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Interview: Jay-Z Talks Rap, Marriage and Being Black with NY Times ‘T Magazine’

Jay-Z sat down with Executive Editor Dean Baquet in September at The NY Times’ T Magazine for an in-depth interview about his music and more. He talks about leadership in America, touches on OJ Simpson, and on being married. He also talks about being a black man in America today, the current state of rap plus much more. You see some of what Jay had to say below and check out the full story here.

BAQUET: The things I want to talk to you about: I want to talk a little bit about race. Your music some, too. I thought the song [“The Story of O.J.,” from the album “4:44,” 2017] was particularly powerful. I took the message as, “You can be rich, you can be poor, you’re still black.” Who were you speaking to? Who did you want to listen to that and be moved by it?

JAY-Z: It’s a nuanced song, you know. It’s like, I’m specifically speaking to us. And about who we are and how do you maintain the sense of self while pushing it forward and holding us to have a responsibility for our actions. Because in America, it is what it is. And there’s a solution for us: If we had a power base together, it would be a much different conversation than me having a conversation by myself and trying to change America by myself. If I come with 40 million people, there’s a different conversation, right? It’s just how it works. I can effect change and get whomever in office because this many people, we’re all on the same page. Right? So the conversation is, like, “I’m not rich, I’m O.J.” For us to get in that space and then disconnect from the culture. That’s how it starts. This is what happens. And then you know what happens? You’re on your own, and you see how that turned out.

BAQUET: Was it a reminder, too, that the thing O.J. forgot, maybe, was that as rich as he was, as entitled as his life was, he was reminded very forcefully when he became a subject of racial debate that he was also a black man, whether he accepted that or not?

JAY-Z: That’s right. Absolutely. And for us, like I’m saying, to speak to that the point is, “Don’t forget that,” because that’s really not the goal. The goal is not to be successful and famous. That’s not the goal. The goal is, if you have a specific God-given ability, is to live your life out through that. One. And two, we have a responsibility to push the conversation forward until we’re all equal. Till we’re all equal in this place. Because until everyone’s free, no one’s free, and that’s just a fact.

BAQUET: How did you react when that one line in that song where you referred to Jews and wealth2 [“You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it”] — some people got upset. How did you feel about that?

JAY-Z: I felt it was really hypocritical. Only because it’s obvious the song is, like, “Do you want to be rich? Do what people got rich done.” Of course, it’s a general statement, right? It’s obviously a general statement, like the video attached to it was a general statement. And if you didn’t have a problem with the general statement I made about black people, and people eating watermelon and things like that [the animated music video for the song, which references racist cartoons, includes a caricature of a black man eating watermelon] — if that was fine, [but] that line about wealth bothered you, then that’s very hypocritical, and, you know, that’s something within yourself. ‘Cause basically, I was saying, you know, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, is a great basketball player. He trains in the off-season. If you want to be great, train in off-season like him. That’s basically the statement. You can’t miss the context of the song. You have to be like 5 years old or something.

BAQUET: Some people think that the election of Donald Trump has revived the debate about race in America. Some people think that, in fact, there’s always been racism in America; that it hasn’t changed and that the debate isn’t any different. It’s just people are paying attention to it. What do you think?

JAY-Z: Yeah, there was a great Kanye West line in one of [his] songs: “Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it.” [“Never Let Me Down,” from West’s 2004 album, “The College Dropout.”] Take a step back. I think when Donald Sterling3 got kicked out of the N.B.A., I thought it was a misstep, because when you kick someone out, of course he’s done wrong, right? But you also send everyone else back in hiding. People talk like that. They talk like that. Let’s deal with that.

I wouldn’t just, like, leave him alone. It should have been some sort of penalties. He could have lost some draft picks. But getting rid of him just made everyone else go back into hiding, and now we can’t have the dialogue. The great thing about Donald Trump being president is now we’re forced to have the dialogue. Now we’re having the conversation on the large scale; he’s provided the platform for us to have the conversation.

BAQUET: First off, how does Jay-Z find a therapist? Not in the Phone book, right?

JAY-Z: No, through great friends of mine. You know. Friends of mine who’ve been through a lot and, you know, come out on the other side as, like, whole individuals.

BAQUET: What was that like, being in therapy? What did you talk about that you had never acknowledged to yourself or talked about?

JAY-Z: I grew so much from the experience. But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a … you’re at such an advantage. You know, you realize that if someone’s racist toward you, it ain’t about you. It’s about their upbringing and what happened to them, and how that led them to this point. You know, most bullies bully. It just happen. Oh, you got bullied as a kid so you trying to bully me. I understand.

And once I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, “Aw, man, is you O.K.?” I was just saying there was a lot of fights in our neighborhood that started with “What you looking at? Why you looking at me? You looking at me?” And then you realize: “Oh, you think I see you. You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you. And you don’t want me to see you.”

BAQUET: So now I gotta ask my one gossipy question. Talk about Kanye West and your relationship with him, which you alluded to a little bit in the album.13 When’s the last time you talked to him?

JAY-Z: I [talked to] Kanye the other day, just to tell him, like, he’s my brother. I love Kanye. I do. It’s a complicated relationship with us.

BAQUET: Why is it complicated?

JAY-Z: ‘Cause, you know — Kanye came into this business on my label. So I’ve always been like his big brother. And we’re both entertainers. It’s always been like a little underlying competition with your big brother. And we both love and respect each other’s art, too. So it’s like, we both — everyone wants to be the greatest in the world. You know what I’m saying? And then there’s like a lot of other factors that play in it. But it’s gonna, we gonna always be good.

BAQUET: But there’s tension now, right?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that happens. In the long relationship, you know, hopefully when we’re 89 we look at this six months or whatever time and we laugh at that. You know what I’m saying? There’s gonna be complications in the relationship that we have to get through. And the only way to get through that is we sit down and have a dialogue and say, “These are the things that I’m uncomfortable with. These are the things that are unacceptable to me. This is what I feel.” I’m sure he feels that I’ve done things to him as well. You know what I’m saying? These are — I’m not a perfect human being by no stretch. You know.

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