"That was my apartment right there—5C," Jay-Z told me one afternoon in August as we strolled the sidewalks of the Marcy Houses. "Navigating this place was life-or-death." He wasn't exaggerating; as the crack epidemic took hold in the 1980s, 13-year-old Jay-Z began selling drugs. His father had abandoned the family when Jay-Z was 11. And like many of his friends, he found his role models in the neighborhood dealers. "On the streets, you had to operate with integrity," he told me. "If you broke your word to someone, he wasn't going to take you to court—he was going to deal with you himself. So it was here in the projects that I learned loyalty."
It was in the projects, too, that he began rapping. Around the neighborhood Shawn became known as Jazzy—a reference, he says, to the way he carried himself: "like an older guy, like an older spirit." He gained a local following after he started selling his own records out of his car. And in 1996—disenchanted with the small-time label that finally signed him—he launched his own label, Roc-A-Fella Records. Later that year, Reasonable Doubt hit stores nationwide, and Jay-Z (the play on Jazzy he'd adopted after that name started to feel "too glittery") was on his way.
Since then, Jay-Z has released ten solo studio albums (the most recent, The Blueprint 3, debuted on September 11, 2009). He has sold more than 30 million records, won seven Grammys, and built a business empire that includes the Rocawear clothing line and Roc Nation entertainment company. In 2004 he became a part owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
In December he will turn 40, and in recent years his focus has been on more than just his career. In 2003 he reconciled with his father, Adnes Reeves, shortly before Reeves's death. That same year, he began to put his wealth to good use, founding the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund for disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated youth who hope to attend college (though Jay-Z never did time himself, in 2001 he pleaded guilty to stabbing a record executive at a Manhattan nightclub and was sentenced to three years' probation). In 2006 he teamed up with the United Nations to raise awareness of the worldwide water shortage. And in 2008, after six years of dating, he married the singer Beyoncé Knowles.
After our walk through the Marcy projects, Jay-Z and I visit a three-story row house a few blocks away. The house used to belong to his grandmother, and until he was 5, Jay-Z lived here with his parents, three siblings, and extended family. As we sit on the front stoop chatting (the same spot where, Jay-Z says, he spent long summer evenings "just chillin'"), the passersby who spot him form a crowd on the sidewalk; several boys climb the iron fence that surrounds the property. "Is that really Jay-Z?" one boy says to another. "Yep—and he's from here," the other responds.
Sitting on this stoop, it's stunning to think about how far Jay-Z has come. Not only is he an entirely self-made man, he's found his great success doing exactly what he loves. He is thoughtful and intelligent, a reader and a seeker. And in between telling me how he survived life on the streets, how a scolding from his mother helped him fall in love, and even how he and Beyoncé managed to keep their wedding small and private, he explains why he cares so much about connecting with kids who remind him of him—kids he hopes will point to his photo and say, "I can make it, too."
Start reading Oprah's interview with Jay-Z
Jay-Z: Outside in front is where I learned to ride a bike. I learned to ride a ten-speed when I was 4 or 5. My uncle gave me the bike, hand-me-down, and everyone used to stare at me riding up and down this block.
Oprah: You could ride a ten-speed when you were 5?
Jay-Z: I was too short to reach the pedals, so I put my legs through the V of the frame. I was famous. The little kid who could ride the ten-speed.
Oprah: Wow. That's one great memory. Any others?
Jay-Z: The boat. For some reason there was an abandoned boat on this block. We used to play on it all the time, every day.
Oprah: You know, I also grew up poor, but rural poor is different. Did you feel poor?
Jay-Z: Not at all. Probably the first time was in school when I couldn't get the newest sneakers. We didn't have elaborate meals, but we didn't go without. We ate a lot of chicken. You know, 'cause chicken's cheap. We had so much chicken—chicken backs, chicken everything. To this day, I can only eat small pieces or else I feel funny.
Oprah: That's too much chicken in a lifetime. So when you were 5, your family moved to the Marcy projects—and then your father left when you were 11. When you look back at that, what did your 11-year-old self feel?
Jay-Z: Anger. At the whole situation. Because when you're growing up, your dad is your superhero. Once you've let yourself fall that in love with someone, once you put him on such a high pedestal and he lets you down, you never want to experience that pain again. So I remember just being really quiet and really cold. Never wanting to let myself get close to someone like that again. I carried that feeling throughout my life, until my father and I met up before he died.
Oprah: Wow. I've never heard a man phrase it that way. You know, I've done many shows about divorce, and the real crime is when the kids aren't told. They just wake up one day and their dad is gone. Did that happen to you?
Jay-Z: We were told our parents would separate, but the reasons weren't explained. My mom prepared us more than he did. I don't think he was ready for that level of discussion and emotion. He was a guy who was pretty detached from his feelings.
Oprah: Did you wonder why he left?
Jay-Z: I summed it up that they weren't getting along. There was a lot of arguing.
Oprah: And did you know you were angry?
Jay-Z: Yeah. I also felt protective of my mom. I remember telling her, "Don't worry, when I get big, I'm going to take care of this." I felt like I had to step up. I was 11 years old, right? But I felt I had to make the situation better.
Oprah: How did that change you?
Jay-Z: It made me not express my feelings as much. I was already a shy kid, and it made me a little reclusive. But it also made me independent. And stronger. It was a weird juxtaposition.
Oprah: I've read that when you were 12, you shot your brother in the shoulder. Did your father's leaving have anything to do with that? Did it turn you into the kind of angry kid who would end up shooting his brother?
Jay-Z: Yes—and my brother was dealing with a lot of demons.
Oprah: How old was he?
Jay-Z: About 16. He was doing a lot of drugs. He was taking stuff from our family. I was the youngest, but I felt like I needed to protect everybody.
Jay-Z: Looking back, I guess it was quite dysfunctional. But I didn't have that feeling until I got into my early teen years, when we were living in the Marcy projects. That's when crack hit my neighborhood hard and I started getting into mischief.
Oprah: How were you in school? I've heard that when you were in sixth grade, you tested at a 12th-grade level.
Jay-Z: I was bored and distracted.
Oprah: Did you like anything about school?
Jay-Z: I loved English.
Oprah: I know you love to read now. Were books part of your childhood?
Jay-Z: No. I don't remember that.
Oprah: And I thought we had so much in common!
Jay-Z: I just daydreamed a lot.
Oprah: What about?
Jay-Z: Performing or playing baseball and basketball. I took my mind out of my environment, to the point where I wasn't paying attention to what was happening around me. I still do that now.
Oprah: You didn't listen in class, you didn't read books—and you still tested as a 12th grader. You must have a naturally high IQ.
Jay-Z: Or I'm an idiot savant.
Oprah: So when did you start rapping?
Jay-Z: I probably started around 9—but I was just playing around.
Oprah: Were the rappers in your neighborhood your role models?
Jay-Z: The drug dealers were my role models. Rappers weren't successful yet. I remember the first time I saw the Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train. I was 11 or 12. I was like, "What's going on? How did those guys get on national TV?" And then, when I was a little older, a rapper from the neighborhood got a record deal. I was shocked. "They're giving you money to do that?" Because by this time, the music had taken hold of the entire neighborhood. Just like crack had before, now this music had taken hold. Everyone was either DJ-ing or rapping.
Oprah: And rapping came naturally for you?
Jay-Z: It was a gift. I had a notebook full of material. It was just a makeshift thing—someone found some papers, put a paper clip on them, and made me a notebook.
Oprah: Please tell me you still have that notebook.
Jay-Z: I wish.
Oprah: When did you realize that rapping was a career possibility—after you saw Sugarhill on TV?
Jay-Z: Yeah—but I still didn't really think it was a possibility for me. It wasn't until Jaz got a contract that I was like, "Wow, this stuff is going to happen." [Jonathan Burks, a.k.a. Jaz-O or Jaz, was Jay-Z's musical mentor.] And Jaz went to London to make an album, and took me with him. I was a kid from Marcy projects, and I spent two months in a London flat.
Oprah: So tell me how you got into the drug dealing.
Jay-Z: It was natural....
Oprah: Because drug dealers were your role models. There wasn't a teacher or a lawyer or a nurse or a doctor or an accountant in the neighborhood?
Jay-Z: Well, we were living in Marcy by then, so, no. And if anyone did become something like that, they moved out. They never came back to share the wisdom of how they made it. If anyone made it, you never knew it. That's why I've always said that if I became successful, I'd come back here, grab somebody, and show him how it can be done.
Oprah: So you didn't have even one positive black role model?
Jay-Z: Just my mom. She worked two jobs and did whatever she had to do for us.
Jay-Z: Well, no. No one aspires to be a drug dealer. You don't want to bring trouble to your mother's door, even though that's what you're doing. You aspire to the lifestyle you see around you. You see the green BMW, the prettiest car you've ever seen. You see the trappings of drug dealing, and it draws you in.
Oprah: How old were you when you got involved?
Jay-Z: Maybe 13.
Oprah: Did you realize it could cost you your life?
Jay-Z: In my mind, that wasn't risking a lot. You think, "If I'm living like this, I'll risk anything to get more. What's the worst that could happen?"
Oprah: You could die.
Jay-Z: Yes, but you don't think about that.
Oprah: Were you seeing people get shot?
Jay-Z: Definitely—I saw a guy get shot when I was 9. And he wasn't even a bad guy. His name was Benny. He was the guy who would take us to play baseball. We always believed he could have made it to the majors. He was that good. Some guy was chasing him—and then I heard a shot and saw him on the floor.
Oprah: So by the time you were 13, this was a way of life. Did the lifestyle frighten you?
Jay-Z: No. It was normal. And at some point, you become addicted to the feeling. The uncertainty and adrenaline and danger of that lifestyle.
Oprah: This is where we differ. This is where we differ. Because I'd be very scared! Weren't you shot at three times—within six feet—and you lived to talk about it?
Jay-Z: That was divine intervention. Divine intervention, and nobody knowing how to shoot.
Oprah: What happened in each situation?
Jay-Z: It was one situation, three shots.
Oprah: So he was a bad shot.
Jay-Z: Well, no one really practices shooting a TEC-9 machine gun, right? And when you're a kid, with little bony arms—no wonder nobody could aim.
Oprah: Getting shot like that would be a wake-up call for the average guy. But you continued in the drug world.
Jay-Z: You want to shoot back. Well, maybe not everyone, but I did. I was angry.
Oprah: Did you go home and get a gun?
Jay-Z: Yeah. But the guy and I were actually friends.
Oprah: This is also where we differ! I don't shoot at my friends. Did you ever make up with him?
Jay-Z: You can't. You can agree not to shoot at each other, but you can't be friends after that—unless the guy is your brother.
Oprah: You made up with your brother after you shot him?
Oprah: So even after you went to London with Jaz, you stayed in the drug world?
Jay-Z: Right. Before I went, I spent a week making sure everything would be cool for when I came back. I was preparing to come back to the streets because I always had a fear that this music thing wouldn't be successful. And since Jaz's album didn't work out, I did end up back on the streets. The same record label tried to sign me, but Jaz was the one who'd brought me in, and I felt that signing wouldn't be loyal to him. So I told them no. I didn't want to be involved with those record guys. They weren't stand-up people.
Oprah: It's ironic that you, a drug dealer, couldn't trust the guys in the record business, as if they had no integrity!
Oprah: How do you define integrity?
Jay-Z: As doing the right thing.
Jay-Z: I never understood that saying. Because thieves, you know—
Oprah: They're thieves.
Jay-Z: They're thieves.
Oprah: You can't trust them.
Jay-Z: Right. But in the streets there's a certain respect level. If two drug dealers make it to a certain level, they show a certain respect when they see each other. It's bad business for them to be warring.
Oprah: Meaning there's a hierarchy on the streets.
Jay-Z: Of course.
Oprah: Well, how did you decide to leave the streets for good? How did you decide you could let it go?
Jay-Z: I started seeing people go to jail and get killed, and the light slowly came on. I was like, "This life has no good ending."
Oprah: That is so fascinating to me. Because what crack did to the community—drug dealers were a part of that. When you were dealing, did you not see yourself as a part of the problem?
Jay-Z: Later. Looking back. Not while I was in it. I didn't know the effect it was having on the community. We used to say all the time, "Man, her life is all messed up—she used to be so cute. She was fine six months ago. Look at her, she's finished." But you never thought you contributed to that.
Oprah: How is that possible?
Jay-Z: You're just in it. So deep in it, and so young, that that type of introspection never happens. It's just living. And it's fast.
Oprah: Looking back on that time, do you have regrets?
Jay-Z: Well, any person is responsible for the knowledge that they know, right? So of course I do—now, knowing. But at the time I had no knowledge of it.
Oprah: It was just a way of life. A way of survival.
Jay-Z: To be honest, I can't even say that. At that point it was beyond survival. I was successful. It wasn't like I was doing it to feed my family anymore. I was buying cars and jewelry and things like that. I had become addicted to the lifestyle.
Oprah: So how old were you when you realized that the life had no good ending?
Jay-Z: Around 20. I'd been trying to transition from the streets to the music business, but I would make demos and then quit for six months. And I started to realize that I couldn't be successful until I let the street life go. My mom always taught me—you know, little boys listen to their moms too much—that whatever you put into something is what you're going to get out of it. I had to fully let go of what I was doing before for the music to be successful. That was a leap of faith for me. I said, "I have to give this everything."
Jay-Z: Yes—and that first album, Reasonable Doubt, is my favorite, because all the emotions and experiences of 26 years came out in it. That was the record I had 26 years to make.
Oprah: I just got that in a way I never have before. Reasonable Doubt is 26 years packed into one record—and that can never happen again. That's why it's your definitive album. Aha moment! So is it harder to make each successive album?
Jay-Z: It's harder for me to write music that everyone can relate to, because I don't live a typical life anymore.
Oprah: That's true. That's true. So here we are, talking on a Sunday afternoon. If you weren't sitting here with me, what would you be doing?
Jay-Z: I'm gonna get killed for this, but I'll tell you anyway. There's a great pizza spot we go to every Sunday. It's our tradition. It's a small place in Brooklyn, you can bring your own wine, and there are candles there. It's a nice date.
Oprah: And I guess you would be there with what's her name.
Jay-Z: Yeah. [Laughs]
Oprah: Do you and Beyoncé have a pact that you just won't talk about each other?
Jay-Z: Yeah. When you're a public person, you have to keep some things to yourself, or else people will just—
Oprah: Eat it up. I know. But can I ask how in the world you kept your wedding a secret?
Jay-Z: Late planning!
Oprah: How many people knew?
Jay-Z: Very few. The sad part is that we offended some. But people who love you understand. Because at the end of the day, it's your day.
Oprah: How small was the wedding?
Jay-Z: Very small. Maybe 30 people.
Oprah: And how has marriage changed you?
Jay-Z: Let me just say this: Reconnecting with my father changed me more than anything. Because it allowed me to let people in.
Oprah: Let's talk about that.
Jay-Z: Well, I always had that wall up. And whenever someone got close to me, I would shut down.
Oprah: So how did you get back in touch with your father?
Jay-Z: My mom set up a meeting. And now I realize why—it makes all the sense in the world. I remember very distinctly that I had a conversation with her in my kitchen. I was saying, "You know, Ma, I've really been trying to look inward, and maybe I'm just not meant to fall in love like other people do." She just looked at me like, "Hush up, boy."
Jay-Z: And I guess from that point, she figured out what was wrong with me, and she planned a meeting between me and my father. I was like, "Ma, I'm a grown man. I don't need a dad now."
Jay-Z: I never looked at that. I guess I didn't want to deal with it. Because, you know, once I looked, I'd have to do something about it. And I guess I still had too much resentment and anger.
Oprah: In one of your songs, you wrote that you weren't sure if your father even remembered your birthday is in December.
Jay-Z: I believed that. When I was a kid, I once waited for him on a bench. He never showed up. Even as an adult, that affected me. So when my mom set up this meeting, I told her he wouldn't come—and the first time, he didn't. At that point, I was really done, but Mom pushed for another meeting, because she's just a beautiful soul.
Oprah: The second time, your father showed up.
Jay-Z: He showed up. And I gave him the real conversation. I told him how I felt the day he left. He was saying stuff like "Man, you knew where I was." I'm like, "I was a kid! Do you realize how wrong you were? It was your responsibility to see me." He finally accepted that.
Oprah: Where had he been?
Jay-Z: At his mom's house ten minutes away from me. That was the sad part.
Oprah: Was there any explanation he could have offered that would have satisfied you?
Jay-Z: Yes—and that's why we were able to mend our relationship.
Oprah: What was his reason?
Jay-Z: When I was 9, my dad's brother got stabbed, and my dad went looking for the guy who did it. People would call in the middle of the night and tell him, "So-and-so is out here." So my dad would get up, get his gun, and go outside to look for the guy. After a while, my mom was like, "Hey, this is your family now. You can't do that." But this was my dad's baby brother. And my dad was in so much pain that he started using drugs and became a different person. So I understand that the trauma of the event, coupled with the drugs, caused him to lose his soul.
Oprah: When you saw him again, had he come back to himself?
Jay-Z: He was broken. He had a bad liver, and he knew that if he continued drinking, it would kill him. But he didn't stop.
Oprah: How soon after you saw him did he die?
Jay-Z: A couple of months. I got him an apartment, I was buying furniture. And he passed away.
Oprah: Did you instantly make peace with him during that conversation?
Jay-Z: Pretty much. I felt lighter.
Oprah: The conversation freed you in ways that you hadn't been free before?
Jay-Z: One hundred percent.
Oprah: Did it open the door for you to have a life with love in it?
Oprah: One reason I wanted to talk to you is that I see a common thread between our lives—except that I never shot at anybody and I never—
Jay-Z: Got shot at. Those little things.
Oprah: Little things like that. But the biggest common thread is that we've both become successful by being ourselves.
Jay-Z: There's nothing worse than becoming successful as someone else.
Jay-Z: Be true to yourself—and keep things simple. People complicate things.
Oprah: My creed is that intention creates reality.
Jay-Z: Now I'm having an aha moment! That's true.
Oprah: What's the basis of your spiritual belief?
Jay-Z: I believe in karma: What you do to others comes back to you.
Oprah: But don't you think we're responsible only for what we know? Otherwise, you'd be facing karma for every person you sold drugs to.
Jay-Z: As a kid, I didn't know any better. But now, if I were to act as if what I did wasn't bad, that would be irresponsible. And I'd have to bear the weight of that.
Oprah: Maya Angelou always says, "When you know better, you do better." Do you still think back on that time in your life?
Jay-Z: All the time. When you make music, you're constantly on the psychiatrist's couch, so to speak. That's an outlet for me. Because I'm not normally a talkative person. I don't have conversations like this for no reason.
Oprah: Speaking of conversations, when I met you a few years ago, we discussed our disagreement over the use of the N word and misogynist lyrics in rap music. Do you believe that using the N word is necessary?
Jay-Z: Nothing is necessary. It's just become part of the way we communicate. My generation hasn't had the same experience with that word that generations of people before us had. We weren't so close to the pain. So in our way, we disarmed the word. We took the fire pin out of the grenade.
Oprah: I was once at a Jay-Z concert, and there was a moment when everybody—including white people—was screaming the N word. I gotta tell you, it didn't make me feel good.
Jay-Z: That's understandable.
Oprah: But it didn't seem to affect you. You were having a good time up there onstage.
Jay-Z: I believe that a speaker's intention is what gives a word its power. And if we eliminate the N word, other words would just take its place.
You know, hip-hop has done so much for race relations, even with its ignorance—which, by the way, we do have to take some responsibility for. But even without directly taking on race, we've changed things just by being who we are. It's difficult to teach racism in the home when your kid loves Jay-Z. It's hard to say, "That guy is beneath you" when your kid idolizes that guy.
Oprah: I'll give you that. But when I hear the N word, I still think about every black man who was lynched—and the N word was the last thing he heard. So we'll just have to disagree about this.
Jay-Z: It's a generational thing.
Oprah: Okay. Just the other day, an elderly person reminded me that we all need to have more fun. Because in the end, it's not about how much work you've done. So what gives you pleasure?
Jay-Z: Seeing people around me happy. Here's a story. The first time I went to Capri, Italy, I had some spaghetti. It was simple, but it was prepared in such a fresh way that I immediately called my friends to come and share it with me. They took a plane, a train, and a boat just so we could enjoy the food together. That made me totally happy.
Jay-Z: Everyone loves me, and I love everyone! [Laughs]
Oprah: I know you're joking when you say that, but it's true. Everybody loves you. Everybody also says how smart you are.
Jay-Z: That's crazy.
Oprah: You don't think you're smart?
Jay-Z: I'm a thinker. I figure things out. I don't have a high level of education, but I'm practical—and I have good instincts.
Oprah: Are you a good businessman?
Jay-Z: Yes, because when I promise something, I deliver it—and I expect the same from others.
Oprah: That's great. Now let's move on to another topic: your support of Barack Obama during his campaign. Did you believe he would become president?
Jay-Z: At a certain point, yes. Before he announced he was running, I met him and we had dinner. I was like, "Man, this guy is special." Certain people just glow. I also know Bill Clinton. But I was willing to put that friendship at risk to support Obama, because Obama represents hope around the world. I would rather lose on the side of hope than win on the side of the favorite.
Oprah: Did you lose the Clintons' friendship?
Jay-Z: No. Bill understood. We're cool.
Oprah: You were there during Obama's inauguration. What did you feel?
Jay-Z: Euphoria. At one point, this white lady was in the hotel elevator with me and my friend Ty Ty, and she turned to Ty Ty and fixed his tie. It was such a small thing, but everyone had this feeling of—
Oprah: Connection. On another day, she might have been scared of Ty Ty.
Jay-Z: Exactly. There was a feeling of hope.
Oprah: Did Obama's victory change the way black men are perceived?
Jay-Z: Yes. It also changed the way the world sees America. America is supposed to be the land of the free and home of the brave, so how is it possible to have 43 presidents of the same background?
Oprah: Was there a shift in the rap community?
Jay-Z: The election of Barack Obama sent a strong message. Afterward I said, "The day that Barack Obama became president, the gangsta became less relevant." I meant that in a positive way. I meant that we grew up without accountants and lawyers as role models, but now we see something different. There's something else for us to aspire to.
Jay-Z: Very—but I've still got some growing to do.
Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Jay-Z: I know that there's a higher being: The One, or whatever you want to call it. There has to be, for everything to work so perfectly in the human body, and for the world to work the way it does.
Oprah: What makes you most proud?
Jay-Z: Taking care of my family. That's every little boy's dream, right? To buy Mom a house.
Oprah: Many of the little boys who grew up in the Marcy projects are either in jail or dead. Why do you think you got to grow up and buy your mom a house?
Jay-Z: There's the gift, there's the spirit, and there's the work—all three have to come together. If one of those things is off, it can stop you from becoming who you were meant to be.
Oprah: Is there anything else you still want to do?
Jay-Z: I want to represent hip-hop culture positively. No one in my family is wanting for a meal right now, so that part is done. Rap is what took me out of my situation, and now I must care for it. I have to leave it as I found it—or better—for the next generation of kids. Then maybe they can change their situation like I did.
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