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It’s been a few months into the NFL’s controversial “Inspire Change” initiative, a promotion by the league to highlight the Player’s Coalition and its work to address social issues. “Inspire Change” officially launched last year, (to “nurture and strengthen community through football and music,” said official statements) with the league’s partnership with Roc Nation expected to guide much of the outreach and voice.
"With its global reach, the National Football League has the platform and opportunity to inspire change across the country," Jay-Z said via press release back in August. "Roc Nation has shown that entertainment and enacting change are not mutually exclusive ideas -- instead, we unify them. This partnership is an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of communities across America."
The first “Inspire Change” ad featured the Botham Jean Foundation, and focused on the Jean family and their reaction to Botham’s 2018 death at the hands of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. Jean’s murder, in which Guyger shot the 26-year-old as he sat in his apartment after saying she’d believed it was her own, drew international attention. The subsequent trial and conviction of Guyger drew derision and criticism after the former officer was sentenced to ten years (with parole eligibility in five) amidst hugs from the prosecuting judge and official statements from the family that focused on forgiveness.
“He just loved people and he was very particular about the company he kept. So I felt he was not in harm’s way,” his mother, Allison Jean, says during the video.
The NFL debuted the Jean ad online in late January to a mixed reception, and a new ad was shown during Super Bowl LIV. In the new ad, former 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin is heard speaking about what happened to his cousin, Corey Jones, on the night of October 18, 2015. That night, Jones was shot and killed in Florida by a plainclothes police officer as Jones was stuck on the side of the road with car trouble.
“I was still playing with the 49ers and my wife walks up after the game and told me that my cousin Corey had been killed. Corey broke down on the side of the road and a plain clothed police officer pulled up. Then this guy starts screaming. All you hear from there is three shots.”
Both ads focus on family and loss: the first clip features footage of Botham Jean’s brother hugging his convicted murderer in court as Jean’s mother and father talk about forgiveness. In the second ad, Jones’ father tearily asks “Why? Why’s my son gone today? Why?” The human toll of these crimes is front-and-center, but as far as the institutions that have created this reality for so many non-white people in America, they’re comparatively peripheral in these clips. The word “police” is never uttered, and while the tagline is “We’re all in this together,” there is nothing on screen to suggest racism is the common enemy. It’s cozy to posit that “we” are the solution, but what’s the point if I don’t have the fortitude to declare that you are the problem?
When Jay-Z’s partnership with the NFL was announced just before the start of the 2018-2019 NFL season, many saw it was a mogul putting business before social justice. After all, the league had kept Colin Kaepernick on the sidelines for three years, and Jay supposedly supported Kaep and his protest—so why get in bed with the league that had effectively blackballed the quarterback? There didn’t seem to be any benefit in Roc Nation partnering with the NFL—outside of the NFL being able to save some face after losing some fans because of the treatment of Kaepernick. Working with a mogul who, in recent years, has become a symbol of Woke™ Celebritydom, could go a long way towards softening the league’s image as one that defers to good ol’ boyism. The most skeptical saw the initiative as a chance for the NFL to score cool points while using Jay-Z’s brand to do it. And with these new ads, those cynics have been proven right.
The hope behind these ads is that they will inspire the more ambivalent or right-leaning members of the NFL’s viewing audience to take up the cause that the league itself effectively punished Colin Kaepernick for protesting. That side of the NFL’s audience has made it clear that it does not commiserate with Kaepernick or his cause, but these ads are supposed to be what sways them. These ads are supposed to start a conversation. Roc Nation also pressed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to commit $100 million to social justice outreach, and Jay-Z has emphasized that he did not do this deal for anything other than a chance to use the platform to raise awareness on the issues.
It’s a stance that Jay has been voicing since that first announcement in August. “As long as real people are being hurt and marginalized and losing family members, then yes, I can take a couple rounds of negative press,” Jay said this week in an interview with The New York Times. He also said that he feels for what’s happened with Kaepernick (a workout this fall turned into a debacle for all parties involved), but he feels that what Roc Nation is doing is pushing things forward.
“No one is saying he hasn’t been done wrong. He was done wrong. I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now — because people are still dying?’
“We didn’t say, ‘Let’s go make some money off the N.F.L.’”
Nonetheless, the NFL’s “Inspire Change” campaign feels more like a big-budget facelift for a league that still struggles with who it is and who it wants to sell itself to; as opposed to a lucrative corporation finding its conscience. In 2016, famed director Spike Lee was hired as a “consultant” for the NYPD when the department wanted to create initiatives to “build trust with minority communities.” Roc Nation’s cosign amidst the “Inspire Change” campaign feels like a similar maneuver from the NFL. These ads stoke emotion without indictment, evoking the murders of Botham Jean and Corey Jones at the hands of police officers, but focusing on sentimentality and not how and where reformation is needed. Jay has become someone who wears his “activist celebrity” tag on his sleeve, but how do moguls truly benefit causes? From his role in Barclays Center and the gentrification that accompanied its opening, to his deal with Barneys--can he truly occupy both worlds? Jay-Z wants Roc Nation's work with the NFL to push people to act, for everyone to see themselves in these victims. But the NFL can’t soft soap this and expect anyone to take any of this seriously. You can’t truly “inspire change” with post-woke pandering—or by helping conglomerates save face.
Terry Crews is doing quite a spectacular job of torching any goodwill the public had toward him. The actor moved from tertiary to central figure in the ongoing controversy surrounding NBC’s popular talent show America’s Got Talent and its November firing of former co-host Gabrielle Union.
Union has stated that there was a toxic environment on set, citing the behavior of producer Simon Cowell, and an incident involving a racist joke she says was made by guest host Jay Leno and other instances where she felt AGT and NBC had not addressed racist or sexist behavior and policies on the show.
Terry Crews offered mild support for Union upon her initial firing but has drawn the ire of fans this week after he offered a less empathetic take about the situation during an interview with the Today show.
“First of all, I can’t speak for sexism because I’m not a woman, but I can speak on behalf of any racism comments. That was never my experience on America’s Got Talent,” the AGT host said. “In fact, it was the most diverse place I have ever been in my 20 years of entertainment.”
When asked if he’d spoken to Union, Crews offered, “I have reached out, but I have not heard anything.”
The online reaction was critical, with fans and pundits pointing out that Union had been one of Crews’ most vocal supporters in 2017 when the actor revealed and then testified that he’d been a victim of sexual assault by a Hollywood studio executive. With the flurry of criticism, Crews scoffed at his detractors, tweeting that there’s only one woman in his life who he works to please—his wife.
“There is only one woman on earth I have to please. Her name is Rebecca,” the 52-year-old tweeted. “Not my mother, my sister, my daughters or co-workers. I will let their husbands/ boyfriends/ partners take care of them. Rebecca gives me WINGS.”
Crews’ statements—and his nonsensical Twitter reaction to his critics—were disappointing for anyone who’d hoped Union wouldn’t be left out to dry in her fight against a very powerful corporate entity. When there was an opportunity to support a person who’d been vocal in her support of him, Crews chose to lean on his own experiences in a way that would obviously pave the way for America’s Got Talent to cast hers into dispersion. This entire debacle has been reminiscent of other high-profile instances where Black celebs offered criticism in the wake of solidarity—either focused on the comforts of celebrity or preoccupied with the trajectory of their careers.
Mo’Nique famously engaged in a feud with streaming service Netflix, after she felt the giant lowballed her in regards to a proposed stand-up special. The star had been branded “difficult” for years and she’d felt blackballed by Hollywood notables like Oprah Winfrey and Lee Daniels, whom she worked with in 2009's Precious. It was her performance in that film that landed her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2010.
When Mo’Nique appeared on Steve to discuss her proposed boycott of Netflix and the blackballing, her longtime friend Harvey chastised the Oscar-winner. “We’re fighting two wars here,” Harvey said. “There’s two wars, it’s what your issue is and is what the perception of the issue is.”
Mo’Nique’s stance was that she was fighting for equality—for women and for Black comics—in her battle with Netflix. In regards to her stance on Winfrey and Daniels, she was fighting to be paid for extensive travel and promotion. To her, this was a fight for the right to say “no” in Hollywood.
“Now, I said ‘no’ to some very powerful people...the difficulty came in when people that looked like me, like Oprah, Tyler [Perry], Lee Daniels—and I got to put my brother Steve on the list. Y’all knew that I was not wrong. Each one of you said to me, ‘Mo’Nique, you’re not wrong.’ And when I heard you go on the air and say, ‘My sister burned too many bridges, and it’s nothing I can do for her now,’ Steve, do you know how hurt I was?”
“I would have appreciated it, had my brother called me up and said, ‘let’s talk,’” she also said.
But Harvey was adamant that Mo’Nique’s wounds were self-inflicted, dismissing any notion of solidarity for what she was fighting for. Instead, he scolded her.
“This problem that you had at Netflix are rich people problems,” Harvey told her. “Because they’re looking at us saying, ‘you’re talking about millions, well, you got this, so you oughta be cool.'”
“I felt you had done yourself a disservice by the way you chose to go about it. When you tell the truth, you have to deal with the repercussions of the truth. We black out here. We can’t come out here and do it any kind of way we want to.”
“Black people can’t do that” was always poor logic for not standing up for oneself, and Harvey’s take on Mo’Nique may have been more egregiously condescending than Crews and Union but it also reveals how “my career” can trump “you were right” when it’s time to show solidarity. It’s also important to understand that you can’t only see “the problem” via your own “experiences”—what you’ve experienced isn’t the sum total of what goes on. And waiting until the wackness affects you will have you dismissing the oppression of those who may not be in your position.
Five years ago, rapper A$AP Rocky was at the center of a firestorm after he dismissed the idea of rapping about the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Md., at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. The incident sparked weeks of unrest, as citizens gathered to protest police violence against Black communities, with artists like J. Cole and Talib Kweli offering support.
“Why would I feel compelled to rap about Ferguson?” Rocky said at the time during an interview with TimeOut New York. “I’m not about to say that I was down there throwing rocks at motherfuckers, getting pepper-sprayed. I’d be lying…I live in fucking Soho and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”
When Rocky found himself imprisoned in Sweden in 2019 for assault, the rapper’s old interview came back to haunt him. Many of his peers called for his release and railed against what they felt was a racist overreaction as Rocky faced up to six years in prison for what was essentially a fight. As his supporters pleaded his case, many online called back to Rocky’s dismissiveness when he was asked to offer support for the protests in Ferguson.
In an early January sitdown with Kerwin Frost, Rocky offered an explanation for his words in 2015. “In those old interviews, I used to say ‘I think it’s inappropriate for me to rap about things I didn’t help with… I felt like when it came to Ferguson, J. Cole went down there and he actually was on the news and he helped. I felt like he deserved to rap about it. So when someone [asked] me that in 2015 I’m like: ‘I just feel, personally, if I’m in SoHo or I’m here I can’t even talk on that’… That’s appropriating.
“It’s not sincere. It’s pretentious.”
Black voices can often be scorned when they’re facing off against powerful gatekeepers; that those in positions to amplify those voices can so often decide to take the more “practical” route of undermining or outright dismissing those voices in the most public forums is just evidence of how much the upward mobility of the individual can blind them to the bigger picture. When Rocky had to deal with what it meant to face law enforcement while young and Black, when Terry Crews had to stare down a powerful Hollywood entity who’d wronged him—they fully understood what oppression can feel like. When Steve Harvey finger-wagged Mo’Nique on a high-profile platform, he did so acknowledging the sliding scale that Black people face. Supporting each other when “that’s not my experience” means not undermining the fight against powers-that-be. Because being able to retreat “my experiences” is the greatest privilege. Hopefully, someone will remind Terry Crews.
Editor's Note: Terry Crews has tweeted an apology to Gabrielle Union saying, "I want you to know it was never my intention to invalidate your experience— but that is what I did. I apologize."
Sean “Diddy” Combs touched off a firestorm during Grammy week when the mogul decided to take the academy to task for its marginalization of Black artists.
"So I say this with love to the Grammys, because you really need to know this: Every year, y'all be killing us, man,” he said as he ended his Icon Award acceptance speech during Clive Davis’ pre-show gala.
"Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be.”
"I’m officially starting the clock. You’ve got 365 days to get this shit together. We need the artists to take back control. We need transparency. We need diversity."
But Diddy’s words rang hollow for one of his former proteges. In the late 1990s, Ma$e was arguably the brightest star on Diddy’s Bad Boy label. But Ma$e departed Bad Boy in the early 2000s amidst conflicts with Combs, and the rapper posted on Instagram this week, blasting his old label boss for shady business dealings in the face of Combs’ rabble-rousing speech.
"Your past business practices knowingly has continued purposely starved your artist and been extremely unfair to the very same artist that helped u obtain that Icon Award on the iconic Badboy label," read the caption. "For example, u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k. Which makes me never want to work w/ u as any artist wouldn’t."
The Harlem native continued, revealing that he offered to buy back his publishing as recently as “a few days ago.”
“To add insult, u keep screaming black excellence and love but I know love isn’t free. So I offered u 2m in cash just a few days ago to sell me back my publishing(as his biggest artist alive) that always show u respect for u giving me an opportunity at 19 yrs old. Your response was if I can match what the EUROPEAN GUY OFFER him that would be the only way I can get it back. Or else I can wait until I’m 50 years old and it will revert back to me from when I was 19 years old. You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash. This is not black excellence at all.”
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@diddy I heard your #Grammy speech about how u are now for the artist and about how the artist must take back control. So I will be the first to take that initiative. Also, before we ask of other ethnicities to do us right we should do us as black people better. Especially the creators. I heard u loud and clear when u said that u are now for the artist and to that my response is if u want to see change you can make a change today by starting with yourself. Your past business practices knowingly has continued purposely starved your artist and been extremely unfair to the very same artist that helped u obtain that Icon Award on the iconic Badboy label. For example, u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k. Which makes me never want to work w/ u as any artist wouldn’t after u know someone is robbing you & tarnishing your name when u don’t want to comply w/ his horrendous business model. However, people would always ask what’s up w/ Mase? So I would be forced to still perform to not look crazy when I was getting peanuts and the robbery would continue. So many great moments and people lives in music were lost. But again, I rode with u in the face of death without flinching & u still wouldn’t do right. I never said anything because I wanted to wait until I was financially great so I can ensured that I was addressing this from a pure place and not out of spite. To add insult, u keep screaming black excellence and love but I know love isn’t free. So I offered u 2m in cash just a few days ago to sell me back my publishing(as his biggest artist alive) that always show u respect for u giving me an opportunity at 19 yrs old. Your response was if I can match what the EUROPEAN GUY OFFER him that would be the only way I can get it back. Or else I can wait until I’m 50 years old and it will revert back to me from when I was 19 years old. You bought it for about 20k & I offered you 2m in cash. This is not black excellence at all. When our own race is enslaving us. If it’s about us owning, it can’t be about us owning each other. No More Hiding Behind “Love”. U CHANGED? GIVE THE ARTIST BACK THEIR $$$. So they can take care of their families
This is an era of high-profile “Black excellence,” as hip-hop’s elder generation of moguls and their younger counterparts bask in career achievement and upward mobility. There are arguably more high-profile moguls in hip-hop than at any time in its history. The biggest Black artists flaunt their acumen in the boardroom and their spots on the Forbes list. But the game is still the game; Black artists still seem to have the same grievances against the industry. Just as Ma$e had to air out his grievances with his old deal, a similar sentiment was recently echoed by singer Kelis.
The innovative alt-R&B artist was at her peak in the early 2000s, but she recently revealed how little she made from those early albums and work with superproducers The Neptunes.
"I was told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didn't do," Kelis said in a recent interview with The Guardian. She felt that she’d been taken advantage of.
“Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it.’”
There is a proud history of Black moguldom in the music business. Names like Berry Gordy, Russell Simmons, Sean Combs and Bryan “Birdman” Williams have come to symbolize all that can be achieved with a lot of drive, talent and ambition. But the music empires of iconic labels from Motown to LaFace all have the scars inherent to the music business—this “Black excellence” doesn’t take a backseat to big business. And the business is just as rough when you bet on Black.
Berry Gordy’s Motown is arguably the most iconic label in music, built from former steelworker and aspiring boxer Gordy’s 1950s vision. The label would become home to everyone from The Temptations to Marvin Gaye, but their slick sound and aspirational image was also a testament to Gordy’s business model, as he ran each artist through a system of grooming, connected them with a proven stable of producers and songwriters, and guided their careers through his own perspectives. As time went on, artists like Gaye and Stevie Wonder bucked the system—while others like The Four Tops and producers Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield jumped ship.
The Funk Brothers weren’t credited on any Motown releases (save for Marvin Gaye’s famous shout out to bassist James Jamerson in the liner notes of What’s Going On), so most of them languished in obscurity for most of their careers, unable to even capitalize on the renown that should’ve come with playing on the most iconic hits of a generation. When the label celebrated its silver anniversary with Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever in 1983, lore has it that Jamerson had to sneak in and quietly watch from the audience.
The Jackson 5 were the last classic stars born of Motown’s machine, but by the mid-1970s, the maturing teen act was feeling stifled by that machine. The Jackson 5 wanted a better royalty rate and creative control. When Gordy wouldn’t budge, it led to a legal standoff between the label and the group. Four members of the Jackson 5 (Jackie, Tito, Marlon and Michael) countersued Motown for unpaid royalties and to terminate any contractual obligations to the label.
And later labels propelled by Black moguls also ran afoul of their artists. L.A. Reid and Babyface Edmonds founded their LaFace label in 1990 and would subsequently launch the careers of superstars like Usher, OutKast, and TLC. The latter was managed by Reid’s wife Pebbles and became one of the biggest acts of the 1990s, but famously filed for bankruptcy at the height of their popularity—citing an exploitative management deal with Pebbles and they filed suit against LaFace.
That suit was settled in 1996. In 1998, fellow LaFace star Toni Braxton would also file for bankruptcy. She also sued LaFace and Arista that year to get out of her contract to the label; they would reach a settlement in 1999. In the original lawsuit, Braxton alleged that she’d sold more than 15 million copies of two albums and earned Arista “an estimated $170 million.”
Black excellence is hollow when achievements sit on the back of exploitation. Diddy’s sentiments absolutely have validity, but there also has to be an effort to change the way the industry does business. If there is room for everyone to take control, then it can’t just be lip-service. Business is business, but it’s also worth noting that we can’t preach progress while following the oppressor’s business model.