Is JAY-Z’s Wealth Good For Black America?

A general view of The Brooklyn Central Library during The Book of HOV: A TRIBUTE EXHIBITION HONORING JAY-Z. Credit: Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

by Bria Overs

Would you take $500,000 or dinner with JAY-Z? For years, this question-turned-viral meme has circulated on social media platforms. Most say the money is the better deal, and few say time with the rapper is worth more.

JAY-Z’s perspective: Take the money.

The long-awaited answer came in October from a rare interview with Gayle King, broadcast journalist and co-host of CBS This Morning, during a special highlighting The Book of HOV. The exhibit at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch chronicling 25 years of the life and career of Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter has been on display since mid-July. Over 100,00 people have visited the exhibit, which ends in December, and a limited-edition JAY-Z library card sparked 4,000 new signups.

Despite that level of influence, when King asked for Carter’s perspective on the cash vs. dinner question, the rapper said, “You gotta take the money. What am I going to say?”

His response to King made headlines, but it is the second time he has answered the question. In September 2021, TIDAL, his music streaming platform that he launched in 2015, tweeted, “Take the $500K.

Carter is an excellent example of Black Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit and potential, but his particular case prompts a question. What’s more important: Growing your wealth or helping your community?

With a net worth of $2.5 billion, the mogul is the first billionaire to come out of the rap genre. HOV has gone “from being a run-of-the-mill, popular rapper with some nice jewelry to being a billionaire, and we’ve seen it all within our lifetime,” Christopher Emdin says.

Emdin is a professor of science education and the Maxine Greene Chair for Distinguished Contributions to Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also the creator of #HipHopEd, a movement-turned non-profit using hip-hop to educate and connect students with STEM, English, leadership, and more.

“The thing about JAY-Z and hip-hop is that we’ve been able to see and witness his ascendancy into wealth before our very eyes,” Emdin tells Word In Black. “As much as he is the poster child for aspiration, he’s also the poster child for hyper-capitalism.”

“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”

The pillars of capitalism as an economic and political system are accumulation, ownership, and profit. Subscribing to the terms of modern capitalism means participating in the same system that put and kept Black and African people in chains for 400 years. It is likely the same system that put Carter and his family into the Marcy Houses, a public housing complex in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. 

In 2022, Carter attempted to provide “financial literacy” courses to residents of the same Marcy Houses where he grew up through his venture “The Bitcoin Academy” in partnership with Jack Dorsey, co-founder and former CEO of what was formerly known as Twitter. This effort was met with contempt by residents who felt that investing in cryptocurrency was not the best use of their money or time.

“If you want to do something, fix this place up,” Nyashia Figueroa told the Guardian. “We have a basketball court with no hoops. Our parks is broken up in here. He should be doing more for his community, not no Bitcoin Academy.”

Figueroa added, “This is where he rep he’s from and all that, but he don’t do nothing for us.”

Hip-hop has long been a voice for the Black American experience, including stories of poverty, struggle, gang affiliation, and pursuing illegal means to earn a living. Over the years, the genre has also become a platform for showcasing access to “new money” and opportunities artists never thought were possible — collaborating with designer fashion brands and modeling during Paris Fashion Week, collecting Birkin bags, riding on yachts, and popping bottles of Möet.

Earlier this year, artist and rapper Noname released her third album, Sundial, and in her song “namesake,” she points to JAY-Z and Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL, for which he produces the Super Bowl Halftime Shows.

Her perspective is that this partnership may not be in the best interest of the Black community and global politics.

“We just have ideological differences, that’s all,” Noname said in an interview with Radio Host Ebro Darden. “The song was just talking about a lot of things, but definitely complacency from all of us. I have made similar moves in my own career where I’ve contradicted myself, where I’ve done things or supported institutions that I don’t really believe in.”

Carter has expressed a distaste for being called a “capitalist” despite fitting the description. During a Twitter Spaces conversation in 2022, he compared being called a capitalist to racial slurs

Under hyper-capitalism, the goal is to “make money by any means necessary, even at the expense of culture, people, and community. And JAY-Z has done that,” Emdins says. “It doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate his aspirations, but folks will turn a blind eye to that because they’re locked into a capitalistic structure.”

Without another model proven to build wealth, signing up for one that leaves others perpetually without any is easy.