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'Gentrify Your Hood': Why Jay-Z's Freestyle Tribute to Nipsey Hussle is Dividing Fans

Jay-Z performing in Webster Hall in NYC on Saturday (Image Credit: Twitter/Roc Nation)

Jay-Z performing in Webster Hall in NYC on Saturday (Image Credit: Twitter/Roc Nation)

By definition, gentrification means renovating urban housing areas to attract more affluent residents. However in the US (as in most parts of the world) historically, only those in power have been in charge of gentrification of housing districts.

At $900 million, Shawn Corey Carter, better known to the world by the insanely famous stage name ‘Jaz-Z’, is easily one of the best rags to riches story history has seen.

Growing up in 1980s Brooklyn amidst a crack cocaine epidemic that that tore about many black neighborhoods and families, Jay-Z has seen the dark side of the much denigrated ‘hood’ life. After his father walked on on Jay-Z and his family and his brother got addicted to the the powder, Jay-Z himself dabbled in selling drugs. He even shot the same brother, Eric, once, apparently when he tried to steal the former’s ring.

Now, Jay-Z has the distinction of being one of the most successful rappers in the world, with 22 Grammies and countless other illustrious awards under his literally golden belt.

So when on Saturday when the Hov performed a new song about ‘gentrification of hoods’ during the B-Sides 2 concert in New York City’s Webster Hall, many fans were a bit stumped.


“Gentrify your own hood before these people do it.

Claim eminent domain and have your people move in.

That’s a small glimpse into what Nipsey was doing.

For anybody still confused as to what he was doing."

These were the words from the freestyle rap belted out by Jay-Z in honour of legendary rapper Nipsey Hussle, in which he was joined by fellow star rapper Nas. While the global hip-hop community cheered at a joint performance between the Hov and Nas as well as the lyrical tribute, Jay-Z’s words struck a deeper chord.

As soon as the performance was over, Twitter started to stir with reactions to the performance. Understandable fan hysteria at the surprise freestyle aside, fans soon started debating the Hov’s call to ‘gentrify’ black neighborhoods.

“Black celebrities presenting themselves as the vanguard of success is a huge problem. They depict themselves as potential economic saviors, meanwhile black people in positions to hire folks and make large scale decisions regarding big businesses are few as ever," a Twitter user wrote on Instagram.

The song, in fact, unleashed a debate about ‘gentrification’ of black neighbourhoods and what it really means to people living in those neighbourhoods.

Many argued that the gentrification of neighbourhoods debate smacked of privilege and did not actually help the community as much as up the price value of the area and property by improving its brand value. By definition, gentrification means renovating urban housing areas to better suit refined, often middle-class tastes. However in the US (as in most parts of the world) historically, only those in power have been in charge of gentrification of housing districts. These powerful representatives have often worked toward attracting affluent classes to neighborhoods while further neglecting the needs of the lower-income residents that already occupied the area.

“Gentrification’s objective is property development, prioritizing displacement of formerly residing class/race demo. It is not an apolitical or amoral vehicle. Once profit stops being the objective it’s no longer gentrification. Improving low income communities =\= gentrification," another user wrote. They further added “When improving said communities is done so with the objective to market neighborhoods to a more affluent class as opposed to improving the lives of the community already residing there it is gentrification. Urban renewal is the latter".

Referring to the rapper’s call to seize “eminent domain" (the 5th Amendment allows the US government to seize private property for development), many said that it was the authorities who often practiced eminent domain to push communities outside of their homes. One Twitter user succinctly summed it up. “Eminent domain is the government seizing your private property if you’re in the way of capital improvements or you find gold or uranium or something in the ground. What do Jay be talking about???"

In fact, many slammed the rapper for the lyrics.

However, not all fans agreed on the negative aspect of ‘gentrification’. by definition, it means ‘renovating’ decaying urban housing districts. And fans pointed out that Jay-Z stressed on communities gentrifying their OWN hoods BEFORE someone else does. They argued that the song was a clear call for the community to wake up and take more care in cleaning up and improving their own neighborhoods instead of waiting for cops and the government to do it.

That way, people could have control over the changes that they want and ensure that all the real problems are fixed.

“I strictly think he’s saying that minorities in general should look to invest in their own community to help keep it a minority community. All black and brown people aren’t poor and that doesn’t have to the only narrative for our folks," a Twitter use leaning to defend the rapper wrote. “People automatically assume gentrification has to be negative, and understandably so, but it’s only been negative because the ones doing it didn’t care about the community, they cared about money," another fan pointed out.

To be fair, Jay-Z’s music has always reflected a call to black communities to help themselves first. In the song “The Story of OJ", he repeatedly talks about how the people living in the hood and projects need to stop indulging in drugs. He talks about real estate and making smart decisions. Though the song and its video is a powerful indictment of black oppression in various aspects of American life, Jaz Z effortlessly slips in pieces of advice for aspirants and future generations of impressionable black teens.

Coming from the projects, Jay-Z saw up-close the dame drugs did to the black community. His later music and interviews reflects these realisations.

Today, Jay-Z is the CEO of several multi-billion dollar ventures including Rock-a-Fella records. He is actively involve din giving back to the community and in renovating his own ‘hood’. The Barclays Centre that Jay-Z is credited with helping to put on the map is considered one of the best of his contributions his city.

However, many fans could not help wonder if the ‘gentrification’ would not come at a price. It is an issue that is not a new one among the POC in the US, who have lost several neighbourhoods in the past decade to a wave of gentrification that invariably results in property prices and taxes skyrocketing, shoving lower-income group families out to make way for richer occupants.

Jay-Z’s heart was probably in the right place when he spoke the words. But the impact the words have been creating is really what hip-hop is all about - debate and discussion are the hallmarks of rap and hip-hop. Could these shifts pave the way for newer voices to fuse and transform the arena?

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