The NFL regular season is set to start in a week, but the league’s most newsworthy figure isn’t a player or coach — it’s Jay-Z. Two weeks ago, the iconic rapper and his Roc Nation entertainment agency announced a long-term partnership with the NFL. For the time being, Jay-Z and Roc Nation will help the league choose music acts for the Super Bowl and other major NFL events. They will also partner with the football league’s Inspire Change campaign, which “supports programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity,” according to its official site.
There is a chance that Jay could do great things with Inspire Change. But for now, Jay’s latest play is in review when it comes to the court of public opinion. While figures like Diddy have come out to support the partnership, others, like Rihanna believe that “Jay-Z was wrong” to partner with a league that’s still veritably blackballing Colin Kaepernick for his kneeling protest against systemic oppression and state-sanctioned violence.
Jay-Z has gained considerable goodwill in the past several years through charitable gestures such as donating to the Black Lives Matter movement, bailing out protesters during the 2015 Baltimore uprisings, helping Meek Mill and others in their fights against the criminal justice system, and legal assistance with 21 Savage’s battle with ICE. The 49-year-old is a Godfather figure to the rap industry — but he got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and reactions to his decision are mixed.
No matter what Jay-Z does with the NFL, many will agree with music industry veteran Irv Gotti that “it almost looks like the NFL manufactured and manipulated Jay to be the front and face of the bullsh*t” while his presence makes people “forget about” Kaepernick’s plight. During a press conference to announce the union, Jay-Z said that he felt like we were “past kneeling,” and that working with the NFL on reform was “the next actionable step.”
But Colin Kaepernick started the NFL’s social justice movement with his kneeling, and Inspire Change was started by NFL owners in a bid for players to stop kneeling in solidarity with him. There’s a prevailing notion among critics of the deal that as the spearhead of the movement, Kaepernick is the best person to decide what’s “next.” Miami Dolphins player Kenny Stills’ criticized Jay-Z’s comments, reminding him that “he’s not a NFL player. He’s never been on a knee.” Stills also said that Jay-Z was “choosing to speak for the people like he had spoken to the people.”
As long as Kaepernick is without a team, and his still-active peer Eric Reid is given excessive drug tests, deals like Jay-Z’s will look “despicable,” as Reid called the partnership. The Carolina Panther bemoaned that Jay-Z decided to work with the league despite “claiming to be a supporter of Colin — wore his jersey, told people not to perform at the Super Bowl because of the treatment that the NFL did to Colin.” Reid added that Jay-Z has “done a lot of great work, a lot of great social justice work, but for you to get paid to go into an NFL press conference and say that we’re past kneeling? Again, asinine.”
Kaepernick hasn’t spoken out publicly about Jay-Z’s move, but it’s fair to assume that he agrees with his girlfriend (and Hot 97 media personality) Nessa, who went on air the night of the announcement to state that “the disappointment in Jay-Z isn’t in the partnership. The disappointment is wrapping it in Social Justice.” She added that, “I don’t mind you doing a business deal – but I do mind you wrapping it in social justice when you’re working with an organization that denies someone an opportunity,” referring to Kaepernick.
Jay-Z hasn’t replied to Nessa’s comments directly, but the following statement he made at the press conference proactively rebutted the critics:
“It’s a natural emotion to be upset, but where do we go now? Where are we going to take it, what do we do, how are we going to fix it? And what is everyone doing? Everyone can speak like those Twitter people, everyone can talk. Ask them, what have they done? There’s 365 days last year. I can tell you exactly what I’ve done last year. Let me tell you everything I’ve done to change. I can tell you the amount of people who I saved from going to jail, I can tell you I got this person out of jail, I can tell you this, this, this, this and that. I fed this many people, I can tell you exactly what I’ve done with my 365 days. What has everyone done? It’s a challenge. We can have the conversation, and again, I’m not saying it’s not needed. It’s needed because we need to know what’s happening. We need to identify the problems in order to for us to address it. But after we address it, what are we doing?”
There have been many in the music industry who have come out in defense of Jay-Z. Roc Nation artist Vic Mensa said that “I believe that Hov’s intentions are in the right place” and believes he will help get Kaepernick back into the NFL. Longtime friend Diddy took to Instagram and Twitter to express his support, calling Jay “one of the most genuine and intelligent Black leaders we’ve ever had.” He also noted that “I believe in taking action, taking steps towards the right direction and I support all my brothers that are out here taking ACTION.”
Rap-A-Lot Records founder J Prince applauded Jay-Z, and said on Instagram that, “the kneeling was good, now it’s time to walk and eventually we shall run.” Rapsody told Power 105’s The Breakfast Club that, “if the issue why we were kneeling was to bring awareness to these issues, then that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s not about the kneeling. Why are we upset? It’s not about Kaepernick either.”
The Eve rapper was more diplomatic than Freddie Gibbs, who exclaimed on Instagram “F*ck Colin Kaepernick. All y’all n—-s marched for Colin Kaepernick and he took a settlement and ain’t tell y’all what he got or nothing,” referring to Kaepernick and Reid’s February settlement with the league in their collusion case. Gibbs called critics of the deal “muthaf*ckin crabs” for “hating on Jay-Z for trying to own something in the NFL.”
The move is eliciting passionate reactions on both sides. People who support the partnership believe that there is good work to be done with the league, and that Jay-Z is, as Mensa commended, “a Black man with a socially conscious responsibility.” Critics feel that Jay-Z working with the NFL is, as Gotti speculated, “a masterminded plan” by the league to make Jay-Z look like “a pawn” for their efforts to deflect attention from Kaepernick’s banishment.
Time will tell which side ends up feeling more justified, but one thing is certain: the world will be scrutinizing every aspect of the partnership along the way.