When Colin Kaepernick sat out the National Anthem in silence to protest police brutality, he knew that he ran the risk of others speaking for him. Unfortunately, many of the voices that rose to fill the void he purposely left have been more interested in co-opting his message or in magnifying the man over the mission. Fortunately for Colin, one of those voices belongs to one of the biggest rappers in hip-hop.
As Jay-Z took to the Saturday Night Live stage to perform “Bam” and “4:44,” he wore a customized jersey emblazoned with the number 7 and “Colin K,” a clear reference to the deposed NFL star, but besides standing in solidarity with the former Super Bowl quarterback, Jay’s wardrobe decision lent all the weight of his cultural authority to Kaepernick’s protest.
It was no empty gesture to show so-called “unity” — we have had more than enough of those. Instead, the jersey signaled that Kap had a powerful ally — not just on the field, or safely sequestered in a recording booth, but in the halls of power, where Jay’s corporate connections come into play, despite the lyrics from “The Story Of OJ,” his song that almost directly correlates to Kaepernick’s present standing in the public’s perception.
“Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga / Rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga / Still n*gga…”
Jay-Z knows, perhaps better than any other supporter of Colin Kaepernick, the injustices and indignities imposed on minority citizens by law enforcement; not only are his own encounters with law almost religiously documented through his own music, but he has personally financed the documentary Time: The Kalief Browder Story, and written his own extensive critique of the exploitative jail system that effectively places a ransom on members of the poorest population for the slightest offenses.
So he is no average celebrity caught up in the wave of hype surrounding the kneeling protest of the National Anthem; he’s been in the fight for years. The difference between a Jay-Z co-sign and, say, Cardi B’s or J. Cole’s is that Shawn Corey Carter is one of the most wealthy and recognizable public figures in the world, and his statement took place in one of the most mainstream outlets in America.
According to Vulture, Saturday Night Live’s ratings for 2017 are unprecedented; the current viewership has reached levels not seen in over 25 years, despite television viewership in general trending down since the advent of streaming services, Youtube, and cable-cutting millennials. In fact, per Vanity Fair, Saturday’s airing was the second highest-rated premiere since 2010. The episode averaged over 7 million viewers.
Which means 7 million viewers saw Jay-Z, rocking a number 7 Colin Kaepernick jersey, spitting lines like “N*ggas could not be further, I fathered your style / Birth of a Nation, Nat Turner style,” and “I be skippin’ leg day, I still run the world.” It’s the ultimate symbol of defiance in the face of overwhelming mainstream pressure to just shut up and play. This is Jay saying to Colin: “Keep going.”
This is Jay saying: “Be bolder. Be louder. We are not going anywhere. We are standing with you.” This is Jay refocusing the conversation, which has somehow spiraled away from one man’s decision not to stand in pride to honor a broken system, that descended into empty calls for “unity” in the face of boisterous bluster from the President because the NFL’s owners got their feelings hurt.
And he did all this while a hype man waved a Rastafari flag in the background, the ultimate symbol of Black solidarity and sovereignty. Rasta recognizes that Black people are oppressed in “Babylon” focuses rediscovering the identity, personal and racial, of Black people, a direct contrast to the controversy that has spun out of the smokescreen of perceived disrespect for the American flag. The Rastafarian banner was not on that stage by accident or just because Damian Marley performed alongside Jay.
By placing these reminders front and center in America’s consciousness, far away from the sporting arenas that have become the rhetorical battleground for a campaign of denial and willful ignorance on the part of the American people, Jay makes Colin Kaepernick’s message inescapable and undeniable. Jay-Z’s Saturday Night Live performance served as a reminder that it’s bigger than football, that almost every thread of life is interconnected. This isn’t something we can avoid by “sticking to sports.” It’s not going to go away. America will have to reckon with its bloody history and its flawed present if it is to meet its promise, and Black Americans — be they entertainers, businessmen, or athletes — will keep reminding you of this until it happens.