Nobody’s SaviorJay-Z Can’t Be Our Messiah

Jay-Z in Hamburg/Germany 2003 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Mikamote)

Messiah: anointed; promised deliverer; liberator of the damned. The only one who can save us.

In his latest track, “What It Feels Like”—his first release since 2020’s on-the-nose “Entrepreneur”—Jay-Z name drops two significant historical leaders. “Black stones on my neck, y’all can’t kill Christ/ Black messiah is what I feel like.” The Christ comparison isn’t shocking, after all, Hova is speaking. The alarming parallel comes in the idea of Jay-Z considering himself the Black community’s savior. Alarm continues when “What It Feels Like,” the second single from Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album, finds Jay-Z crowning himself the modern day Fred Hampton, the late chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Born the day the Chicago Police Department assassinated Hampton, Jay-Z equates his entrance with Hampton’s departure (“I arrived on the day Fred Hampton got mur-, hol’ up/ Assassinated, just to clarify it further/ What y’all gave birth is the chairman mixed with Jeff Fort”). It’s a tired claim.

Jay-Z upset Hampton’s family when he rapped “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died/ Uh, real niggas just multiply” on “Murder to Excellence,” a song from 2011’s Watch the Throne. Apparently, Jay-Z believed that his contributions to the world were as revolutionary as those of the Marxist-Leninist activist. Really, Hampton and Jay-Z are worlds apart in both motivation and action. With a new chance to prove himself the Black messiah on “What It Feels Like,” Jay-Z offers anecdotes about black diamonds, hoarding money, IRS-related anxieties, and acquiring a luxury weed line. “You know they hate when you become more than they expect,” he raps, implying that accumulating wealth as a Black man is as equally revolutionary as organizing rallies, unifying Chicago’s gangs in the name of anti-policing solidarity, creating free meal programs for children and more.

“What It Feels Like” endorses the myth that ownership equates to racial equity. Here, being rich is the ultimate pinnacle of progress—a goal all Black folks should pull themselves up by their bootstraps to aspire toward. Jay-Z’s not alone in this sentiment: His rise from d-boy to billionaire has inspired many, those both inside and outside of hip hop, to follow in his footsteps. So much so that Black capital has become synonymous with Black liberation. That message flows throughout the rest of the Hit-Boy–produced Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack, featuring songs by Lil Durk, Nipsey Hussle, Polo G, SiR, and more. It’s a random collection of Black artists, few of who have publicly indicated any interest in being radical socialists. Instead, it’s a soundtrack of Judases, full of images that glorify riches and royalties while highlighting the divide between what hip hop once aspired to be and currently is.

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On “EMPD,” Nas spits “We at the mafia table, next to the kitchen/ Eatin’ Michelin Star, countin’ a million.” In “Appraise,” White Dave asks “Can’t give us freedom cause we had that, we need money trees/ We need equity, we need property, feel me?” G Herbo’s “All Black:” “Lawyer told me the Fs might want me/ I said, ‘Fuck it,’ and gave ‘em a hunnid.” Toward the soundtrack’s end, the presence of A$AP Rocky’s penultimate track—the underwhelming “Rich Nigga Problems”—says it all. A lack of imagination blocks the artists present from seeing the true political power of their wealth; with each line, individual gains eclipse generations of racialized oppression and trauma. Ironically, said gains have potential to significantly uplift those in the communities these rappers come up from, whether through funding mutual aid efforts or using their platform to amplify the work of local organizers. Clouded by wealth, they no longer recognize the needs of their respective communities. Their lyrics negate the identity of millions of Black Americans struggling under a system that these Black artists naively believe they’ve escaped.

It’s the same system Hampton developed and promoted multiple methods to combat. His well-documented, community-oriented guidances are glossed over and misunderstood by the rappers cosplaying radicalism in his image. “We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water,” Hampton said during a speech delivered at Olivet Church before his death in 1969. “We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no Black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.” Another failure of the soundtrack is that despite their contributions in both hip hop and the Black Panther Party, women are absent. With 22 tracks, Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album only features four women artists; Angela Hunte, Kiana Ledé, and Rapsody offer guest verses while H.E.R. is the only lead female artist. H.E.R.’s “Fight For You” offers the most explicit endorsement of Hampton’s community-fueled resistance, the freedom of being guided by the power of the person beside you. Unfortunately, the track falls short when it prioritizes men as the rallying point of radicalism: “Freedom for my brothers/ Freedom ‘cause they judge us/ Freedom from the others.”

Jay-Z cannot deliver us into an era of racial equity. He’s nobody’s savior—not even his own.

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At best, the soundtrack is an unfocused album, bookended by radical truths delivered by Fred Hampton Jr.’s “Cointelpro/Dec 4” and Rakim’s “Black Messiah.” It’s ultimately a collection of tracks that range from disappointing romanticizations of wealth and barely conscious songs about the Black experience. Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album isn’t a project aligned with the values of the Black Panther Party. Like Hampton, countless revolutionaries were torn down by a state that co-opts and whitewashes their message to confuse the masses as a form of control. Negligence showcased in the film and its inspired soundtrack emphasizes the fact that the further the masses are from understanding history, the slimmer our chance at progress becomes.

Hip hop used to be the pulse of the street, the sound of injustice, and one of the only musical avenues for expressing frustration caused by centuries of oppression. The genre used to belong to us. It was the medium through which political unrest was communicated and the community was valorized. Today, it amounts to little more than sonic advertisements for Rolexes and Benzes. Jay-Z, considered by some a godfather of hip hop, is at the center of the genre’s evolution. Though he’s been lionized by his mentors and mentees, he can’t be our messiah. He fights fire with water; his crusade against the system is a matter of embedding himself in it and playing by its rules, explicitly aligning himself with white supremacy. As long as every move he makes in the name of Black community lines his pockets (re: Reform Alliance, the Kalif Browder and Trayvon Martin documentaries, his Barneys collaboration, and partnering with the NFL as their live music entertainment strategist), Jay-Z cannot deliver us into an era of racial equity. He’s nobody’s savior—not even his own.

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LaTesha Harris is a writer, Scorpio and budding abolitionist. Her thoughts have made appearances in Variety, Sojourners, Chicago Reader and more. She currently works for NPR Music. Connect with her on Twitter here