An open letter to Jay-Z Etan Thomas: Jay-Z shouldn’t be canceled, but he does need to answer to his critics

Dear Jay-Z,

Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.

For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism.

Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.

In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”

A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”

Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”

As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?

At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.

It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.

Former NBA player Etan Thomas says Jay-Z changed his entire message regarding social justice when he struck a deal with the NFL.

Etan Thomas

Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.

Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.

I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:

Rapper and entertainer Jay-Z grips a football before the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2011.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”

In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.

So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.

That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would have never been extended to you.

And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”

I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:

“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”

I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.

Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.

I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:

“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”

Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.

With Respect,
Etan Thomas

Tulsa officer acquitted in shooting death of unarmed black man Betty Shelby beats charges for killing Terence Crutcher in 2016

Another day, another police officer walks free after killing an unarmed black person.

You might remember the case of Terence Crutcher. Last year in Tulsa, he was killed by Officer Betty Shelby after a situation that unfolded outside of his car that was caught by police dash cameras as well as helicopter footage. It shows Crutcher, walking toward his car with police trailing him, guns pointed. Then, Crutcher’s arms come down and shots ring out, leaving him to lie there and die on the side of the road in Oklahoma. She was acquitted on Wednesday.

Where to begin. We’ll start with the trail, as the video shows you the details of the interaction. From there, let’s fast-forward to Shelby’s testimony, in which she states very plainly what the specific threat of police privilege and white supremacy means. Her fear was more important than her victim’s life. Beyond that admission, which was honest, she made an even more important statement about why, following her fear, she chose to shoot: That’s police policy.

“She articulated all of the reasons why she believed he was armed and why she took the action that she did that was in accordance with her training. In times of heavy stress and fear and uncomfortability, we revert to our training, and that’s what you want an officer to do. And you want them to handle situations the way they’re trained to handle them,” Jerad Lindsey, chairman of the Tulsa FOP, said earlier this week about Shelby’s testimony. “It takes tenths of seconds for someone to already make the mental decision to pull a weapon and shoot you.”

The last sentence is the most important. What it basically says is the very same logic that police use to justify their decision-making in firing rounds is exactly what’s used against you when you haven’t even done anything. You can talk about the inherent danger of police work and what it takes to protect a community, but the problem with the “blue lives matter” logic is two-fold. One, no one is born a police officer. Secondarily, because it is a job, there are certain risks that simply have to be a part of the accountability scale in order for the entire system to work, if you’re even going to consider fairness a part of the equation. If every encounter is going to be considered life or death, then the logic should apply both ways. Meaning, Crutcher might have thought they were going to try to kill him, too. Otherwise, what you’re openly admitting is: This isn’t fair and doesn’t have to be.

By leaving the judgment to human nature and throwing one’s hands up after that, you’re completely eliminating acknowledgment of the most obvious of factors here: race. Inherent bias, never mind outright racist attitudes and methods, are well-studied and documented components of law enforcement, but they are clearly the defining factor in many cases. To be noted, the window was up.

This man’s blackness obviously made her feel like he was more likely to kill her or her colleagues. And if you don’t believe that’s real, just listen to the officers on the audio of the footage of the shooting. “Time for Taser, I think,” one officer says in the lead-up to the gunshots. “That looks like a bad dude, too. Could be on something.” Seconds later, Crutcher is on the ground, his white T-shirt soaked in his blood.

The autopsy revealed that Crutcher did have PCP in his system. That in itself is not a reason for someone to die, of course. Not to mention that the casual observation of a random black man being a “bad dude” is a clear indicator about the kind of snap judgments people make based on appearance that have zero grounding in fact. Crutcher had previously served time for dealing cocaine and, according to his sister, had a drug problem as a user. Again, none of that should equal a death sentence, but even if you think so, how they figured all that out in those few minutes is beyond me.

Not to mention something else, perhaps the most critical element to the backdrop of everything. This is Tulsa. Not just the Tulsa where white residents burned down as many black businesses and neighborhoods as they could in the 1920s during a riot. (They’re making a movie about it.) It’s the same Tulsa where, in 2015, a guy working law enforcement literally for fun, who was a friend of the sheriff’s, shot and killed a guy because he mistook his handgun for his Taser. We’re not talking about ancient history. Never mind the fact that the guy is still bitter, saying that he’s mad he ever decided to give back to the community — not that, you know, he actually took someone’s life.

Mind you, the fallout from that was a reform program for that whole operation, but that’s not going to matter to Crutcher’s family. The point here is that the violence that takes the lives of so many unarmed black people isn’t just accidental or incidental, it’s state-sponsored.