A Written Testimony tate #9
Jay Z's origin story is well known. And it's a story he alludes to, in some form, in many of his songs.
Before he started rapping full-time, Shawn Carter was a successful drug dealer in the late eighties and early nineties. He was a self-proclaimed “hustler” moving crack cocaine in Brooklyn, New Jersey, and down the east coast through Maryland. One of his partners in this operation was Emory Jones. Jones would eventually catch "a fed charge," though, and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on drug trafficking charges.
Jail or a violent death are two common outcomes for anyone attempting to make a fortune in the illegal drug trade. Pablo Escobar - the famous Colombian drug kingpin - died in a shootout with Colombian police in 1993. Some speculate that Tony Soprano, the fictional Italian mob boss from the HBO series "The Sopranos," was killed in the final scenes in a "restaurant."
With these possible, if not likely, outcomes in mind, Shawn Carter pivoted to a rap career as "Jay Z." But his experiences during his time hustling would have a profound impact on the content of his music. And as someone who made it out of the drug trade, he could tell a story few in America - and the world - knew or understood.
As he became more popular as an artist, he would also use this origin story and his influence to advocate for civil rights and social justice issues. It’s perhaps why he references Joanne Chesimard, who was a civil rights activist and member of the Black Liberation Army in the 1960s and 1970s.
Joanne Chesimard also went by the name of Assata Shakur. She’s not related to Tupac Shakur, but Tupac’s mother, Afeni, described her as his “godmother.”