Ever since I became a rap fan in the mid ‘90s, I’ve heard legends of the rap savior who will one day descend upon us all and return the form to its roots of political activism and substance. To free us from the era of commercial hits and vapid songs about money and bitches. How one day that messiah would arrive and rap would kick-start the revolution.
With the long ascent of Jay Z, there have been increasingly loud suggestions that he should do more for the Black community—flex his influence and dollars to do everything from funding #BlackLivesMatter causes to buying a million boats to send us all back to Africa. But at his core, Jay Z is a businessman and an entertainer who’s most comfortable rapping about his previous drug-dealing days and keeping his fans at arm’s length. I personally have been highly critical of the way he’s positioned his Tidal streaming service as some new civil rights frontier; to me, it looks more like a cash grab than anything.
Meanwhile, Beyonce has spent the last decade cementing herself as one of the biggest solo acts in the world. And even though she’s become deified as a monumentally influential artist, nobody really expected her to be anything more than a pop queen. Maybe it’s because Beyonce is a woman. Maybe it’s because she’s Jay Z’s wife. Maybe it’s because she’s been ridiculed for being “less intelligent” than some of her celebrity peers. Whatever the case, for most of her career Beyonce as advocate for Black rights just never seemed to be in the cards. There the two married rulers of pop music stood, reigning over the rest of us peasants, and none of us expected either one to take a stand for the amoebic “betterment of Black people.”
Then Mike Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, and everything changed.
The calls for Beyonce and Jay to speak up got louder. #BlackLivesMatter became a rallying cry for a movement, and the silence of the powerful became almost as loud as the chants of the rest of us. But here’s a twist: Beyonce became the biggest celebrity with the most to say about Black lives. The same woman who once made “Bootylicious” would be one of the leading celebrity voices of a movement on a mission to protect, empower and celebrate us. There were always murmurs of Jay Z and Beyonce silently donating to #BlackLivesMatter, but Beyonce went from anonymous benefactor to vocal frontrunner when she released the “Formation” video, demanding that police “stop killing us.” Her ensuing album, this year’s Lemonade, was full of Black power rhetoric and musings on what it means to persevere and be free (among all of the allusions to Jay Z’s marital infidelity, of course).
So when Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile was shot by a cop during a routine traffic stop outside of the Twin Cities, it was pretty much assumed that Beyonce would speak up. And indeed she was quick to act, creating a statement about Black lives on her website that directed readers to their local representatives. The traffic from the message shut down local government websites across the country.
Meanwhile Jay Z, who long ago took a backseat to his wife, unleashed “Spiritual,” a year-old song, more spoken-word than rap, and a passionate and authentic a plea for Black lives. The admission that he’s in a “hurricane of emotions” because he can’t raise his daughter in this climate is as real and visceral a reaction we’re going to get from him. It’s refreshing and encouraging that he’ll join his wife in leading the celebrity charge.
Then by the second verse we get the truest words Jay Z may have ever spoken in a song, at once criticizing his own career trajectory and promising something better for the future:
Peeling back the layers, uncovering Scars that never healed, I never kept it this real I acted out, my life a stage, ten thousand people watchin’
As Jay Z was releasing his track, Beyonce was in England singing “Freedom” while the names of Black men and women killed by police appeared on a gigantic screen behind the stage—and almost simultaneously, a gunman was opening fire on police officers and protesters in Dallas.
Our Twitter feeds were inundated with footage of the shootout in downtown Dallas. Five police officers died and many more people were shot. It looked like a war zone in America. We’re scared and at the same time have to explain, once again, why we cherish Black lives and make people understand that we respect police officers and don’t want them killed and that, at the same time, Black men and women don’t know when the next police encounter will mean death. This feels like the worst parts of our country showing themselves. Just getting out of bed to consume more of these images feels crippling.
It’s a terrifying time to live in America. In their high-profile reactions, Jay Z and Beyonce don’t feel so much like royalty as they do regular people. Fear has made us all equal. None of us knows what to do. Beyonce’s calls to action and Jay Z’s first real salvo into publicly speaking on the movement represent their own ways of trying to make sense of what’s happening. And honestly, it feels like more than enough right now, while we try to collect ourselves.
Now I realize how silly it was to ever look for a “rap savior,“ to believe that any rapper could lead revolution or figure this damaged country out. Because the truth is scarier than our hopes back then: in moments like this, nobody, artist or otherwise, has the answer.