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What belongs in our libraries?
Words, Poetry and "The Book of HOV"
Hi there, so this has been quite an eventful summer! How is yours going? : )
Below is a brand new edition of my newsletter. Thanks for your interest…
We Honor Those Who Walked (Part 1)
Civil rights leaders are commemorating the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. When Pres. Obama honored a related anniversary, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he reflected on progress, and the link across generations, saying:
“We honor those who walked, so we could run. We must run, so our children soar.”
The President was actually drawing on a formulation from one of his favorite artists, Jay Z, who said in one of his poems:
Rosa Parks sat, so Martin Luther could walk. Martin Luther walked, So Barack Obama could run.
The “run” builds on the literal references to Parks sitting, and MLK walking and marching — running is the next step, and also a reference to Obama running for office.
I think maybe Obama also wanted to avoid ending the line with a direct reference to himself. So he expands it to “we” must run - then hands off the progress to the next generation (“our children soar”).
Some people may have heard Obama’s now-celebrated Selma speech and missed that subtle reference. Other people got it, and many appreciated it. Language is like that.
Obama later cited the shoutout, when giving a speech inducting Jay-Z into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
I sampled Jay-Z’s lyrics to close my speech at Selma…
I’m still the only president to listen to Jay Z’s music in the Oval Office!
Given the two Presidents since Obama, that probably still holds up (lol). But it may not forever. That’s a good thing.
Breaking down barriers and discrimination is vital in culture, just as it is for the halls of power. Which brings us to the Brooklyn Library…
In The Hall Already…
The Brooklyn Library launched a new exhibit exploring the writing, art and life of Jay-Z. Here’s how the New York Times reports on the unusual exhibit:
"Featuring artwork, music, memorabilia, ephemera and large-scale recreations of touchstones from a sprawling career, “The Book of Hov” might seem more at home at the Brooklyn Museum down the block. But by installing the showcase across eight zones of a functioning library, its architects are aiming to bring aspirational extravagance to a free public haven, just a few miles from the Marcy House [projects] where Jay-Z grew up…
Jay-Z will also be helping, perhaps unwittingly, with [library] sign-ups. In addition to the draw of the exhibition itself, the library is producing 13 limited-edition library card variations featuring its homegrown star — one for each album.
Dylan to Kendrick
Jay-Z is known and celebrated for his words. His poetry. His ideas.
So a library is a very fitting place to reflect on all that. On the other, many artists find their work culturally diminished or segregated, even after achieving other measures of mainstream success. That is why it is still a significant breakthrough when Bob Dylan gets a Nobel Prize for literature, or Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer (the first poet rapper ever, in 2018).
It matters to see an official metropolitan library curate, study and celebrate Jay-Z’s work for its literary and artistic value.
And especially this library, in his hometown, near the housing projects where he grew up; with an exhibit that is free and open to the public — an access that many museums and cultural facilities do not provide (a conversation for another day).
“Mr. President, there's drugs in our residence..”
The exhibit can also feel like speed-walking through Jay-Z’s career — a few feet from the early struggles and hustling, to headlining the world’s top stages and appearing with Obama.
Few places can mark the endurance and power of words like a library, and that is clear throughout the space.
Jay-Z’s lyrics literally wrap the building’s exterior, an inspired choice that both shows and teaches — even for people who may not enter the exhibit.
Now, there is no way to capture the sweep of Jay’s work and lyrics in one exhibit, let alone one newsletter entry. But, I don’t want to keep writing “about” his lyrics’ impact without actually reflecting on some in detail — so I’m going to focus on a single poem/verse in Part Two of today’s newsletter.
If you’ve had enough, you can peace out here. If that’s of interest, you can read on for that below…
Part 2: The Poetry
Last year, Jay-Z did a breakdown of the drug war, capitalism, discrimination and more in his lengthy verse on “God Did,” the Grammy nominated title track of DJ Khaled’s album.
Jay uses the poem to chart America’s legal, financial and civil rights history, and weave his own story through that larger arc.
America’s current inequality is relevant: We live in an economy and politics dominated by billionaires. Indeed, finance is an area of inequality that lags far behind other breakthroughs.
Since Jim Crow, America has made certain racial progress: Congress is more diverse now than ever; the last three winning national Democratic tickets featured racial minorities — with the incumbent administration running for a fourth.
Other barriers proved more difficult to traverse.
Consider the wealth gap. Unlike Congress, the racial wealth gap is virtually the same now as it was in 1963. Most family wealth is generational — houses and inheritance — so the last generation's discrimination lives on for many decades.
It’s more pronounced at the top. Fewer than one percent of all billionaires are Black. In fact, only about nine Black Americans are billionaires, according to Forbes.
Jay-Z is one of them, and he opens this poem by touting how one third of those nine made their first millions right alongside him.
Please, Lord forgive me for what the stove did
Nobody touched the billi' until Hov did
How many billionaires can come from Hov crib?
I count three, me, Ye and Rih
Bron's a Roc boy, so four, technically
Jay, also known as Hov, marvels at how he went from poverty to a billion and touts how those others basically came from his same space, or crib — Kanye, who worked with him as a producer and collaborator; Rihanna, who Jay signed early on to his record label; and LeBron James, who is also linked to Jay’s Roc Nation Company (as is Klahed, who made the song). Notice the reference to “technically” is both a caveat and double entendre for technical fouls in LeBron’s sport of basketball.
So Jay begins this verse by asking forgiveness for making his first money off drugs — cooked on a stove — while marveling at how he managed to leave that game with his record clean. It was only his ability to evade charges that gave him the lane to go from street drugs to the good life of champagne (and the champagne company he now owns). This is also a play on how he makes money off records — his albums are now clean records - since he left the street life. That’s a lot packed into those first few lines.
Jay also completes the parallel of that move from cocaine to champagne by comparing the process of transforming (illegal) coke to how Jesus turned water to wine:
Jesus turned water to wine, for Hov, it just took a stove.
The parallels are both bracing and digestible. They also run deeper, because think about it: there’s nothing automatically legitimate about wine or champagne. They are legal and respectable products today, but were notoriously banned during Prohibition. Indeed, that policy fueled gangs and violence, and was ultimately the only constitutional amendment to ever be reversed.
It is a slippery spectrum that Jay notes a few lines later in the poem:
Breezy what the business is / We pushing Fenty like Fentanyl /
the ish’ is all legitimate/ E was down ten for this.
Those lines go from alcohol Prohibition to a war on street drugs associated with minorities to fentanyl, a huge driver of drug problems and deaths — which today’s politicians do not usually treat criminally, like the drugs Jay once sold. (Corporations have made over $10 billion selling addictive painkillers, and unlike the racially discriminatory “war” on street drugs, opioids are often legally treated as a civil matter, or with far more “empathy” for users.)
“The pen is all you have..”
Jay also invokes fellow billionaire Rihanna to cite her Fenty fashion line to note how everything they produce is legitimate. And the final line above refers to E. — Emory Jones, an associate who served roughly ten years for a drug sentence, and now works at Jay’s company. His story can stand in for hundreds of thousands of other people, who are still locked up for non-violent drug offenses.
The sweep of this poetry builds to a legal-societal critique, contrasting opioids and (today’s) alcohol to marijuana and crack, showing how so many people, especially Black and Brown Americans, must navigate lines in the law that keep moving — enforced harshly for you, yet barely for others. It’s a reality that resonates for people who grow up in places where many peers are in prison or dead by 30; where police are a source of lethal danger; where “law” is abused abused and corrupted.
That’s already a lot. Some of it is pretty “big picture.”
Careful with the sentences
Then he uses the poem to contrast his own youthful recklessness with the care he applies to decisions today, borne of the wisdom gained through age:
Never my intention, the consequences of my way of life
The way we used to play with life
I'm now careful with the sentences - them only jail ‘bars’ I like
I never wanted to be the state custodian / the laws are draconian
Lot of fallen soldiers on these roads of sin
For those who make the laws - I'ma always have smoke for them
Jay invokes being a writer here: He's careful with his sentences, or bars (as lyrics are called), because he now lives a legitimate life — written sentences, not jail sentences; so rap bars, not jail bars! Some of those jail bars come from the draconian laws - not just youthful mistakes — so he will still clash with the politicians making those laws (having smoke, or conflict, for them — a double entendre for the marijuana smoke they once banned).
This is just part of one thorough verse, within one song. (Other Jay songs might feature three dense verses). Yet it is such an elevated prism for these issues. I’ve interviewed many lawmakers who don't come close to this nuance about drug policy, or its historical and discriminatory contradictions.
Even facing all this, closed minds and double standards persist at the highest cultural levels — those who insist this ‘poetry should not be eligible for a Pulitzer,’ or ‘be in a library,’ or ‘this music should not headline a Rock and Roll festival’ (really), or is ‘not real music’ on par with whatever they personally find more familiar, or what was more elevated through a repressive sorting of prestige. And on and on.
So decades in, this billionaire entrepreneur poet, with proven success in music, media, sports, business, law and politics still finds he must explain basic facts about American corruption and racism to elite and white society. That means facing down an entitled ignorance that we see in many walks of life. It’s another reason the library tribute felt so meaningful, especially to those who have felt locked out of the building — now they see a poet celebrated there, inside and out, his work on the shelves inside and draping the scaffolding. It’s a wider breakthrough, as Jay-Z has told his fans and listeners, “When you see me, see you.”
P.S. Thanks for checking out my newsletter, which occasionally shares some of my longer thoughts on life, culture and other random items and pictures. You can always subscribe to get the emails, or unsubscribe anytime.
Here is the audio Jay-Z released of HOV DID.
P.P.S. Does the exhibit sound worthwhile to you? Who else would you like to see honored like this?
Tell me in the comments and I’ll reply to some of them there.