Sunday, May 24, 2015

Jay Z and the freestyle as mode of critique and creativity

Last week, May 16, 2015, during his "B-Sides Concert," Jay Z took the time to offer a brief freestyle where he responded to critiques of his new venture Tidal, a subscription-based music streaming service. The company's likelihood of success has been considered a long shot given the major competition such as Spotify and other companies who've been operating much longer and with more success.

Whatever the case, I was fascinated by Jay Z's freestyle and also the nature of the coverage of his rap. In particular, I was intrigued that he decided to reference slavery in his rhyme, and in general, it stands out that he used this mode of expression (the freestyle) to throw darts at major companies such as YouTube, Nike, Apple, and an ominous "they" that killed Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. Here's the section that first peaked my interest:

I feel like Youtube is the biggest culprit
Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get
You know niggas die for equal pay right?
You know when I work I ain't your slave, right?
You know I ain't shucking and jiving and high-fiving
You know this ain't back in the days, right?
But I can't tell, how the way they killed Freddie Gray, right?
Shot down Mike Brown, how they did Tray right?
Let them continue choking niggas
There's an extensive history of poets, for instance, concentrating on slavery. Although rappers mention the subject (slavery and liberation) in passing, there's less acknowledgement that they do so. Jay Z's linkages to his current plight and slavery seemed notable to me, so I  thought it was amusing that journalists who covered the freestyle chose to remain fairly silent about that aspect of the freestyle.

Perhaps, it's not surprising that Jay Z's reference to slavery would stand out to me given my location as a scholar of African American literature. And it also says something about those journalists that their social locations would lead them to comment less on the references to slavery. After all, the bigger story for them, and rightly so, was the focus on Tidal and various media companies.

Either way, it's also telling that free-styling allowed Jay Z to have fun with his critiques as well as his audience. Or more notably, in the course of the rap, Jay Z adopts various tones--from serious and irritated to mocking and jovial. He's serious when he says "You know when I work I ain't your slave, right?" He's taking on a fake-indifference when he says "I can't tell how the way they killed Freddie Gray." By the end, he humorously mocks Spotify, and he enacts playful bewilderment when he says "The only one they hating on look the same as you." And by the end when he says the closing lines, "It's politics as usual," he's in full laughter. Part of the closing joke is that he is setting the audience up for his song entitled "Politics as Usual."

Some observers, such as Boyce Watkins and Joe Budden, have noted that Jay Z was self-serving and basically linking his business struggles to the plight of African Americans. Maybe. But then, it's useful and important to see a figure as major as Jay Z appealing to his apparent initial core base in this way, through the art--in this case, with a freestyle.

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