What the electric vehicle sector can learn from the mogul's long lost Jeep deal.
Jay-Z recently regained his title as hip-hop’s wealthiest mogul, with a net worth of $1.5 billion gleaned from an empire encompassing everything from champagne to startups. Had things gone differently 20 years ago, he might’ve already added automobiles to that list—thanks to a vehicle called the Jay-Z Jeep.
The SUV would have been produced by Chrysler and its Mopar division. Among the features: a butter-cream leather interior, 22-inch chrome wheels and a premium sound system preloaded with every Hov song ever recorded. Each vehicle was set to debut in a patented color known as Jay-Z Blue, an electric shade of navy sprinkled with platinum dust. But concerns over the rapper’s past caused bigwigs to scuttle the deal at the last minute.
“A lot of big corporations don’t understand popular culture,” explained Marques McCammon, the former American Specialty Cars executive who tried to broker the deal, in an interview years ago for my Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind. “They don’t understand, necessarily, the story of a guy who works his way up from the street to become a prominent businessperson.”
Now, as regulators and automakers accelerate efforts to sell electric vehicles, it’s time Detroit finally learned some lessons from the Jay-Z Jeep debacle. And that means truly embracing hip-hop—America’s most-consumed musical genre—to market the vehicles that could help drive us out of the climate crisis.
Electric vehicle sales could account for one-fifth of new car sales globally within the next three years; some projections predict 50% by 2030. Manufacturing processes are becoming more streamlined and battery technologies are getting cheaper, which means electric vehicles may soon compete with gasoline cars on price. Per a recent Bloomberg report, that could happen as soon as 2025.
They’re not all going to be Teslas. Light-duty vehicles make up 54% of all transportation energy consumption—more than trains, planes, boats and heavy-duty trucks combined. After building a new fleet of middle market electric cars, the next challenge will be convincing Americans from all walks of life to buy them. And so far, Detroit hasn’t done such a great job of that.
Studies show 87% of electric vehicles are purchased by white people. Black consumers make up 13% of the population, but comprise only 7% of car buyers, and just 3% of electric buyers. A big part of that: centuries of systemic bias have created a vast racial wealth gap, and electric vehicles have long been more expensive than their internal combustion counterparts. Cheaper electric cars should help, but there’s more to the problem.
“The automobile industry is run by elitist white men who are very scared of losing their power,” veteran rapper Michael “Serch” Berrin told me in an interview for my Jay-Z book, adding that these executives “would rather see the whole thing crumble and fall apart than give up their power.”
Things have begun to change, but not fast enough. By embracing hip-hop where the leaders who scuttled the Jay-Z Jeep did not, Detroit could speed up plans to put a dent into problematic electric vehicle demographics.
Hip-hop is already ripe with automotive energy, dating back to 1979’s pioneering single “Rappers Delight.” Before the end of the first verse, the song offered up uncompensated references to the Lincoln Continental and a “sunroof Cadillac.” The 1991 film New Jack City helped make the Jeep Wrangler trendy long before the SUV craze. And though hip-hop continued to dish out hundreds of millions of dollars in free advertising for automobiles, Detroit was slow to warm to the genre during the intervening decades.
There have been some positive signs more recently. The Jay-Z Jeep never rolled off the line, but the rapper did make an appearance at the 2007 International Auto Show in Michigan, touting a GMC Yukon painted Jay-Z Blue. Plans for anything more seem to have been swallowed up by the Great Recession.
After Chrysler went bankrupt in 2009, it re-emerged as a different company under new majority owner Fiat. The Italian automaker’s chief leaned into the Chrysler 300’s popularity among Black consumers by striking a 2011 deal to put Dr. Dre’s Beats audio into certain versions of the car. Earlier this year, Acura brought in Gen Z hip-hop star Vince Staples to hawk its revived (and still gasoline-powered) Integra model.
Meanwhile, Jay-Z has spent more time focused on social issues than automobiles, even organizing a wing of his Roc Nation empire to offer pro bono legal support and media campaigns to worthy causes.
In a fascinating turn of events, McCammon—who helped broker the Jay-Z Jeep deal in the first place—left Detroit for a solar-powered vehicle startup called Aptera before moving on to other ventures.
Jay-Z EV, anyone?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg is the author of four books, including the Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Forbes, where he served as senior editor of media & entertainment for a decade.