In just his first year of eligibility, “Brooklyn’s finest,” Jay-Z, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on Saturday night among a class that included The Go-Go’s, Carole King, Tina Turner, Todd Rundgren, and Foo Fighters.
But only a hip-hop legend of his caliber, who’s been a driving force in the music industry for over two decades, was honored with a speech by a former president. Barack Obama, who previously paid tribute to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter when he became the first rapper in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, delivered moving remarks about how Jay-Z’s music has served as a soundtrack to some of his most pivotal moments.
“I’ve turned to Jay-Z’s words at different points in my life, whether I was brushing dirt off my shoulder on the campaign trail, or sampling his lyrics on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march to Montgomery,” Obama said in a taped video message. “Today, Jay-Z is one of the most renowned artists in history and an embodiment of the American dream, a dream he has helped make real for other young people like him.”
His comments arrived after a star-studded video introduction for the hip-hop mogul, which featured his wife Beyoncé and their daughter Blue Ivy Carter reciting some of Jay-Z’s most famous lyrics alongside LeBron James, Rihanna, Chris Rock, Sean Combs, Samuel L. Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Queen Latifah and many more.
But only one major Jay-Z fan chose to honor the rapper in person: The controversial comedian Dave Chappelle, who permanently resides in Ohio, appeared at the ceremony as the final induction speaker.
After a “massive ovation from the crowd,” per Rolling Stone, Chappelle began his remarks by saying, “I would like to apologize to … Nah, I’m just fucking with you,” presumably referencing the backlash to the transphobic material in his recent Netflix special, “The Closer.” Since its release, Chappelle has defiantly stood by his jokes despite the pushback on Netflix’s support of the special, which resulted in employees staging a walkout in protest of how the company has handled the response.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos was actually on site for the ceremony to support his father-in-law, former Motown Chairman Clarence Avant, who was also getting inducted, and posed with Chappelle backstage after his remarks.
But the comedian kept his attention turned to the “incredible honor” of inducting a man who’s inspired him and the Black community, telling the crowd, “I need everybody around the world to know: Even though you are honoring him, he is ours. He is hip-hop, forever and ever and a day.”
Chronicling Jay-Z’s life from a boy raised in Brooklyn housing projects to the man who became one of the best-selling musicians of all time, Chappelle emphatically said, “What’s most important for everyone in this room to know is what it means to us, what he means to his culture.”
“We love him more than you could ever recognize or even realize because he embodies the potential of what our lives can be and what success can be,” he added.
Eventually, Jay-Z himself took the stage, joking that all of the evening’s praise was “trying to make me cry in front of all these white people.”
“Growing up, we didn’t think we could be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” he said at the start of his speech in video captured at the ceremony by TV personality Bevy Smith. “We were told that hip-hop was a fad. Much like punk rock, it gave us this anti-culture, this sub-genre, and there were heroes in it.”
He went on to pay respect to some his own musical influences, including Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Chuck D and fellow inductee LL Cool J. He also shouted out his former manager Damon Dash, with whom he and Kareem “Biggs” Burke created the company Roc-A-Fella Records, which spawned his groundbreaking 1996 debut album “Reasonable Doubt” and many others.
Jay-Z concluded his speech by recalling how Obama asked him to campaign during his 2008 presidential run. “That showed me the power of hip-hop, the power of these heroes who let me know that these things are possible,” he said. “Hopefully I’m informing the next generation that anything is possible.”
The 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony will air as an HBO special starting Nov. 20.