It’s obscene for rap superstar Jay-Z to accuse President Trump in a TV interview this weekend of being “hurtful” to black Americans because he called certain Third World countries “shitholes” in private comments made public by that most cynical of politicians, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin. The countries Trump meant are not inferior to enlightened Western democracies because of the color of their populace, but because of the corruption and oppression of their kleptocratic governments that keep the proles in poverty, ignorance, and fear; their religions that teach violence or passive resignation; and their cultures that oppress women, devalue learning, promote superstition, and don’t inculcate the upwardly mobile virtues, because few can move up.
Of course, Jay-Z is right to say that such countries have “beautiful people,” many of whom sweat to make decent lives in spite of the harsh obstacles to doing so, and who make valuable Americans if they manage to get here. But these are the special ones, with the strength of character to resist malign environmental influences. As for the rapper’s insistence that these countries have “beautiful everything”—black Americans from W. E. B. Du Bois to Barack Obama have gone to Africa looking for a glorious, usable African past and found themselves bitterly disappointed. No such glory existed.
If Jay-Z wants to see someone truly hurtful to blacks—by contrast with Trump, under whose administration black unemployment has plunged to 6.8 percent in December, the lowest rate on record—he might usefully take a hard look at himself and the tribe of rap “artists” he leads. What is keeping down American blacks today is not racism, oppression, or lack of opportunity. That’s over. Black Americans are now free. What holds them back is the ideology of “authentic blackness”—a black identity rooted in the urban underclass culture of hatred of authority (especially of the police, the teacher, and the boss), indifference to learning, misogyny, sex stripped of love or commitment, hustling, resentment, drug trafficking and using, tolerance of lawbreaking, and rage, rage, rage, the hallmark of keeping it real. That’s the message rap hammers home constantly with its mind-numbing rhythm. Classical and jazz trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, who despises rap more because it is anti-music—devoid of harmony, beauty, structure, transcendence, or thought—than because of its odious, subliterate lyrics, nevertheless scornfully dismisses the medium’s main story line: “Now you have to say that you’re from the streets, you shot some brothers, you went to jail. Rappers have to display the correct pathology.”
Jay-Z, the classiest and wittiest of a dreary lot, doesn’t entirely sink to this level, but he’s still deep in the muck. With every American black kid, and many white ones, steeped in his “music,” he is as powerful a cultural disseminator as we have, and his message is malign.
On violence and crime:
Chip off the old block
Resemble my old pops
Cept I tote glocks and open dope spots
And I shut down rap crews
Smack them cats who flash tools
Laugh at fake ballers with bad jewels. (“S. Carter,” 1999)
[gunshots] OKAY, I’M RELOADED!!!
You motherfuckers, think you big time?
Fuckin with Jay-Z, you gon’ die, big time!
Here come the “Pain”! [gunshots] (“Brooklyn’s Finest,” 1996)
Real niggaz do real things
Bustin my toast off the roof drinkin 90 proof til spring
Real niggaz do real things, check. . . .
Right in front of your children, eightball in my side pocket
They was corrupt too, disrespectin the fiends I used to
look up to, take it or leave it, fuck you. (“Real Niggaz,” 1997)
On law enforcement:
Peep the style and the way the cops sweat us (uh-huh)
The number one question is can the Feds get us (uh-huh)
I got vendettas in dice games against ass betters (uh-huh)
and niggaz who pump wheels and drive Jettas
Take that witcha. (“Brooklyn's Finest,” 1996)
You know I—thug em, fuck em, love em, leave em
Cause I don’t fuckin need em
Take em out the hood, keep em lookin good
But I don’t fuckin feed em
First time they fuss I’m breezin
Talkin bout, “What’s the reasons?”
I’m a pimp in every sense of the word, bitch. . . .
Me give my heart to a woman?
Not for nothin, never happen. (“Big Pimpin,” 1999)
And he’s hurt when the president says “shitholes” in private? And that’s what’s keeping blacks down? The cliché has it that black music is a huge, positive contribution to American culture. Maybe so. But not this stuff, which has helped keep certain urban neighborhoods . . . what the president said.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for TIDAL