From the start of his career, Jay Z routinely weaved into his lyrics glorified tales of crime and drug dealing. But as the drug dealer turned rapper turned "business, man" headlines a concert Friday promoting Hillary Clinton’s White House candidacy, it's worth remembering that it wasn’t too long ago that the then-first lady was openly lobbying to lock up people who lived the lifestyle Jay Z continues to reference in his music.
Clinton's former anti-crime position was a thorn in her side during the Democratic primary and continues to haunt her as she ramps up eleventh hour efforts to secure the vote of black people, a group that was disproportionately affected by the 1994 federal crime bill passed by former President Bill Clinton and endorsed by his wife. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime-control bill in U.S. history, has been blamed for creating a culture of mass incarceration that targets blacks and Latinos.
"Fighting crime is not just a question of punishment, although there are many dollars in the crime bill to build more prisons," Hillary Clinton said in 1994 of the legislation. Two years later, Clinton again spoke of the controversial crime bill and called some of the people it was meant to target "superpredators," a label that many took as an indirect reference to black youth. The term was brought up during the Democratic primary, when some black leaders urged voters to back Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over Clinton.
Clinton has since changed her tune on the topic, admitting parts of the bill were a "mistake." Her campaign website now calls for an end to "the era of mass incarceration" and "a successful transition of individuals from prison to home."
The shift underscores Clinton's embrace in recent years of a more liberal approach to the criminal justice system as she takes careful steps to court the black vote, a demographic that backed her husband with historic numbers but shied away from her after Clinton ran against then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The race got heated -- some might say dirty -- with Clinton's release of one attack ad in particular that equated an Obama presidency with putting children in harm's way. Her campaign was also blamed for negatively injecting the topic of race into the contest, including allegations she continues to deny about an aide circulating an image of Obama in traditional African garb, which lent credence to the false rumor he was born in Kenya.
Clinton didn't do herself any favors with some black voters when she later appeared on "60 Minutes" and express doubt about Obama's Christian faith, saying in part that he was not a Muslim "as far as I know."
Obama responded at the time by reciting lyrics from a popular Jay Z song to suggest he wasn't fazed by Clinton and her campaign's apparent racially tinged innuendo. The candidate proudly announced he had Jay Z's music on his iPod. After Obama secured the Democratic nomination, Jay Z headlined a rally for Obama just days before the general election.
"Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Obama could run. Obama's running so that we all can fly ... I can't wait until Nov. 5 and I'm going to say: 'Hello, Brother President'," the rapper who is typically tight-lipped when it comes to politics said in Virginia at the time.
This election, Clinton has made it a campaign priority to address what she calls "systemic racism" against minorities, especially as it pertains to police brutality and drug arrests. Both are topics Jay Z has been outspoken on and may have helped him decide to support Clinton.
Other overtures Clinton has made to ingratiate herself to black voters include appearances on urban radio, being publicly serenaded for her birthday by Stevie Wonder — who is holding his own free concert for her Friday in Philadelphia — and having Obama repeatedly tell African-Americans the future of the country depends on their votes for the Democratic nominee.
But all of the above has not resulted in any instant gratification, with early voting among black people failing to reach the levels of the past two general elections, when the nation elected and re-elected the first African-American president. Obama won his first election with 96 percent of the black vote.
With Clinton unable to fully seal the deal with blacks, Jay Z could prove to be the difference in helping to bring the key voting bloc out to the polls on Tuesday.