By J. Tobias Beard
The news was first reported on June 14, but it didn’t really start to spread until two days later. By the 19th it was all over the ’Net, bubbling just under the surface of more serious matters. Jay-Z had declared he was boycotting Cristal. Yes, Jay-Z, the head of Def Jam records, one of the greatest MCs of all time, has stopped drinking Cristal forever. This is kind of like Tom Wolfe declaring he would never again wear a white suit, only it’s bigger, because Tom Wolfe is the only one who always wears a white suit. A better analogy is if Jerry Garcia had proclaimed that he’d never, ever, wear tie-dye, and neither should the legions of Dead Heads.
Only it’s more important than that. The reason Jay-Z gave for boycotting Cristal is comments made by Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of Lois Roederer, the Champagne house that makes Cristal. When asked recently in The Economist if he thought the “association between Cristal and the bling lifestyle could actually hurt the brand,” Rouzaud’s limp response was, “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”
Jay-Z’s reply? “I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products through any of my various brands including the 40/40 Club nor in my personal life.” It’s possible that the only result of this will be that we will all have to choose a new drink to keep in the fridge in case we’re on “MTV Cribs.” But that would be a shame, because there is something that Jay-Z is saying, and has always been saying, that some of us are only now beginning to grasp.
This is clearly a case of stupidity on the part of Rouzaud (and possibly histrionics on the part of Jay-Z). It is never a good idea, in any business, to alienate a
large segment of your clientele, and
being branded “racist” by a major U.S. celebrity is not good PR. Yes, Jay-Z is overreacting, because what Mr. Rouzaud said is not overtly racist. But Jay-Z needs
to overreact to expose what many of us have long ignored. To quote “Coming
of Age,” “I moved from Levi’s to Guess
to Versace/now it’s diamonds like Liberace/That’s just the natural cycle.” For most of Jay-Z’s life he, and others like him, have been denied material goods like Cristal Champagne and Mercedes Benz because they didn’t belong to the group to whom these things so clearly did belong. “If you grew up with holes in your Zapitos/You’d celebrate the minute you was havin’ dough” he says in “99 Problems.” But now that he has money and success, and legitimately feels that these things can be his, he once again finds someone wants to shut him out of the club. To him, it seems obvious that the problem is his skin color.
Who can defuse these huge se-mantic bombs? It would mean facing uncomfortable connections between words like “hip-hop” and “black,” “black” and “poor,” “ghetto” and “gangsta.” These words are now themselves connected to Cristal, a $200-a-bottle Champagne that was created in 1876 for Alexander II, and has become as much of
a tacky stereotype as the pimp’s fur hat. But that doesn’t mean Jay’s boycott is
just something to chuckle about. Even a cursory glance at the online reaction to
the feud makes it all a lot less funny.
From www.amren.com, a “race realist” site: “Funny, I was boycotting Cristal BECAUSE of its connection to the hip-hop scene. This calls for a bottle of Cristal.” Or, consider this from the website for Decanter, a leading British wine magazine: “I am glad that stupid people from ‘hip hop’ will stop buying and promoting such brands,” and this from a US Weekly blog, “CRISTAL is supposed to be about CLASS, not some HOOD trying to PRETEND he has it.” Rouzaud might not be a racist, but something highly racial is being exposed here—namely, that the endorsement of black Americans somehow taints a product like Cristal. The cover that was removed for a lot of white people by Katrina—the moment when, to paraphrase William Burroughs, we suddenly saw what was wriggling on the end of the fork—is being peeled back even further.
Sure, rappers have been naïve in their use of brand worship as a means of identity, but Jay-Z points out that it isn’t much different for anyone else. Champagne has always been about money, brands and status. The only question is whose money, brands and status. We all want Cristal, but some of us have never been told that we couldn’t have it. Big, toxic issues are bubbling to the surface here, and it’s making my head hurt. But that’s O.K., because, quite often, so does Champagne.
J. Tobias Beard is a writer and wine lover who lives in Keene.