Jay-Z: Brooklyn Public Library exhibit is 'More Than What I Deserved'

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Jay-Z: Brooklyn Public Library exhibit is 'More Than What I Deserved'
The artist Jay-Z receives an award from Mayor Eric Adams of New York City during the 24th annual gala at the Brooklyn Public Library, Oct. 2, 2023. The benefit, which drew local dignitaries and raised $1.5 million, honored Jay-Z and his mother, Gloria Carter. (Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The New York Times)

by Melissa Guerrero

NEW YORK, NY.- On Monday night, at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, adults in tieless suits and flowing dresses populated the Youth Wing, sitting near stacks of children’s books, some on children’s chairs, with drinks in hand for the library’s 24th annual gala.

The benefit, which raised $1.5 million, honored Jay-Z and his mother, Gloria Carter, the co-founder and CEO of the Shawn Carter Foundation. (She did not attend.)

Nearby were pieces from “The Book of Hov” exhibit — like encased CDs, magazine covers, Grammy and Emmy Award statues, and a full-scale replica of a studio — which features artifacts tracing the artist’s decades-long career. The exhibit opened in July and was extended through Dec. 4, Jay-Z’s birthday.

Above a scribbled chalkboard, a large rendering of a green dragon hovered over stacked glasses on a bar that served Ace of Spades champagne and D’Ussé cognac, the rapper’s brands.

“You have experienced the multiple open bars inside of the public library. That’s how you get literacy done,” joked Baratunde Thurston, the writer and cultural critic, while hosting the event.

Hundreds of guests spread onto the main floor for cocktails and a buffet of short ribs, roasted salmon and chicken with preserved lemon. The building’s information area was transformed into a cafeteria-like seating area.

Xiomara Hall, a friend of Cassandra Metz, a library board member, flew in from Kansas City, Missouri, that morning after attending the last show on Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour.

“This was my library growing up, and there was never a display or recognition of a Black artist that had an impact in this kind of a way, in this library, when I was growing up,” Hall said.

“So it’s powerful for me to come back to my childhood library to see someone like him who’s also a Brooklyn native being honored like this.”

Along with the exhibit, which came as New York City celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the library has also introduced special edition “Book of Hov” library cards, with 13 cards designed with the rapper’s solo album covers.

Since the exhibit started, more than 80,000 limited-edition cards have been issued and more than 20,000 new library accounts have been opened, according to library representatives.

For the evening remarks, guests moved outside to a covered structure along the library’s entrance as Questlove served as the DJ.

In the front row of nearly 500 white folding chairs, Desiree Perez, the CEO of Roc Nation, sat across from Linda E. Johnson, the president and CEO of the library, and her husband, Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer. Clara Wu Tsai, the philanthropist and co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets, and Antonio Delgado, the lieutenant governor of New York, were also seated there.

Waiting in an undisclosed location nearby, Jay-Z walked quietly from behind the stage into his seat.

The singer Victory performed a song against the sirens and car horns from the Grand Army Plaza roundabout.

Speeches from elected officials, and well-known Brooklynites, praising Jay-Z were peppered with references to his music.

“As Senate majority leader, I got 99 problems,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, as the crowd cheered.

“By the way,” Schumer said, “I live across the street and I wake up every morning reading your lyrics,” referring to some of Jay-Z’s lyrics plastered on the facade of the library’s entrance, in celebration of the exhibit.

“ … but we all know that Jay-Z is a business, man,” said Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso.

In a letter read by his sons, Jeremiah, 21, and Joshua, 19, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who could not attend and sent his sons in his place, wrote that his children were inspired by “the life and times of Shawn Carter,” a nod to the rapper’s 1999 album.

Mayor Eric Adams spoke next, presenting the award for Carter to Jay-Z, who sipped from a glass of Champagne during the ceremony. The Shawn Carter Foundation recently donated $1.5 million to the library, in partnership with Michael Rubin, CEO of the sports merchandise company, Fanatics, and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism founded by Robert Kraft.

Adams said Jay-Z, and the exhibit, has played an important role in bringing a new generation of young people into the library.

“Now, walking through those doors, you’re going to have young men and women walk in here only because you said it was all right,” Adams said.

Taking the stage, Jay-Z, dressed in a Gucci tuxedo, said his mother had given him a “very bad excuse” for why she did not attend.

“She’d want to say she would have loved to be here with you guys. And she is incredibly honored. And it is overwhelming that her son is so incredible,” he continued, crediting his mother for telling him as a young child that he could be anything.

As he spoke, police officers in uniform held up phones to record the speech.

“I love you!” someone shouted from a crowd of about a dozen onlookers lining the police barricades along Flatbush Avenue.

“And we love you,” he said, in response. “This is definitely Brooklyn.”

Jay-Z reflected on the exhibit at the library, which was kept a secret from him.

“I thought maybe it was like a small room, and it was more than what I deserved,” he said. “I walked in, and I saw this incredible display.”

“And my grandma Hattie White got to see it,” he continued. “She just turned 98 years old, and she’s seen a lot of things.”

“That experience was just overwhelming,” he said.

As the speeches ended, Jay-Z slipped upstairs as guests strolled back to the main floor of the library for passed plates of doughnuts where Questlove continued to DJ. As a parting gift, guests were given a copy of “Decoded,” Jay-Z's 2010 memoir.

“That was so much fun,” one attendee said as she walked inside. “That was Monday night. What am I supposed to do on Tuesday?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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