Usually it's the celebrity's bad behavior that ends a relationship between a big brand and a pop culture star. But Jay-Z fans are calling on the rapper to cancel his upcoming collaboration with high end retailer Barney's New York after the store was accused of two separate cases of racial profiling.
A change.org petition posted Thursday urges Jay-Z to end the relationship. "Jay-Z should be appalled by Barney's actions, and withdraw all support from them. If he does this, he will send a clear message to all corporations that are likeminded, that this behavior cannot be tolerated any longer," it states. Similar sentiments have been echoed on Twitter and Facebook.
"It's a unique moment for him to publicly address the idea [of] what happens when the ideas behind [his brand] clashes with old money, [and] old traditions that some of these stores represent," says Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University African-American Studies professor and a fellow at the Hip Hop archive, which brings together online the work of scholars, teachers and activists interested in the hip hop community.
The controversy first arose when Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old African-American man filed a lawsuit claiming he was detained and questioned by two undercover cops after buying a $349 belt from the store, an allegation the New York Daily News gave front page coverage to on Wednesday. Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old African-American woman came forward soon after, claiming she had faced a similar experience when she bought an expensive bag from Barney's.
Jay-Z has so far stayed mum on the issue, and many are doubting he will leave the partnership. He is no stranger to controversy when it comes to the decisions he makes about his brand, from his $5 million Samsung album release app to his "Picasso Baby" art gallery music video. The rapper's maneuvers are fodder for many a think piece, particularly about his entree into elite, predominantly white worlds.
"When you think about the idea of the 'rapper-celebrity' on the cover of Vanity Fair, when you think about a 'rapper-celebrity' selling their clothes at Barney's – these are uncharted waters," Neal says.
The Barney's partnership – a line called "A New York Holiday" that ranges from a $70 T-shirt to a $33,900 watch – is a deal thought to be worth in the millions. However a quarter of Barney's profits will go to his charity, the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation and some see other reasons Jay-Z shouldn't just walk away from the deal.
"In some ways I think the easy way out for him at this point is to simply shut down what he was planning," Neal says. "Standing his ground, if you will, and actually publicly talking about the practice of racial profiling and shopping while black will actually be much more effective.
The NAACP would not comment as to whether it believes Jay-Z should take a stand. However Niaz Kasravi, director of its Criminal Justice Program, says the media attention the situation has brought shines a national spotlight to the issue of racial profiling, an occurrence she says is far more prevalent than just these singular cases.
"Whether we're attorneys, advocates, professors, community leaders, entertainers – we all have the responsibility when he have the opportunity to really talk about [these issues], to use our microphone so a larger audience can see what is happening."
Jay-Z hasn't shied away from speaking out where he has seen racism before. In 2006 he led a boycott of luxury champagne Cristal after an executive at the champagne house made some controversial statements about the brand's relationship to the hip hop community. More recently, he expressed his outrage to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, and attended a Trayvon Martin rally with his wife, pop star Beyonce.
Neal says if Jay-Z uses the uproars to bring light to the issue of racial profiling he can redirect the conversation back to the victims. "The kind of folks who are dealing with what happened to them in the store – very often that could get lost. Hopefully, if he decided to speak out on it he could really address what it would mean to be black or brown," Neal says.
The extra media attention also brings an opportunity to highlight not just the problem but proposed solutions – be it legislation or changes to store policy.
"The more we can talk about these issues for what they are, the sooner we can get to resolving them," Kasravi says.
Barney's released a statement saying it was "carefully reviewing" the situation and that it has "zero tolerance for any form of discrimination."
Neal says Jay-Z can add some extra pressure and "really put the onus on Barney's – not just in the form of an apology but thinking real seriously about the practices in these stores."