In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, made the decision to remain seated as the national anthem played during several preseason games. By September of the same year, Kaepernick’s small gesture had become the talk of the country, highlighting a philosophical divide between NFL owners and the players. Now kneeling out of respect instead of sitting, Kaepernick became a figurehead in the ongoing fight against systemic injustice and police brutality, and he was using the NFL stage to do it. Despite personally consulting with Nate Boyer, a former member of the Army’s Green Berets, on how best to protest while remaining sensitive to the members of Armed Forces, Kaepernick’s decision to kneel became a conversation about everything but that. A conversation spearheaded by the NFL itself, a dialogue that fanned the rift between the NFL and its minority viewership to the point of protest.
Celebrities and influencers quickly caught wind of Kaepernick and his ongoing battle with the NFL for the freedom to protest. Everyone from Lebron James to Susan Sarandon to Barack Obama made the public declaration that they too stood with Kaep, but none more vocal than Brooklyn born rapper, Jay-z. Jay began publicly chastising the NFL for its treatment of Kaepernick, dedicating performances of “The Story of O.J.” to the Superbowl quarterback and sporting #7 jerseys during televised performances, making it nearly impossible to ignore the issue. When asked, Jay stated that he would encourage all Roc Nation athletes to conduct protests of their own in solidarity but this excitement was short-lived. Kaepernick appeared to move on, reaching a settlement with the NFL ownership in February 2019, viewers ended their “boycott” of the league altogether and tuned into the controversial Super Bowl to be entertained by the same artists they condemned for agreeing to perform. And as for Jay-Z, he moved on too, in the direction of his own best interests.
When news broke that Jay-Z’s Roc Nation had entered into an agreement with the NFL to become the resident entertainment consultants, Black Twitter flew into a frenzy. Twitter warrior, Shaun King, called the Jigga Man out for being a capitalist, Kaepernick's girlfriend, Nessa Diab, called him out for being a liar, and just about everyone else called him out for being a hypocrite. As frenzy turned into fury, Jay-Z crawled out from under his NFL check to address the naysayers, and during a media session held at the Roc Nation headquarters, Jay-Z sat next to a giggly NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and confirmed what many already knew. It was about the money. Granted, that’s not what the self-proclaimed “Business, man” said, but that’s also not what he didn’t say.
While seated next to a tickled Goodell, Jay-Z discussed how we had all moved past kneeling, or at least he had. He lectured that protesting wasn’t the only form of activism, dodged questions regarding Kaep’s lack of involvement, and eventually took a poll of the room to see if we could agree once and for all that we all knew why Kaep knelt in the first place. Jay continued sifting through questions while Goodell struggled to keep his laughter to a minimum, at one point almost scoffing at the idea that his partnership was anything short of indicative of a successful protest. One Black man lost everything so that Jigga could gain it all back a few months later, if that ain’t progress then what is? But as quickly as people rushed to criticism, they seemed to forget that we too played a role in Jay-Z’s ability to do what he does best, make money.
Jay-Z has been bragging about being a cut-throat capitalist for decades now, something we seemed to love about him just 72 hours ago. So much so that his becoming a billionaire was applauded as though it were an achievement for all Black people. As a part of Jay’s deal with the NFL, Roc Nation will basically be at the helm of the entertainment decisions, especially as it pertains to the Super Bowl. This is a significant piece of the agreement. Not because it opens up the platform to new and undiscovered artists or artists whose messages align with the original intent of Kaepernick’s protest, but because it puts every artist who protested the Super Bowl on account of Kaep back in the discussion.
Roger Goodell couldn’t get Rihanna or Cardi B on stage at last year’s Super Bowl, Jay-Z can and Jay-Z knows it. But even more interesting is the repeated emphasis on Jay’s involvement with the NFL’s social justice campaign, Insight Change. Is it possible that the NFL resents Kaep not just for his public protest against a system they benefit from, but also for his ability to leverage Hollywood against them in the process? It’s possible. Is it also possible that this partnership, with arguably the most influential man in Hip Hop, is a direct and strategic response to that slight? Also plausible. But this was evident long before it became something to hashtag huff about. And let’s be honest, Jay was well aware of the fact that, from a business perspective, he had the obvious upper hand, unless there’s something indirect about the lyrics:
I said no to the Super Bowl, You need me, I don’t need you,
Every night we in the end zone, Tell the NFL we in stadiums too
Let’s be clear, Jay Z is in fact a hypocrite, but not because of his deal with the NFL. Jay has been playing the activism card for quite some time. “Anonymously” bailing activists out of jail, providing legal counsel to victims of police brutality, hosting charity events to bring awareness to global Black causes, all of these have Jay made certain to publicize. But this decision here, this decision to cherry-pick pop artists for NFL Primetime performances, this decision has nothing to do with the people. This one is about the bottom dollar and although it may be hard for Jay to deal with that, he’s gonna have to come to terms with the fact that it’s damn near impossible to be a capitalist and fight against social injustice, especially because one feeds the other. Had Jay not made such a big fuss in the first place about Kaep, this partnership wouldn’t ruffle so many feathers. But the strategic and carefully timed attachment to Kaepernick, who is arguably this generations’ equivalent to Muhammad Ali in terms of social and political activism through the professional sports stage, was no coincidence. Jay’s activism has always been rooted in his ability to capitalize from it because we, the people who support him, have never demanded that he separate the two.
This isn’t all Jay’s fault. For decades we’ve praised every successful Black capitalist as though a huge chunk of their success wasn’t amassed through the exploitation of their own communities. Why get so self-righteous about it now? Especially over something as trivial as the NFL? I know why, it’s because we care. It’s easier to gripe about Jay capitalizing off of our artificial advocacy than it is to address the fact that this is an issue because we are still invested in the NFL. We’re still watching. We’re still spending our money. We’re still playing fantasy football and buying jerseys. And if Roc Nation came out with a jersey tomorrow, half of us would run out and buy that too. We were never truly done with the NFL, even while we were kneeling with Kaep.
Do we really expect this man to turn down the NFL with a check in hand when half of us can’t turn them down for free? Jay Z is irritated by the backlash, I can imagine he’s not accustomed to being on Black people’s bad side (BeyHive excluded), and rightfully so. How dare we have actual standards we’re not willing to move for the right person all of a sudden? We love a hustler until we get hustled. Meanwhile, the NFL is hustling us all. This organization will always be one that exploits Black bodies and takes advantage of the social and economic obstacles facing inner-city minorities, this latest stunt is the same game by a different name. But this is what we wanted, right? Not our own table, especially if that means building it from the ground up, but a seat at theirs. Jay got us one. Isn’t that enough?