To understand why Jay-Z in particular is getting so much criticism for the deal, it’s probably helpful to understand the image he has built in the past decade, particularly when it comes to social justice issues.
As he has ascended to his current status as hip-hop’s first billionaire, Jay-Z has also promoted a number of social justice causes and directly funded projects aimed at calling attention to racial injustice, ranging from offering financial support to the families of victims of police violence to donating to charities.
In recent years, he has been particularly involved in using film and television to highlight specific stories of injustice. In 2017, he executive produced a documentary miniseries about Kalief Browder, a young black man who died by suicide more than a year after his release from New York’s Rikers Island jail, where he had been detained without a trial for three years. In 2018, he executive-produced another documentary series, this one about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed by a Florida neighborhood watchman in 2012.
Earlier this month, Amazon released Free Meek, a five-part docuseries co-produced by Roc Nation that focuses on the decade-long legal fight for rapper (and Roc Nation artist) Meek Mill to be freed from America’s notoriously punitive probation system. Meek and Jay have also partnered as founding members of the REFORM Alliance, a group that seeks to limit the number of people serving unfair probation and parole sentences.
Jay-Z has also spoken publicly about other causes he supports, one of which has been Kaepernick’s protest. During a 2017 appearance on Saturday Night Live, he wore a custom Colin Kaepernick jersey. That same year, he dedicated a New York performance of his song “The Story of O.J.” to Kaepernick. During a January 2018 CNN interview, he called Kaepernick an “iconic figure,” adding that the player’s focus on civil rights issues made him comparable to civil rights icon and famed boxer Muhammad Ali.
All of this has made it clear that Jay-Z sides with Kaepernick’s protest and the issues it sought to highlight. And that has left questions about why he is now partnering with the NFL, a sports league that has worked very hard to make that protest disappear.
If anything, the fact that a days-old partnership has raised these questions — and led to intense criticism from both those who see Jay-Z as compromising the power of Kaepernick’s protest and opposing groups who see the NFL as capitulating to social justice issues — serves as a reminder of just how relevant Kaepernick’s protest remains in American culture.
More than two years after his exile from the NFL, Kaepernick remains a powerful (and profitable) symbol, one who sparked a tremendous shift that continues to affect the NFL’s public image in addition to igniting an ongoing national dialogue about race, sports, and protest.
For the NFL, Kaepernick’s power has presented a problem. While much of the media attention on public opinions of Kaepernick’s protest has focused on conservative-leaning Americans and supporters of President Trump, the league’s actions have also affected its standing with black viewers, some of whom have stopped watching NFL games as the quarterback remains unemployed. As the Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley explains, “the league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans.”
Black musicians — some of whom are affiliated with Jay-Z — have also declined to appear on the Super Bowl stage in recent years. Rihanna and Cardi B, for example, reportedly said no to doing this year’s halftime show out of solidarity with Kaepernick. It’s possible Jay-Z’s presence could be enough to convince some of these artists to return to an NFL stage.
With rehiring Kaepernick seemingly off of the table (though he has repeatedly noted that he is ready and willing to play), the league has few options. Its previous efforts to make the matter go away, like its attempted policy to end the anthem protests, have only led to more controversy and criticism of its actions. And even as the organization tries to stake out a place as a nonpolitical entity, its treatment of the protest, as well as its owners’ support of a president opposed to that protest and hostile to other racial justice issues, suggests that the NFL won’t be able to easily extract itself from the problem like it so clearly wants to.
The latest deal also raises a different, non-Kaepernick question, one about how committed the league actually is to fighting for social justice when it couldn’t even support displays of protest. It’s unclear what support Jay-Z will bring to the Inspire Change initiative, but so far, how the campaign plans to directly work with marginalized communities hasn’t been explained. And that stands in contrast with some of the more direct actions taken by current NFL players and Kaepernick, who have directly funded community-based organizations and initiatives.
Until the partnership actually begins operating, there are a lot more questions than answers. But one thing is clear: The NFL, even as it seeks to move past questions about Kaepernick, is still closely tied to the protest he began three years ago. With his new deal, Jay-Z will now have to shoulder some of that weight.