“I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.”  - Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter

With the United States presidential election just weeks away president Obama is aligning his supporters with careful consideration. As expected the Obama camp strategically relinquish attempts to coerce much of the conservative electorate. That time and money is best utilised when directed towards the eighteen to twenty-five year old demographic. More voters from this age bracket voted in the 2008 election than did in any previous election in American history. Obama is fully aware that his being the country’s first African American president, and the simple yet profoundly impacting campaign message “Change”, helped shape his indelible position in 21st century popular culture. That position is something he hopes will bare a victorious weight come November 6th. To help him realign and reemphasise this standing once again, he has recruited one of the modern day icons of American culture, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Obama knows the importance of Hip Hop culture and utilised it as much as he could in the run up to the 2008 election.

This time however, the high profile African-American supports standing shoulder to shoulder with Obama is a little less Oprah and a little more Jay-Z. Jay-Z recently played a three-night concert in New York where Obama appeared on four enormous screens to address the concert goers. With reference to how he feels Jay-Z embodies the American spirit and dream, Obama encouraged everyone present to vote in this coming election. Jay-Z has heavily promoted Barrack Obama while touring nationally and even internationally, as well as spearheading Obama’s online “The power of our voice” campaign.  With the president of the United States among your frequent texters, one may forgive Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter for asking how did I get here. A one-time crack-cocaine dealer from the Brooklyn projects is called upon to help the president of the most powerful country in the world. In order to understand Jay-Z and his position in modern popular culture one must first understand the culture that got him there.

President Barack Obama shares a joke with Jay-Z and wife Beyonce

Music has always influenced popular culture. However, the sixties could be considered the birth of this influence on a grand scale. With every reinvention came a new generation moved beyond the title of mere ‘fan’ and who embraced it as ‘lifestyle’. As popular music changed, it grew beyond the moving lyrics and inspiring guitar riffs to create its own sub-culture. Since its humble and somewhat innocent beginnings this influence that music holds had never truly been marketed, and it is only within the last fifteen years and particularly in the last ten years that this all changed. The only music form to fully exploit this influence and sub-culture is Hip-Hop. Gone are the days of the major record labels staying clear of Hip-Hop acts and the inevitable ‘baggage’ that seems to shroud them. This has been replaced by every major label in the U.S. having Hip-Hop acts on their roster, or creating sister companies to deal solely with Hip Hop and R&B acts. Ironically, it has become the most profitable in the entire music industry. There are physically more CDs pressed for and more digital songs downloaded of Hip-Hop acts than any other type of music in the world. It is the music industry’s biggest earner.

Why has this, an art form whose lyrics can be laden with violence, become the biggest and most profitable in the world you might ask? Well, more so than any other type of music in history, Hip-Hop came with an enormous sub-culture, and since the mid-nineties that sub-culture has been marketed with unparalleled success.  The music has many obvious characteristics that make it successful – like the ‘bad boy’ image – which has been seducing record-buying angst-ridden teenagers for decades. It simply saw in its own influence on popular culture a market which could be effectively exploited.

Music influencing fashion is not a new phenomenon. Hip-Hop artists, though, were the first to successfully tap into that market by creating their own clothing labels. One such artist is Jay-Z. Even though he sells millions of albums every year, in the worldwide scheme of things, Jay-Z is by no means the biggest selling artist in the music industry. He is nowhere near the likes of U2 or the Rolling Stones, for instance. However, having only appeared on the music scene in 1996, by the end of 2007 (according to Forbes) he had amassed a net-worth fortune of $547million, (yes that is over half a billion dollars in just over a decade). Proof, if it were needed, that hip-hop is now big business.

By the age of 27 he was CEO of his own record label, Roc-A-Fella Records. A label he formed through a 50/50 joint venture with Island Def-Jam Music Group. However, with a natural ability to see beyond the profit being made from selling millions of records, in 1999 he co-founded the urban clothing brand Rocawear with Roc-A-Fella Records partners Damon Dash and Kareem Burke. Rocawear has clothing lines and accessories for men, women and children. Within the next two years he redirected the hip-hop culture from hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans to button-up shirts, crisp jeans and high-end designer suits. He even received GQ’s International Man of the Year award. The clothing line was taken over solely by Jay-Z in early 2006 following a falling-out with co-founder Damon Dash. In March 2007, he sold the rights to the Rocawear brand to Inconix Brand Group for $204 million. Jay-Z retains a stake in the company. He continues to oversee the marketing, licensing and product development.

Actor Kevin Bacon and super-model Naomi Campbell in a Rocawear advertising campaign

As well as overseeing his Roc-A-Fella imprint, he has expanded his empire far beyond the regions of Hip-Hop. He co-owns the 40/40 Club, an upscale sports bar that started in New York City and has since expanded to Atlanta. Future plans will see 40/40 Clubs in Los Angeles and Singapore. Roc-A-Fella also distributes Armadale, a Scottish Vodka, in the U.S. In 2007 he entered into a contract with Anheuser-Bush and serves as co-brand director for Budweiser Select while collaborating with the company on strategic marketing programs and creative ad development, as well as providing direction on brand programs and ads that appear on TV, radio, print, and high-profile events.

As album sales have fallen globally in the past five years many artists have moved to consolidate their sales, promotion and touring into one company. Seeking this security Jay-Z has followed in the footsteps of Madonna and U2 by singing a reported $150 million deal with concert giant Live Nation. However staying true to form Jay-Z took it one step further by consolidating many of his business ventures including his Roc-A-Fella imprint into Roc Nation, which oversees the promotion and marketing of such artists as Kanye West and Rihanna. Jay-Z is also a part-owner of what was the New Jersey Nets NBA team, paying a reported $4.5 million for his share. He sits on the board of directors and after upping his share he has been the spear-head in taking the franchise back to New York City. In March of 2010 together with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg he broke ground on the site of the newly formed Brooklyn Nets new stadium, the Barclays Center, in his hometown of Brooklyn New York. As well as housing a 20,000 seated stadium for the Nets, this massive 22acre development including shops, offices and 6,400 homes on a desolate, waste ground site is estimated to cost $5bn. Creating 16,000 union jobs and 5,000 permanent jobs for Brooklyn. The stadium officially opened last month, with a concert headlined by the man himself. Together with these large scale projects, he also collects income from blue-chip endorsement deals with Hewlett-Packard and General Motors. It becomes clear why Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter famously said “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man”.

The Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn New York, where Shawn Carter became Jay-Z

Much like Jay-Z many other rappers, such as Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs and Cutis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson, have amassed vast fortunes by marketing the enormous sub-culture that came with their style of music. Along with being C.E.O. of his own record label, G-Unit Records, and owning his own clothing line (which alone earns him an annual $10m) 50 Cent has created an entertainment empire which produces everything from video games to ringtones to a line of fictional urban books and headphones. He also has lucrative endorsement deals with Reebok and Pontiac. In 2004 he was offered a deal with the energy drinks company, Glaceau, to promote their Vitamin Water brand where, instead of taking a fee, he negotiated a small stake in the company. Jackson even helped develop his own Vitamin Water — grape-flavoured, vitamin-enriched, Formula 50. Jackson’s backing has helped Glacéau with younger consumers. And that was among the reasons beverage giant, Coca-Cola, scooped up the company in May 2007 for $4.1 billion. Jackson’s stake netted him an estimated $100 million, according to the Forbes list of “World’s Most Powerful Celebrities”. Not bad for an artist who has only been on the mainstream scene since 2003.

The hip-hop culture has permeated popular culture in an unprecedented fashion. Although created by black youth on the street, hip-hop’s influence has become worldwide. Approximately 75% of the rap and hip-hop audience is nonblack. It is because of this enormous cross-over appeal that it has gone from the fringes, to the suburbs, to the corporate boardrooms. Indeed, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Reebok, and hundreds of other corporate giants have capitalised on this phenomenon. These young and relatively-uneducated men have gone from impoverished street corners to being huge players in corporate America. Their entrepreneurial savvy has garnered them unprecedented success. They are a generation of men who used a music laden with violent references of their impoverished America to chase an American Dream that is so far from which they have come.