Jay-Z offers America ‘words to live by’

Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, “Jay-Z: Made in America,” continues to unpack the catalysts and consequences of black creativity, power, and wealth. 

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/File
Jay-Z performs at the “Made In America” music festival in Philadelphia on Sept. 1, 2012.

Author, professor, and political pundit Michael Eric Dyson has made a career out of contextualizing the struggles of Black America. With his latest work, “Jay-Z: Made in America,” he continues to unpack the catalysts and consequences of black creativity, power, and wealth. His exploration of how Jay-Z – a seasoned artist with more than 20 Grammy awards – has changed hip-hop and elevated social causes also reinforces that black history is American history. 

Dyson, who has taught about the rapper for years at Georgetown University, argues that the U.S. wouldn’t be the same without Shawn Carter: “In many ways, this is JAY-Z’s America as much as it is Obama’s America, or Trump’s America, or Martin Luther King’s America, or Nancy Pelosi’s America, or Maxine Waters’s America, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s America. JAY-Z has given this country a language to speak with, ideas to think through, and words to live by.”

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Jay-Z: Made in America” by Michael Eric Dyson, St. Martin’s, 240 pp.

Jay-Z’s rise to fame is a fabled one: As a young drug dealer, he used his gift of rhyme to escape the treacherous projects in Brooklyn and become the first billionaire hip-hop artist. His career has had euphoric highs and gritty lows, and has inspired his art. Jay-Z, Dyson says, “can describe street hustling with an artistic verve that is every bit as beautiful and poignant as that of the best canon poets.” Despite accusations of Jay-Z’s allegiance to capitalism over the plight of black Americans (his recent NFL deal fueled this notion), Dyson makes it clear that the artist’s politicized nature is evidenced in the music itself. 

The author uses Jay-Z’s own words to underscore his social awareness, from the harrowing traumas of slavery in the 2013 song “Oceans” to lyrics about systemic oppression and gentrification on Meek Mill’s 2018 track “What’s Free.” As Dyson points out, the earlier “Dope Man,” from 1999, decries racism for hindering black youth: “But my mind was strong / I grew where you hold your blacks up / Trap us, expect us not to pick gats [guns] up / Where you drop your cracks [drugs] off by the Mack trucks / Destroy our dreams of lawyers and actors / Keep us spiralin’, goin’ backwards.”

Other endeavors, like the Shawn Carter Foundation, the investment in prison reform efforts, and donations to the families of victims of police brutality, also show Jay-Z’s resolve to help the black community. But ultimately, his rebellion started on the page – and Dyson is the perfect chronicler of its permanence.

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