On October 21st, 19-year-old Trayon Christian filed a lawsuit against Barneys Department store and the NYPD. The engineering student alleged he was wrongfully detained on April 29th, after he purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt. He told NBC New York, “As soon as I hit to the next block of the corner, the undercover cops stopped me, and that was it. They arrested me.”
What does this unfortunately all too familiar instance of racial profiling have to do with Shawn “Jay Z” Carter? That’s what the hip-hop mogul wants to know.
After a week of being pressured to comment on the incident in light of his highly publicized holiday collection with Barneys, Carter released a statement on his Life and Times website asking “Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately? The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn’t want to make without the full facts.”
But Trayon’s allegations against Barneys conjure associations with the rapper for a few reasons. As one Facebook friend put it, the luxury retailer was likely targeting young fans of Jay Z, many whom look like Trayon. But perhaps the reason that most counts is his connection to the store at this exact time offers the perfect opportunity for him to extend the statements he makes about racial profiling in his music to a real world situation he can actually influence.
More details will emerge from Trayon Christian’s incident and the subsequent accusation levied against Barneys by another complainant; we’ll have to wait to find out exactly what happened. Jay Z may be right not to rush to judgment, but considering his leverage with the store and in the culture at large, he’s in a position to bring attention to the chronic problem of racial profiling and catalyze change both in his native New York as the NYPD’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy undergoes vigorous debate in the wake of the upcoming mayoral election, and across the country.
Over the last two years specifically, the rapper who famously reenacted a profiling stop on his hit “99 Problems”—[Trooper] “Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?” [Jay Z] “ ‘Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low”— has been under increasing pressure to spend his social and political capital to advocate for social causes.
Last August, legendary actor and activist Harry Belafonte, 86, told The Hollywood Reporter that Carter, 43 and his wife were among a “sad” group of powerful celebrities of color who “have turned their back on social responsibility.”
Carter clapped back in a verse on his song “Nickels and Dimes,” calling Belafonte “Mr. Day-o” (in reference to the older man’s erstwhile Carib-lite hit of the same name), and “boy” (the racially charged pronoun bigoted whites employed when speaking to and about grown black men from slavery to Jim Crow). He finished the diss asserting his cultural relevance, purchasing power, and alluding to unpublicized charitable work:
Respect these youngins, boy
It’s my time now
Two door homie
You don’t know all the sh*t I do for the homies
But “Nickels and Dimes” also reflects the rapper’s deep wrestle with what he should really be doing with the considerable wealth he raps about. On the track he admits:
Sometimes I feel survivor's guilt
I gave some money to this guy, he got high as hell
Now I'm part of the problem far as I could tell
Did I do it for him or do it for myself
I got a problem with the handouts, I took the man route
I'll give an opportunity though, that's the plan now
No guilt in giving, clear a n*gga conscience out
No guilt in receiving, every thing within reason
To be clear, Jay Z has thrown his weight behind the UN’s clean water campaign, and donated proceeds of performances to benefit the United Way of New York City and his Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation. He has reportedly handed out toys and read to kids in his old neighborhood. And he’s been consistent in rhyme and life that his forays into artist and athlete management, and his brief tenure as Def Jam CEO have been about protecting talent from shady deals, and shoring up Black wealth. And who knows how many relatives and friends have benefited from the rapper’s largesse directly and indirectly?
If there is anything to be learned from Jay Z’s “beef” with Belafonte it’s that money doesn’t necessarily equal power; and power, or rather what to do with it, remains the most elusive piece in hip-hop’s oft rapped about quest for “money, power, respect.” As hip-hop culture grows older and richer, and rhymes evolve from name-checking luxury labels to bloviating about Picassos, powerlessness