By Courtney Garcia, theGrio.com (Article originally published on theGrio.com.)
Jay-Z could be rap music’s biggest power broker, but his latest song “Open Letter,” directed at critics of his recent trip to Cuba, has some people interpreting his relationship with the White House as against protocol.
After critics questioned the validity of his fifth wedding anniversary vacation with wife Beyoncé to Havana, the 43-year-old rapper furthered the debate on Thursday with a provocative track suggesting he received special privileges from the government.
Jay-Z talked about turning “Havana to Atlanta,” described himself as a criminal-turned-millionaire with “White House clearance,” and rapped: “hear the freedom in my speech … Obama said, ‘chill you gonna get me impeached. You don’t need this [expletive] anyway, chill with me on the beach.”
Is it just ‘a song’?
The lyrics made it all the way to Washington later that day when they were read to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney during the daily press briefing, prompting Carney to offered the sarcastic retort:“It’s a song.”
True. But rapper Phonte of the hip-hop group Foreign Exchange feels Jay-Z pushed the envelope too far.
“Anyone who has a relationship with the president of any kind, I think you owe it to the President to be a lot more mindful of that relationship,” he explains to theGrio. “Regardless of how superficial the relationship may be, or regardless of how deep it may be, you just don’t want to do anything to mess that up. Particularly when you’re talking about the first black president, you don’t want to do anything that’s going to draw any negative light to him.”
Phonte previously tweeted his thoughts about the song, writing “I’m all for black opulence done tastefully, but the Cuba trip and #OpenLetter feels like that Frank Lucas/fur coat moment.”
He says Jay-Z misjudged his place.
“The “Open Letter,” just in that context, was like, if you do have a relationship with the President, I seriously doubt it’s going to be the same after this song,” Phonte adds.
Are Jay-Z and Obama really friends?
Already the rapport between Jay-Z and Obama has been a hot topic of discussion among reporters and members the public, who muse about their “high-profile” friendship, questioning the incorporation of hip-hop into national dialogue, and tracking their developing association.
For hip-hop fans, Jay-Z’s political connection seemed a sign of positive recognition and influence from a musical platform often perceived to be too rough for America’s taste.
“Obviously, Jay-Z’s background is an important part of his musical identity and his public persona that he grew up in the projects, shot his brother, and was a drug dealer, and he’s very upfront about that,” remarks David Graham, Editor of The Atlantic Politics Channel. “There’s still a lingering discomfort with hip-hop in some parts of America and that colors their reaction. Nobody raised an eyebrow when Jimmy Carter hung out with Willie Nelson, but Willie Nelson is a prodigious pot smoker. So, I think there’s a lingering double standard.”
As Phonte indicates, a line can be crossed no matter who’s involved, and in this case, Jay-Z tipped it. He compares the rapper’s statements in “Open Letter” to the 2008 scandal between Obama and former pastor Jeremiah Wright, as well as the character of Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” who blew his stature when he got too comfortable.
“When you are next to the president, everything about you becomes more scrutinized,” Phonte says. “Having your lyrics discussed in the White House is not a smart business move. I don’t care how you spin it …You don’t want these kind of problems. To say [Jay-Z] powerful is shortsighted. The bottom line is some [expletive] he said in rap lyrics has made its way to the White House, and has people looking at the president sideways.”
Jay-Z’s lyrics become testimony
Furthering the controversy are reporters and political figures hell-bent on getting to the bottom of the situation. The White House asserts that the couple’s voyage to Cuba was approved by the Treasury Department as part of an educational cultural trip through the nonprofit organization, Academic Arrangements Abroad.
According to Yahoo! News, Assistant Treasury Secretary Alastair Fitzpayne wrote in a letter Tuesday that the couple traveled “with a group authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control to promote people-to-people contact in Cuba.”
Reuters reports that the Treasury Department did not know who specifically was on the list of travelers, but that the trip was “handled according to a standard licensing procedure,” and the famous couple received no special treatment.
These official statements were offered after two Republican members of congress from Florida, Reps Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, wrote a letter demanding information about the trip and claiming it was “touted” as tourism by the Castro regime “in its propaganda.” The U.S. embargo against Cuba specifically forbids tourism of any kind in the Caribbean nation.
Additionally, Florida Senator Marco Rubio complained that the travel programs “have been abused by tourists,” and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Jay-Z says the WH approved his Cuba trip. Will @PressSec continue evading questions?”
The White House’s obligatory response
At Thursday’s press briefing, reporters asked Carney about the truth of Jay-Z’s lyrics in “Open Letter,” and the press security replied acerbically, “I guess nothing rhymes with Treasury.”
Asked to elaborate, Carney added, “I am absolutely saying that the White House from the president on down had nothing to do with anybody’s travel to Cuba. That is something the Treasury handles …The President did not communicate with Jay-Z over this trip.”
The dialogue aroused chuckles among reporters, and proved to be what Graham describes as “goofy.”
“They certainly take [Jay-Z] too literally,” Graham points out. “You saw in the White House briefing today, reporters asking these questions, trying to parse the lyrics. The whole thing I thought was sort of embarrassing.”
Of course, Graham acknowledges that Carney answered the questions only because he was put on the spot, and from the sound of it, Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip appears to corroborate with procedure.
“People are trying to over-think these lyrics,” he observes. “There were a lot of questions the past couple days about how and why Jay-Z and Beyoncé were able to go to Cuba. And so it may have been dying but this sort of threw gasoline on the embers…I think people who are upset are upset because people of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s stature going there looks like it’s validating the Cuban regime. And whether or not you think that’s right hinders on whether or not you think there ought to be an embargo on Cuba, and whether or not we ought to reestablish diplomatic relations.”
Will Obama and Jay-Z remain tight?
Regardless, Jay-Z and Obama seemed to have established a positive bond, and as Phonte sees it, Jay-Z’s anthem could jeopardize the friendship. Particularly given the fact the Commander-in-Chief seems to frown upon boisterous behavior (remember when he referred to Kanye West as a “jacka**”?)
“What Jay-Z has done with his life up until this point is incredible, it’s something that a lot of cats aspire to,” Phonte comments. “But it’s like this statement I heard in [the TV show] ‘House of Cards’ where the character says, ‘proximity to power leads some people to believe they wield it.’ And it’s just like, bruh, you are a great rapper, and you are a fantastic artist and nobody can take that away from you. But [expletive] don’t get that comfortable. He could be overstepping his boundaries, and maybe overestimating his importance just a little bit.”