The Pope of Rocafella Records: Don’t Knock the Hustle
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Hova has done it again. And for those in Kap nation who support black social progress, you need to get on board.
Hip-Hop moguls like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, combined with athlete-moguls like Lebron James, are partially forming the basis of a true African-American capitalist class, for the first time in US history. It is a welcome development and milestone. Unlike the days of Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, or even Huey Newton, neither black institutions, causes, and nor even politicians need rely solely nor primarily on the generosity of white benefactors. Black capital is on the ascendance, which is far more important than any individual, even the hallowed Colin Kaepernick.
Jay-Z is a leading figure in this emerging class, particularly for the power that he and his wife, ‘Queen Bey’, wield to shape black public opinion. This is what makes Jay’s services so valuable to the NFL at this time. Jay Z’s new contract with the NFL will allow his company to play a role in shaping the public image of the NFL, as the league seeks to connect with a younger generations of fans.
Needless to say, this move potentially puts Hova on the next level. But why should Kap nation embrace it?
Part of the problem is that Jay-Z had spent so much time and effort promoting Kaepernick’s cause and opposing the NFL’s de facto blacklist. This makes this deal appear as a flip-flop by Jay, since Kaepernick remains unemployed. And worse, a flip-flop for money. Hova might even appear as a Judas to some in Kap nation. Here, Jay-Z must show finesse in his game, but it’s possible Kap nation will not be satisfied until they actually see Colin Kaepernick in an NFL jersey. This is the magic trick that Hova must pull off in the next few years to make this deal a complete success.
In the meantime, we should support Jay-Z, because it is safe to say that he wishes to work towards the goal of Kaepernick playing in the NFL once again. Everything he had said and done up to this time is evidence of that. Civil Rights legislation was achieved in part by social protest and direct action, but in the end, nothing got done without LBJ’s shady politics in the corridors of power.
Moreover, there’s a bigger picture here than Colin Kaepernick and ‘social protest’. The emergence of the new black capitalist class that Jay-Z has increasingly come to represent, signals a new and important stage of black social development. Since emancipation, African-Americans have been behind in the game, primarily because they have lacked both financial and human capital. The Freedmen had great agricultural and artisanal skills, but they had no money, and little or no knowledge of how to play the game in the white man’s world. Moreover, the game was fixed against them, making it ten times as hard.
The real question underlying Kap nation’s concern with Jay’s deal, and the overall concern with the new black capitalist class is: “Does all this black greed, vanity, and wealth serve the higher good of black social progress? Or does it benefit the black few at the expense of the black many?” Jay’s deal obviously doesn’t make millions of struggling black people any richer, and it possibly undermines a symbol of hope.
There is no easy answer to this. It depends on Jay’s intentions, priorities, and skills. To understand the dynamics of this whole affair, one must give a little backstory to the moral and political dilemma that it poses.
The Pope of Tuskegee Alabama
A long time ago, on a continent far far away, a German Monk posted a set of doctrinal objections on the door of All Saints Church.
A rare combination of unflinching courage, intellectual brilliance, and profound conviction, Martin Luther’s most famous criticism of the Roman Catholic Church was its practice of granting ‘Papal indulgences’. According to doctrine, Church officials could in the name of the Pope, grant ‘indulgences’, a reduction or cancellation of the punishment for sin, in exchange for the monetary donations of the sinner. In theory, the indulgence would reduce the years that the donor or the donor’s relatives would spend in Purgatory. The salvation of one’s eternal soul itself literally became a market transaction.
Pope Julius II had ambitions and they required money. The City of Rome was run down. Its esteemed and sacred buildings dilapidated. Money was needed for renovations to restore the glory of the Holy City. Pope Julius also had foreign policy ambitions to recover the Papal States. This required an army and therefore money. The practice of Papal indulgences was not a new policy per se, but the Roman Church decided to now pursue the practice with increased vigor in order to finance Papal enterprises.
The United States was founded on an Anglo-Protestant culture, yet, American capitalism has always embraced the principle of moral indulgence as a market transaction. The men who built the great industrial empires of North America have donated untold sums towards philanthropy, intended for the betterment of society, as well as the betterment of their eternal public image. Still, it would be too cynical to deny that there was also a sort of Protestant ethic at work in the Robber Barons’ philanthropy.
The great Booker Taliaferro Washington was a central character in this drama. Booker T. assumed the leadership reigns of the Black South in 1895, at the height of white imperial power politics, both domestically and globally. These were the days when ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’. For the affluent white American and European, life had never been grander nor sweeter. In Paris, they called it the Belle Époque, the ‘Age of Beauty’. Not coincidentally, this was the nadir of black American life after emancipation. Southern blacks had suffered from a decades long reign of terror, as radical white supremacists sought to violently extinguish any glimmer of black social progress. Moreover, Southern blacks were not effectively organized.
Booker Taliaferro was born a slave and never knew his biological father. In 1865, when The Civil War ended and Emancipation came, Booker was only eight or nine, but he quickly developed big dreams.
Booker was a supreme political entrepreneur, a magician, who could turn nothing into something. Handed leadership of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881, he arrived on campus to find nothing more than a dilapidated shack, with one teacher, and two thousand dollars start-up capital. By the turn of the century, Tuskegee’s endowment was not only larger than any other American black college, but also than some white colleges, such as Auburn and the University of Alabama. Tuskegee would be his power base, but his reach would in time become global, as Bookerite franchises, based on his own socio-economic development model, spread across Afro-Christendom, from the Caribbean to throughout the continent of Africa, by the time of his untimely death in 1915. Booker was the original black celebrity-mogul.
Washington inspired great confidence in some of America’s wealthiest businessmen, notably John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie. They believed in him. They believed in his program. Booker proposed a practical development model for the black South, and Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan bought into it. In turn, he promised these men to preach and instill a Benjamin Franklin style Protestant ethic to his black followers, something Booker himself firmly believed in.
Andrew Carnegie was especially enamored of Booker, truly regarding him as a magic Negro, a ‘black Moses’. Carnegie explicitly saw his donations to black education in the light of the race’s former condition of servitude:
“My connection with Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, which promote the elevation of the colored race we formerly kept in slavery, has been a source of satisfaction and pleasure, and to know Booker Washington is a rare privilege. We should all take our hats off to the man who not only raised himself from slavery, but helped raise millions of his race to a higher stage of civilization... No truer, more self-sacrificing hero ever lived: a man compounded of all the virtues. It makes one better just to know such pure and noble souls…”
Carnegie’s monetary donations play the role of a sort of moral indulgence for the sin of slavery, with Washington playing the ‘holy confessor’. Commencing with the establishment of The Peabody Fund in 1867, black education has received a steady stream of capital investment by Anglo-American businessmen. This tradition continues today, with generous contributions from business moguls like Bill Gates ($100 million), among others. Whether one regards the ‘debt of Negro slavery’ as paid or not, it is undeniable that Anglo-American capitalists have been in some sense ‘making reparations payments’, in the form of philanthropic donations to black institutions, since the early Reconstruction period.
Rockefeller and Carnegie were not ‘Gordon Gekko’. They did not view greed as a virtue in itself. The unbridled gluttony and unscrupulous practices with which these men conducted their business needed to serve a higher good. Booker convinced them that investing in his program would serve that higher good.
Today, Booker T. Washington is a difficult nut to crack. His leadership style would not fly, because it is too deferential to white people. He’s too old-fashioned. Of course, the same could be said of MLK. But besides these stylistic differences, the question remains: Was Booker an effective leader, or was he a shuffling Uncle Tom, elevating his own career at the expense of black people?
The short answer is that Booker T. was a great leader, and it is difficult for us to understand the conditions under which he operated. There has also been a lot of propaganda surrounding Booker over the years, good and bad, which makes it difficult to sort fact from fiction. In 1947, Carter G. Woodson, the ‘father of black history’, wrote of Booker: “No man has been so generally misunderstood by his own people.” Woodson puzzled over how a man like Booker could be so revered around the world, but so criticized by intellectuals of his own race.
Booker opposed Jim Crow laws throughout his career, sometimes publicly, but more often privately. He would use the money he received from Northern capitalists to secretly fund legal challenges. While more or less embraced by the white Southern elite, he was violently despised by white Southern populists, who viewed him as a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, whose efforts towards black Southern development would inevitably lead them to challenge the white man’s dominion.
And so they have…
Black intellectuals tend to put Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King on one end of the spectrum of leadership, and Booker T. on the polar opposite. But this is inaccurate. According to Woodson: “Booker T. Washington’s ideas of educating the Negro were practically the same as Douglass; and his doctrine of ‘let down your buckets where you are’ was practically the same as Frederick Douglass…”
Woodson goes further in his comparison of the two great leaders:
“Washington emphasized equally the economic opportunities of Negroes in the South, but diplomatically avoided the political issues. He was not unmindful of the fact, however, that if the Negroes followed his advice for the improvement of their status, their political power would thereby be assured. It was only with respect to emphasis upon politics that Douglass differed from Washington.”
In the end, things turned out more or less as Booker planned: black social development in the South laid the foundations for the Civil Rights movement. He was a great hero and inspiration to Rosa Parks and the ladies of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, who were largely educated at institutions funded through Washington’s donations. Up from Slavery was Parks’ favorite book. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself was educated at Booker T. Washington High School.
Booker focused on economics rather than politics, because he viewed the real power in American society to lie not with the politicians, but instead in the hands of the industrial capitalists. This is why he cultivated such close relationships with these men. His goal was not simply formal political equality for blacks ‘on paper’, but also for black people to be real power players in American society and the world stage. He wanted to see a day where there would be Black Rockefellers, Black Carnegies, and Black Morgans, because these were the men who really made the world turn:
“I place no limits to the attainment of the Negro in arts, letters, and statesmanship, but I believe that the surest way of reaching those ends is by laying a foundation in the little things of life… I plead for industrial education and development for the Negro because I want him to be free. I want him to enter the all powerful business and commercial world.”
And so he has, Booker. So he has…
Booker witnessed personally in his lifetime how easily political rights ‘on paper’ could be taken away from blacks unless they had a real power base. For him, that power base would in time be formed not by black politicians, activists, nor intellectuals, but instead by black industrial capitalists, by black Robber Barons, tempered by a Protestant ethic.
To All the Killaz and the Hundred Dollar Billaz
Back in the 1980s, there was much debate about the meaning and future of Hip-Hop. There have been many incarnations over the years.
Rapper as trickster. Rapper as truth-teller. Rapper as criminal. Rapper as political activist. And of course, the ever popular, Rapper as ladies’ man or Mack-Daddy. Early on, the playing of Hip-Hop on the radio or on TV in Music Videos was largely taboo. Hip-Hop was antagonistic to pop music. It claimed a certain street credibility and authenticity and it was generally recognized as such. The 1990s were probably the golden age of Hip-Hop, when the popular singles and albums were of the highest quality.
Hip-Hop’s current incarnation traces its roots directly to the work of the inimitable Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, starting in the late 90s. This incarnation is Hip-Hop as capitalist enterprise. Artist as capitalist. Capitalist as artist. In today’s world of Hip-Hop, the artist-mogul rules the roost. Frequently, their primary business is not even music, but instead some series of sidelines: cosmetics lines, clothing lines, exotic liquors, rolling papers, and even Vitamin Water. Too many to list. Crossing-over into movies or TV is always good. One wishes to conquer more than one form of mass-media.
Don’t knock the hustle.
The Hip-Hop generation were Watergate babies, who grew up during the Reagan-Bush era. They were raised up in a world in which the political failures of the black power politics of the previous decade were manifest, but the rhetoric still had resonance. While the Black Panthers had failed politically, their ideological and cultural aims were largely successful. The movement had changed black public opinion in the Northern cities. It had not convinced black people that a Marxist Revolution was a good idea, but it did change the way the younger generations viewed themselves and the world around them. Black power politics changed attitudes.
The Hip-Hop generation believed in attitude, but it did not generally believe that radical politics would be the salvation of black people. Their greatest sports icon was Michael Jordan, not Muhammed Ali. Athlete as capitalist. Not, athlete as provocateur. Jordan is the player who becomes an owner, the first and only former black player to become a majority owner of a franchise in their own sport, since the Negro Leagues. Jordan’s 6-0 record in the NBA Finals is his most celebrated professional achievement in the media, but his rise to majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets is his most historically significant.
If one looks at the Hip-Hop industry, we find many black men and women who were born into meager circumstances, and used Hip-Hop to ‘better themselves’ and their situation. While these folks may have in some sense been born with ‘bad luck’, that is, poor and black, they have taken it upon themselves to make their own ‘good luck’. Some of the men spent time in prison before ‘making it big’. Consequently, they have in a real sense pulled themselves up from modern day slavery to be their own masters.
The long run fight for ‘social justice’ is noble, but how do I protect myself from the problems of racism right now? Hip-Hop’s answer is simple: insulate yourself from the problems of color with money. The best way to manage the problems of racism is to become a capitalist. Of course, this is not a 100% reliable solution, but Hip-Hop regards this as the best way to manage the color line as it exists today. This is Jay-Z’s approach.
But this solves nothing for the millions of blacks who have little or no money. For people of less means, they can only be strong when they are well-organized. That is the best way for them to fight off the problems of the color line. The Hip-Hop moguls can invest in such organization, targeting problems that white philanthropists might overlook or lack interest in. This is where all the greed and vanity embodied in today’s Hip-Hop ethic must be tempered by a higher good. These Hip-Hop moguls should not need to be convinced that black progress and development is worth investing in and defending, like the white Rockefellers of old.