To anyone paying attention, the fall of 2011 offered a fascinating juxtaposition: Olsson’s film, a time capsule of black power’s old guard, entering right on the heels of—and in the shadow of—Watch the Throne, a work that was to many a harbinger of black power’s new day. Also fascinating was the tale of the numbers: Watch the Throne sold 436,000 copies in its first week out. The Black Power Mixtape, on the other hand, showed on only two screens the weekend it was released, and it earned about $17,000.
If America, in its negligent obsession with all things new, has forgotten about the relevance of the icons in The Black Power Mixtape, Jay-Z and West have certainly not. Watch the Throne is peppered throughout with excited nods to black unity and shout-outs to black heroes from history. “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died,” raps Jay on “Murder to Excellence,” referencing the 21-year-old Black Panther who was killed in his bed in a COINTELPRO assassination operation. Earlier on the same track, West outright says that he’s ready to “redefine black power.”
Interestingly, as enthusiastic as they are to herald certain aspects of radicalist black power, West and Jay-Z seem to be just as enthusiastic about ignoring whole other elements of the movement that don’t align with their lifestyles. For instance, Fred Hampton, who Jay-Z likes to intimate he was born to replace, ended up on the FBI’s radar in the first place because he used to advocate for the destruction of capitalism. “You don’t fight fire with fire,” he once said in a not uncommon inveigh against America’s preferred economic system. “You fight fire with water…. We’re not gonna fight capitalism with Black capitalism. We’re gonna fight capitalism with socialism. Socialism is the people. If you’re afraid of socialism, you’re afraid of yourself.”
Hampton cleaved to his socialistic principles tightly, marshaling a free breakfast program for poor children in Chicago and a free medical center that provided basic health services to the needy. Until the day he died, Hampton considered himself a man who had turned away from a “bourgeois” upbringing to become a warrior for the “proletariat.” How a man like Hampton can enjoy pride of place on an album that also pimps $200,000 watches is confusing, and, indeed, Fred Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton, Jr., is not a fan of Watch the Throne. At a screening forThe Black Power Mixtape in December, Hampton, Jr., referred to Jay-Z as “Slave-Z” and called his father’s inclusion on “Murder to Excellence” “distasteful.”
You or I might be embarrassed to name-drop murdered black socialists in one breath before bragging about having dozens of cars in the next. But Jay and West seem eminently comfortable in the thorny middle ground separating righteousness and decadence. Some have said that this perceived cognitive dissonance is the entire artistic pursuit at the core of Watch the Throne: Two rich black men struggling to make sense of their wildly conflicting interests. But it’s probably important to remember that if I cared more about luxury automobiles than I did poor people, I’d act as if I was having a hard time with that choice, too.