Big Pimpin’: Will Jay-Z Shill For Atlantic Yards Project?

“Come test me: I never cower/ For the love of money, son, I’m giving lead showers/” —Jay-Z, “D’Evils,” Reasonable Doubt, 1996. 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 […]

“Come test me: I never cower/

For the love of money, son, I’m giving lead showers/”

—Jay-Z, “D’Evils,” Reasonable

Doubt, 1996.

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,

we figured:


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

firms. Rev.

Al Sharpton, Roberta


, Jason

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

Africans, or Vancouverians,

or Chicagoans.

And now: Brooklynites.

On July 28, 2009, BrooklynSpeaks sent

a letter

to 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,

and accordingly

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 taken

by 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

grassroots struggle?

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

Don’t vote for [B]loomberg if [u] love your quality

of life

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

poor folk. From paying indigent adults to behave mannerly, to rewarding

their kids financially for good grades (Commodifying

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

much ambition.”

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

He can be reached at: