When fame and fortune are not enough — why celebrities want to be artists

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Why are Roc Nation and the N.F.L. doing business this Super Bowl weekend? Well, social justice is expensive.

A few years ago, the National Football League approached Jay-Z about performing at the Super Bowl halftime show. To perform “Run This Town,” he was asked if he would bring Rihanna and Kanye West, who appear on the track, along with him.

“Of course I would have,” Jay-Z said, “but I said, ‘No, you get me.’ That is not how you go about it, telling someone that they’re going to do the halftime show contingent on who they bring. I said forget it. It was a principle thing.”

Then, last year, the Super Bowl was in Atlanta, a global center of hip-hop — and the N.F.L. booked the pop rock band Maroon 5 as the headliner.

It certainly looked like the N.F.L. needed help. Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots and the powerful chairman of the N.F. L.’s media committee, reached out to Jay-Z to discuss

The problem with the N.F.L. is you all think hip-hop is still a fad when hip-hop has been the dominant music form around the world for 20 years,” Jay-Z said to him.

And it came off, at best, as ignorance from a league of 32 teams, only two of which are owned by people of color, employing 28 white head coaches, and an athletic labor force that is more than 70 percent black.

Mr. Kraft was convinced, and persuaded the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, to meet with him and Jay-Z in Los Angeles.

The outcome: a partnership between the N.F.L. and Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s sprawling company, that gives Jay-Z influence over the league’s most important music events, including the halftime show.

This makes it the season of Roc Nation. Last weekend, the Grammys were hosted by Alicia Keys, a Roc Nation client. Roc Nation’s annual Grammys brunch brought together its artists and clients like Rihanna and DJ Khaled with Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

This weekend’s far-more-consequential marquee event, the Super Bowl LIV halftime show at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., will star Shakira, a Roc Nation client, along with Jennifer Lopez.

ImageDesiree Perez, the chief executive of Roc Nation, in the middle of it all, with, from left, Dez Bryant, Juan Perez, Robert Kraft and Michael Rubin, at the Roc Nation brunch on Grammys weekend.
Credit…Kevin Mazur/Getty Images 

The deal also gives Jay-Z, 50, a hand in “Inspire Change,” the N.F.L.’s new initiative concerning “education and economic advancement, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform,” according to the N.F.L.’s promotional materials. Roc Nation has asked Mr. Goodell to commit the league to spending $100 million over the next 10 years on social justice outreach and causes.

“Roger is amazing and we couldn’t be doing this without him,” said Desiree Perez, the chief executive of Roc Nation. “He has been so supportive of us and is critical to us making change at the N.F.L.” (Mr. Goodell was not available for an interview, and a spokeswoman for the N.F.L. declined to be quoted for this article.)

This Super Bowl, amid the world’s most expensive advertising, the N.F.L. will sponsor the broadcast of a public service video, one of a series that tells the stories of black men and boys killed by police.

When this partnership was announced, it was received by some as a betrayal of Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who first declined to stand during the national anthem in 2016 as a protest against social injustice, especially the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. He left the team at the end of the season and hasn’t been hired by an N.F.L. team since. (Mr. Kaepernick’s lawyer declined to answer questions.)

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Like many black leaders in entertainment and media, Jay-Z had rallied publicly behind Mr. Kaepernick. And yet, two years later, Jay-Z was doing a deal with Mr. Kaepernick’s foe. In a locker room interview after the deal was announced, Eric Reid, a safety for the Carolina Panthers who took part in a lawsuit with Mr. Kaepernick against the league, called Roc Nation’s deal “kind of despicable.”

Jay-Z said he can live with the criticism if he is able to use the N.F.L.’s platform to convince white football fans that they too should be concerned about police brutality. “As long as real people are being hurt and marginalized and losing family members, then yes, I can take a couple rounds of negative press,” he said.

When Did the Super Bowl Halftime Show Become Political?

Roc Nation’s role as a record label and management company for clients who mostly have grown up poor and disadvantaged, and its growing focus on real-time response to criminal justice reform and abuses, has led to this moment with the N.F.L., he said.

Now is the time, he said, for the conversation needs to move beyond only Mr. Kaepernick. “No one is saying he hasn’t been done wrong,” Jay-Z said. “He was done wrong. I would understand if it was three months ago. But it was three years ago and someone needs to say, ‘What do we do now — because people are still dying?’”

Roc Nation has not said how much money it stands to make from the deal. “We didn’t say, ‘Let’s go make some money off the N.F.L.,’” Jay-Z said.

And Jay-Z may be the frontman of the N.F.L. deal, but it’s a companywide effort. Inside Roc Nation, the executives say the higher purpose is to get inside the establishment to bring representation of color and try to foster a nationwide cultural dialogue.

“I understand that some say, ‘Why do you want to sit at that table?’” said Tyran Smith, known as TyTy, a founder of the company and its president of A&R. “I’m a curious person. They’re not going to poison my food, I hope. I’m going to learn something and I’m going to share it.”

Juan Perez, the president of Roc Nation Sports, the company’s athletic management division, said: “Somebody has to kick in the door and get shot first. We’re that company. We’re not afraid. We’ve been doing it our whole lives.”

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Jay-Z in front of “The Tengwe Farms” (2019), by Moffat Takadiwa, at the Roc Nation offices in Los Angeles in January.
Credit…Renell Medrano for The New York Times

Jemele Hill, a journalist who covers the intersection of race, sports, gender and politics for The Atlantic, trusts that Roc Nation and Jay-Z are well intentioned in trying to bring attention to social justice by relying on the popularity of the N.F.L. — but she doesn’t trust the league to address its own issues of lack of diversity among its owners and head coaches.

“I feel like Jay-Z is giving them way too much of his cultural capital that they have not earned,” Ms. Hill said. “There has always been this tension of, ‘Will progress be made from working from the inside?’ The things that Jay-Z is trying to accomplish, he doesn’t need the N.F.L. to do.”

The company believes its mission in representing artists and athletes is to make money change hands with a purpose. Roc Nation sees this as a social justice function.

“Focusing on social justice is the nature of how we grew up,” Jay-Z said. “The people we sign — 75 percent of them, at least — grew up in poverty. When one of us gets signed, it doesn’t end our connection to the ’hood or the streets. Our lives are still there, our cousin still needs a lawyer, our mother still can’t make the rent. This is real life.”

He cites Meek Mill, a Roc Nation management client, who was arrested in Philadelphia in 2007, when he was 19 on gun and drug charges. “Meek’s got eight guys who could pull him back,” Jay-Z said. “I said, ‘Meek, you are going to go back with them, or you need to bring them with you.’ So he reaches a hand back and pulls them with him. That’s social justice: It’s how we help a person help their community and help themselves.”

Meek Mill’s 2017 appearance before a judge about a probation violation, dating back to those 2007 charges, helped fuel Roc Nation’s increased focus on advocacy.

When the judge ordered the rapper to return to prison for two to four years for the probation violation, Ms. Perez, Jay-Z and Michael Rubin, the founder of the sports merchandise company Fanatics and a close friend of Meek Mill, engineered a two-year effort in which they spent $7 million to fight for his release.

The experience galvanized Mr. Rubin. He raised more than $60 million to create the Reform Alliance, with Jay-Z, Mr. Kraft, Meek Mill and others. It works to overhaul the probation system. Roc Nation administers the organization through its philanthropy division.

What Jay-Z saw was rich white men like Mr. Rubin and Mr. Kraft working to fix a broken system after seeing injustice up close. It made him think more about what Roc Nation could do.

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Credit…Renell Medrano for The New York Times

In 2008, Jay-Z decided to start a boutique label and artist representation company. He, Mr. Smith and Jay Brown, a onetime intern for Quincy Jones, took a $50 million investment from Live Nation, a giant in the business of music performance. Roc Nation has many divisions but one mission, said Mr. Brown, its chairman. “We are in business to create opportunities for people we work with and represent,” he said.

From the get-go, Roc Nation had a music publishing division. “We signed writers and producers, and then we could control the song,” Jay-Z said, citing early relationships with artists and producers like Bruno Mars and Philip Lawrence. “We could place the song with any artist, and we were making money.”

The label itself has artists including J. Cole and Rihanna. But Roc Nation’s founders were well aware of the industry’s history of taking financial advantage of musical artists, so an artist’s management division came quickly.

Ms. Perez, is Jay-Z’s right hand. (“Left hand, actually,” he said.) She was the operations manager of Jay-Z’s 40/40 nightclubs, including the location in Las Vegas, perhaps the first minority-owned establishment on the Vegas Strip. She is a tough negotiator and a strategic thinker, and helped artists who were struggling financially to reconcile debts and budget their income. (Rihanna famously sued her accountants in 2009.)

And because athletes mixed with musicians and social chitchat turned to money talk, with athletes routinely asking Jay-Z for advice on contract deals and investments, he looked to another old friend, Mr. Perez, who is also Ms. Perez’s husband, and had him start a management division for athletes.

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Tyran Smith, known as TyTy, at the Roc Nation offices in Manhattan. Mr. Smith is a founder of the company and its president of A&R.
Credit…Renell Medrano for The New York Times
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Jay Brown, the chairman of Roc Nation, at the company’s offices in Los Angeles.
Credit…Renell Medrano for The New York Times

Roc Sports opened in 2013 and now represents athletes including the N.B.A. player Kyrie Irving, the N.F.L. player Leonard Fournette and the W.N.B.A. player Skylar Diggins-Smith. (Kim Miale, the head of Roc Sports’s football division, said that she and her peers have no involvement in the Roc Nation N.F.L. deal.)

Mr. Perez says the pitch is an explanation to young athletes, many of whom were raised in or near poverty, that Roc Nation is evidence of what can be achieved through hard work but also through shrewd choices.

“My job is to give them a foundation and an understanding of how to stay rich and how not to make the same mistakes we probably made when we were young, drinking champagne and all the car stuff,” Mr. Perez said. “We’re going to try our best to make sure you grow as a man. This is a lifestyle. This is a brotherhood. This is a culture.”

That was the draw for Andrew Thomas, an offensive tackle at University of Georgia who declared he will enter the N.F.L. draft this year, represented by Roc Sports. “I’m able to talk to the O.G.s of the company,” Mr. Thomas said. “They teach soldiers how they become kings.”

In the greater Jay-Z-verse, there is the champagne and the cognac. There is a street wear line. There is the Roc Nation philanthropy arm, run by Dania Diaz, which helps administer foundations created by Roc Nation clients and execute on their philanthropic aspirations, like the school that the baseball star Robinson Cano built in the Dominican Republic.

There is Roc Nation Unified, a new division that provides strategic consulting to entertainment companies, venues, consumer brands and sports leagues around the world, run by twin brothers, Brett and Michael Yormark.

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Kim Miale at the Roc Nation offices in Manhattan.
Credit…Renell Medrano for The New York Times

“At the core, we have one of the greatest artists of all times who is also a marketing genius. Roc Nation is rooted in an authentic artist space: driving rights for the artists, teaching entertainers to be entrepreneurs,” said Michael Rapino, the chief executive of Live Nation. “We can all talk the talk, but Jay-Z can walk the walk.”

And while that may be true, the glue that holds the whole company together is Ms. Perez. She has a massive office on the ninth floor of Roc Nation’s office in New York, where she is the first to arrive and the last to leave as she troubleshoots for artists, negotiates shoe deals for athletes and tells basically everyone in the extended orbit what’s what.

“You don’t want to see her mad,” one employee told me; I believed it.

With all that built, there was an opportunity to make change. Jay-Z wanted an entire division within the company to be dedicated to it.

Team Roc got its start in August 2018, when Jay-Z dropped in on a Roc Nation staff meeting in New York. Talk turned to news of a conflict at a Brooklyn nail salon, in which Asian employees attacked black customers. “They were talking about Brooklyn, where I’m from, and I was triggered by that,” Jay-Z said.

“‘We should have a division where we can talk to things in real time — give money, get lawyers, try to help,’” Jay-Z said at the meeting. “If something happens in Mississippi, we will get Yo Gotti,” who is a client from Memphis. “If something happens in Philly, we’ll get Meek involved.”

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Credit…Renell Medrano for The New York Times

Ms. Perez is in charge of Team Roc. In the last 18 months, it has organized protests outside a mall in Tennessee where a black teenager was arrested after refusing to remove the hood of his sweatshirt from his head at a mall; rallied behind a black sixth-grader in Florida who was suspended for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance; and supported a homeless man in Arizona violently arrested after stealing socks.

For much of the past month Ms. Perez has been consumed by calls with politicians and lawyers to address lawless and inhumane conditions in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where nine inmates have died since late December.

She scrolled through her phone; it showed pictures of inmates with multiple stab wounds, people sleeping on floors amid excrement and rats, a bloody body that appeared to be lifeless. “These are human beings,” she said. “Human beings! This is crazy. How is this America?”

In January, with Ms. Perez working behind the scenes, Jay-Z and Yo Gotti filed a lawsuit against Mississippi prison officials. Part of Yo Gotti’s job was to keep it in the media and social media spotlight as he made his rounds to promote his new album.

On Jan. 27, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, called for the closure of Unit 29, where many of the deaths have occurred.

This work makes Roc Nation hope its efforts with the N.F.L. may defy the skeptics and help further both Jay-Z’s and Mr. Kaepernick’s missions. “We are two adult men who disagree on the tactic but are marching for the same cause,” Jay-Z said.

For the family members of the young black men killed by police whose stories the N.F.L. and Roc Nation are promoting, the conversation transcends celebrities, football players and social media spats.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand that we just don’t want any more members to this club,” said Michelle Kenney. Her sonAntwon Rose II, was 17 when he was shot and killed by a police officer in East Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2018. The officer was tried on homicide charges and acquitted.

video about Antwon’s life and death was released in December. “If there is anything we can do to prevent membership from going up by one person,” Ms. Kenney said, “we’re out here and we’re willing to do it.”

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