceration—and that has been criticized by activists for its potential to instead expand the reach of carceral surveillance. By papering over root issues in favor of feel-good start-up speak, the NFL deal echoes other businesses’ attempts to address racism, including the popular route of mandating dubiously effective training sessions after acts of so-called bias. In his role with the NFL, Jay-Z follows in the footsteps of rappers such as Common, who participated in Starbucks’ sensitivity seminars after two black men were detained in one of the franchise’s Philadelphia stores. This kind of celebrity guidance gestures toward justice—such programs do name an issue, after all—but the results often lend themselves more readily to positive PR for the institutions than to tangible changes for the communities they purport to serve.

This mode of engagement also notably diverges from the more direct ways other entertainers, athletes included, have contributed their resources, particularly to bail funding, the category of aid many criminal-justice activists cite as the most powerful. The Washington cornerback Josh Norman and the New Orleans linebacker Demario Davis, for example, helped pay the $50,000 needed to bail the college student Jose Bello out of detention, where he’d been held for 89 days after reading a poem criticizing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a public forum in California this May. “I live my life in frustration,” Bello said then, in his poem titled “Dear America.” “Private prisons, political funding, mass incarceration—you make the connection. I speak for the victims that pay for this scam.”

Both Norman and Davis are members of the Players Coalition, which is guided by a task force of 12 players and uses NFL funding to make grants to the nonprofits of its members’ choosing. The coalition was co-founded in 2017 by the former Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins following Kaepernick’s kneeling protest. At the start of the 2018 season, the coalition published an open letter in The Players’ Tribune emphasizing its members’ personal connections to the “potent pain of watching police violence.” The letter, titled “The Fight Continues,” praised Kaepernick’s galvanizing efforts and reflected a weariness with the media’s seemingly singular focus on protesting:

Other players have worked to raise awareness of these issues in different ways, although the media still remains hyper-focused on talking about “the anthem.” We have made trips to Capitol Hill, gone on ride-alongs with police officers and held meetings with grassroots organizations, community advocates, public defenders and progressive prosecutors. We have watched bail hearings during which people have been locked up not because they posed a public-safety threat, but because they were too poor to pay their cash bail. And as we learned, we also worked. We lobbied for criminal justice reform in New York, Pennsylvania and Boston, pushed for the restoration of voting rights in Florida and Louisiana, and for prosecutor accountability across the country. We hosted D.A.–candidate forums in multiple states, including California and Missouri. This is just a sampling of what we have done.

Though the coalition has dealt with internal strife (and seen several early members depart), it worked with the league to spearhead the Inspire Change initiative in January. The players’ efforts span both educational and lobbying initiatives; they speak and write with an urgency that contrasts with the languid tone Goodell often adopts and with the commercial nature of Jay-Z’s language. As the league and interested players continue this social-justice work, Jay-Z’s and Goodell’s claims about Kaepernick’s involvement may become all the more puzzling. The former quarterback’s support may not be necessary for them to achieve their stated goals. Still, their uncertain relationship to Kaepernick mirrors their distance from activists and incarcerated people with direct knowledge of the issues initially highlighted by the kneeling protests.

With Jay-Z now at the helm of the entertainment–social justice partnership, the league will likely experience a boost in credibility among those with a passing interest in progressive reforms. But whether the NFL, or Jay-Z, will concretely improve the lives of marginalized Americans remains far more unclear.