Thursday, December 06, 2007

Change the Game (On Newsstands Now)

Jay Z: On Racism, Violence & the N Word

Written by Michael A. Gonzales

December 2007
Jay-Z Cover Story
Stop Smiling Magazine #33
Interview by Michael A. Gonzales

On October 2nd, veteran music journalist Michael A. Gonzales met with Jay-Z to discuss life, hip-hop and American Gangster for the cover of the second-annual 20 Interviews issue of STOP SMILING magazine. Below are excerpts from that interview.


SS: Black people love Italian gangster movies, but many of these films are blatant in their racism. One of the very first words Jack Nicholson says in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is ‘niggers.’ Why are people willing to overlook this?

JZ: There are certain things the audience hooks on to. Yes, the character might be racist, but he’s still against the odds as he struggles against the world. However brief his rein might be, he’s living the good life and that’s what Black kids hone in on. They don’t pay attention to the racism, because racism is everywhere. We’ve learned to look past that.

SS: What about the word using the word ‘nigger’ in rhymes?

JZ: For me, it’s all about the intention. I could call you an ‘apple tree,’ but if I say it with venom and hate, that is what it’s about. It’s not the word that has the power, it’s the person. All of this came about because the Imus discussion turned into a hip-hop discussion.

Imus couldn’t name three rappers; well, maybe he could, but he couldn’t name their songs. Imus doesn’t listen to rap, so he’s not influenced by it. He didn’t get that from us. I missed the point the discussion stopped being about Imus.


SS: Do you think violent films or songs have an affect on teens?

JZ: The world wants to think that that people are drawn to violence, but when you live in the ghetto you see violence all the time, so that’s not the real excitement. If they want to see violence, all they have to do is go home. A lot of kids have never been out of their own neighborhoods, so they go to see movies where guys have big houses and is traveling around the world.


SS: Listening to the American Gangster, I kept thinking that this is also a great New York City album. Do you think the city has fallen off in terms of rap music?

JZ: Of course, but it was bound to happen, because we were spoiled. Not only did we own rap music since its inception, we also invented it. But, like anything else if you take it for granted, it will leave you. It will absolutely go to where the freshness is. New York started making robotic records. Down south, rap music is a celebration. They put their heart and soul into it.


SS: Why do you think people romanticize guys like Frank Lucas?

JZ: You know, there’s this hope that we can make it out of bad situations and become important, maybe live like rock stars. For many of us, society is oppressive—our schools are the worse, our roads are the worse. So, when somebody goes against that oppression, it’s impressive.


SS: It’s common knowledge that you dealt drugs when you were younger.

JZ: I’m not condoning it, but everyone chooses their path. I make no apologies for the path that I chose. People think that kids who become drug dealers are monsters. They’re not monsters, they’re just regular kids who are pushed up against the odds; and the odds keep putting the lights out on their hopes.

Look at the staggering number of Black and Latino youth who go to prison. That alone has to do something to your self-esteem, and that affects the entire community. Kids understand the dangers of dealing drugs or being a gangster, but often it’s better than what they already have in their lives. In their minds, even danger is better than that.

It’s very sad, and what’s sadder is there are some people in the hood who are very intelligent, but they have no outlets. It kind of makes you think that keeping poor people down was done by design; these areas haven’t gotten so out of hand by mistake.

SS: How were you able to choose a different path?

JZ: I guess because I was able to look towards the future. Most people wake-up and just deal with today. I realized that I couldn’t keep doing the same things and not have something bad happen to me. I knew I was going to go to jail or I was going to die. If you keep rolling the dice for ten years, it’s bound to catch-up to you.

I also realized that I had a remarkable talent and I was letting it go to waste. I didn’t have one foot in rap and the other in the drug game, I literally changed my life. You just can’t hold on to the branches like Donkey Kong.


SS: It doesn’t seem fair that Martin Scorsese or Denzel Washington are considered true artists when they portray gangsters, but if you or one of your contemporaries talks about street life then you’re dealing with Bill O’Reilly, Oparh Winfrey, Stanly Crouch and congressional hearings?

JZ: Of course, there is an imbalance, but I understand where it comes from. In hip-hop, the whole ‘keep it real’ has become more than a phrase. Scorsese and Denzel are not tied to the films they make, so people see the separation between art and life. Unfortunately, they don’t see that separation between Shawn Carter and Jay-Z. As far as they’re concerned, everything I talk about is happening for real. To them, at no point is it entertainment.

Rappers in general THEY ARE the guys telling their story. To me, real is just the basis for a great fantasy. Not everything I say in a song is true. I’ll take a small thing from life and build upon it, and usually it becomes a fantastic story.

SS: The song ‘Ignorant Shit’ touches on this subject. There are more curses and crime in a Tarantino movie, but nobody is dragging him off to a congressional hearing.

JZ: If rappers stop cursing tomorrow, is that going to fix the ghetto or the fact that our schools are fucked-up and the living-conditions are terrible. You can’t tell me not to say nigger or shit, that’s ridiculous to me. Is that really the problem? Are you serious?

Some people don’t understand the things people who live in these urban areas see in one day; and, that’s every single day.


SS: On American Gangster, you talk about coming of age in the 1980s. Talk a little bit how being a gangster during Frank Lucas’ rein changed once crack was introduced to the hood.

JZ: Being a gangster changed from being a gentlemen’s game to a vicious young man’s game. In the ‘80s, there were no more rules—teenagers had automatic weapons, the money was bigger and it just got out of control. There was no hiding it, no shame. There wasn’t even shame from the addicts. People were just standing around smoking crack outside like it was normal; that’s not normal. People in those communities just lost control.

SS: And, some of those same communities in Harlem, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn are now the biggest gentrified neighborhoods in New York City.

JZ: Wherever there is anarchy, there is also opportunity; where there is chaos, there is opportunity. Look at DUMBO (in Brooklyn), right around the corner from the projects. That neighborhood was bleak back in the day.

SS: Being a businessman, do you see much of gangster aesthetics in music or sports?

JZ: It’s worse in business, because there is no fear of retribution. If somebody fucks me on a deal, then later I’ll fuck them on a deal. But, other than that, nothing happens. On the streets, you have to have integrity or you won’t be there long. You can’t give your word and then do the opposite. In business, people just run all over each other; it’s unpoliced.

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