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Made in America – but not for everyone

Daniel Barabasi | Monday, October 14, 2013

I have to say I love Jay-Z before I get into anything else. It’s just a fact that I want to leave as something you can return to after you read this column. If you look at his discography, from “Reasonable Doubt” to “The Black Album” and even his newest “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” Jay leaves behind a solid set of beats and lyrics with depth about the world around him and his transition from a street-level gangster who wrote lines on the side to a worldwide phenomenon. Compare him to Kanye and you get matching talent, but Jay-Z actually has a soul to Kanye’s narcissism in and out of the studio. Jay-Z gets me going.

Despite all my approval, the “Jay Z Presents: Made In America” documentary about Jay-Z’s festival of the same name leaves me stranded about whether I can still look up to this icon of the past two decades. Director Ron Howard shows Jay-Z looking back on his life as Shawn Carter with his fellow artists at the festival, all while juxtaposing the performers and their escapades with the struggling Pennsylvania community. The end of the documentary left me left with a chilling message in my bones. 

There are the artists talking about the humble backgrounds they struggled through to make it big. Then there are the workers at the festival, who talk about how hard it is to get by day-to-day and how they live on with the hope that opportunity will appear to them one day. The message that should come out of this is that if we tried hard enough, we could also be like Jay-Z or Skrillex. Instead, Ron Howard cuts the documentary to say that these artists were once like you, but now they’re not, and at the end of the festival they’ll go on to their next venue while you’re at home clipping coupons. 

The documentary opens as a horror-thriller trailer. Slowed clips of the crowds cheering at Made in America are woven over by Jay-Z prattling on about how he “made it.” The slowed cheers distort to hollow screams. Cut to a control room counting down to a live event and back to the concert, this time voices saying that times are changing with the screeching of the crowds still echoing. Clips of newscasters praise Jay-Z’s impact.

The movie trailer-quality only lasts for the first two minutes, fading into Jay-Z rushing onstage spitting “99 Problems,” but the feeling of anxiety stays in the subconscious. Jay goes on to describe his life as Shawn Carter, about how he transformed into something past gang violence and poverty. He leads with an inspirational quote, “Every human being has genius-level talent. There are no chosen ones.” In multiple shots afterwards, “Shawn” goes around hugging local artists and festival staff, all while emanating the same amount of emotion as a politician running for reelection does when kissing babies.

Even in the most intimate scene, in which Jay-Z goes back to his childhood home in Brooklyn and describes his teenage years with gangs, guns and drugs, he seems disconnected from his story. As he stumbles through narrow hallways, Jay’s bodyguards are caught in the peripheries of the camera, always a few steps ahead, checking for trouble. These bodyguards can be seen everywhere in the documentary, the most startling being when they push away fans as Jay-Z watches RUN-D.M.C.’s performance from the crowds.

Among the playboy, quasi-humble stars, RUN-D.M.C. stood out as perhaps the only truly honest performer. Here you have these hip hop legends, who hit their prime thirty years ago, playing off the rock and roll hype. They’ve faded out of the spotlight, and without the blinding stage, they can see what the new America looks like while still being heard. Darryl McDaniels talks about how the gangs of New York City paused from crime to record music warning the youth to not join gangs and to blaze a new trail for the community. Hypocritical, yes, and Darryl realized this, but you don’t see Jay-Z or Kanye telling anyone their People Magazine life is wrong in any way.

A scene about a stage manager dreaming about opportunity cuts to one with Odd Future screwing around with their expensive trailer. A local Pennsylvania group laments being cut from Made in America, then Jay-Z complains about how he didn’t get signed for his first few years. From here, the message of Ron Howard emerges: Sure, Jay-Z supports local artists and is great for a star, but he’s still a star. Should we be setting our standards to a group of people who make front page for a divorce? No, is Howard’s answer. At the end of the day, Jay-Z is still rich, and the guy who flipped burgers at the festival has a few extra bills, but he’s still flipping burgers. 

Contact Daniel Barabasi at dbaraba1@nd.edu