Jay-Z Covers TIME’s 100 Most Influential People Issue


As a brand (who uses cultural materials to strategic ends) and one of the leading cultural intermediaries (who is highly skilled at interpreting certain aspects of popular/consumer culture to the public) in America, Shawn Carter, or more widely known as “Jay-Z,” has come a long way with an extensive portfolio and background in building a powerful presence and influence in mainstream culture. As one of the few hip-hop artists who does not rap about sex and girls all the time, Jay-Z has steadily and tactfully used his music to build a whole cultural discourse (using songs to appropriate words to create new meaning, which from then on is attributed to him) on his growing empire of a personal brand.  Jay-Z is a mogul, and a business (note: not businessman, but a business, man – from his track “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”). His constant name-dropping of brands and collaboration with them mark “his authenticity as a self-made businessman.[1]” Jay-Z’s story is more than one of rags to riches; here is an incredible entrepreneur who exemplifies lifestyle as a conscious choice (“My brands are an extension of me[2]”) over habitus- a set of tastes, knowledge, and habits an individual possesses, which is most often born into as noted by Bourdieu (the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn), and projects it through his brand as it transitions to a sophisticated and elite brand positioning in recent years.

Addressing Consumers

Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is regarded as the “CEO of Hip-Hop and prince of product placement;” he is like a “walking billboard,”[3] publicly associating himself with a multitude of brands. Each of these brands is embedded with its own message and ideology, which Jay-Z then appropriates when he associates with it to cultivate his own image. Jay-Z carries out what Garcia Canclini writes in “Identities as a Multimedia Spectacle” that “identity is a narrated construct” (Canclini, 95). Each selected association thus co-produces his identity and becomes “a part of his personal brand.”[4] Jay-Z maintains visibility to different kinds of consumers through getting involved in different “projects”, as he would like to call them[5]. As an entrepreneur, Jay-Z has branched out in areas of technology, software, real estate, movie production, theatre, nightlife, apparel, the arts and more. This cross-marketing strategy allows him to open up new markets and borrow (audience, messages, reputation, value, et cetera) from one another to build the empire that he rules today – this also includes shared publicity from personal association with superstar wife, Beyonce Knowles and protégé, Rihanna.

Jay-Z’s target market has changed over the years, from the Black urban middle-class community in the 90s to the black and white elites of today. It is evident from early on that he had far more than music on his mind. Having been the President of Def Jam Records and founder of Roc Nation  (Rocawear, Roc Nation Records-represents Rihanna and M.I.A. among others, Roc Nation sports agency); the co-brand director of Budweiser Select (for which he holds music festivals that his wife Beyonce Knowles headlines); a collaborator with Live Nation (publicly traded concert promoter), Reebok, Heineken, and Bing Search Engine, Jay-Z was building a lifestyle brand that addressed consumers at his level at the time. He was relatable to the young urban black male that participated in hip-hop subculture through consuming hip-hop music and apparel. Pierre Bourdieu observes that individuals try to “improve their social position by manipulating the cultural representation of their situation in the social field,” and that is just what Jay-Z did in “Justify My Thug” (Lury, 90). He created an instant connection with struggling African-Americans of lower socio-economic class using representational strategies of the hustler mentality (with songs “I’m a Hustler” and “1-900-Hustler”). “It’s the sound of a slick-talking hustler making old stories sound new and making a few bucks along the way.”[6] Nevertheless, he attached himself to an existing imagined community (imagined bond that transcends physical borders) that deeply values family and loyalty, which is telling of what he desires in his ideal consumers (emphasized in 5th studio album “The Dynasty: Roc La Familia” released in 2000). Jay-Z extends this imagined community further with lyrical references to Martin Luther King and Barack Obama in “My President is Black,”  aligning himself with the aspirational historic figures. Fluent in the language of brands, art and politics, “Jay-Z has managed to reconcile the dualities of black and white cultures, Bed-Stuy and Tribeca, art and commerce. There’s a reason why he likes to call himself, among many other things, J-Hova.”[7]

As he becomes more in the know, accumulating higher social and cultural capital (acquired sedimented knowledge and competence in making distinctions, value judgments and access to particular cultural classes) from the plethora of collaborations, Jay-Z begins repositioning his personal brand. He has gone beyond targeting the young urban market to now targeting the sophisticated elite in transforming his lifestyle brand (a good basis for social relationships, as observed by Muniz and O’Guinn) into one of luxury.

On his eighth studio album titled “The Black Album” released in November 2003, Jay-Z “declared he was setting aside childish things—I don’t wear jerseys, I’m 30-plus / Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga, button up—and changed Rocawear’s look accordingly.”[8] In addition, he begins to invest in a series of projects within highbrow culture. As Douglas Holt details in “Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption,” characteristics of high cultural capital include abstraction, individualism, eclecticism, combinational inventiveness, tradition, authenticity, aesthetics, and overall functionality in meaning over practicality.

Jay-Z’s lifestyle website, Life+Times (where he occasionally makes personal posts), embodies combinational inventiveness and authenticity in that this is where consumers can find the direct voice of his brand (other than from his dormant Twitter account that exudes traditional sophistication by the name: Mr.Carter @S_C_) – for example, his statement in response to the controversial racial profiling case at Barneys. As the producer of the Broadway show, Fela (a musical celebrating the late Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti[9]), he is traditional; as the Chairman of Translation Advertising ad agency (in which he hopes to help companies reach the underrepresented African-American market on a more genuine level with his intimate knowledge of the culture[10]), he is interpretive; as the founder of the 40/40 luxurious sports club, he is exotic; as the executive producer of the NBA 2K13 video game and of the 2013 film adaptation of the Great Gatsby, he is eclectic; as a partner of Audemars Piguet watches, Armand de Brignac Champagne, and D’USSE cognac, he is a connoisseur. He also tapped into Barneys New York‘s luxury clientele base by partnering with the luxury department store recently to launch a series of limited edition products with elite fashion houses like Balenciaga, Balmain, and Lanvin  under the name Shawn Carter.[11]

Although he started as a hip-hop artist, Jay-Z quickly morphed into a business, using music as a medium to publicize his recent projects in performing cultural relevancy. Rather than writing press releases, Jay-Z creates songs for mass distribution so his message can be heard in infectious/creative form. He uses his songs to build credibility by telling his story (a history of his brand), which has served him in becoming an owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team (“I don’t think I overly thought about…whether he had good business sense,” developer Bruce Ratner says, “But I did know this: I knew his history, I knew how he started from nothing”[12]). Jay-Z addresses his target market of urban literate demographic through media formats like books, websites, commercials and social media: in promoting his twelfth solo studio album Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z made the announcement through a three-minute spot, which built momentum for the giveaways of digital copies of the album to Samsung users through an app. Jay-Z capitalized on the increasingly technology-reliant society and “changed the way a major album could be released and distributed.”[13]  His combinational inventiveness also guaranteed a platinum status for his album before it even released. From this innovative marketing scheme partnered with Samsung, Jay-Z can find out who his current audience is through the data of users’ social networks and can use this valuable information for future promotional tactics. Jay-Z also uses popular social media platforms to interpellate his audience, having hosted scavenger hunts using Instagram for his book Decoded and interacted with followers on Twitter after his Picasso Baby performance art film. It is thus evident from his recent delivery on different media formats for different brand extensions (Picasso Baby performance art film in promoting Magna Carta Holy Grail denoting abstraction and combinational inventiveness; Decoded as hip-hop literature released in enigmatic-exclusive and abstract-fashion) that Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is repositioning his brand to appeal to those with higher cultural capital.

Jay-Z’s ideal consumer is thus the present, and/or future tense of himself; his songs are less about his trajectory of how far he has come than about where he is already, and where he desires to be. Constantly alluding to his origins in his songs, he builds connections with those who have been, or are, in his situation, now and then (he claims his collaboration with Barneys New York is for the Shawn Carter Foundation[14], “a New York-based charity which awards post-secondary scholarships to students facing socio-economic hardships”[15]). While he would not like to appeal to the disingenuous consumer; Jay-Z’s ideal consumer is a self-starter who is ambitious and attuned to cultural happenings, appreciates authentic experiences and is ultimately, a synthesis of laid-back sophistication.

Jay-Z interpellates consumers to his brand discourse through rituals of consumption, which “make visible public definitions of what is judged valuable by general consensus”  (as noted by Garcia Canclini) and “fix or anchor social relationships,” as theorized by  Mary Douglas and Baron Irshwood (Lury, 14).  Some rituals of consumption include daily grooming: from sporting Rocawear to now donning Shawn Carter; from partying with Budweiser Select beer to lounging at 40/40 club consuming D’USSE. Other rituals include gift giving (which is “seen as a powerful means of interpersonal communication or influence” because the gift receiver is invited to define him/herself in terms of the material) and rituals of possession, which involves collecting, cleaning , comparing, showing off and even photographing possessions (Lury, 14)

Brand Community


ezvWAE_aIfvL1LhOpl0MsGs5Tm9fDIuCaPPERBECHjk 2dFgus_JaBkd525fDKpjtdph0B60gJpH-ITnK_tr0_Q

“To have is to be,” as Lury characterizes of Euro-American consumer culture, that “self-identity is a kind of cultural resource, asset or possession” (Lury, 26). In the Instagram screenshots above, consumers engage with the brand as active brand citizens in the (Jay-Z)  brand community – a “non geographically bound community based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand”  (Muniz & O’Guinn, 412). Instagram User “Neothaone” showcases his consumption practice/ritual of  Jay-Z’s book, Decoded, while consuming a football game. Another Instagram user “Doncognito” shares that he reads Decoded with a glass of Merlot after a dinner at Tuscan Brio. Both users are examples of the Generation X and Y African American males that predominantly constitute Jay-Z’s market consumers. Both examples, also reveal nuances about the consumers forming attachments to Jay-Z as a brand; the former belonging to the original fan base community mainly comprised of urban African-Americans who started out listening to his music and the latter belonging to the affluent African-American community on the rise. (There is a possibility that the now rich consumers could have grown from the original fan base, but it is more likely that they boarded the ship once he started positioning himself as a luxury brand.) To his original fans, he is another living example of the American dream.


Fans who have experienced socio-economic hardships look to Jay-Z for hope and turn him into a representative of someone who shares their roots; coming from poverty and a more racially discriminating social context than today’s, Jay-Z has a deeper cultural significance to African-Americans with the success he has achieved. He is like a spokesperson for African-Americans in mainstream culture.

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 4.01.59 PM Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 4.02.38 PM

Others, who are affluent that consume his products, pay more attention to where Jay-Z is now than to his history. To this community, he is the contemporary inspiration, a style icon they respect; they, too, see Jay-Z as a representative, but of a community of rising African-Americans. This aligns more with what Jay-Z is trying to project and where he wants to take his brand, with less emphasis on history and more focus on current state. For Jay-Z, it is only natural that his brand rises to luxury with his own rise to elite status.

The collaboration with Barneys recently distinctively draws the line for his consumers. One community buys into what he is trying to project, in the direction of upscale and elite, while the other cannot even participate. Jay-Z alienates the majority of his fans/consumers in this repositioning, turning them into the “dispossessed.” Jay-Z, in creating this distance from consumers, underscores my thesis that he is repositioning to a luxury lifestyle brand, as this is a common  luxury marketing strategy, as noted by Jean-Noel Kapferer. The holiday collection “ranges from the high hundreds to about $58,000; the mogul’s core following is upset at the fact that the collection is geared toward those in a much higher tax bracket.”[16] This controversial move along with the recent racial profiling case at Barneys serve as a basis for communication and community among consumers whom were not direct fans or consumers of Jay-Z’s, but are now in on the conversation because it pertains to a larger social issue. People form communities in speculation of the event and the brand himself.

He has the potential to be an informed and articulate spokesperson…The platform of his massive fame allows him to influence the higher ups at Barney’s to do better…The overall idea is to use his power to educate. Picketing attracts attention and may make Barney’s lose a couple of zeroes in their bottom line, but a more thoughtful and strategic way of combatting this type of ignorance is through education and understanding. Jay Z is uniquely situated to accomplish both. The significance of working on the inside versus shouting on the outside cannot be underestimated. – The Inside Game: Why Jay Z Shouldn’t Back Out of Barney’s Deal by Shamara McCoy

Although Jay-Z was not directly involved in the case, he, as a public figure of a minority group collaborating with the participating store, was expected to have a reaction for the issue it stirred. He consequentially experienced some backlash online and in sales (not as a direct result to the controversy but because of his brand transition). Communication surrounding Jay-Z’s identity and his obligatory role is carried out on social media sites such as Twitter:

“JAY-Z wants u to buy a $39,000 watch from his collection at Barneys. Meanwhile most of his fan base does not make that in a year of hard work” from @rosaclemente

“I grew up poor. I can’t even comprehend this” writes @DeAndreEnrico

while @herheelsarehigh writes “I dnt understand y ppl mad at #JayZ new collection at Barney’s?! He doesn’t hav to make clothes for the poor black ppl.”

The affluent fans who have the means will “drop a few thousand dollars for a piece of Jay Z’s look.” Andrew Davey, a 21-year-old black NYU student belonging to the affluent segment of Jay-Z’s fan/consumer base was “among the few actually seen buying items in the small, black gallery on the third floor that housed Jay Z’s collection.” Davey bought three items totaling to a near $3000, and said he “liked the style … when you see it, you know it’s Jay Z.”[18] For the rest of the disappointed consumers, even if it is a negative experience, there is a sense of community that they are not the only ones feeling this way both in store and online.


Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter’s brand began in the music industry, in which he paved his way to become a lifestyle brand, steadily expanding to tremendous breadth using other brands to build his own empire, and arrives at a luxury standpoint in recent years. Jay-Z relies heavily on mediatization in attaching meaning through media to penetrate culture; he offers ample space for appropriation and secondary production (which is hidden in the process of its [an object] utilization in the act of consumption) of his products – consumers download/purchase his albums, go to his concerts, remix (appropriate/personalize) his music, scrutinize his lyrics and share thoughts about those lyrics and his latest moves on various digital platforms (de Certeau, xiii). Consumers also engage with Jay-Z the brand through creating fan sites.[17]  As a brand, Jay-Z is easily accessible due to his plethora of affiliate projects, and it is this ubiquitous presence as a lifestyle brand that drives both textual and non-textual  conversations in various markets (apparel, sports, beauty, music, et cetera) and on various social and cultural issues.

Jay Z embodies so much of what makes New York New York. A kid from a tough neighborhood who grows up in public housing, overcomes lots of bad influences on the street, never lets go of his dream, makes it to the top — and then keeps going, pursuing new outlets for his creativity and ambition.[19]

There is a certain grounded aspirational element to Jay-Z’s brand story; no matter how far he goes or how high he flies, his origins will always be at the root of his throne.

Web Links

[1] http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/10/jay-z-brands-song-chart

[2] http://elitedaily.com/money/15-jayz-entrepreneurial-icon/

[3] http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/complete-list-of-every-product-endorsed-by-jay-z.html

[4] http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/complete-list-of-every-product-endorsed-by-jay-z.html

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwYEBXN0EIw

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/27/arts/music/27jayz.html?_r=0

[7] http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/lessons-from-the-jay-z-business-model.html

[8] http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/lessons-from-the-jay-z-business-model.html

[9] http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1626972/jay-z-becomes-broadway-producer-fela.jhtml

[10] http://www.xxlmag.com/xxl-magazine/2008/02/jay-z-steve-stoute-launch-translation-advertising/

[11] http://thewindow.barneys.com/a-new-york-holiday-shawn-jay-z-carter/

[12] http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/lessons-from-the-jay-z-business-model.html

[13] http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/branding/5827366/samsungs-todd-pendleton-on-that-game-changing-jay-z-deal

[14] http://lifeandtimes.com/a-statement-from-shawn-jay-z-carter

[15] http://thewindow.barneys.com/a-new-york-holiday-shawn-jay-z-carter/

[16] http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2013/11/fans-bothered-jay-zs-high-priced-holiday-collection/

[17] www.mrcarter.org is an example of Jay-Z’s fan sites. This site features Jay-Z newest album and ways to purchase it, sites for his affiliations:powerhouse wife Beyonce and her sister solange Knowles, as well as a “family” category of links to usher, Eminem, drake, etc.  www.jayz.tickets.musictoday.com is a password-protected fan community website with stated membership benefits such as “access to Jay-Z pre-sale tickets, email updates with Jay-Z news, contests/giveaways/merchandise specials

[18] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/jay-z-slammed-barneys-line-debuts-gleaming-window-display-article-1.1523416


Canclini, Nestor Garcia. “Consumption is Good for Thinking.”  Consumers and Citizens.  University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota, 2001.  Print.

De Certeau, Michel. Practice of Everyday Life.: University of California, 2011. Print.

Holt, Douglas B. “Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption?”  The Journal of Consumer Research.  The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1998.  Print.

Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2011. Print.

Kapferer, Jean-Noël, and Vincent Bastien. The Luxury Strategy: Break the Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands. London: Kogan Page, 2012. Print.

Muñiz, Albert and Thomas C. O’Guinn, “Brand Communities,” Journal of Consumer Research, 27 March, pp. 412. 2001.