Calling Bullshit on Jay Z - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Calling Bullshit on Jay Z

Calling Bullshit on Jay Z

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because when your business partner is accused of racial profiling, what’s a billionaire mogul supposed to do?

By Eugene S. Robinson

Jay Z has always been pretty media-savvy. Prescient, even. 

His “99 Problems,” released in 2004, was a clever East Coast take that slyly addressed life on both sides of the law by a man whose early life had not nearly been so evenly balanced. He was a sage judge of street politic at a time when few were that nuanced. 

But that was $500 million ago, with $95 million in earnings from June 2012 to June 2013 alone.  

So it’s strange, given how savvy and successful he’s been, to see his two recent, and connected, missteps. We’re talking about the Belafonte brouhaha and the Barneys bust-up.

For those not in the N.Y.-know, the situation went thusly: Two (and more, it turned out, as the days and press piled up) black folks made high-priced purchases at the high-priced department store Barneys. After their cards had cleared and, oh, after they had left the store, they were braced by New York’s finest and pulled in for questioning. (Apparently all the rapists and killers in Bloomberg’s New York had been caught.)

As the smoke sort of started to clear, Jay Z’s name popped up. After all, he had a luxury, limited-edition collection planned with his bedfellow, Barneys.

That Trayon Christian, 19, and Kayla Phillips, 21, made expensive purchases is not that unusual.

What was, in fact, unusual was the now-disputed chain of events that occurred post-facto, with Barneys and the cops pointing fingers every which way, Boss Tweed-style.

Yeah, it was a bad time for everybody, but as the smoke sort of started to clear, Jay Z’s name popped up. After all, he had a luxury, limited-edition collection planned with his bedfellow, Barneys.

And this is where the zigging of the story started to zag.

Kayla walking on the street

Kayla Phillips, 21, was stopped by police in February after purchasing a Céline handbag from Barneys at 61st St. and Madison Ave.

Source Aaron Showalter/NY Daily News

Jay Z violated the unspoken No. 1 PR rule and did not get ahead of the story. The story broke October 22 when Christian and attorneys filed suit for the April 29th incident; Jay Z responded from Sweden, where he was on tour, four days later. It was unclear if he was dithering, or as he later claimed, ”waiting on facts.” But by the time he did respond, he was responding not to what Barneys did, but to a quizzical and sort of peeved public that was wondering where he had been. And his response, when it came, smelled of accommodation and compromise. Ninety-nine problems, indeed.

Eventually he said, perhaps heedless of the PR disaster, that he’d work with Barneys on their racial-profiling problems but that the deal was moving ahead, regardless. Barneys, a bit more sagely, canceled the kickoff event. And plenty of highly irked folks are now rolling their jaundiced eyes, perhaps cognizant of what Trayon Christian’s attorney just hinted at: that profiling is still alive and well in Barneys’ hallowed commercial halls.

While we don’t know what Jay Z is doing now, we have a pretty good idea of what he should be doing. 

But therein is the rub: The use of the word should rubs us the wrong way. In a land that seems to pride itself on aggressive independence, should the word should even be used here?

Or more succinctly put: Should Jay Z have to do anything about something that’s essentially not his problem?

His response, when it came, smelled of accommodation and compromise.

The last election, philosophically speaking, was about this in total: billionaires and their obligations. That’s what this is about in Jay Z’s case, not race. The rich are a race unto themselves, but the question is, what kind of responsibilities and obligations do they have to the rest of the world?

Jay Z photographed from below with American flag background

Jay Z

Source Matt Roarke/Corbis

To paraphrase Robert De Niro from Goodfellas, maybe just a little bit. Jay Z does not sit on $500 mil large without the “little people” who contribute to that largesse. These are people with smaller bank accounts who want to buy in to whatever dream he happens to be selling. And, yes, he should, not so much because he is black but because he is rich. I don’t expect him to do what I would’ve done, which is pause the Barneys deal and make sure their house is in order before business commenced. But he should’ve realized that the 99 percent is now part of his 99 problems, and acted decisively.

As Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said in his recent Dreamforce 2013 keynote, it’s a wild and wonderfully connected world out there, and we’d all be better served by realizing that sooner rather than later.

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