As a slow news weekend drew to a close, bored media outlets tried manufacturing controversy out of a necklace Jay Z wore to a Brooklyn Nets game on Tuesday.
According to the Daily Mail, the rapper-turned-business mogul “raised eyebrows when he wore a medallion symbolizing the Five Percent Nation,” a black religious sect that stems from the Nation of Islam.
The New York Post added, “[All] eyes…weren’t on Jay Z’s better half, Beyoncé – but on the coaster-size golden pendant swinging from the rapper’s neck. Asked once if the group’s symbol … held any meaning to him, the rapper shrugged, ‘A little bit.’”
Image Credit: Daily Mail
Sigh. The Mail and Post were unclear regarding who, besides them, actually gave a shit about Jay Z’s necklace, but they were sure to point out how “gaudy” and “controversial” they thought it was. Much of their concern came from the suggestion that Mr. Carter – a man whose corporate partnerships include Barney’s and Budweiser – "supports racism" against white people.
This is stupid, but worth understanding. The Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths was founded in 1964 by Clarence Ernest Smith, aka Clarence 13X or “Allah the Father.” Allah was a former Malcolm X follower who believed that 85% of the world’s people are blind to knowledge of themselves and God, while 10% – including governments and the media – are committed to keeping the rest ignorant.
The remaining 5% are Poor Righteous Teachers whose understanding of a “Supreme Alphabet,” “Supreme Mathematics” and “120 Lessons” equip them to educate and liberate the masses – hence the name “Five Percenters.”
But in the same way the Bible claims that eating shellfish and wearing “mixed fabrics” are sin, the core tenets – or "tenants,” as the Mail writes – of the Five Percent Nation include that "whiteness is weak and wicked and inferior."
"Caucasians … don’t enjoy an exalted status in the narrative of the Five Percenters," reports the Post.
"White people are devils" is a phrase commonly associated with them.
Carmelo Anthony wearing a similar necklace/Image Credit: HipHollywood
Yet as with everything, context is key. Saying "white people are devils" is another way of denouncing white supremacist ideology, according to Michael Muhammad Knight, the white Five Percent member who the Post asked to explain the situation:
"I don’t mean this as a statement on biology," he writes. "I’m using the term more in the sense of what it means to be marked as white in an unjust society. When people want to sound like they’re theoretically sophisticated, they describe this phenomenon with the term, ‘white privilege.’ I call it Satan."
This is an important distinction: The Five Percent Nation is a religious group, but it can also be understood as politics disguised as theology. Coming from an era when black people were legally oppressed, routinely terrorized and deemed biologically inferior by a white supremacist society, it makes sense that religious beliefs established then would also promote black political empowerment — even at the expense of racist white America.
The Five Percent Nation is no different. And many of these messages survive today, in an era when racial inequality remains prevalent but not as blatantly enforced. The Five Percenters had an especially huge impact on the inner city and hip-hop culture in the 1980s and ‘90s, with artists ranging from Rakim, Nas and Busta Rhymes to pretty much every member of the Wu-Tang Clan identifying with its teachings.
As such, the slang and iconography associated with the Five Percent has been absorbed into hip-hop style and vernacular. Its political elements – whatever you think of them – are besides the point in most cases.
The result is an artifact like Jay Z’s necklace. His medallion wasn’t saying "fuck white people" any more than the pope’s crucifix is saying "fuck shellfish and mixed fabrics." And in case the trembling white masses need more reassurance that Hov isn’t out to get them, here’s a statement from Saladin Allah, an actual Five Percent representative from upstate New York:
“Jay Z is not an active member — no one has vouched for him. It was always understood that you don’t wear the regalia if you don’t totally subscribe to the life.”
The media’s reporting of this incident reveals two things: Their ignorance of how Five Percent symbols function in hip-hop, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the business and politics of one of the most famous men in the world.
One would hope that the next time there’s a slow news weekend, they’ll spend more of their free time doing research.