“We are all complex human beings,” Jay-Z told the crowd at the New York Public Library last night. His memoir/critical critique, Decoded, (which is in stores today) provided the opportunity to share himself and work in a forum with Paul Holdengräber, Director of Public Programs at The New York Public Library, and Cornel West that acknowledged his career and contributions as art, as poetry. Those who claim membership in the hip-hop generation know what a rarity that is.
Throughout hip-hop’s existence, it’s been steadily dismissed, even as it’s come to dominate music, domestically and globally. It’s no secret that many African-Americans, especially those of the Civil Rights generation, insist that the world and black America, specifically, would be better off if rap never existed or just disappeared. For that reason, West’s presence during the conversation was very symbolic and so was the location. Let’s face it, in this country, where you share your message is as important as the message itself. It’s surely one of the reasons Barack Obama decided to run for president in the first place.
Like any great politician who takes his or her responsibility to represent his or her constituency seriously, Jay-Z did not forget his. As he held court with West and Holdengräber, he did not discuss just himself. Instead, he took great pains to establish himself within a particular era, not ignoring all the conditions that produced him and many others.
“I think the generation that we went through was so emotional scarring to us,” he said. “Think about the time we grew up in; it was like the crack epidemic. The whole relationship between ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ had split. It no longer existed. The people that were supposed to care for us are now running around the neighborhood and crack is not a prideful drug. You seen people in the hallways with no sense of self-worth.”
That kind of trauma didn’t just disappear, Jay-Z insisted.
“Now the child was in charge,” he explained further. “The child didn’t even have respect for his elders because he was in the position of authority and that thing is psychological. That’s not gone go away. So that sort of feeling, love for yourself and love for your elders and respect for people was gone.”
A lot of early hip-hop actually spoke to those conditions. Sharing the story of a childhood friend in the audience last night who got caught up in the criminal justice system, Jay-Z, who had little doubt that his friend would have easily been where he is now if he had not gotten caught up, shared exactly why hip-hop matters and what he does to protect it.
Acknowledging that both Michael Jackson and Prince were played in his hood, Marcy Projects, Jay-Z noted that “we enjoyed those records but they weren’t telling our story firsthand.” Rap music did that and, as a result, comes with a greater responsibility.
“My job is pushing the culture forward and leaving something that saved our life and saved my life in a better place,” he said. “And having that conversation with people what this music means to us and how we arrive at these decisions and why we make some of the decisions that we make is very important to me.”
At times that point was hard to hear with West veering off on tangents, taking up personal issues with Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. Because Holdengräber was less familiar with Jay-Z’s work and African-American music in general, his questions actually proved more insightful. For one, he allowed Jay-Z to talk when West, at too many instances, talked over them both. Much of Decoded, Jay-Z shared, was sparked because of a particular conversation with West and child advocate Geoffrey Canada so, perhaps, West was simply too close to the material.
A conversation with Oprah Winfrey was another important moment for Decoded. More than anything, the n-word served as the great issue between Winfrey and the multi-millionaire rapper and businessman. And, even at the New York Public Library, he didn’t shy away from the debate, actually revealing that he had given great consideration to Winfrey’s objections.
“That whole word, the n-word, means a whole entire different thing to Oprah,” he said with great compassion. “She comes from a generation where people were getting hung from a tree and that’s the last thing they heard so she has a deeper connection.” For Jay-Z, the n-word is ultimately just a word and he personally favors looking at one’s intentions over the language they use.
While discussing love and collective responsibility, Jay-Z shared a moving behind-the-scenes account of recording “This Can’t Be Life” (2000) with Houston rapper Scarface. Moments before they go to record the song, Scarface gets a call informing him that his friend’s child had been killed and, instead of not recording, shares that experience in his verse.
Using the story to show that hip-hop is poetry, words placed to pain, the soundtrack to life’s greatest challenges, Jay-Z quotes part of Scarface’s verse that says “I could’ve rapped about my hard times on this song/But heaven knows I woulda been wrong/I wouldn’ta been right, it wouldn’ta been love.”
Equally stirring was how he used Lauryn Hill’s song “Zion,” where she speaks to deciding to have her child despite industry pressure to have an abortion, to discuss the dark side of the music industry. “They are telling her to abort her child and she chose to have her child in the music business and she went on to have one of the most successful albums ever,” he told the crowd after the song played.
“For me, it reminded me how fortunate we were when we went to every label they just told us ‘no,’” he revealed. “To have our own label [be]cause we had sort of creative control that other people didn’t have. It’s not enough to have talent; you have to have control of your career as well.”
And that’s exactly the message that Jay-Z conveyed last night and, throughout his career. By insisting that Decoded, his story, can also serve as the collective story of his community, he is standing up strong for not just hip-hop but for a generation of people. “Through hip-hop we found a way to redeem those lessons, and use them to change the world,” he writes in Decoded.