is jay-z the nfl’s convenient black friend?

August 21, 2019
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The Convenient Black Friend is there to put white people at ease. They’re there whenever white folks need someone to stand by them to “prove” that they’re not racist, as if every Black individual has the power to absolve any white person of racism. Kanye is one of Trump’s Convenient Black Friends just as Ben Carson and Candace Owens are some of the GOP’s Convenient Black Friends. Despite clear and overt racism, their presence sends a message that they see no racism so there is no racism, mountains of evidence be damned. As if racism requires you to be cruel and hateful to every single Black body you encounter. No, you can be racist and also be nice to certain Black people. Trump’s decades of racist actions and rhetoric, and the GOP’s decades of racist posturing and policies, are not erased by the approval of a few Convenient Black Friends. Racist actions that deny life or liberty or justice to Black people are not counterbalanced by being polite to other Black individuals. The NFL is nothing like the GOP but they’ve been dealing with charges of racism and they were in need of a Convenient Black Friend. I never thought that friend would turn out to be Jay-Z .

In recent years the National Football League (NFL) has struggled to deal with its Black players demanding to be accepted as more than just athletes and performers but as complete human beings who have a specific and significant demand: pay attention to the epidemic of police violence and racial injustice that kills innocent, unarmed Black people. That really shouldn’t be controversial, but it’s become extremely inconvenient for the NFL, where white fans turn to in order to escape real life. For Black fans, there’s a proud legacy of using sports as a stage for political protest — from Jack Johnson to Jackie Robinson to John Carlos and Tommy Smith to Muhammad Ali — but the NFL wants nothing to do with that. They just want games. 

Most specifically, the NFL has tried to silence Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who during the 2016 season began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to silently protest police violence and racial injustice. Many players joined the protest, many owners and fans complained, and the league tried to bar on-field protests, and essentially pushed Kap out of the league. But Kap’s absence, and his expanded relationship with Nike, has only made his stature grow. Being shut out of the NFL has transformed Kap into an historic athlete-activist — which has turned into a business problem for the NFL. While Trump and many white fans demanded the players just shut up and play — shut up even though their protests were literally silent — some Black fans stopped supporting the NFL. And one of Hip-Hop’s most prominent kings, Jay-Z, signaled his solidarity by dissing the NFL in private and then bragging about it in his rhymes: “I said no to the Super Bowl, you need me, I don’t need you,” he said on “Apeshit.” He wore Kap’s jersey onstage. Kap and his struggle was a part of Jay’s grown-up/woke billionaire phase which saw the flowering of the rapper’s political consciousness. In recent years he’s all about telling the story of Kalief Browder, helping Meek Mill, and reminding us of Trayvon Martin. He’s marched, he’s paid legal bills, he’s created documentaries, he’s been serious about the cause.

Meanwhile, there was an American institution in trouble. The NFL needed help and there weren’t many people who were big enough to do it. Now, I don’t believe the NFL is racist (though I have no doubt that several owners are). I don’t think the NFL wants to silence Kap because they support police violence — no, they want him quiet because they want to get back to the games, to the entertainment. Kap was distracting fans from the sports, and frankly making it look small compared to what he was talking about. And every other quarterback signing made the NFL look worse and worse. Even though Kap, a former Super Bowl QB is still available, just days ago the Eagles signed Josh McCown, a 40 year-old who was retired and not looking to go back to playing. Can anyone really say Josh is a better football option than Kap? Stop. The NFL needed a change. So they did what so many white people do when they need to be shielded from charges of racism. Something a Convenient Black Friend was designed to do. And even though Jay-Z’s politics were on the other side, and his bank account is so large that this deal probably registers as a rounding error to him, the NFL discovered that they could afford the price of Jay’s friendship. We don’t know what his payday from this deal will be and it’s not clear what his actual role will be—is he the music coordinator for the Super Bowl now or just an advisor or…? The one thing the NFL wanted you to know for certain was that now Jay was down with them. At a difficult moment for the NFL, they found a Convenient Black Friend. 

In a society dominated by white supremacy, no significant life move is neutral, because, supposedly, neutral moves perpetuate the status quo. Every major action is either racist or anti-racist. There is no middle ground. Jay’s woke phase has been all about anti-racism but is Jay working with the NFL an anti-racist move? Does it seek to amplify Kap’s message from the inside or is it meant to diminish Kap and signal to the players that it’s time to move on from kneeling? Does it tell the world, “Hey the NFL can’t be racist if Jay is down with them?” Does programming the Super Bowl halftime show give Jay as much as the NFL gets from this deal when he’s basically absolving them of charges of racism? Someone leaked the idea that Jay may one day become an owner but more recent reports suggest he won’t and there’s no there there at all. So this deal won’t allow Jay to hire Kap. Understandably, Kap seems a little upset about the whole situation. Jemele Hill at The Atlantic wrote about Jay and Kap’s call on the issue of this deal: “A source close to Kaepernick, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, told me, “It was not a good conversation.”

I can’t help but see Jay as the NFL’s new Convenient Black Friend, standing by white folks he used to clown. He moves like a king, but in this story he sure seems playing the pawn.