WATCH: Jay Z Breaks Down Racist Legacy of War on Drugs in New Short Film

By Sameer Rao Sep 15, 2016

On songs like "Izzo (H.O.V.A)," Shawn "Jay Z" Carter raps about his remarkable trajectory, going from selling drugs in the Brooklyn projects to becoming one of the most notable Black musicians and businessmen in the world. But as he narrates in a new short film published as an op-ed for The New York Times, the war on drugs and its enduring, racist and two-faced legacy destroys communities of color’s capacity to uplift more people like him.

"Drugs were bad, fried your brain," says Hov in the short—animated by artist and activist Molly Crabapple—in reference to the message former President Ronald Reagan‘s administration created around drugs in impoverished Black neighborhoods. "And drug dealers were monsters, the sole reason neighborhoods in major cities were failing. No one wanted to talk about Reganomics and the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools and the loss of jobs in cities across America. Young men like me who hustled became the sole villain, and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude." 

The video goes on to address Black people’s exclusion from the legal marijuana boom, as well as skyrocketing mass incarceration caused by maximum sentencing for drug possession, disproportionately long sentences for those using or selling crack versus powdered cocaine and heavy police enforcement in Black communities. Jay Z ultimately condemns the program’s inherent racism, describing the lack of enforcment in White and privileged communities. "The war on drugs is an epic fail," he says.

The Times says the video came about when filmmaker and writer dream hampton, who co-wrote Jay Z’s memoir "Decoded," approached drug reform advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance to collaborate with her agency, Revolve Impact, on the issue of marijuana legalization: 

Revolve Impact connects artists and influencers to community organizers, and with marijuana legalization taking hold across the nation—and about to be considered in her own state, California—Ms. Hampton wanted to tackle the contradiction raised by Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," in 2014: Why were White men poised to get rich doing the very same thing that African-American boys and men had long been going to prison for?

The Times also mentioned California’s November vote on Prop 64, a measure that could reduce, eliminate and retroactively erase sentences for lesser marijuana-related offenses.