Jay-Z has always delivered hope – long before he was a mogul

A Brooklyn Library exhibit traces his roots and influence on people like me, who needed his lyrics to get through

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 5, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Jay-Z performs onstage at SOMETHING IN THE WATER - Day 2 on April 27, 2019 in Virginia Beach City. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water)
Jay-Z performs onstage at SOMETHING IN THE WATER - Day 2 on April 27, 2019 in Virginia Beach City. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water)

"Did you see?" my little homie, who is more like my nephew Ben said, "You hear about it?" 

I thought he was talking about new music, as I pride myself in keeping with the younger generation, vowing to never be the hyper-annoying old guy that constantly says, "My music made so much sense back in my day."

I should've known better because I went to high school with Ben's mom and had known that kid since he was a few days old. He's always had a nostalgia for the times me and his mom grew up in. While today's young kids are talking about Lil Durk and Lil Baby – Ben is posting clips of old Jadakiss verses and Nas songs from 1996, the era when I was my coolest. 

"Big Unc," Ben said, taking a hard pause. "They got a whole Jay-Z exhibit at the Brooklyn Library. I'm going to be at the opening taking pics. I can get you in." 

That music made so much sense back in my day I thought. "A Jay-Z exhibit?" I said, feeling giddy. Wait, can a 40-year-old Black man feel giddy? 

"I'm out of town, nephew," I responded, cool and calm, trying not to sound giddy. "I'm going to catch it next week."

The news of the exhibit had gone viral on social media – as I've seen posts, and stories, and reels of my friends from all over New York, and Baltimore, Dallas and Houston, and even Oakland. They all dropped what they were doing and hopped on planes and trains to participate in this legendary Brooklyn experience. That is a testament to the power of Jay-Z's music. 

Next week came quicker than I imagined. I had work and business to take care of in New York, so I decided that making the trip to BK would be at the top of my list. 

D at the Book of HOV exhibitImages from Jay-Z's The Book of HOV exhibit (Photo courtesy of D Watkins)The front of the library is covered in Jay-Z lyrics that appear to be jotted down in a book, hence the exhibit title, "The Book of HOV." The exhibition's website defines The Book of HOV as

The Book Of HOV is a tribute exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch, recognizing Shawn "JAY-Z" Carter's extraordinary journey from Brooklyn's Marcy Projects to global figure.

The multimedia exhibit explores JAY-Z's global impact as a musician, innovator, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.

The Book Of HOV presents thousands of archived objects, including original recording masters, never-before-seen photos, iconic stage wear, prestigious awards and recognitions, as well as videos and artifacts from every facet on JAY-Z's professional life. Our goal, with The Book of HOV tribute exhibition, is to provide a behind-the-scenes look at a Hall of Fame songwriter and performer, successful business person, and a consequential philanthropist who has never forgotten the lessons he learned on the road to success. And the borough where his journey began.

I needed a second to take it all in before entering.

You see, this generation looks at the 53-year-old mogul as well, a 53-year-old mogul. Now dreaded in fitted suits and cool shades – he pops out at Beyoncé concerts looking more like a mogul than a rapper. Jay-Z also shows up when it's time to do extraordinary things like bailing out fathers on Father's Day or when he helped free Meek Mill. Jay-Z doesn't brag about these things and appears to be soft-spoken in the few interviews he does, even though those same interviews hold gems that loop across all social media timelines on repeat. He's a devoted husband, a father and always appears to me more classic and reserved than loud. His company Roc Nation was a partner in the exhibition's creation, but I seriously doubt that Jay-Z walked into the office and said, "I want you guys to drop everything you are doing and make a whole exhibit about my life." 

D at the Book of HOV exhibitImages from Jay-Z's The Book of HOV exhibit (Photos courtesy of D Watkins)As a professor who has taught different hip-hop classes over the past decade, I often have to introduce my students to Jay-Z's early work like "Reasonable Doubt" and "In My Lifetime." The music was created in a different time that is so foreign to what's happening now. 

"Reasonable Doubt" dropped in 1996; there was no Instagram, no Twitter, no Waze app, no apps in general –– and no navigation inside of cars; we had to figure it out. MapQuest was out, but we didn't have it because computers were too expensive, and nobody in the hood except my boy Troy had a printer. We used to get lost when we ventured, trying to find the venues where Jay-Z performed. He wasn't at stadiums or big arenas; you could see him for $10 to $20 bucks up close in personal at hole-in-the-wall spots that sold large shots of Hennessy for $5. 

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The entrance of the museum may be more overwhelming than the exterior. There's a collection of all of Jay-Z's albums in glass cases, photos that span across his 37-year career, and installations pulled directly from album artwork. Looking at the album covers, sitting pretty in the glass cases took me down memory lane to the angry ninth grader that bought that "Reasonable Doubt "album. And how the song "Feelin' It" eased some of the pain that caused my anger while "Regrets" helped to make sense of the mass loss I was experiencing at that time. My friends were dying left and right, and Jay-Z songs helped me get through. 

Jay-Z came to the Paradox in my hometown of Baltimore back in 1998 to perform songs from his hit album "Hard Knock Life." 

"Yo, we gotta go," I told my boy Nick. "And early, too; it's going to be packed! We gotta see Hov in real life!" 

"Man you hate concerts. Plus it's too much security. I can't get my pistol in there," he responded. "I'm not going, and neither are you." 

Jay-Z, a tall Black guy from the streets, who started out selling crack like me and found his way to the American dream. Passion, influence, and the ability to make legal money as a result.

Needless to say, I went, and Jay tore it down from a small stage where he rapped unheard lyrics a capella close enough to high-five fans. We were lost in the moment – no phones, no recording, no social media updates, just songs from the best lyricist I have ever heard. The music was about the streets, partying and hustling, and loss and love, and it left me feeling inspired, energized, and, most importantly, not alone.

Jay-Z, a tall Black guy from the streets, started out selling like me and found his way to the American dream. Passion, influence, and the ability to make legal money as a result. 

Even though I was still in the streets, I left the club buzzing that night, all the way up, until I found they were shooting outside of the Paradox, and I kind of knew that guy who was hit and eventually died. We had attended high school together and even though we didn't hang in school, we embraced at the venue, he was as excited as me. 

D at the Book of HOV exhibitImages from Jay-Z's The Book of HOV exhibit (Photos courtesy of D Watkins)It takes about an hour to see everything in the Book of HOV exhibit, but add a half hour if you watch all of the videos and participate in the interactive features. Fans of Jay-Z's music will be overwhelmed by the number of accomplishments he has racked up in his career – seeing them all together made me realize this guy's influence on my life.

People outside the culture will witness a genuine American rags-to-riches story, that displays how this county should work. Work hard and reap the benefits.

"I saw it, Ben," I said to my nephew in the Uber after I left the library. "I saw it." 

"If he can do, Unc, and you doin' it, Unc, then I'll get there too."  

"You sure will." 

Brooklyn Library's The Book of HOV: A celebration of the life and work of Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter is free to the public and will be on display until October 2023.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Brooklyn Brooklyn Library Commentary Hip-hop Jay-z Music The Book Of Hov