Jay Z Under Fire by Black Scholar for ‘Pulling Out the Race Card’ in Tidal Debate

Dr. Boyce D. Watkins tells TheWrap he takes issue with music mogul “invoking the names of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown” in freestyle rap

Jay Z’s got 99 problems and his freestyle is one.

On Saturday at his closely-watched “B-sides” concert — which ran exclusively on the hip-hop mogul’s music streaming service Tidal — Jay Z responded to critics with a sharply-worded freestyle rap. During one verse, he connected Tidal’s troubles with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Freddie Gray — unarmed African-American men whose tragic deaths made international headlines.

“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 rap legend said.

But nationally known scholar, Boyce D. Watkins, Ph.D., who frequently speaks out on issues involving social justice, tells TheWrap Jay Z may have gone too far.

“He’s invoking the names of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, which have become somewhat sacred in the black community, and you’re invoking those into this conversation you’re having about whether your multimillion-dollar corporation is going to be successful or not?” Watkins said. “I think that that unfortunately can come off as somewhat disingenuous, because I don’t recall Jay Z ever really being that vocal, that irate over any issue that did not involve himself.”

The rap legend’s freestyle also included a verbal shot at Google for apparently trying to buy him out, and YouTube for what he perceives as shortchanging artists.

“I feel like YouTube is the biggest culprit. Them ni**as pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get. You know ni**as die for equal pay, right?”

Jay Z went on to suggest Tidal faces additional scrutiny because it is black-owned. And he lashed out at African-Americans for buying Apple and Nike products, but dissing Tidal.

“Oh ni**as is skeptical about they own shit. You bought nine iPhones and Steve Jobs is rich. Phil Knight worth trillions, you still bought those kicks. Spotify is nine billion, and they ain’t say sh*t! ‘Lucy you got some ‘splaining to do.'”

Watkins, a Scholar in Residence in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Syracuse University, believes Jay Z’s rap was self-serving and misguided.

“He’s not mad about mass incarceration. He’s not mad about wealth inequality. He’s not mad about the minimum wage not being high enough. He’s mad because millionaire artists are not getting a bigger cut of the money from the music that they make,” Watkins said. “Whatever his little corporate beef is right now, if that beef were not occurring, would Jay Z still be pulling out the race card on this issue?”

Jay Z bought Tidal in January for a reported $56 million. Since then, it’s been besieged by branding problems, bad press, layoffs and the departure of CEO Andy Chen.

The streaming service was originally billed as being created to put control of music back in the hands of artists. Its relaunch in March — by some of the richest musicians on the planet including Madonna, Kanye West, Beyoncé and Rihanna — arguably hurt the brand’s image.

The streaming service kicked off with two subscription tiers: a basic membership for $9.99 per month and a $19.99 membership for better sound quality. While Tidal has promised exclusive content, some consumers say that’s not enough, especially when they can use “freemium” streaming services like Spotify.

On Monday, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj dropped the surprise music video for “Feeling Myself” exclusively on Jay Z’s service. Within hours of its debut, the footage had been ripped and posted on other websites, reinforcing the question of whether Tidal is worth the cost.

“Are there a million people who would sign up to get that exclusive?” Russ Crupnick, managing partner of streaming industry research firm MusicWatch, recently asked TheWrap. “Forgetting piracy. If that special album came out in Walmart or iTunes, how many people would buy it?”

While Spotify has a free option, and Pandora generates free custom radio stations, Tidal is just an app that streams music — for a hefty price, Crupnick explained.

Jay Z did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

But as Tidal’s struggles mount, Watkins believes they have little to do with the struggle for civil rights, despite Jay Z’s protestations.

“If you’re a Jay Z fan and you want to get behind him on this because he told you to do it, that’s fine. But this is far from any kind of meaningful statement on civil rights.”

You can watch the video below of Jay Z’s “B-sides” concert. His freestyle rap is at the 17:18 mark.

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