Reasonable Doubt: Jay-Z and the NFL's "Woke Washing"

“So now we fighting over scraps

Crabs in a barrel, but crabs don’t belong in the barrel and they ain’t never tell us that

So in the barrel, we gonna act like we act

We can easily get out the barrel if we stand on each other’s back

Whoever gets on top, as long as they stay attached

They gonna pull everybody out—I was doing just that”

- Nipsey Hussle Freestyle Jay-Z

When Jay-Z free-styled these lyrics, breathing life back into a once closed Webster Hall in New York City, it ushered in a sense of pride amongst my Black friends and acquaintances. It felt like Jay-Z’s Michael Jackson moonwalk moment, but not with the same kind of grand and magical feel! I think we are at a time where we are all desiring awe, magic, distinguished moments that make us proud as a people; especially when it is paying homage to someone who had such a commitment to their local community like Nipsey.

But while the word play and storytelling of the freestyle was refreshing it was just that, a moment of instant gratification. Unfortunately, Jay-Z’s track record--in particular his recent decision to join with the NFL in its deal to provide entertainment for the league and support the Players Coalition’s Inspire Change initiative--reveals that he has no interest in trying to pull all the crabs out of the barrel. In fact, his decision has created the very dynamic he is attempting to stop.

Unfortunately, his partnership with the NFL in establishing a charitable initiative is nothing more than “woke washing”. A public relations marketing tactic for damage control of the league’s brand. It’s just propping up a philanthropic initiative that through its funding will have little to no impact on the structural issues of police brutality, community police relations, and economic issues impacting Black and brown communities. While this does not take away from Jay-Z’s past philanthropic endeavors it is an opportunity to take a look at his approach to giving, investing, and its impact in communities he advocates for.

If key stakeholders are: 1) not clear in their analysis about the rights and conditions of NFL players, 2) look at how that connects the NFL’s ability to authentically lead a social justice initiative, and lastly 3) lead an initiative that shifts decision making power of how resources are being used to address these issues, then the NFL Foundation’s 90M pledge to Inspire Change and its efforts with Roc Nation are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Perhaps we can use this moment to call a movement mic check rather than a fact check to learn lessons from Jay-Z’s philanthropic partnership with the NFL in order to assess how this initiative is contributing to the issues it says it wants to address moving forward.

Lesson 1: Jay-Z “You can’t be anti-racist and believe in capitalism”

- Dr. Ibrahim X Kendi

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Right now, Jay-Z isn’t helping crabs out of the barrel; he’s stepping on their backs. Most recently, on January 2019 on a panel discussion with NFL Owner Bob Kraft, Van Jones, and others, Jay-Z says growing up in a single parent house causes people to have an “adverse feeling toward authority” which causes them to tell police “f*ck you” resulting in interactions that “causes people to lose lives.”

If Jay-Z’s track record in this arena was viable we would be asking about the stance he took on issues of racism within the NBA especially with former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling while he launched Roc Nation Sports with Creative Artists Agency. He explained that he did not agree that Donald Sterling should be banished for his actions, because he believed that this would drive other racists underground.

It seems like the racists haven’t gone anywhere, because just two months ago part owner of the Golden State Warriors, billionaire Mark Stevens who is white shoved and used vulgar language towards player who is black Mike Lowry. This is just evidence that if anything, Jay-Z has an opportunity to grow in his own analysis around race, structural oppression, and how it informs his philanthropic practice in improving the crab’s in barrel conditions that he is looking to address or at least elicit support from someone who can accomplish this.

From his time selling drugs to his split with Roc-a-Fella Records with Dame Dash, Jay-Z has consistently moved in a capitalist fashion as “the middle man” leveraging and flipping his investments with the underdog by leveraging his brand equity to engage in corporate partnerships to make revenue via marketing. His 1/15th stake in the Brooklyn Nets fueled the displacement and gentrification in Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, NY. His partnership with Samsung in releasing the Magna Carta album is another. He also bought out Tidal from Aspiro at 56M and then sold it at a 33% stake to Sprint at 200M dollars, which is what allows for him to amass the wealth he has as a billionaire.

Given this track record, it should come as no surprise that he would partner with a brand such as the NFL. After all, the brand has been embattled with various arrest cases of domestic violence and abuse among its players, and ongoing safety and health conditions on the field especially around health impacts from concussions. Most recently, the NFL’s stance on racial injustice in particular with law enforcement and the criminal justice system stemming from the flashpoint of Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic action of taking a knee. From a branding and marketing standpoint the NFL makes the perfect candidate for woke washing.

Lesson 2: Practice What You Preach - The NFL and its own internal issues on the rights of players

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In looking at how the league addresses players’ interactions with police, on average the majority of its players- who are mostly Black men are being arrested for stop and frisk, domestic violence incidents, and disorderly conduct. For example, there have been 90 charges for domestic violence and related offenses since 2000. See the tracking that USA Today has of the NFL arrest database. The NFL has known about these issues for some time now and yet this kind of culture of racism and patriarchy still exists internally. What place of employment would deem these conditions acceptable?

In response to the proliferation of protests among its players, the NFL owners and key players met in October 2017, soon after Trump started ridiculing the league for the protests led by Colin Kaepernick. According to a NY Times article, much of this meeting among the players and owners amounted to damage control. This dynamic became less about the players’ right to protest and the precedent set by blackballing Kaepernick, and more about woke washing to keep the NFL’s brand equity through damage control marketing.

Essentially, the owners wanted players to stop doing public actions as it was affecting their brand and TV rating were also declining as people began to boycott the NFL. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair urged the players to tell their colleagues to stop kneeling. “You fellas need to ask your compadres, fellas, stop that other business, let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results, and we’ll help you.” In fact, in facing this “media problem,” Terry Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Bills, decided that there should be an African American spokesperson that owners and players could get behind to represent any efforts that the NFL leads in addressing the protests. To much dismay this spokesperson has now become Jay-Z and his enterprise Roc Nation.

Lesson 3: The NFL’s philanthropic efforts should be focused on social justice and liberation from structural oppression NOT charity

Getty Images

Getty Images

Using resources as charity to support young people’s personal development by telling them not to do drugs is different than supporting an organizing effort of young people to end drug free school zones by educating them about drugs, current policies, and its adverse impacts that criminalize them and their families. At the end of the day philanthropic practitioners who have worked and are from these communities know the following: barbeque and basketball sessions with the police, programs pacifying young people into trusting the institution of policing will not address the root causes of criminalization, economic injustice, and unemployment. For example, after years of implementation we know that the DARE program was ineffective at having police officers come into schools telling young people to just say no to drugs.

The NFL Foundation to date has given almost $400M in charitable donations, none of which has gone towards resolving the systemic issues that Kaepernick raised. The foundation decided made a pledge at the start of the year of 90M to go towards a new initiative co-founded by Malcolm Jenkins (Philadelphia Eagles) that is a social justice effort designed to address community police relations, criminal justice reform, and education and employment.

Malcolm has supported policy reform changes as a local advocate in Philadelphia around criminal justice reform efforts that are substantial. This work provides Malcolm the credibility in his leadership to launch the NFL’s initiative, which is called Inspire Change. So again, it’s disappointing to see that this initiative would highlight these priorities without taking a deeper look at strategies that actually shift power in black and brown communities.

Inspire Change is a piece of the partnership that Jay-Z is leveraging with the Player's Coalition. While this is autonomous from the NFL Foundation, it is financially-backed through a pledge by the NFL Foundation with matching grants via its teams and players. We might say that Jay-Z is the brand ambassador of this initiative. Roc Nation is the intermediary supporting the Players Coalition with the distribution of grants and they are also partnering with the NFL (different from the foundation) to handle entertainment for the league (i.e Super Bowl). Additionally, Reform Alliance, which is a new criminal justice initiative formed by Meek Mill and Jay-Z, has Robert Kraft on their board who is the owner of the New England Patriots who also donated 1M to Trump’s inaugural campaign. Even with Jay-Z’s outreach to Colin Kaepernick, why would Kaepernick support this initiative that is co-signed by Trump supporters?

Now you have Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins, and Jay-Z among many other Black men at odds with each other involved in this flashpoint, while white NFL owners who have funded Trump’s campaign are laughing all the way to the bank and preparing for their campaign funding efforts for election time in 2020.

Lesson 4: The Master’s Tools Won’t “Inspire Change” - What can be done differently?

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Malcolm Jenkins shouldn’t have brokered this deal to launch the Players Coalition that was eventually tokenized by the NFL as part of its damage control. Instead, Malcom Jenkins, Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, and potentially Jay-Z should have sat together as individuals with different theories of change to get to strategize what they could negotiate with the NFL’s owners and/or create their own philanthropic efforts or who knows another league. With feasible opportunities that support rather than undermine each others’ work, the players could have brought in Jay-Z as social currency and as an opportunity to demand internal changes.

They could have also negotiated a philanthropic effort to address the systemic and structural issues behind police brutality, etc, and/or launched an autonomous endeavor external to the NFL that addresses the structural issues around police brutality and alternatives to policing and incarceration. Outside of money and business, the Inspire Change initiative offers nothing at this stage to communities most impacted by policing and the prison industrial complex.

The Inspire Change initiative is now placating and tokenizing the participation of players in having their rights unaddressed. It throws money at programs and services that are not changing the systemic conditions that create police brutality and racial injustice in the first place. It sounds like the only people who win in the end are the owners through their tax write offs, and their political interests.

To those who might ask us to “wait and see” what is going to happen with this initiative, as of September 4th through Roc Nation’s vetting process for grants with Inspire Change an organization based in Chicago named Crusher’s Club was given a $200,000 grant that was delivered to the organization by Roc Nation music artists. On September 5th pictures were posted on Twitter of Crusher’s Club Executive Director Sally Hargrove, a white woman who reportedly supports Trump depicted cutting a young Black man’s dreads with the Twitter comment, “and another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”

While she has put out a statement apologizing for the impact of her racist commentary it brings about the issue of how Roc Nation is vetting these programs. From its first two grants it appears that they are supporting programs working from a deficit model reinforcing white supremacy culture while not addressing the issues of structural oppression in marginalized communities in Chicago that create the conditions that young Black men such as the one who cut his dreads face. What is even more alarming is the fact that Kaepernick has funded grassroots organizations he has supported in Chicago that are aligned with social justice principles and values.

Questions for NFL Foundation & Inspire Change in its grant-making strategy:

  • What will be the role of local community members and groups in their decision-making power and influence around matching grants going to grassroots initiatives?

  • How are potential grantees being vetted and what kind of criteria is being used in this process? How are decisions being made that are in alignment with social justice values?

  • What are the indicators of success for what this grant-making initiative is trying to achieve and who gets to define them?

  • Why are alternatives to policing and incarceration not included as grant-making priorities in this initiative given the viability and effectiveness of both interventions? What are these priorities based on?

Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

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These exploitative dynamics are not new. If Jay-Z was really serious about upholding Nipsey Hussle’s legacy he could have worked with the City of Inglewood and the NFL around the building of the new stadium that is causing gentrification, but based on his previous actions while with the Brooklyn Nets this might be unlikely unless he was willing to grow into becoming someone who he has not been in the past as a businessman. Until we get serious about investing in a radical imagination and creation of cooperative economics, player-owned sports leagues, and participatory grant-making efforts in communities most impacted by the issues in shifting decision making power for where resources go in black and brown communities in particular, initiatives like Inspire Change will continue to undermine the improvements needed in our communities.

Unfortunately, many of US think being a billionaire is what deems success in life rather than our relationships and quality of life among each other. Capitalism (at this late stage) isn’t a life goal. It is a system that is literally tearing our relationships and our power apart. If we don’t start enacting and investing in alternatives, this dynamic of undermining opportunities to move abolitionist efforts of capitalism forward will continue to maintain status quo in our movements for justice and liberation.

Perhaps Inspire Change might still have an opportunity to salvage itself if it shifts it grant-making to support actual grassroots groups led by the people who are most affected by the issues it seeks to address and are willing to address the root causes of economic inequity and the criminalization they are impacted by. In addition, the Players Coalition needs to build its integrity as a philanthropic effort by holding its institution accountable to being socially just within its own league or to create an alternative effort that its truly autonomous and not affiliated with the NFL.

Allen Kwabena Frimpong is a Principal at AdAstra Management Collective and co-founder of the Old Money New System Community of Practice that the collective supports. As a philanthropic strategist and resource mobilizer he has supported social movements through his funding efforts for public health and safety initiatives, projects, mobilizations, and campaigns from Ferguson to Charlottesville. Allen is also a multidisciplinary artist and founder of ZEAL Press a worker owned multimedia group for Black visual and performance artist. He has organized and written blogs on New York City’s Safety Beyond Policing Campaign in response the NYPD’s community policing plan, along with the response to Tyre King and Philanthropic Efforts in Policing. Lastly, he submitted testimony to the President’s US Task Force on 21 Century Policing in August 2015. The statement was written February 2015.

Allen Frimpong