Jay-Z: ‘My Presence Is Charity’

The lessons Obama has learned from Hollywood.

ojHave you ever wondered why so many actors seem content to preach about America’s solutions without actually contributing to them? Why so many Hollywoodites promote higher taxes, but stash their cash in offshore bank accounts? Preach the necessity of carbon containment, but fly around in private jets? Vote Democrat but live Republican?

The answer lies in the peculiar self-centeredness of many in the entertainment industry. Granted a platform by the fates, they feel that their mere words can move mountains. Hence the offputting hubris of rapper and Obama ally Jay-Z, who told Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson that he didn’t need to expend time or effort on social change:

“My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is.”

Jay-Z feels that he can change the world, one pearl of wisdom at a time, just like his beloved president. But Jay-Z wasn’t done singing Obama’s praises for magically bestowing upon the planet the quasi-divine gift of his being: “You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone...Of course we want to challenge him to do better.”

Where does this inflated sense of self-worth come from? From Hollywood itself. The sad truth is that there is only one area in which celebrities can just show up and make a difference: their art. Jay-Z can’t alleviate educational underperformance in the black community by just being there. But he can impact views on sex and violence by being there. His art just requires him to get in front of a microphone and blurt his lyrics. That does have impact.

When Jay-Z tells kids, “We formed a new religion / No sins as long as there’s permission / And deception is the only felony / So never f--- nobody without telling me / Sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real” –that may be barely literate but it has impact. When he raps, “Middle finger to the law, n----, gripping my balls / All the ladies they love me, from the bleachers they screaming,” that has impact. That impact is heightened when the president of the United States, Barack Obama, does the Jay-Z hand signal to “brush the dirt off” during a speech, then gives tribute to the rapper.

No wonder Obama is such a big Jay-Z fan. Both Obama and Jay-Z believe in the power of the  word – and they’re right. But oratory is far more commonly and successfully used to manipulate people toward valueless action than it is to instill virtue. The words of Obama, the rap of Jay-Z, the scripts of the Tinseltown craftspeople are all designed to appeal to the emotions. That’s what they do best. If there is a Nietzschean dialectic between Apollo (the ordered) and Dionysus (emotion), art in the modern age generally appeals to the Dionysian. Order is cast aside for passion. Visit a hip-hop concert, and witness the Dionysian ecstasy of the crowd. Apollonian reason is nowhere to be found.

Allan Bloom wrote about rock music in The Closing of the American Mind (he was overbroad there), but what he wrote was far more applicable to hip-hop: “Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family.” Add violence to the mix, and this is a realistic picture of a great bulk of hip-hop.

Unfortunately, the Jay-Z power of the spoken word has entered politics with a vengeance. All that matters is the cadence, the rhythm, and the emotion of what is said, not the logic with which it is being said. That’s not exclusive to President Obama, of course – great orators from Bill “I Feel Your Pain” Clinton to John “Two Americas” Edwards have preyed on the same emotionality. Just by stirring feelings, our politicians feel that have now done their jobs.

And, in a certain sense, they’re right. The politicians who rely on emotion don’t have to make people’s lives better – they just have to make people feel more fulfilled. President Obama does make people feel good, even as they go broke. And those in Hollywood can say the same about themselves, even as the country goes morally bankrupt.

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