Jay-Z's Occupy Wall Street problem

The millionaire rap star lamely tries to cash in from a populist movement -- but nobody's buying it

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 15, 2011 4:30PM (EST)

 Jay Z        (Reuters/Salon)
Jay Z (Reuters/Salon)

Jay-Z's got 99 percent problems. And in the wake of scathing criticism, the rapper, producer and Beyonce impregnator is now allegedly backtracking on his attempts to make a buck off Occupy Wall Street.

Just last week, the former Shawn Carter was photographed strutting around in a T-shirt with the phrase "Occupy Wall Street" selectively scrawled over to read "Occupy All Streets." Stick it to the man! Rock and roll! That bold fashion statement was then followed by the inevitable business announcement that the shirts were a new creation from Jay-Z's own Rocawear line, available for $22 -- tax and shipping not included. And Z's minders further clarified that "'Occupy All Streets' is our way of reminding people that there is change to be made everywhere, not just on Wall Street. At this time we have not made an official commitment to monetarily support the movement." Whooooo, anarchy!

Jay-Z certainly doesn't have an obligation to stand behind the sentiments on his shirts. Nor, for that matter, does anyone who wears them. I think we can safely assume that if you're sporting a Rocawear "Fresh Out the Hood" or "A Block Away from Hell" tee, no one's going to stop you and ask for your hood or hell credentials. Just because your shirt says you're "Big Pimpin'," you are not legally obligated to be, in fact, in a perpetual state of big pimpin'.

So perhaps the prompt and near-universal retching that greeted the Rocawear shirt came as a surprise to Mr. Z. He is, after all, a kid who grew up in the Marcy Houses projects of Bed-Stuy, who gained his first hit bragging about being "from the school of the hard knocks." Wasn't he just doing what entrepreneurs with a stash of Hanes beefy tees and a dream have always done, every time an imperative to "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or "RELAX" enters the vernacular. Was he not merely reflecting a popular sentiment? It's not as if the man's going to go sleep in a tent downtown; it's just a shirt, for God's sake.

But "Occupy Wall Street" isn't a demand for "More Cowbell." As Styleite explained, the movement is "about money and the disadvantageous lack thereof," thereby making profiting from it just "a supportive sentiment rendered pretty hollow." Or, as Mogulite put it, that shirt is a gesture that "misses the whole point." The Hollywood Reporter says this week that the shirts are being pulled, though the made-in-Mexico garb is still for sale as of today – and, hilariously – now described as "drawing inspiration from the 'Watch The Throne' Concert Tour." Oh, so that's where he got the idea. The tour.

The great rock conundrum is maintaining that fine line between keepin' it real and livin' the dream. (Step one: dropping the letter G.) You see it in rap; you see it in country. You see it in the way the Black Keys dress like hobos. Like so many in his industry, Jay-Z has built his entire career on that braggadocio dualism, painting himself as the man who hangs with De Niro but will be "hood forever." Right, and Madonna's just a simple girl from the Midwest.

Perhaps it's possible to duke it out with Warren Buffett in the Forbes 400  and still maintain your street cred. You can certainly sell the idea, as Rocawear does, the idea that "My Love Is the Bomb." You can be a celebrity and show up at Zuccotti Park to express solidarity. But even the Sex Pistols knew that at a certain point, you can't sell revolution. And while parks and streets teem with protesters, it seems pretty clear that if there's one thing nobody much feels like occupying today, it's a stupid shirt, sold by a millionaire, signifying nothing.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Jay-z Occupy Wall Street Rocawear