If you see only one cultural exhibition in New York City between now and December 4th, get yourself to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza to see the JAY-Z exhibit—The Book of HOV: A celebration of the life and work of Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter. (HOV is a play on Jehovah, another name for God, because people marveled at his incredible ability to improvise and create whole songs in minutes.) A few weeks ago, I used my morning run to wind my way from my Brooklyn apartment through Prospect Park to the library.
On the terrace in front of the library, pictures of JAY-Z with people such as President Barack Obama and performing on stage rotate on over-sized screens. The front facade of the library is wrapped in lyrics from his music. It brought me so much joy to see so many people — every age, race, and creed — enjoying the library. This is exactly why JAY-Z and his Roc Nation team decided to stage his exhibit here: to have it be free and within walking distance to the Marcy Houses, the public housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, so everyone could be part of it.
Inside, there are photos of JAY-Z, examples of the many products he’s created, collaborations he’s forged, and awards he’s won. Visitors can play his records on turntables, look at his original masters (which he now owns after making a deal with Def Jam — he agreed to be President of Def Jam for 3 years provided that his masters would then be returned to him), sit inside a re-creation of the main room of his Baseline Recording Studios, walk through an immersive experience celebrating his achievements, and marvel at the array of memorabilia that commemorate his many accomplishments.
As amazing as all of this is, what absolutely stunned me and what I can’t stop thinking about is how JAY-Z has used his fame and fortune more than any other artist to make the world a better place by standing up for those who could not stand up for themselves. He and his team at Roc Nation were unrelenting in their demands for justice for inmates at Parchman Farm, a maximum-security prison in the Mississippi Delta. They fight rampant racism that runs through businesses and organizations around the world. They hold a social justice summit in New York City. They make documentaries including Time: The Kalief Browder Story and Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. They stand against hate crimes, gun violence, and police brutality, not only with their words but with funds to provide pro-bono legal support and with their time to walk with the people they’re helping on their journeys. They champion artists, athletes, and Black-owned businesses. The list goes on and on.
Sometimes celebrities sit back after they leave the stage. They enjoy their retirement, and I don’t begrudge them for that. We all have a right to decide how to live our lives and spend our time. What I find so impressive and admirable about JAY-Z is that he looked at his celebrity and fortune, and rather than take a well-deserved rest, he accelerated. He’s done even more off the stage than he did as a performer. And for someone as prolific and influential in entertainment, that is a feat maybe he didn’t even foresee.
I’m a fan of JAY-Z’s music, but to be honest, I’m even more of a fan of who he is as a human and what he’s done to further humanity as a whole. He’s still got a long runway ahead and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
The Book of HOV is on exhibit until December 4th, JAY-Z’s birthday. If you can’t get to New York, the website that accompanies the exhibit is excellent. You can also watch the recording of JAY-Z’s November 14, 2023 prime time interview with Gayle King on CBS.