October 6th, 2016
Jay-Z was seen yesterday sporting a hat that read “Retired Drug Dealer.” The cheeky fashion choice sends a sly message about the War on Drugs. From its beginnings in the 1970s through today’s continued prohibition, most drug dealers—especially if they’re black or Latino—don’t get to “retire.” They don’t get health insurance, or pensions, or 401ks. In fact, there’s a good chance they’ll wind up in prison.
Yet a new flock of overwhelmingly white, wealthy, male marijuana entrepreneurs will be able to retire in style.
Jay-Z has spoken publicly about the years he spent selling crack before becoming a successful rapper; now, he’s lending his voice to those who are stuck in poverty or prison, thanks to the criminalization of drugs.
Last month, he collaborated on a video for The New York Times about the history of the War on Drugs, succinctly asking why white men are poised to get rich doing the same thing black men are still being sent to prison for.
He says that in 1986, when he was “coming of age,” Ronald Reagan “doubled down on the war on drugs that had been started by Nixon in 1971; instead of talking about “Reaganomics and the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools and loss of jobs in cities across America,” people blamed drug dealers.
“Young men like me who hustled [by selling drugs]” he says, “were portrayed as “monsters”—as “villains” who “lacked moral fortitude.” And “even though white people used and sold crack more than black people, somehow it was black people who went to prison.”
“The NYPD raided our Brooklyn neighborhoods while Manhattan bankers openly used coke with impunity.” The prison population grew “more than 900 percent.”
Now, he says, people are finally talking about treating addiction as “a health crisis,” but there’s “no compassionate language about drug dealers.”
Unless, that is “we’re talking about Colorado” or other states where a booming legal marijuana industry has been created.
States like Louisiana, meanwhile, “are still handing out life sentences for marijuana.”
And even if you live in a state like Colorado, but you’re not a rich white venture capitalist, you might “face barriers [to] participating in the above-ground [weed] economy,” since “former felons can’t open a dispensary,” and “lots of those felonies were for drugs, caught by poor people who sold drugs for a living.”
This past summer, Jay-Z contributed a verse to Pusha T’s single “Drug Dealers Anonymous.” On it, he raps that he’s a “14-year drug dealer and still counting”—allegedly a tongue-in-cheek reference to conservative commentator Tomi Lahren’s critical comments about him. It’s striking that even someone as successful as Jay-Z is still being derided for his past as a drug dealer by a white commentator.
On the song, Jay-Z also raps: “I always knew I was a prophet, but I couldn’t find a decent job.”
With his “retired drug dealer” hat, Jay-Z is saying a lot about race, class and who deserves a “decent job” and to be treated with respect.