The XX Factor

Esquire Examines How Jay-Z “Sold Black to White”

Is Jay-Z the only black man to make it big in the white world without giving up his authenticity? A new piece in Esquire seems to think so. As part of the magazine’s “People Who Matter” February issue, writer Lisa Taddeo profiles the rapper/entrepreneur and concludes that Jay-Z has managed the near-impossible: He’s maintained his roots (or what Taddeo calls his “black black” as opposed to “Barack black”) while still fully entering the upper echelons of old-school white gentility (the piece opens with an anecdote about how Jay-Z charmed Bill Clinton to belly guffaws at New York’s Spotted Pig, a restaurant Jay-Z co-owns). In Taddeo’s own words:

But there is a deeper significance - a racial philanthropy - that perhaps neither man intended. Jay-Z is black black. He is old-school double-dark-chocolate-chunk black. He is black the way Labatt is blue. He is not white black, Barack black, like our president. Or the kind of black that doesn’t curse and deplores the n -word, the genteel black, like Oprah. He is, arguably, the first black-black guy to cross over into Oprah-land and Bill Clintonworld without making the Oprah-sized no-look-back forward flip that means you’re selling not necessarily your soul but perhaps something fleshier, a little more external.

Of course the Taddeo’s concept of a more “authentic” black is a troubled one to parse, and bravely-or maybe stupidly-she doesn’t tiptoe around it. There is something to be said for Jay-Z’s ability to gather an audience that very literally identifies with the subjects of his lyrics-his upbringing in Bed-Stuy, selling crack on Brooklyn street corners for survival, a teenhood of violence and unrest-and one that hasn’t experienced any of it, what Taddeo labels a “bar-mitzvah flavored audience,” under the same stadium roof. But the most interesting parts of the article are when Taddeo delves into Jay-Z’s very unique political foxiness with specific examples-say, how he essentially leveled Oasis’s Noah Gallagher on stage after Gallagher said the rapper had no business headlining a rock festival, but shortly thereafter offered to collaborate with the Oasis frontman on a track. Or how he admonished Kayne West’s VMA escapade at the same time he forgave it-chalking the outburst up to West’s natural passion. His political deftness alone seems enough of a qualification for a Person Who Matters designation.