The recent wave of global protests against racial injustice marked a seismic shift in how companies address social issues.
Once an area that was likely deemed too divisive to tread, Black Lives Matter and adjacent movements for racial equality have finally reached the boardrooms of some of the most influential companies, prompting better hiring practices and company policies and substantive philanthropic initiatives.
Whether or not this current momentum lasts beyond a moment is hard to tell. But there’s something to be said for—and learned from—companies whose efforts in fighting systemic racism have been embedded in their core business strategies since their inception.
Like Roc Nation.
Founded in 2008 by Jay Z, Roc Nation has evolved into a full-service entertainment company including artist and athlete management, events, TV and film production, and a music label. Running parallel to that has been its ongoing work in social justice, from bailing out protesters to monetary donations to documentaries including Time: The Kalief Browder Story and Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story to Cause Village, a philanthropic footprint at Roc Nation’s annual music festival Made in America.
Roc Nation’s efforts around social justice eventually formalized in 2018 when Team Roc was created, a division within the company that identifies cases of injustice, offers pro-bono legal support for impacted families, creates high-profile media campaigns, and enlists the aid of Roc Nation’s talent roster to amplify stories.
“[Some companies] say, ‘We’re going to have a philanthropic division, and we’re going to make sure that we have diversity, and we’re going to make sure that we give away this much money,'” says Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez. “That’s fine. They should do that. For us, it wasn’t even like we had to plan it. It’s who we are. Team Roc existed from day one—we just got our name later. It’s almost like you don’t really know yourself well when you’re 18, and then all of a sudden, you turn 30 and you’re like, ‘Okay, I know who I am.'”
Perez and Dania Diaz, Roc Nation’s managing director of philanthropy, explain their ground-level and bespoke approach to social justice and why controversial deals such as Roc Nation’s alliance with the NFL are necessary.
Turning pain into personalized activism
The unfortunate reality for a group like Team Roc is that there’s no shortage of cases to put their resources behind.
“People always wonder how do we take on cases. There’s no strict science behind it—it’s what moves our hearts,” Diaz says. “Sometimes it’s what in national headlines, and sometimes there are stories that are lesser-known but speak to the everyday mistreatment of poor, neglected Black and brown people.”
Some of Team Roc’s work includes getting charges dismissed. This was the case for Montavious Smith, who was arrested in 2018 for failing to remove his hoodie in a Memphis mall, and for Jabari Talbot, a sixth-grader who was arrested for not standing for the pledge of allegiance. Team Roc has also been active in championing Black-owned business, pushing for proper prosecution in hate crimes, and, of course, police brutality.
On June 19, 2018, 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr., was riding in a car that was pulled over by East Pittsburgh police. The car matched the description of one that was involved in a nearby drive-by shooting. Rose fled the scene and was subsequently gunned down by police.
After reaching a $2 million wrongful death settlement, Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, says she pretty much went into hiding from the media. When she received a Facebook message from someone at Roc Nation, she thought it was fake.
“I just chalked it up to, this is the media. I can’t deal with them,” Kenney says. “And I don’t want to discuss this money, ’cause this money can’t bring my baby back.”
It took over a week for Kenney to finally answer the message, and she was immediately put through to Perez. They were interested in shooting a PSA about Kenney’s son as well as helping her in any way she needed.
“I’m holding the phone like, I’ve gotta be dreaming,” Kenney says. “I cried through the entire first phone call because I couldn’t believe that this was Roc Nation calling me, not only to offer me the things that I knew I needed, but to offer to help with anything that I might’ve had going on. I knew from the onset of that phone call that they were genuine.
“When you’re in a situation where everybody wants something from you and you have nothing to give, it is so nice to know that there’s a group that don’t want nothing from you,” she continues. “The truth of the matter is I call Roc Nation like most people call a friend.”
In addition to the PSA, which has garnered more than 9 million views so far, Kenney has leaned on Team Roc for a number of initiatives to honor her son’s memory, including a Christmas giveaway and a community celebration on his death day.
“Two weeks before Antwon’s death date [last year], I called Roc Nation and said, ‘I want to do something big. Somehow, some way, I’m going to pull this off.’ And [Perez’s] response was, ‘Send us over a list,'” Kenney says. “Do you know what that feels like? I didn’t have any plans on Antwon’s death date, but I knew it was going to be hard for me to make it through that day. And when somebody tells you, ‘Don’t worry—we’re not only just going to cover the material things, we will support you. We will walk you through this. We’ll help you in any way we can,’ what more can you say but I’m in?”
To bolster their work, Team Roc has been convening for the past nine months with the country’s top thought leaders across such industries as entertainment, education, finance, legal, and sports, as well as families impacted by police and gun violence. What was once informally referred to as the Meeting of Minds has recently taken shape as its own 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organization called the United Justice Coalition.
Through the UJC, Team Roc has helped families such as Kenney’s in pushing Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf to sign police reform bills. It’s also assisted the parents of Danroy “DJ” Henry in reopening their son’s case after he was shot by a Pleasantville, New York, police officer in 2010 and died while handcuffed on the ground.
And that’s just the beginning.
“We are supporting a national database project with the National Association of Defense Lawyers called the Law Enforcement Accountability Project that will radically transform how data on police misconduct is gathered, acquired, and used by defense attorneys and prosecutors,” Diaz says. “A subcommittee has also been working on pushing for federal legislation that more powerfully addresses excessive and deadly use of force, qualified immunity, and funding of law enforcement systems that have histories of misconduct.”
An unlikely alliance
In August 2019, Jay Z formed a very unlikely partnership with the NFL that would allow Roc Nation to help manage the league’s entertainment ventures, such as the Super Bowl halftime show, as well as community activism efforts via the NFL’s Inspire Change program.
For all the public and private advocacy Jay Z had been doing for social justice, aligning with the organization that effectively blackballed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality caused many people to question Roc Nation’s morals.
“Trust and believe that there was a lot of soul-searching when we made the decisions to move forward with the NFL,” Perez says. “But we can stay mad in the corner, or we can hold them accountable and allow them to redeem themselves to do what’s right.”
Among other initiatives, the PSA for Antwon Rose Jr. was actually done in partnership with Inspire Change.
“I got so many questions like, ‘Do you believe it’s sincere?'” Kenney says. “And for me it’s so simple. If you get the head of two major empires in the same room and they can set aside their egos and come up with a plan, the rest of us shouldn’t have a problem with it. It is so obvious to me that people like Jay Z, people like [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell don’t have to do this.”
In a rather stunning reversal of sentiment, Goodell released an apology in June admitting the NFL was wrong in how it handled the Black Lives Matter movement. While some dismissed it as too little, too late, or outright insincere, Kenney is convinced of Goodell’s intentions.
“I don’t know what he was thinking a few years ago, but I know that man cried for my son. And what most people don’t know is that I still talk to him to this day,” Kenney says. “Not through Roc Nation either. He’ll send me an email like, ‘I’m checking on you. I promised you we wouldn’t leave you. Keep me posted on what you’re working on.’ He doesn’t have to do any of that.”
She continues, “I can’t hold him any more accountable for his past behavior than what I would want somebody to do with me. Do I like what happened to Kaep? Absolutely not. But we can’t change what already happened. But we can definitely do some things now that we’re all on the same page. And I can honestly tell you that now he’s making an effort for whatever reason that may be. That has nothing to do with the entire NFL, but I truly believe that Mr. Goodell has seen some sort of light or death, and it has changed the way he looks at things.”
Having a partnership with a massive and influential organization like the NFL is an integral part of Team Roc’s reach. Team Roc also aligns with celebrities to get their own social-good efforts off the ground, such as New York Met Robinson Cano’s RC24 Foundation serving underprivileged youth in the Dominican Republic.
“What we have realized is it’s really hard to scale what we do,” Perez says. “So we had to figure out how we can give it to others so they can do it as well. It’s almost like you have to pass it on, the secret sauce.”
That’s exactly what Jay Z told Kenney before Super Bowl LIV.
“I clearly remember asking Jay Z the day before [the Super Bowl]—the lights, the cameras, the people, all of that—I looked at him and I said, ‘I don’t know how you do this every day.’ And he said, ‘I do it for people like you until you’re able to do it for yourself,'” Kenney says. “And then he waited a second and said, ‘And one day, you’ll do it for somebody else.’ I don’t think he even knows how much that stuck with me. Because I’m not a fan of the camera, the interviews, or any of that. But I do what I gotta do in order to make sure that the world knows what happened to my son so that it doesn’t happen to the next person’s son.”