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The Nation - May 22, 2019

"While the politics of transformative black ownership animate the world of entertainment, it can be poisonous for public policy."

Last month, Jay-Z fumbled his tribute to the slain rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle. Performing a eulogy freestyle in New York City’s Webster Hall, he told his audience they could best honor Nipsey Hussle’s legacy by claiming eminent domain over their neighborhoods and gentrifying their community. The performance drew shock and condemnation; being told to gentrify your neighborhood by someone accused of gentrifying their own is predictably infuriating.

Yet Jay Z wasn’t the only public figure mining the rapper’s death for free-market talking points. Senator Cory Booker resurrected Nipsey’s mission to “buy back the block.” Issa Rae emphasized the importance to “own in our communities.” Blavity touted the need to “bank black.”

Celebrities and well-wishers surely have good intentions when they make plans to revitalize black areas like Nipsey’s South Los Angeles. But entrepreneurship and consumerism can only do so much, because the reasons black neighborhoods are troubled—mass eviction, mass incarceration, double-digit unemployment, redlining—can hardly be blamed on the dearth of black ownership. Changing them will require political and artistic narratives that extend far beyond the scope of black commerce.

Long before Nipsey’s death, the mythical prowess of black-owned businesses loomed as epic folklore. From Malcolm X’s speeches calling black communities to build companies larger than General Motors to Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” in which the rapper tells dealers to “take your drug money and buy the neighborhood,” tales of entrepreneurial liberation have been on heavy rotation in the culture for generations.

The narrative of emancipatory commercialism runs deeper still. Documentaries like The Green Book: Guide to Freedom show elders recounting how black-owned businesses created unprecedented wealth in the community. High Flying Bird, a film written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, imagines an NBA revolt where black athletes create a co-op league of their own. Netflix’s Trigger Warning urges viewers to invest in black businesses. The vision behind these works sees entrepreneurial black folks as free—free from exploitation, faux-integration, and racism.

While the politics of transformative black ownership animate the world of entertainment, it can be poisonous for public policy.

No show better illuminates this than Killer Mike’s Trigger Warning. Like Nipsey Hussle, Killer Mike is a successful entrepreneur, activist, and rapper. Where much of Nipsey’s rhetoric focused on empowering people as entrepreneurs, Mike’s politics preach the power of consumerism. ...
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