It’s safe to say Jay-Z, to some extent, takes cues from Colin Kaepernick. Jay-Z has expressed his admiration of the former quarterback before, once calling him an “iconic figure.” In the aftermath of Kaepernick’s black-balling from the NFL for his peaceful protest of police killing unarmed black men, Jay-Z rejected the league’s offer to have him perform at the Super Bowl in solidarity. And in a disappointing though unsurprising turn of events, Jay-Z has once again followed Kaepernick’s lead by selling himself and the things he represents to a soulless corporation that will use him to sell things.
Yesterday, the NFL announced that it had bought off Jay-Z’s once-seemingly resolute antagonism toward it by reaching an extensive, and presumably quite lucrative, partnership agreement with Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation. The partnership’s aim is “to enhance the NFL’s live game experiences and to amplify the league’s social justice efforts.” This will include Roc Nation taking the lead on wrangling entertainers to perform at events like the Super Bowl, hopefully saving the NFL from the storm of controversy it endured ahead of the last Super Bowl, when Jay-Z and several other high-profile musical acts snubbed the NFL out of support for Kaepernick, as well as various audio initiatives linking artists whose brands are in part built around projecting an image of sociopolitical-mindfulness and players, who, according to the New York Times, might put together some playlists or podcasts. The revolution may not be televised, but it apparently will be conveniently streamed to your smart phone for you to listen to on your commute to work.
All of this is obviously, deeply lame. Anyone with a brain can and has recognized this. Jay-Z even knows it, which is why he’s preemptively tried to reframe the situation by casting himself of a man of action who doesn’t care about the bad optics of the union (“I’m really into action—I’m into real work. I’m not into how it looks.”) and instead is solely focused on moving forward:
(It can’t be lost on Kaepernick the irony of his protest resulting in the murder of his own very well-remunerated playing career, and now needing a brave new solution that involves Jay-Z lining his pockets.)
The specific reasons why Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL is bad and, even worse, a betrayal of his previously stated commitment to Kaepernick’s righteous cause was probably best put by Kevin Blackistone in the Washington Post this morning. Panthers safety Eric Reid, who was also frozen out of the league for his staunch and vocal support for his good friend Kaepernick’s cause, also saw through the NFL’s latest attempt to distract from its crimes against Kaepernick by searching for another, more amenable black face to thrust before the public’s eye as proof that, see, things really are all better now, so can we please just get back to making money? Reid has been tweeting about the issue a lot over the past couple days:
The problem with viewing the Roc Nation-NFL partnership as this great schism between Kaepernick The Good and Jay-Z The Bad is that Kaepernick himself has already profited from the very same move Jay-Z is using now. The NFL’s exploitation of Jay-Z—the man and the brand and all the signifiers that come along with him—is identical to Nike’s exploitation of Kaepernick in that much-celebrated yet fundamentally repugnant ad campaign last year. Kaepernick sold himself and everything he stands for to a company whose sole interest was to associate itself and its products with carefully sanded-down versions of the notions and ideals that surround “Colin Kaepernick,” only so it could strengthen its own brand. There’s no meaningful distinction between that and what Jay-Z has done with the NFL. The different response testifies only to one ad campaign being more successful than the other.
In a world where everything and everyone is a brand, and brand identities are defined by the meticulously curated ideas the brand links itself with through its associations and consumptive patterns, even a notion as hoary as social justice becomes consumable. Sellers try to acquire it by tying their products so closely to the notion itself that consumers come to think of the two things, the product and the notion, as one and the same. When the sleight of hand is disguised well enough, or the consumer is so desperate to buy into it regardless, you can tell the trick works by both the praise and condemnation it elicits in response. To Nike, the scent of burnt rubber from all those shoes torched in dopey outrage and the soaring financial report that came later both smelled like victory.
It’s perfectly reasonable to believe that, at heart, both Kaepernick and Jay-Z are serious, compassionate, well-meaning men who are deeply invested in addressing the plight of marginalized communities, and who seek to use their considerable platforms to do so in the best way they know how. It’s also accurate to say that lending themselves and the things they stand for to mega-corps that do not and cannot care about the admirable convictions they wish to support is a lamentable, counterproductive plan of action.
It’s yet more proof of the omnipresence of capitalist realism that, when going out to protest and subvert the system, ostensibly good actors like Jay-Z and Kaepernick can see no alternative other than to align with the very system they claim to want to change. The system engenders dissent, seamlessly absorbs it through the willing and eager collaboration with the dissenters themselves, and nothing ever changes. I bet the limited-edition Nikes Chance the Rapper wears during his performance at next year’s Super Bowl will be quite the hot ticket once they go on sale, though.