Born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969, rapper Jay Z was raised in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects. His father walked out on the family when Carter was 11 years old, and before long the boy began selling crack cocaine in the streets. When he was 12, Carter shot (non-fatally) his drug-addicted brother in the shoulder for stealing his ring. In subequent years, he tried to become a rap/hip-hop artist, adopting the stage name “Jay Z” in 1989.
Jay Z made his first significant imprint on the music industry in 1996, when he and two friends collaborated to form Roc-A-Fella Records, through which Jay Z released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. The album achieved only modest commercial success at the time, but eventually became known as one of hip-hop’s foundational records. In subsequent years, Jay Z cut several more albums and became a major star.
In a December 2, 1999 dispute at the Kit Kat Club on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, Jay Z stabbed (non-fatally) record producer Lance Rivera, an offense that could have brought a 15-year prison term for felony assault. In October 2001, however, the performer pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced only to probation. Moreover, he paid between $500,000 and $1 million to settle Rivera’s threatened civil lawsuit out of court.
Also in October 2001, a separate gun-possession charge against Jay Z was dropped. The case dated back to the April 13, 2001 arrest of Jay Z and his bodyguard when New York City police discovered a loaded .40-caliber Glock in the latter’s waistband.
In 2003 Jay Z announced, to the surprise of his fan base, that he was retiring as a hip-hop performer, and in 2005 he became president of the Def Jam music label. In 2006 he returned to making music and released the album Kingdom Come, which was followed by American Gangster in 2007. Also in 2007, Jay Z resigned his position as Def Jam’s president.
In April 2008 Jay Z married the popular singer and actress Beyoncé Knowles. That same year, he signed a $150 million contract with the concert promotion company Live Nation, a deal that led to the creation of the entertainment company Roc Nation.
Jay Z’s other ongoing business ventures include his urban clothing line Roc-A-Wear (founded in 1999); Roc-A-Fella Films (founded in 2002); and the 40/40 Club (an upscale New York sports bar owned by Jay Z and some business partners). For a few years, Jay Z was also a part-owner of the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets (who later became the Brooklyn Nets).
Jay Z is an avid admirer of Barack Obama, who, in turn, has expressed high regard for Jay Z, both as an entertainer and as a person. In 2009 Jay Z released a song in honor of the newly elected President Obama, titled My President is Black. Several hours after Obama had taken his oath of office, Jay Z performed at a Hip Hop Inaugural Ball in Washington, where he rapped the following racially charged lyrics: “You can keep ya puss, I don’t want no more Bush. No more war, no more Iraq, no more white lies. My president is black!”
In a November 16, 2010 interview with NPR, Jay Z recalled rapper Kanye West’s infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment regarding the former president’s alleged mishandling of the rescue/relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Said Jay Z: “It didn’t feel like a natural disaster; it felt like it was happening directly to blacks, and immediately those images of people in suits getting beaten, sprayed with hoses, beaten on the bridge at Selma, all these emotions were going on inside of us. Kanye really spoke what everyone else felt.”
In the fall of 2011, Jay Z’s clothing company began selling T-shirts bearing the slogan “Occupy All Streets”—an homage to the Occupy Wall Street movement—but did not share his profits with the Occupiers. Notably, Jay Z said he did not formally support the protesters, citing a lack of clarity in their message: “I don’t know what the fight is about.”
In September 2012, Jay Z and Beyonce hosted a $40,000-per-person fundraising reception for Barack Obama at the 40/40 Club in Manhattan. The event took in more than $4 million for Obama’s re-election campaign.
In April 2013 Jay Z and Beyonce received special permission from the federal government to visit Communist Cuba, where American tourists were normally barred from traveling. While there, Jay Z made a public appearance wearing a T-shirt that bore the likeness of Che Guevara.
In July 2013, after a “white Hispanic” neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter charges connected to a high-profile 2012 incident in which he had shot and killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, Jay Z said: “I was really angry about it [the verdict]. We all still knew it was still a bit of racism in America, but to be so blatant?” Jay Z also accused “the NRA” and its supporters of “funding George Zimmerman because they want to hold onto their guns.”
In an August 2013 interview, Jay Z insinuated that income inequality in the U.S. might one day spark civil unrest: “I don’t really want to scare America, but the real problem is there’s no middle class, there’s a gap between a have and have not, it’s getting wider and wider. It’s going to be a problem that no amount of police can solve. Because once you have that sort of oppression, you know and that gap is widened, it’s inevitable that something is going to happen.”
Jay Z’s song lyrics are replete with profanity, racial slurs, misogyny, glorification of violence, and expressions of racial grievance. For example, in his song F**k All Nite, the entertainer refers to himself as a woman’s “emergency dk-in-the-glass.” The song Nig*a Please uses the word “niga” 39 times. Similarly, the song _[Niga What, Niga Who]29_ uses the term 47 times, and also makes multiple references to “fagots” and “motherfu*ers.” The song Pussy declares that “Pussy make nigas blow they brains out, they bitch brains out.” Dirt Off Your Shoulder boasts of giving “a middle finger to the law.” A music video titled No Church in the Wild celebrates anarchy and includes scenes of police trying to quell a violent riot. And 99 Problems features an entire verse about African Americans being racially profiled by the “motherfuing law.”
In April 2014, Jay Z made headlines when he attended an NBA basketball game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, wearing a chain with a coaster-size golden medallion that bore the logo of a radical group called the Five Percent Nation. According to Michael Muhammad Knight, who authored two books about the organization (which was founded in 1964 by a former student of Malcolm X), Five Percenters believe that: (a) “the black man is God and created the universe, and is physically stronger and intellectually stronger and more righteous naturally”; (b) “whiteness is weak and wicked and inferior”; and (c) “white people are devils.” Though Five Percenters are not Muslims, their name derives from the Nation of Islam’s belief that 5% of all human beings are “poor righteous teachers” whose purpose is to enlighten mankind about the truth of existence.
In May 2015, Jay Z and his wife, Beyoncé Knowles, wired tens of thousands of dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was a driving force behind the recent protests and riots that had erupted in Baltimore after a local black criminal named Freddie Gray died under disputed circumstances while in police custody. The rapper’s money was used to help post bail for demonstrators who had been arrested in the Baltimore mayhem, as well as some who had been arrested in protests following the November 2014 grand jury decision not to indict the white police officer who had shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Also in May 2015, Jay Z composed and performed a freestyle rap that, during one verse, invoked the names of three black men whose recent deaths in altercations with non-blacks and/or police officers had sparked massive protests and even riots: “You know when I work, I ain’t your slave, right? You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving, and you know this ain’t back in the days, right? Well I can’t tell how the way they killed Freddie Gray, right? Shot down Mike Brown how they did Tray, right?” (The third reference was to Trayvon Martin.)
In November 2017, Jay Z wrote an op-ed that appeared in The New York Times characterizing his friend and fellow rapper Meek Mill, who had been sentenced to serve between two to four years in prison for a probation violation stemming from a 2008 gun case, as a victim of a racist criminal-justice system. Wrote Jay Z: “What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day…. The system treats them as a danger to society, consistently monitors and follows them for any minor infraction — with the goal of putting them back in prison.”
As of late 2017, Jay Z had a net worth of approximately $900 million. In August 2017, the Daily Mail reported that he and Beyonce had purchased an $88 million, 30,000-square-foot mansion in Bel Air, California.
In August 2019, Jay Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation, signed a deal designating the firm to be the National Football League’s “live music entertainment strategist.” The agreement authorized Jay Z and the company to consult with the NFL on entertainment, including the Super Bowl halftime show, and to contribute to the league’s activism campaign, Inspire Change.
Jay Z and his wife attended the NFL Super Bowl on February 2, 2020. During the playing of the national anthem just prior to the game, both of them remained seated.
In the aftermath of the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd — a black man who had died after being abused by a white police officer in Minneapolis — a number of U.S. cities were overrun by violent riots. During the last weekend of May, Jay Z spoke with Minnesota Governot Tim Walz and told him, “Justice needs to be served here.” “It was so incredibly human,” Walz later said of conversation. “It wasn’t Jay-Z international celebrity, it was a dad and, quite honestly, a black man with visceral pain that he knew.” Jay Z, for his part, said:
“Earlier today, Governor Walz mentioned having a human conversation with me. A dad and a black man in pain. Yes, I am human, a father and a black man in pain and I am not the only one. Now I, along with an entire country in pain, call upon AG Ellison to do the right thing and prosecute all those responsible for the murder of George Floyd to the fullest extent of the law. This is just a first step. I am more determined to fight for justice than any fight my would-be oppressors may have. I prevail on every politician, prosecutor and office in the country to have the courage to do what is right. Have the courage to look at us as humans, dads, brothers, sisters and mothers in pain and look at yourselves.”
On May 28, 2021, PageSix.com reported that “Beyoncé and Jay-Z may have just added the most expensive car in the world to their already luxurious fleet” — Rolls-Royce’s $28 million Boat Tail convertible.