Beyoncé & Jay Z: Celebrity, Culture and Politics?

They are the ultimate “power-couple” in music. Both of them global icons in culture and ranked by business magazine Forbes as the number 1 highest earning celebrity couple in 2012/2013, as well as individually being ranked as #4 and #32 on the list of most influential celebrities. As the Jay Z and Beyoncé brand has grown into a giant in music and entertainment the Carter-Knowles’ cultural influence seems on its way to becoming a force in politics, both as a couple as well as individuals. But can their persuasion really build a nation?

Born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4 1969, he is better known by his stage-name Jay Z. He grew up in Brooklyn in the public housing complex Marcy Projects during the New York crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s; selling drugs by the time he was a teen. Beyoncé on the other hand grew up in the suburbs to Houston TX as a daughter to two successful entrepreneurs in an upper middle-class family.

Both starting their careers in music by debuting their first albums in the mid nineties Beyoncé and Jay Z are now in control of their own brands by either owning their own record label or managing themselves. A possible restriction to this control is their individual endorsements with private companies. Beyoncé has been criticized for her deal with Pepsi, for which she promote the product to kids in the US. Just two years prior to the Pepsi deal, the singer teamed up with Michelle Obama for the “Let’s Move”-initiative; a campaign focused on ending child obesity and diabetes.

There are some key differences in how they each take on social and political issues. Jay Z has always been very hands-on throughout his career, using the lyrics of his songs to discuss issues often related to drug use and race. In the song “Blue Magic” he criticized Reagan on the war on drugs which he, first handedly, witnessed in areas like Brooklyn leading to the New York crack epidemic. Unlike her husband, Beyoncé took on a more lighthearted image singing about love and break-ups. Many believe that Beyoncé has had a clear theme throughout her career of empowering women, stating in an article earlier this year that she considers herself a modern-day feminist. But it is as a couple they are making the biggest headlines in the more heavy media like The Guardian and CNN when they have come out in support of gay marriage or made a discreet but effective stop at a Justice for Trayvon Martin rally earlier this year protesting against the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

The rally came just a year after Jay Z and Beyoncé came under fire by civil rights activist Harry Belafonte in 2012. Belafonte accused the couple for turning their back on social responsibility especially when it comes to issues about race, urging them to use their fame to highlight political and social issues. There seems to be an equal expectation of responsibility from the fans of their music for the two to act and take a stand on issues concerning race.  Jay Z was recently heavily criticized by the public for his partnership with luxury department store Barneys after allegations of racial profiling by the store. To answer the critics it was announced in a statement by Jay Z that he would be taking a leading role in a council to deal with the issues of racial profiling within the company.

One of the bigger political controversies the couple started was a trip taken to Cuba in April 2013, despite restrictions for American citizens travelling to the country, sparking rumors of not only how they got the pass to go there but also starting debates on the effects of their decision. There is a five decade long economic embargo in effect which bans American citizens from vacationing in the country. Their trip was not only discussed as entertainment but it also started a debate about the embargo itself. Senator Marco Rubio of the state of Florida ultimately demanded an investigation of how the couple got their pass. Jay-Z joked about the ordeal in a song called Open Letter rapping “Obama said, ‘Chill, you gon’ get me impeached, you don’t need this shit anyway, chill with me on the beach”, provoking a yet greater debate forcing president Obama to make a direct statement on the song’s lyrics.

Beyoncé and Jay Z’s influence in music and culture is undeniable. As one of the worlds most famous couples their decisions are discussed and scrutinised by many. The two are not only under pressure to represent themselves, but also socially underprivileged groups. Furthermore, as they are establishing connections with President Obama, speculation arises regarding whether they are looking to try their hand at politics. This creates an image of the couple as politically aware and opinionated. Reports coming in about the Carter-Knowles’s during the last year have been of a heavier stature like the BBC and CNN. Jay Z himself stated soon after the visit to Cuba that “CNN is as bad as the blogs” probably referring to the fact that CNN and the BBC is reporting on his and his wife’s holiday and their private life. But maybe this is not a recession in the quality of what is to be considered as news but an evolution in the political relevancy of the couple.


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