Jay Z penned a powerful op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter today in which he calls for our nation’s “collective voices” to recognize the power they have to speak up for social justice and actually effect change.
The rapper described the heartbreaking story of Kalief Bowder, a 16-year old from the Bronx who was arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack, "something any suburban kid could have gotten away with,” according to Jay Z. Bowder was imprisoned in Rikers Island for three years without trial, and spent a majority of that time in solitary confinement or being severely beat by the guards. Bowder’s case was eventually dismissed, but he suffered from PTSD as a result of his difficult time at Rikers and eventually committed suicide at the age of 22. Thankfully, though, before his death in 2015, Bowder spoke out about his treatment, and because of that courage, Jay Z names him “a modern-day prophet."
Jay Z was the executive producer of the documentary series Time: The Kalief Bowder Story, which premiered this March on SPIKE. Jay Z’s involvement in the documentary was an example of his personal commitment to raising his own voice for social justice. If the system is broken, “we need to be the ones who fix it,” JayZ wrote.
Kalief Bowder’s story “is the kind of story that you can't ignore, and people are starting to see that what happened to him is not an isolated case,” he added. He also advocated for continuing the discussion that Bowder initiated himself “about how poor, black juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system.”
Jay Z is also currently working on another documentary, this time about the untimely death of Trayvon Martin, titled Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, which he hopes will spark similar social justice debates.
The kind of change Jay Z is advocating for will surely involve significant changes to the criminal justice system, which can only come if we start holding our elected officials accountable. This won’t be as difficult as it sounds, Jay Z argues. He explains that elected government officials have to answer to us, and not the other way around, since “our power” is that “we make the laws, and we show them the path to progress.” He also applauded some of the small changes that have already occurred, namely Obama’s 2016 executive order that banned solitary confinement for juveniles and New York City’s initiative to start the long process to close Rikers Island.
Jay Z ended on a hopeful note, stressing that these changes aren’t enough. At the end of the day, “social justice isn’t a political issue. It’s a story of empathy,” he writes, adding that ultimately it’s only compassion for your fellow neighbor that will create lasting societal change. He also called for action at the local level, urging people to “look around at what's happening in your town and your city right now. Think small, and you can do much bigger things.”