It all started after Jay-Z quickly recorded an “Open Letter” to his critics for having visited Cuba with his wife Beyoncé. The hip-hop megastar had many lines, including one that speaks to what he is suggesting is the U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to US-Cuba relations: “I’m in Cuba, I love Cubans. This communist talk is so confusing. When it’s from China, the very mic that I’m using.”
Now the hip-hop megastar is geting even more attention. One columnist writes:
Hip-hop is the CNN of the ghetto.” It was Chuck D of old school hip-hop group Public Enemy who first said these words. Yet Jay-Z the family man has proven that this saying is still true and has re-established his iconoclastic rep with his fans. Did Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce visit Cubalegally? Does it even matter when his response to the controversy, a rapidly produced song called Open Letter, is trending on Twitter and forced a response from the White House due to some of its lyrics?
Jay-Z’s new rap is already in heavy rotation on pop and hip-hop radio stations across America. But you may be wondering why the voice of the Jigga is so influential here in the US. Jay-Z is not just an artist, he’s well-known as a major mogul, a cultural trend-setter and as a high profile mega-donor and friend to President Obama and his family.
The lyrics in Open Letter referring to “boy from the hood but got White House clearance” could refer to either his trip to Cuba or to his famous visit to the White House situation room a couple of years ago. The Cuba trip has attracted the attention of Cuban-American conservative lawmakers who asked the Treasury Department to confirm the legality of the trip. The White House has said that the president, a known fan of Jay-Z’s music, did not coordinate with Jay-Z or Beyonce on the trip. That may be true, yet once again, the far right is out of step even with their own constituents. The president’s policies on Cuba are closer to those that Americans, even Cuban Americans, prefer. It seems more likely that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from the Miami, Florida area, is using public criticism of Jay-Z’s trip for media attention.
Polls over the last few years consistently show that Cuban Americans (and Americans generally) think the US travel embargo is out of date. The most recent Florida International University poll revealed: a majority (57%) favors lifting all restrictions on travel, 60% oppose restrictions on family travel, and 57% even support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Oh, and a whopping 80% of respondents believe that the embargo has “not worked very well” or “not worked at all.”
Jay-Z’s song led to a very raw and honest response by Pitbull.
Yeah, Pitbull responded. It was straight out of Miami and his heart, and speaks to his family history and the feelings of many Cuban Americans who were forced to leave Cuba. Yet at the same time, Pitbull says this: ““Question of the night, would they have messed with Mr. Carter if he was white?/ … Happy fifth year anniversary, Jay and B/ Don’t worry, it’s on me.” Here it is.
In the meantime, Senator Marco Rubio weighed in today as well, making sure to say that “Che Guevara was a racist.”
Then there is FOX News’ Dana Perino, who needs to just stop.
Finally, there was also an open letter that director Phil Lord wrote after Jay-Z released his song.
An Open Letter to Jay-Z
Dear Mr. Z,
I just heard your new track, “Open Letter,” released today. It’s got everything I love about your music: looping internal rhymes, an infectious beat, and imagery that draws me into a kind of swaggering, defiant fantasy.
Speaking of defiant fantasies, I’ve been following news of your recent trip to the island nation of Cuba. As the son of a Cuban refugee, and cousin and nephew to many Cubans on the island, I cringe when Americans visit Cuba for a fun island vacation. For one thing it’s illegal (which nobody seems to care about), but more importantly, it’s either ignorant of or calloused to the struggles of Cubans on the island. I actually encourage my friends to travel to Cuba, to bear witness to one of the great tragedies of our time, to learn about the real Cuba, to put a human face on the caricature of Americans that the Castros propagate. Exchange and travel between our two nations should be a catalyst for change, as it has been even in my own family. But for me, Cuba is not the place to have a fun, sexy, vacation. Because for Cubans on the island and living elsewhere, it’s not.
So when I heard of your visit, I thought to myself, Jay Z seems like a smart, thoughtful guy. He doesn’t realize what he’s walking into. He probably just thinks Cuba is a chic place to relax with the family. He probably just doesn’t know the things I know.
He likely doesn’t know that the Cuban tourism industry is run by the Cuban military, so when he spends money at an officially sanctioned hotel, or restaurant, he is directly funding the oppressors of the Cuban people.
He doesn’t know that most Cubans have poor access to independent news sources, the internet, books, and food.
He doesn’t know that Cuba has two health systems, one for the well-connected, and one for everyone else.
He doesn’t know that before Castro, the Cuban peso traded one-to-one with the dollar, and that since then, the Castros have raided the nation’s coffers and introduced widespread poverty to a once prosperous nation.
He doesn’t know that my ancestors fought to free Cuba from Spain, and to set up a democracy to ensure that they would always be free.
He doesn’t know that in spite of those dreams, my mother and her family fled for their lives from this regime way back in 1960, as did *two million* other Cubans.
He doesn’t know about the thousands of people executed by firing squads led by sexy t-shirt icon Che Guevara.
He doesn’t know about the dissidents, artists, and librarians that currently rot in Cuba’s prisons, and the thousands more who live in fear.
He doesn’t know about Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an Afro-Cuban dissident who died in a Cuban prison in 2010 after an 80-day hunger strike.
He doesn’t know that a U.S. Citizen, Alan Gross, is currently serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban prison for providing phones and computers to the members of the Cuban Jewish community. He doesn’t know that all attempts by our government and private citizens to secure his release have been scoffed at.
He has likely forgotten about all those who have died in the Florida Straits, trying to float on makeshift boats to freedom.
He doesn’t know that contrary to popular understanding, Amnesty International reports that repression of dissidents in Cuba is actually on the rise.
He doesn’t know that when an international music luminary shows up in Cuba, his presence is unwittingly used as propaganda to support the regime.
He doesn’t know that artists in Cuba, with whom he was supposedly having a cultural exchange, serve under the close supervision of the government, and don’t enjoy the freedom to defiantly name check the President, call out a few senators, threaten to buy a kilo of cocaine just to spite the government, or suggest that they will follow up their purchase with a shooting spree, as rapped about in “Open Letter.”
He doesn’t know that just because our country applies a different, some say hypocritical policy to China, it doesn’t make either regime any less oppressive, or any more acceptable.
He doesn’t know that when people say “I’ve got to visit Cuba before it gets ruined,” I think to myself, “It’s already ruined. And by the way, ruined by what? freedom of speech? walls that don’t crumble? shoes? Do you mean ruin Cuba? Or ruin your fashionable vacation in Cuba?”
He doesn’t know that when I really start to think about all this, I get so mad I can’t sleep.
He doesn’t know that when he’s wearing that hat, smoking that coveted contraband cigar, he looks like a dupe.
He doesn’t know how much good he could be doing in Cuba, for Cubans, instead. Bearing witness, supporting artistic freedom, listening.
He doesn’t realize that as someone privileged to be born in a free society, one in which someone could come from nothing and become a celebrated music, sports, fashion, business and political mogul, it’s not only his good luck to be able to bring to light the needs of the less fortunate, it’s his obligation.
But then, Jay-Z, I heard your new song, and paid attention to the lyrics.
I heard you bragging about your “White House clearance.”
I heard you talk about how much you enjoy Cuban cigars.
And I heard you tell the President I voted for, “You don’t need this shit anyway, chill with me on the beach.”
You reject the responsibility to speak up for an oppressed people, even while you take up your own cause with gusto.
Then I figured it out.
You actually know all of this stuff, you just don’t care.
That’s not just being a bad citizen, or a bad neighbor.
It’s being a bad artist.
It’s Nihilism with a beat.