What’s Free? From Juneteenth To The Self Emancipation of HOV
The “Land of the Free” has been the nick name drenched in wishful thinking and some naive imagery for African Americans and their ancestors; it just doesn’t exist. The Emancipation Proclamation was drafted by the Union and mostly credited to then President, Abe Lincoln. Yet, immediately following the emancipation, loopholes were used to enforce Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes, which ensured that whites of the confederate south wouldn’t have to completely surrender the privileges and advantages of slavery and free labor. Not to mention the fear of former slaves seeking vengeance. So they restricted our civil liberties and dictated where we could live, work and what occupations we could hold. Thus our opportunities for advancement would be compressed and contained into a space that reinforced white America’s comfort. With ex-confederate soldiers taking on powerful positions as judges and police officers, blacks were served on a platter to prisons that ultimately acted as labor camps. Add that to the systematically and strategically placed obstacles that birthed indentured servitude, and Slavery 2.0 is birthed. So let’s reconsider Lincoln’s slice of the “credit” pie. Surely I’m appreciative of his contribution to the abolishment of slavery, but it feels like he gets a disproportionate amount of the credit. We freed ourselves. Blacks suited up and battled the confederate south for self emancipation. We then had to overcome the heavy hands of racism and social injustice, carving out a legacy of perseverance throughout the Jim Crow Era and post civil rights movement. The pulse of America’s economic stability has always been in the black communities, whether through the free labor that created the confederate economy or the buying power we hold now. Even this countries culture, music and fashion all were largely spurred by Black Americans.
Music served as a coping mechanism for slaves in America. Coined as Negro Spirituals, songs that described the turmoil and defeat, yet perseverant spirit of slaves were passed down by our ancestors. As years pasted after the emancipation, recorded music and its sales became a thriving business, with Black creatives being the catalyst for new sounds. However, they weren’t being properly credited and they had to sit and watch some of their white counterparts be celebrated for art they either stole or cheaply bought from Black musicians. Entire genres of music were pried from our hands only to be formulated and re-performed by white counterparts so white audiences would be more willing to digest the material. And as Hip Hop and Rap were ushered into the public consciousness starting in the Bronx in New York, many were skeptical of its longevity.
Let’s skip forward to Juneteenth 2019; Rap has been the gateway for many young Black men and women en route to generational wealth. The metamorphosis of the Black artist has been a sight to see. We have survived and sustained the corporatization of the genre during the mid 1980s and 1990s which catapulted the genre to a worldwide audience and becoming the most consumed segment of music. The art form now houses some of the most genius creatives and businessmen this country has ever seen. I’d say Shawn Carter most notably. Better known and stylized as JAY-Z, he has built a fortune of over a billion dollars, the first to do so after initially entering the business as a Hip Hop artist. HOV’s story is incredibly unique and complex because of his upbringing, background and the manner in which he has maneuvered throughout numerous industries on the way to his fortune. From hustler to hopeful major label signee, to not being offered any favorable deals by them, forcing him to start his own independent label with Dame Dash & Kareem “Biggs” Burke as partners, the odds were stacked against him. Roc-A-Fella Records was formed, and in 1996 Reasonable Doubt was released in a joint venture with Priority Records.
Upon the release of Jay’s debut, the rap landscape was bustling. Rap superstars had already been established on both coast, with Tupac, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre hailing from out west and emcees like Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and many more hailing from the tri state area.
By this time the south had even began their ascension with mega duo OUTKAST who was already working on their second album, ATLiens and Rap-A-Lot Records pushing high level underground acts out of Texas. Needless to say, Jay had his work cut out for him in order to stand out amongst his peers who were already heavyweights. Reasonable Doubt didn’t sell amazingly well according to the then standards, with roughly 420,000 copies being sold the first week. Currently that number would be an estimated first week total for an A-List Hip Hop act, but in 1996 Tupac had sold one million copies of All Eyez On Me just four hours after its release that February.
After the tragic deaths of Tupac and Biggie, which were just seven months apart, Hip Hop was looking for a new direction, away from the tension infused lyrics that fueled the coastal beefs that seemingly contributed to Pac’s and B.I.G’s murders. A more glamorous, fun and joyful tone had swept over Hip Hop in response and HOV was one of the artist leading the charge that would push Rap to foreign heights. Roc-A-Fella had joined forces with Def Jam Records and released Jay’s second LP, which went platinum and superstardom had arrived.
Multiple classics albums and hit singles later, Jay’s musical catalog is bulletproof. So great that we might take his dominance and skill sets for granted now a days. But maybe more impressive than his musical prowess is what he’s accomplished as a deal maker and entrepreneur. He has been a part of ventures ranging from a clothing brand that was extremely profitable, to alcoholic beverages and real estate, to modern tech and sports and entertainment management firms. Jay had garnered enough power and income to purchase the rights to his master recordings from Def Jam Records and to establish a new label, Roc Nation.
This side of JAY-Z is what brings me full circle back to Juneteenth. HOV exhibited similar traits of our ancestors on the road to stability in this country. Embodying the spirit of Black Civil War soldiers, Jay put his own skin in the fight, starting a label of his own after none of the major labels would offer him an agreeable deal. He was no stranger to the hardships that come once you hit the pinnacle of success in Rap. Like our ancestors, after the emancipation was drafted and signed; you realize the road ahead is still one of turbulence along with a sense of regathering control en route to your final destination. Shawn Carter garners much of my admiration, not from his lyrics, but from his journey and what that entailed. The constant evolving and stretching; finding success in a number of industries. This is what ultimately led to his self emancipation, in the form of buying his master recordings, his life’s work, from the corporation that was set to make so much revenue from it. Purchasing master recordings is probably the most empowering move by an artist of Jay’s stature. It gives them the leverage and ability to generate income from their music in a number of ways. For an artist with a healthy discography or a few hit records, owning your maters is a fast track to generational wealth. Slaves who harnessed the will power to persevere through post civil. What’s refreshing about Jay is how humble he comes off even with unprecedented success. Embodying the fight and vigor of our people’s most courageous and intelligent. Like the emancipated slaves, their previous circumstances didn’t define the length and direction of their journey. They would not let it. We must adopt their mindsets and advance forward, with the blueprints drawn-out in hand. This society will find ways to enforce restriction, but the education and game is there for us to finesse. The work for our community done by Mr. Carter should not be undervalued. A true testament to the “American Dream”.
By: Keiph (@justkeiph)