Van Jones: The New Jigga

Early this month Oakland activist Van Jones was tapped by the White House to be its special adviser on green jobs. Understand, this was kinda a big deal. In hip-hop terms, it was the equivalent of Jay-Z’s being named president of Def Jam. Jones is from the streets … kinda. He’s actually an Ivy league dude, having grabbed his law degree from Yale. But instead of hittin’ a firm he went to the hood in Oakland — yes, the same Oakland that’s bleedin’ cop killaz — and opened a non-profit advocating on behalf of ghettos. Through his Ella Baker Center he fought and agitated against those in government — from city hall to state legislatures — to make sure more resources made their way to the hood.
Jones was the dude who came up with the “books not bars” slogan, fighting for states to put more money into education and less in prisons. He later upgraded that to “green jobs, not jails,” coinciding with his launch of his new national non-profit called “Green for All,” which went full-court press for a national convergence into green, clean energy industries. Now in the White House, Jones finally has the resources and political backing to perhaps make his pledges (which often come out his mouth as promises) real — those pledges being that millions of jobs can be created for the hood. Jobs such as weatherizing old houses and buildings, solar panel building and installation, asbestos mitigation, urban farming, air and water monitoring — all of these could put a lot of teens, ex-felons and unemployed block-huggers to work in unprecedented ways.

The best-selling book Green Collar Economy that Jones wrote is a classic, and is to his repertoire what Reasonable Doubt is to Jay-Z’s. Both opuses signaled both men’s announcement to the world that they’re here and they’re about to take some shit over. Both may have exaggerated their street presence a little too much (Jay-Z could not have done half of the shit he talked about in his rhymes, while for all of Jones’ rap, in the beginning he produced not a single job for those in jail to come to) but still both had some measure of authenticity, if for no other reason than their sheer will to make their self-mythology an eventual reality. Call Jones the neo-Jigga (or the Ne-Yo Jigga? nah.)

So, when Jones was announced early in March that he’d be going to the White House, a lot of people were hype, but many were skeptical. It was like after Jay was announced for Def Jam when people thought it was dope that an actual rapper, a cat from the streets, an un-institutionalized, non-suit (at least back then), dandy who hadn’t yet been corporate-corrupted was taking over what could be considered the White House of Hip Hop. But too many questions remained. Sure he helped run the small boutique label Roc-A-Fella, but could he take over a major label and achieve the same success? Would he get too frustrated playing by the shady industry rules? Would he be able to put Def Jam back on the map, and get Hip Hop fans — the backpackers and blingers alike — to have faith in it as an institution again? {Ed Note: That album is not “our”  Van Jones, lol }
Jones was confronted with the same questions. He’s been an outsider most of his career. He started a successful local non-profit, but could he withstand driving national policy at a major institution (Green for all, his national organization, was less than two years old when he took the White House position.)? Would Jones get frustrated by the turf-wars and bureaucratic red-tap that is the culture of federal government? Would he be able to restore faith and trust in the White House when so many people from the hood have grown to give two fucks about it?
If we use Jay-Z as a gauge for what Jones will do in office, then things don’t look so well for Jones’ future. Jay-Z came in and tried to put all of his artists out, almost at the same time: Redman, Meth, Roots, L.L., anyone remember Teairra Mari? It was like Jigga just thought his Roc stamp alone would drive everyone to gold. But he ended up pissing off artists rather than blasting them off. Only one rap artist on Def Jam is moving any units, and that’s Kanye, an artist who’s power had been honed well before Jay took over Def Jam. The rest of them are scrounging, and now Def Jam is known more for R&B than rap. He’s created some huge successes: Ne-Yo, Rihanna, The Dream, but he didn’t deliver the promises he came with. He got frustrated with the game and decided it was more lucrative to approach it as a tastemaker from the outside. So he left Def Jam.
If Jones is to be successful — and all criticism aside, I really hope he is; the hood’s future kinda depends on it — he’d be good to sit down with Jay-Z, pour two glasses of vodka over ice and spark a chess game so they can chop shop about what’s ahead. Jay would probably tell him, “Don’t over-promote your product; don’t promise more than what you can deliver.” Jones is in a position, with $500 milli earmarked in Obama’s stimulus package, to provide a lot of jobs. But he’s been quoted as saying as many as five million jobs can be delivered in the new green world. Even if that was true, as I noted in one of my earlier posts, many or most of those jobs will go to the five million who’ve already been laid off in the current depression recession.
Jay could also show Jones a thing or two about being cool. Jones has been known to go off the handle, especially dealing with government cats. Jay is more like Barack. The Un-stabbing aside, in most wars he’s remained level-headed, not known to spaz out and resort to the type of theatrics as, say, Fif or Busta.
And on restoring trust to the institution, here’s where Jay might be most cynical. He may be inclined to tell Jones, “Once a good girl’s gone bad, she’s gone forever,” and let the song cry for him. The most Jay could ever do for a dying institution like Def Jam in a dying industry like music is inject some fresh blood, which is all Van Jones can do. Many are still screaming “Fuck the government” and “Fuck the White House” today, even with Obama in office. You could put the whole Wu-Tang Clan in the Cabinet, and a lotta dudes will still give the White House the finger.
But neither Jones nor Jay can save every dude in the hood. And here’s where people may need to wisen up. Due to Jay-Z’s frustrations with the industry, it’s plausible that we may never see another dude like him at the helm of a major label office again, and hip-hop will ultimately suffer for that because we missed a golden opportunity. Same with Jones, and Obama to that extension. These dudes can’t save us. But if we don’t work with them, they could ultimately get sick of the whole deal, both leave office, and niggas will never see anybody like Jones or Obama in that high office again. And then America, and most especially the hood, will ultimately suffer for it.

-Be Mock’D

Be Mock’D is one of PLR’s featured contributors on the environment, politics and how the hood gets mocked by both. Read the rest of his opinions here.

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