Larry Smith

Forbes magazine recently declared that Shawn Carter (aka, Jay-Z) is the first hip-hop artist to become a billionaire. The rest of the media — the old heads and the upstarts — followed suit. (Note that Forbes’ article said that Mr. Carter’s fortune is “conservatively estimated” to be $1 billion — and that doesn’t even include Mrs. Carter’s money.) Not to be outdone, Kanye West quickly tweeted that he’s worth “a billion and some change.” (Actually, that’s not true. But give him a few days ...) 

A lifetime ago, on his legendary “Blueprint” album, Jigga references his ever-growing wealth in several songs. Nothing surprising there, such braggadocio is typical of hip-hop artists. Yet, even then, one had the sense that Jay was not content merely to be rich. The man who arrogated to himself the title “J-Hova” (i.e., the god of rap) has always seemed to want — more. In a 2010 Forbes article that highlighted Carter’s meeting with Warren Buffet, he quipped, “Hip-hop from the beginning has always been aspirational.” The question, then, is to what does Jay-Z aspire? Even though he’s “got 99 problems,” he’s also “got the hottest chick in the game wearin’ (his) chain.” I’m reminded that Alexander the Great is said to have cried after he had conquered the known world. (In the movie “Die Hard” Hans Gruber suggested — inaccurately — that Plutarch had quoted Alexander making this claim.) I digress …

Last week I wrote that Black folks beamed with pride because one of Jay-Z’s fellow billionaires — Robert Smith — volunteered to pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 class of Morehouse College. Let’s unpack my claim. Assuming that I know what I’m talking about (which is usually a safe bet), the question is why ordinary African Americans take such personal pride in the fact that someone who is astoundingly wealthy gave away some of his money. In short, why should we care if we are not direct beneficiaries of such generosity? 

Even more perplexing is the fact that many of us are proud of Jay’s financial accomplishment, which (in and of itself) has nothing to do with philanthropy. Indeed, I am reminded of an interview several years ago in which Carter, in responding to a question about his donating to worthy causes, replied (in part): “My presence is philanthropy.” Those of us who have labored in the nonprofit sector preach that philanthropy is comprised of treasure, talent and time. Thus, Jay-Z’s statement has merit. (Still, most of us expect wealthy folks to give a healthy dose of the first “T.”) In any case, Carter’s milestone has generally been met with a mixture of admiration, collective pride and a sense of awe. (Of course, there is also a healthy dose of “hater-ade.”)  

In the same way, most of us are proud of Tiger Woods, who has spent most of his career downplaying (or at least ignoring) the Black contribution to his athletically superlative DNA. Still, we have cheered for every perfect tee shot, moaned at every errant swing and felt as personally dejected at his precipitous downfall as we felt exultant at his rocket-like rise. What gives?

As I shared with a Caucasian childhood friend of mine a couple weeks ago, one of the privileges of being white in America is the luxury of viewing one’s self (and being viewed by most others) as an “individual.” One of the realities of being Black in America is trying to navigate collective pride and racial solidarity with pride in self and respect for the mythic individualism that has defined America (which, of course, is a myth). As vaudeville showman Bert Williams has been quoted as saying: “There’s no disgrace in being a colored man, but it’s terribly inconvenient.” Part of that inconvenience has to do with always being grouped with other Black people, even if we don’t want to be. For example, when the news reports a horrific crime, most of us hold our breath, praying that the suspect is not Black. That’s because those situations reinforce racial stereotypes and increase discrimination.

In the end, if we are going to be lumped together under any circumstance, we might as well revel in Mr. Carter’s milestone.  So, here’s to you, Mr. Carter! I’m happy to be along for the ride.


Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at

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