NEW YORK ― When Brooklyn-born rap megastar and entrepreneur Jay Z finally broke his silence over charges that business partner Barneys New York had racially profiled two Black college students, he contended that ending his partnership with the pricey retailer would only deprive other college students of scholarships funded by proceeds from the deal.
“This money is going to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships to help further their education at institutions of higher learning,” Jay Z, whose birth name is Shawn Carter, said in a statement.
“My idea was born out of creativity and charity … not profit,” he said, noting that The Shawn Carter Foundation, which provides scholarships to students, would reap 25 percent of all sales from his collaboration with Barneys, known as “A New York Holiday.”
While Jay Z’s design to help college students finance their college education is an ostensibly laudable goal, some Hip Hop scholars are not “feelin’ it,” so to speak, when it comes to Jay Z’s refusal to distance himself from Barneys.
Among the critics is Pedro A. Noguera, an education professor at New York University and member of the advisory board for the Hip Hop Education Center, which is also housed at NYU.
“Jay Z, like too many other Black entertainers, fails to realize that he has a responsibility that rises far beyond making donations to scholarships,” Noguera said. “If he refuses to publicly condemn Barneys over this incident or to distance himself from them, one can only conclude that he is more interested in making money.”
Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University science education professor and Hiphop Archive fellow who is currently at Harvard, said the fact that the business collaboration between Jay Z and Barneys will generate scholarship money is “certainly is not an adequate tradeoff” for the allegedly racist business practices at Barneys.
“If some scraps from the table of this engagement with two multimillionaires goes to the hands of some folks in urban communities, it does not, by any means, justify a relationship that does not serve those communities well,” Emdin said in an interview with Diverse.
Both scholars were referring to two well-publicized cases of how NYPD officers detained Black college students on suspicion of credit card fraud after they purchased merchandise from the store.
In the first case, 19-year-old Trayon Christian, an NYC College of Technology freshman, was detained by NYPD after he purchased a $350 designer belt from the Madison Avenue store.
The undercover detectives reportedly asked him, “how a young Black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt,” according to one news account of a lawsuit that Christian filed against Barneys and NYPD.
Christian — who was ultimately released — has reportedly said that he went to the store after saving up paychecks from a part-time job at the college.
In a separate incident in February of this year, Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old nursing student, alleged being similarly detained by plainclothes police under similar circumstances after she bought a $2,500 suede Celine purse with money she said she got from a tax return.
Phillips is suing NYPD for $5 million.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and director of the National Action Network, denounced the alleged incidents as cases of “shop-and-frisk,” a term meant to call attention to the similarities between the Black students’ shopping experiences and the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy of NYPD, which a federal judge has ruled violates the rights of New Yorkers by targeting men from minority groups.
A bevy of individuals have called for Jay Z to distance himself from Barneys, but Jay Z has responded that he is “waiting on facts.”
Barneys has denied contacting NYPD to stop Christian and Phillips, but NYPD officials have said they acted after being urged to do so by Barneys.
Not everyone has been so critical of Jay Z.
Writing for thinkprogress.org — a project of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress ― features editor Alyssa Rosenberg called Jay Z’s decision to wait on the facts a “sensible business decision.”
“By not ditching the partnership with Barneys, using the relatively standard excuse that ‘if I make snap judgments, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?’ Jay Z sets himself up as a reliable corporate collaborator who won’t withdraw his cachet from business associates simply because there’s public pressure to do so,” Rosenberg wrote. “And if he does end up withdrawing, Jay Z can [cite] some sort of more definitive finding of fact that won’t burn him with the corporate world too much, but that will still allow him to show deference to a dialogue process that gives political leaders an opportunity to have their say.”
While not giving a pass to NYPD, Noguera also questioned why the college students were purchasing such expensive items.
“Even if they are from wealthy families, I question their priorities,” Noguera said. ”If they have that kind of wealth to spend on clothing, they could clearly do something more productive and socially responsible with it.”
Emdin said it was legitimate to raise the issue of how the college students were spending their money but that he felt it was a “separate conversation” about capitalism, commercialization and the entertainment industry’s message that material items are what gives a person self worth.
“The nature of what happens in the media is, whenever someone’s faults are being exhibited to the public, there’s a concurrent shift to another issue to deflect the blow,” Emdin said. “If we start focusing on these young people and what they bought, then things get unfocused.”
He said the Jay Z/Barneys partnership is part of a troubling trend where “sanctioned” representatives of hip-hop are used to lure consumers from the hip-hop audience to purchase products from corporations that don’t have their best interests at heart. As an example, he cited a different business deal that involved Jay Z ― the one where he ended up with a small stake in the Brooklyn Nets.
While Jay Z has criticized those who belittled him for having a relatively small stake in the Nets, Emdin suggested something much more sinister was at play — that Jay Z was brought into the deal to placate Brooklyn residents in order to pave the way for the construction of Barclays Center.
Though some jobs from the project may have gone to Brooklyn residents, Emdin said that Brooklyn residents ended up losing out ― and that Jay Z was essentially used as a pawn in the process.
“Well, yeah, they gave some jobs to some people in Brooklyn, but the whole process robbed people of property and priced them out of the community they were raised in,” Emdin said. “So it’s that same formula where someone who represents the community enables others to rob the community.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter at nycwriter360. He can be reached at [email protected]