Hip-hop star Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, haveralliedin support of Trayvon Martin’s family after the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing the unarmed teenager. Other music stars might be considering joiningStevie Wonder’s campaignto boycott states with “stand your ground” laws.
While artists should be commended for their political and social activism, helping to improve the long-term economic viability of their young black fans could have lasting and tangible impact.
Hip-hop stars have tremendous influence on their fans. Young admirers embrace the genre, and many aspire to the rappers’ extravagant lifestyle. Fans spend millions on hip-hop fashion and buy expensive beverages promoted in songs and videos. While not necessarily an outcome to applaud, the adoption of a hip-hop sensibility indicates that rappers can also influence young blacks to move beyond being aspirational consumers to inspirational entrepreneurs.
The Magic touch
The challenge is getting more artists to view their economic impact on music as an opportunity to extend their financial clout to the broader community. Former basketball star Magic Johnson made the transition and is transforming urban America by creating businesses and jobs.
Rappers can, too. But they have to see themselves as 21st century entrepreneurs, as comfortable speaking in corporate boardrooms as they are spitting lyrics on stage, as interested in owning businesses as they are in buying expensive homes far removed from the communities they rap about. They have to understand their nexus between the little boys in the neighborhood and the big boys on Wall Street, and make investments in their young African-American fans eager for success but clueless about how to get there. Few youngsters will become platinum-level rappers, but lots can own businesses.
Follow the Master
Master P, an entrepreneur, gets it. “Most guys get into this business to be hard-core,” he told Black Enterprise magazine. “I’m in this to show people that we could come from nothing and still be able to deal with corporate America.”
I witnessed the sway these artists have during the 2008 presidential campaign when I was an adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and coordinated the involvement of artists and athletes. Young people responded and voted enthusiastically, energized by their hip-hop heroes and the prospect of a youthful black president who listened to hip-hop himself.
Political engagement is vital for keeping young people from being marginalized from the rest of society, but it’s even more imperative to keep them from being further disenfranchised from the larger economy.
Black joblessness abounds
If they aren’t graduating, they aren’t going to college or getting the best jobs. For some, their education is as limited as their outlook.
Some can recite lyrics of rap songs but can’t balance a checkbook. They write rhymes but can’t write a cover letter. Education and entrepreneurship can lead to a more promising future.
Hip-hop music generates more than $10 billion annually, and the top 20 rappers earned more than $271 million a year. While Jay-Z, Diddy, Russell Simmons and Dr. Dre can impressively sell millions of albums, it’s their entrepreneurial skills that should be applauded and emulated by young people.
Jay-Z has created a record label, fragrance and clothing lines, and Roc Nation Sports; Samsung purchased and provided 1 million digital versions of his new album Magna Carta Holy Grail to Galaxy phone users.
When Jay-Z rapped: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” he was speaking truth to power. Jay-Z and others can help young people live out that line by creating more businesses and jobs for their fans.
They can invest in high-growth companies such as energy, technology and advanced manufacturing. They can support job training initiatives and programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics so that young people can be prepared for the jobs of the future. Artists can also encourage companies whose products they endorse to locate manufacturing and distribution facilities in hard-hit urban areas.
Annual awards shows, such as BET’s and MTV’s, should present an “Entrepreneur and Job Creator of the Year” award. Not only would it change the way young people view rappers, it also would show that rappers are providing a return to their investors — those who buy the albums, tickets and apparel that keep them in business in the first place.
Rick C. Wade was senior adviser and deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Commerce Department. He is currently an entrepreneur and global business consultant.