Jay-Z Addresses the War on Drugs with a New York Times Op-Ed Favorite 


Sep 15 2016


and New York City

In 2016, The New York Times enlisted Jay-Z to voice a video about the War on Drugs. Aside from his recognizable cadence, Jay-Z has his own history with drugs; the now music mogul is open about his past of selling crack while growing up in Brooklyn, New York. The video asks, “Why are white men poised to get rich doing the same thing African-Americans have been going to prison for?”. The clip features Molly Crabapple, an artist and Vice editor, illustrating various images that correspond to Jay-Z’s words. Her previous work includes social justice-focused projects, such as illustrations of inmates’ accounts of Guantanamo Bay and civilians’ lives in ISIS-occupied Syria. The Drug Policy Alliance, Revolve Impact, and Dream Hampton, the filmmaker who co-authored Jay-Z’s book Decoded, collaborated to create the part history lesson, part vision statement, “Jay-Z: ‘The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail.’”

As Molly Crabapple’s haunting images flash by, Jay-Z gives viewers a history lesson on the War on Drugs, from the Nixon administration to Rockefeller drug laws and up to mass incarceration in the twenty-first century. Dream Hampton wanted to tackle the contradictions raised by Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The short film addresses how the War on Drugs disproportionately impacted communities of color, specifically focusing on harsher punishments for crack cocaine, a drug often associated with Black communities. Jay-Z describes the racialization of crack cocaine, saying, “The NYPD raided our Brooklyn neighborhoods while Manhattan bankers openly used coke with impunity. The War on Drugs exploded the U.S. prison population, disproportionately locking away Black and Latinos. Our prison population grew more than 900%. When the War on Drugs began in 1971, our prison population was 200,000, today it is over 2 million.” As he informs viewers of the continuation of the War on Drugs through legalization of marijuana in some states, while other states still have mandatory minimums. The powerful illustrations coalesced with Jay-Z’s narration provide viewers with explicit visuals and examples, commanding attention to the epic failure and continued racism in America.

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How does this project help?

Timeframe For change


Although the video was made in collaboration with the New York Times and Jay-Z, it is hard to tell how much of an impact it had on viewers. In 2016, it could have easily floated under the radar, and it did not engender an increase in activism towards combating the War on Drugs.