“Come test me: I never cower/
For the love of money, son, I’m giving lead showers/”
—Jay-Z, “D’Evils,” Reasonable
On August 11, 2004, Jay-Z became
minority-owner of the New Jersey Nets. With a measly 1.47% to his name, it made
no sense why more successful, majority-owners like real estate developer Bruce
Ratner included Jay-Z in the dream team that acquired the Nets. Then, as with
everything else, truth crushed to earth
began to rise. The reason(s) why this famous Brooklynite was chosen started
surfacing. Shortly after, Ratner presented his plan to relocate the Nets from
East Rutherford, New Jersey, to Brooklyn, New York. And who better to use as
the public face for this transaction than the Brooklyn-born Jigga man himself.
(Plus, he, and only he, could help put King
James in a Nets Jersey!)
So, when Jay-Z took Oprah on a tour
around his old neighborhood a couple months back, and some Hip-Hop observers
couldn’t keep from salivating over, as they saw it, how far Hip-Hop had come, a few of us were forced to admire from a
distance—and with a sense of suspicion. One or two questions had to be answered,
would Oprah want to tour Brooklyn?
in it for Oprah?
in it for Jay-Z?
really orchestrated this event?
connection does this ostensibly spontaneous, Hallmark moment have with the ongoing
public relations campaign, geared in full-throttle mode, to convince Brooklyn
residents that the demolition of sacred, public property is, in fact, in their
interest (!), and that protesting the ambitious, $4 billion, 8-million square
feet Atlantic Yards Project (AYP) would cause more harm than good?
With the recent
onslaught of lawsuits filed against Forest City Ratner Companies, the
developing firm at the helm of AYP (most expensive in history), it’s no more
secret what role Jay-Z would be asked to play—even as the community pushes back
harder and further on what it considers grotesque misuse of eminent domain
laws, to serve the indifferent interests of capricious corporations.
Among the many groups against this
proposal stands Develop Don’t Destroy
Brooklyn (DDDB), a coalition consisting of 21 community organizations. One
of the reasons DDDB is firmly against Ratner’s plans is that at least $1.6
million of the anticipated (though likely to be much higher) $4 billion would be
plunged from the public’s purse.
Of the few promises made to Brooklyn
residents, most important seemed to be the thousands of units in public housing—to compensate those who would be modestly
asked (stick-up fashion) to give up their homes for a sports complex. But, according to BrooklynSpeaks,
an advocacy group wary of the proposal, “two thirds of the units in the
development will be sold or rented at market rate, and 60% of the affordable
units would only be affordable to families making in excess of the Brooklyn
median income, which is $35,000.” So, rather than help assuage the crisis of
affordable housing, it could “actually accelerate the gentrification and
displacement that is already in progress.”
Residents also fear that the plan,
expected to include a basketball arena (Barclays Center) with 16 office and
residential towers, would only bring more congestion to an already-congested
town, clogging up what’s left of Brooklyn’s arteries.
The issue of public housing, however,
seems to envelope all other concerns. In 2008, when Bruce Ratner revealed new
designs for the Atlantic Yards Project, he again
underscored the guarantee of “over 2,250 affordable housing units among the
total 6,400 residences at full build-out.” At the time, protesters feared that
“given the credit crunch, increased construction costs and the downturn in the
real estate market, Forest City will not retain certain key aspects of the project
it has promised to deliver.” That was May last year.
Well, a few days ago, The Brooklyn Paper, a community journal,
corroborated their concerns: “State development officials are drafting a
new deal with Bruce Ratner that will give the Atlantic Yards developer a
loophole out of the project’s main selling point: thousands of units of
affordable housing.” It revealed that new clauses were clandestinely inserted
into a Sept. 17 lease proposal which frees Forest City from providing the 2,250
units of affordable housing promised. The provision essentially absolved Ratner
from independently, as once agreed, including the housing plans, subjecting it, instead, “to
governmental authorities making available … affordable housing subsidies.”
As one who lives in a city where the
local library board promised community members last year that the only branch
the Black community could call its own was safe from any budget-balancing
plans—come what may!—and then proceeded to close it in June this year, I
understand wholeheartedly the sense of shock and betrayal Brooklyn folks are
starting to feel.
In response to these attempts of
everyday folks lifting their voice in courageous chorus against highway
robbery, ACORN’s chief organizer said
in a statement: “We are, of course, disappointed by the delays brought about
by endless litigation, [but] we remain confident that, at the end of the day,
Atlantic Yards will mean thousands of new units of affordable rent regulated
housing and new home ownership opportunities for working families.”
ACORN, which has partnered with Forest
City to ensure the building of affordable living arrangements (thus barring it
“from saying anything negative about the project”), is not the only lackey
stored in Bruce Ratner’s basement—only to be let out when protesters, especially
the Black ones, refuse to lie down, hands tied, and be molested by private
Kidd and Vince Carter all reside in the basement.
The tragic reality of unkept promises
concerning provision of substitute living accommodations in matters of athletic
exhibitions is nothing new. Just ask South
And now: Brooklynites.
On July 28, 2009, BrooklynSpeaks sent
a letterto the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the agency
responsible for approval of property development, expressing concern that the
ESDC was prepared to give AYP the go-ahead “without further environmental
review… that would allow the public to fully evaluate the new design and
phasing of the project.” The letter, which was signed by 17 elected officials, also
worried about 7 major “adverse environmental impacts” a project of such
magnitude might, and is most likely to, cause.
Two months later, the ESDC gave Forest
City the green light, in the name of “thousands of jobs and opportunities
for economic growth to downtown Brooklyn”—the same farcical excuse Chicago, a
city in the Red, used to sell its unsuccessful bid to bring the Olympics
home. Community groups promised,
delivered, more lawsuits appealing the decision.
Since announcing four years ago, Bruce Ratner’s
proposals haven’t escaped enormous setbacks. At every junction, it seems, something
seemingly serendipitous has emerged to validate even further the beliefs
many residents share that the ground is shifting underneath them—that the wool
is being pulled over their eyes. The opposition has grown rapidly, leaving even
supporters like New York’s 57th District Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries “highly critical”
of its handling—and, more importantly, the
hubristic stance takenby Ratner and co. toward those most likely to be affected
by it: poor folk. And now, it appears all
but inevitable that the Nets would be moving to Newark in preparation for
its 2011-2012 Brooklyn debut.
Make no mistake: This is “Negro
Removal,” to borrow James Baldwin’s term, presented as “Urban Renewal.” This is
nothing but a rehearsal of that classic show avaricious corporations put on whenever
resident groups begin taking a stand against gentrification and graft.
But what influence would Jay-Z have on
the protesters who refuse to eat the bread crumbs being provided them by Forest
City. Would Jay-Z be a shill for Ratner? Would he be asked to restrain his people from raising hell? And what
consequences would his participation in this land grab bear on Hip-Hop—itself a product of resistance and
Judging from past confessions, Jay-Z
believes, to quote Canibus, “the movement in any direction is progression.”
“When I have [a] conversation with Oprah or Bill Maher, [I] represent the
culture,” he said
recently, referring to TV appearances with both well-known media moguls.
But is he really representing the culture of Hip-Hop, or himself—alongside
his corporate interests?
There’s a reason A Tribe Called Quest legend Q-Tip recently blasted New York
City mayor Michael Bloomberg in a series of “Tweets.” He wrote, one after the
NYC Don’t let Bloomberg turn the city into the
office for rich folk and kick out the middle class/poor folk.
How [B]loomberg deals with homeless in nyc http://bit.ly/ht6TL
Don’t vote for [B]loomberg if [u] love your quality
Don’t vote for [B]loomberg if u are a humanitarian.
Referring to the Mayor’s constitution-bending
bid for a third-term, he opined: “[Bloomberg’s] manipulation of the law to
enable him to run for a 3rd term is an act of Tyranny!”
Q-Tip couldn’t have been more precise in his excoriation of the billionaire Mayor, whose many policies have undermined the
lives of poor people—especially Black and Brown ones. The money-minded,
cash-centered approaches Mayor Bloomberg addresses his city’s problems with
have at their core a universal blight: The humiliation and dehumanization of
Education), the good Mayor seems to think involvement of money in any
matter turns water into wine.
And this is with whom Jay-Z can
be seen pallin’
It explains the shameless
contempt for young, admiring fans.
It also explains why the Jay-z-endorsed Ace of Spades liquor brand was recently
ranked no. 1—worldwide. He wasn’t wrong back in 2001: “I am a hustler, baby;
I’ll sell water to a well.” And he isn’t wrong now: “World can’t hold me; too
This ambition, while admirable, can also account for the smugness and sheer
egocentrism his last record had no shortage of.
So, we know not all headway into the mainstream means well for Hip-Hop. But
that’s the price of the ticket. And
as KRS-One put
it recently, “you gotta decide which god you’re going to serve. Are you
going to serve the Corporate God, or the Cultural God?”
That applies to Jay-Z.
It also applies to Brooklyn natives like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The GZA, and
Papoose, who’ve all managed to maintain a unique musical sound equipped with
socially constructive undertones. Until now, the silence has been deafening.
There has been little to no noise—not even a mumbling word!—from any of
these esteemed MCs. Perhaps that’s the Jay-Z effect already at work.
Well, how ironic is it that Hip-Hop came to be out of a struggle against
land-exploitation, and now, Hip-Hop artists are being advised to remain silent,
even as their former neighborhoods are torn apart, leveled, and ravaged, to
make room for commercial complexes?
For what does it profit a culture to gain mainstream legitimacy but lose
every sector of its soul?
Tolu Olorunda is a social
commentator and a columnist for BlackCommentator.com.
He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.