Fox News' war with Jay Z: Why it picked the wrong fight this time

Jay embodies Fox's American Dream -- millionaire businessman, “job creator,” family man. Except for maybe one thing

Published January 26, 2015 12:00PM (EST)

Jay Z, Bill O'Reilly             (AP/Robin Harper/Kathy Willens/Photo montage by Salon)
Jay Z, Bill O'Reilly (AP/Robin Harper/Kathy Willens/Photo montage by Salon)

Fox News picked the wrong fight, once again, when Sean Hannity attacked Jay Z last month for meeting with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to push for reform to the state’s justice system in the wake of the killing of Eric Garner. Hannity contended that Jay’s former days as a crack dealer disqualified him from advising the governor on such matters. It is the latest in a long series of attacks on the Brooklyn rapper, and if the past is any indication, we can expect return fire from Hov sometime soon.

Jay Z has had beef with a number of fellow rappers, but it’s his more than 10-year beef with Fox News that’s gone on longest. The feud can be traced all the way back to 2003, when Bill O’Reilly invited Dame Dash, co-founder of Jay Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records, and then-Roc artist Cam’ron to defend rap music against the host’s charge that it’s hurting black children and black America generally. Jay Z would clap back later that year on the Black Album’s “Threat,” calling out O’Reilly for the first time and offering one of his first iterations of how reaching financial success and cultural influence did not shield Jay from racism. Jay Z embodies the American Dream celebrated by Fox News, having escaped his former life as a hustler and become a millionaire businessman, “job creator” and family man. But he is still black. In fact, in a familiar damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t American bind, Hova suggests on “Threat” that it is that very success as a black man that makes him a target, presaging the eventual treatment of President Obama:

I don't care if you C. Delores Tucker,

Or you Bill O'Reilly, you only rilin’ me up.


Rehabilitated, man, I still feel hatred;

I'm young, black and rich, so they wanna strip me naked.

Not a whole lot has changed since that first exchange in 2003. The opening attack from O’Reilly constitutes the main thrust of his eventual decade-long anti-rap position, with Hova being his principal target. While Jay sees his work largely as rhyming reportage (“I’m only trying to tell you how black ni***s live”), O’Reilly misunderstands description as justification, memoiric depiction as active advocacy. In fact, O’Reilly appears to have no idea how rap works as an art form or how it operates in American culture. He demands something from the art form that it’s never promised. He then proceeds to compound that ignorance with post-racial make-believe, imagining some sort of scenario in which at some point the conditions for black opportunity, safety and advancement had reached parity with that of whites, and that it is now black cultural expression--rap being primary--that is to blame for the state of black America. For O’Reilly, culpability has been successfully handed off to black America, and any positions of precarity--economic, physical and otherwise--are now wholly due to their own actions. Rap is not an expression of continuing racial, cultural and economic subjugation, says O’Reilly, but inversely the very reason for black Americans’ subordinate position.

O’Reilly’s thesis grew to pervade the network, so that following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Fox’s Geraldo Rivera was able to blame Martin’s death on his mere aesthetic participation in hip-hop culture: “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as much as George Zimmerman was,” Rivera offered on the network’s popular morning show. O’Reilly echoed Rivera a year later. Frequent O’Reilly guest Bernard Goldberg names sagging pants, a style some suggest emerged from the phenomenon of black mass incarceration, as another threatening signifier. The news network, following O’Reilly’s early lead, has worked to criminalize black youth culture, and only hip-hop that denies the existence of racism and works to uphold and maintain the existing cultural and economic order escapes condemnation from Fox.

Jay Z, being something like the poet laureate of hip-hop culture, has spent his career challenging, complicating and outright debunking that narrative. Jay is well aware of the socio-political milieu out of which his unlikely ascent began. Hova assails Fox News’ frequent contributor Oliver North and conservative patron saint Ronald Reagan for designing the circumstances of Jay’s teens and early adulthood. He calls himself a “product of Reaganomics,” pointing to the era’s (very often racialized) assault on the poor and working class. Jay Z’s most common and most damning charge is that Reagan’s team facilitated a massive influx of cocaine, that which a young Shawn Carter would find himself selling retail during the height of the crack crisis. On “Blue Magic,” Jay Z raps about Iran-Contra, the shocking episode during which Nicaraguan Contras did, in fact, traffic cocaine as a means to supplement the secret funds from the sale of arms to the Iranians. Jay Z raps,

[I] Blame Reagan for making me into a monster

Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra

I ran contraband that they sponsored

Before this rhymin stuff we was in concert

Jay sees himself as a political actor, albeit one defined by the contradiction and complexity: “I’m Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex.” On 2011’s “Murder to Excellence,” Jay points out that he was born on the day Black Panther Fred Hampton was assassinated by the government in Chicago. Hampton’s murder on Dec. 9, 1969, in a way closed the 1960s and bookended the civil rights era, as the 21-year-old dynamic leader remained perhaps the last galvanizing figure to emerge during the era. “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died,” Jay raps, continuing, “real ni***s just multiply,” suggesting a lineage of which he is a part. The rapper has also likened himself to Mumia Abu Jamal, a Black Panther on death row for the murder of a police officer, a conviction roundly challenged by the black left.

No détente was reached in the early sparring between O’Reilly and Hov, and with "The Black Album" being Jay’s “last” in order for him to take over as president of Def Jam, the feud was left to smolder for a few years. Rap beefs tend to reach settlement after a length of time, but the Jay Z-O’Reilly battle had only just begun. (One of the greatest hip-hop feuds, Jay Z and Queens rapper Nas’ historic battle on wax, was squashed during this period. After which, Nas even joined in like a tag team partner to attack Fox News, helping lead a New York City protest against the network in 2008 and devoting an entire song, Untitled’s “Sly Fox,” to Rupert Murdoch’s organization.)

While not attacking Fox News specifically, Jay Z would release searing indictments of the Bush administration, Reagan and the conservative establishment generally during the lull in fighting. That period’s "American Gangster" album is arguably Jay’s most thoroughly critical and insightful musical venture, weaving a dense, loosely autobiographical narrative of a drug dealer during Reagan’s '80s. The Iran-Contra-alluding “Blue Magic” was that album’s first single. “Anywhere there’s oppression, the drug profession flourishes,” he raps on the album’s opening “Pray,” challenging O’Reilly’s facile narrative of post-racial free will.

But both O’Reilly and Jay Z would remain behind their ideological fortifications and keep their powder dry until the election of President Obama. Then it hit the fan.

Nearly the entire Fox News team mobilized to attack Jay Z after the rapper joined Young Jeezy and others onstage the night before Obama’s inauguration to deliver a performance of Jeezy’s “My President Is Black.” Both performers and audience joined in a moment of unbridled celebration of the historic moment, with Hov asking the DJ to bring his verse back multiple times to rejoicingly repeat it.

The Fox News team was collectively confounded by Jay’s exuberance at witnessing the election of a black president and that he, a rapper, would (*gasp*) curse. Network rising star Megyn Kelly would echo O’Reilly: “What kind of example is this setting for young African-Americans who would look to him for guidance on this?” Arch-conservative Michelle Malkin, appearing on Kelly’s show, went one step further, calling Jay Z “bigoted” and asserting that racism is “stoked by the rap industry.” It’s all rap’s fault! Malkin even attempted to tie the performance to the brand-new administration, saying, “You have heard no denunciations from the ‘post-racial’ president about his vitriolic rhetoric,” as though Obama was responsible for each and every action by black Americans, the charge that O’Reilly levels at Jay Z.

Hov clapped back on that year’s Blueprint 3, taking shots on “Off That” at both O’Reilly and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, with a playful but aggressive shot. The lyrical equivalent of a hard straight jab is seated in an ironic depiction of post-racial America in the Obama era:

This ain't black versus white, my n***a, we off that;

Please tell Bill O'Reilly to fall back.

Tell Rush Limbaugh to get off my balls;

It's 2010, not 1864.

O’Reilly offered a weak volley in return: “A regular Otis Redding, isn’t he?” It was a something of a punt by O’Reilly, which in the rap beef game is an admission of being “Ethered.”

Jay called out Fox once again on his next solo album, 2013’s "Magna Carta Holy Grail." “They try to slander your man on CNN and Fox / My Mirandas don't stand a chance with cops.” And though it appears to be another jab and not a knockout swing, the attack is enriched by the angry verse in which it’s delivered, linking it immediately to anger at the police and eventually forming part of a critique of the contemporary United States in a dense quatrain:

Eventually the pendulum swings

Don't forget, America, this how you made me

Come through with the 'Ye mask on

Spray everything like SAMO, I won't scratch the Lambo

Then came Jay and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba, which sent Fox News on a warpath against the rapper: If there’s anything the Fox crowd might love more than white cultural hegemony, it’s when it’s fused with capitalist, hemispheric hegemony, and Hov was now violating both. (Never mind that some 98,000 Americans visited Cuba the year before.) Fox News opened up both barrels. Fox’s popular morning show took shots, its afternoon show “The Five” jumped in, and Greg Gutfeld, filling in for O’Reilly, went in on the attack. They practically went wall-to-wall in their coverage of the trip, criticizing as many aspects of it as they could manage.

Jay Z responded with his hardest track yet in the conflict, not confining himself to a line or two, but issuing a whole song directed at the haters, an “Open Letter”:

Y'all must want to start a revolution;

You know whenever I'm threatened, I start shooting.

He opens the song speaking of an affinity between hip-hop culture, now centered in Atlanta, and Cuba: “I done turned Havana to Atlanta / Guayabera shirts and bandanas.” Jay returns to a frequent theme in his late work, the enmity between the former hustler and an establishment who he feels still rejects him, despite his wealth, power and influence. Hov, though, rejects them as well, placing the old guard and the political order in his sights: “Boy from the hood but got White House clearance / Sorry y'all, I don't agree with y'all parents / Politicians never did shit for me / Except lie to me, distort history.”

Jay Z’s work has grown more explicitly political in recent years, so it’s not unlikely that we’ll hear a response to the latest attacks sometime soon. The latest charge is especially egregious, as it contradicts O’Reilly et al.’s previous attacks: Jay is to be blamed for the ills of black America, like a leader, yet suddenly he is disqualified from being a leader by those same voices. After a decade of criticism for not being, in Fox News’ eyes, a proper, dignified black spokesman acting in appropriate channels, Jay is now criticized for doing just that. Now, seeking and achieving a private audience with one of the most powerful governors in the country to affect policy change is inappropriate?

In his upcoming book, popular Fox News host Mike Huckabee proposes that Jay Z may be “crossing the line from husband to pimp” with Beyoncé because she’s “a sex object.” Pimp! They don’t sell veils thin enough for that racism. The network, seemingly from top to bottom, is driven mad by Jay, recklessly so. And now they’ve started to bring Beyoncé into it with equally racist treatment. And sexist. The beef may be coming to a head. If we’re lucky, this will produce the beef song of all beef songs when Jay and Bey team up on a track to put Fox on blast. After almost 12 years, this beef may just be getting started.

By Matthew Pulver

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