Gentrification is, in fact, a structural and cultural phenomenon that specifically and disproportionately targets low-income Black communities.
April 26 was the reopening of New York’s Webster Hall. It was also the night that rapper and businessman Jay-Z would freestyle lyrics that would later set social media ablaze.
The concert was titled “B-Sides 2.” That night, Jay brought out former adversary and rapping peer, Nas, as well as Cam’ron, Jim Jones, and many others. It was the freestyle which he spit as an ode to late rapper Nipsey Hussle that he was scrutinized for. In what I am sure Jay thought was a progressive and “woke” style of lyricism, he rapped:
“Gentrify your own hood before these people do it. Claim eminent domain and have your people move in. That’s a small glimpse into what Nipsey was doing. For anybody still confused as to what he was doing. The neighborhood designed to keep us trapped. They red-lined it so property declines if you live by blacks. They depress the asset then take the property back. It’s a ruthless but a genius plan, in fact. So now we fighting over scraps.”
The freestyle—infused with social justice terminology—was intended to act as a call-to-action, of sorts, for Black people to buy properties in our own neighborhoods before affluent white people had the opportunity to. He notes that due to redlining, or the process of poor Black neighborhoods being fenced off—figuratively or literally—by banks as to avoid investing in them, many of the neighborhoods in which Black people are raised are “traps.” And these freestyled sentiments are not new for him. In fact, similar lyrics found their way onto his RIAA platinum certified album, 4:44, where he raps these words on “Story of O.J.”:
Imma play the corners / where the hustlers be
I told him “please don’t die over the neighborhood / that ya mama rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood / that’s how you rinse it”
Jay’s seemingly minimal understanding of gentrification is not entirely wrong. Gentrification is, in fact, a structural and cultural phenomenon that specifically and disproportionately targets low-income Black communities. However, it is in no way a “genius” plan and the solution to it is not for rich Black people to push out poor Black folks—the very meaning of gentrification. Therein is the issue.
This is, however, not Jay’s first time discussing or participating in the gentrification process of Black neighborhoods. In 2003, the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards (re)development project was announced in Brooklyn, NY. This project would eventually lead to the construction of Pacific Park, which is described as a “mixed-use commercial and residential development project.” As part of this development project, Barclays Center—home to the Brooklyn Nets—was built. Since the roll out of this project, community members have actively protested in hopes that the development would come with a promise of job opportunities and affordable housing, best known as a Community Benefits Agreement. In 2005, that CBA was signed (not without faults) and Jay-Z was brought in shortly after in an effort, according to the community, to “legitimize the project” and persuade the public into trusting the development. While it is reported that Jay has since sold his stakes both in the center and the Nets themselves, the damage to the community had already been done. Most of all the requests made in the CBA were never brought to fruition and, thus, Brooklyn residents still currently face rapid displacement.
JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — Every single dollar matters to us—especially now when media is under constant threat.
I once wrote that gentrification is a process of renewal and rebuilding [historically] Black neighborhoods, which often comes with an influx of middle-class or, usually, white people, thus leading to the displacement of poorer residents who have made these spaces home. This has been the outcome of housing ‘development’ in ‘urban’ neighborhoods, such as areas surrounding Pacific Park.
“‘Development’ is contingent on the power that capital grants a specific class, whereby I mean that it is determined by who has a financial stake in the movement and structure of entire cities.” This means that housing developers and, most normally, affluent white people control how spaces are developed and who gets to reside in these spaces. “In Harlem, Brooklyn, and other parts of East New York, residents have witnessed areas where Black historical figures once stood to make historic and cultural speeches be disfigured and replaced by liberal, beatnik-like businesses in a matter of weeks.”
Notwithstanding these truths, what Jay-Z is repeatedly demanding of Black people, be it intentional or not, is for us to find comfort in being pushed out of our homes by rich people as long as they are Black. What many of us in Atlanta know, however, is that being displaced by other Black people—in our case, politicians—makes you no less homeless or jobless than being displaced by white people. Further, while the intention may be for Black folks to invest in homes for other Black people, because investment from rich people is never centered around the community in which they’re investing, it will always give way to affluent white people finding their way into our communities; this to say that whether it is via respectability, other facets of white supremacy, or the occupation of Black spaces by literal white bodies, gentrification can never benefit low-income Black communities.
If what Jay-Z was going for was a call for Black community ownership, he missed the mark. Community ownership and gentrification cannot be used interchangeably, as one benefits the community and the other leads the community to its demise.
“Black gentrification differs entirely from Black community ownership, because the latter usually involves Black elites using their affluence and financial capital to secure spaces and properties in the community that are intentionally used in ways that improve the living standards of the people already living in the community. This comes in the form of providing goods and services to the community, like jobs, small business investment and entrepreneurial incubators, new amenities, and improved housing stock, that disrupts the culture of Black elitism existing at the expense of the Black working class being denied access to opportunities to thrive. It is a means of promoting cooperative ownership and actual self-determination via wealth redistribution within the Black community. Black gentrification is a means of takeover and expulsion of what is undesirable and undervalued while Black investment in communal ownership dismantles the detrimental effects of Black classism.” —Taiza Troutman, Community Organizer and graduate student at Georgia State University in the Urban Studies Institute focused on Black Urbanism, Trap Music and Cultural Performance and the Queer Urbanization of the American South.