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Brooklyn Public Library exhibit tells Jay-Z's story for hip-hop's 50th anniversary
Geoff Bennett: Right now in New York City, you can find the unlikely pairing of two Brooklyn icons, the Brooklyn Public Library, one of the largest library systems in the country, and hip-hop's elder statesman, Jay-Z.
Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports on a timely exhibition as part of this year's 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Christopher Booker: Wrapped around the outside of the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch, rap lyrics from the last 25 years, inside its grand lobby, the hands of the man who wrote them, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter.
This hand gesture, in the shape of a diamond or rock, originally represented his Roc-A-Fella record label. It's now synonymous with the rapper himself, says Desiree Perez, a longtime friend of Jay-Z's and CEO of his entertainment empire, Rock Nation.
Desiree Perez, CEO, Roc Nation: Anywhere you go in the world, any concert ever Jay's been at or places that he goes in this crowd, people know what that means.
Christopher Booker: Famed for his lyricism, Jay-Z is one of the world's bestselling artists, with over 140 million records sold. The first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame, he's ranked by both "Rolling Stone" and Billboard magazine as one of the 100 greatest artists of all time.
Now he's commemorated in a sprawling 40,000-square foot exhibition in this library, which continues to serve patrons.
This isn't exactly a normal experience inside a library.
Linda E. Johnson, President, Brooklyn Public Library: No, it's not.
Christopher Booker: But the free exhibition, curated by Roc Nation, is entirely consistent with the Brooklyn Public Library's mission, says its president, Linda Johnson.
Linda E. Johnson: This is a career that was built on the written word. Literacy is everything to us. Jay-Z is a very important Brooklynite, and we like to honor our own, and we're proud to be affiliated with him.
Christopher Booker: The project is called The Book of Hov. Hov is short for J-Hova, a nickname Jay-Z explained to NPR's Terry Gross back in 2010.
Jay-Z, Rapper: One time, I was recording in the studio, and I wasn't writing. And one of my friends was like: "Man, this is like — how are you doing that, man? God must really love you. It's like a religious experience, man."
And then he was like, "J-Hova." And then it started out as a joke, and then it just stuck.
Linda E. Johnson: This is all instruments, the whole thing, the accordion, the old victrola.
Christopher Booker: Featuring thousands of pieces of memorabilia, as well as music and art, spread across eight spaces, visitors can trace Jay-Z's journey, from his early days in a Brooklyn public housing complex, where he survived dealing drugs during the crack cocaine epidemic, to the world stage.
Linda E. Johnson: We're telling a story about people who don't necessarily think their stories will be found. And we're saying, come into the library and find your own story, whether it's in the exhibition that you're walking through, or whether it's in the books on our shelves.
Desiree Perez: '01, '02, '03.
Christopher Booker: In the library's main atrium, covers of Jay-Z's 13 solo albums, from his self-released debut, "Reasonable Doubt," to his most recent, "4:44."
Collectively, the work is an anthology of Jay-Z's life before and after superstardom.
Desiree Perez: He says that he's speaking for the people. He speaks for the ghetto, for the voiceless.
Linda E. Johnson: Yes.
Christopher Booker: Through a side door…
Desiree Perez: This is the real equipment, by the way, that was used at the time.
Christopher Booker: … there's a full-scale replica of Manhattan's Baseline Studios, where Jay-Z wrote and recorded some of his seminal albums.
The space was made famous in his 2004 documentary, "Fade to Black."
MAN: Sometimes, you work with people because they legends. Other times, they just hot.
Christopher Booker: But as hip-hop's first billionaire, the exhibition shows how Jay-Z's story is about more than music.
After being rejected by all the major music labels, Jay-Z founded Roc-A-Fella Records. And as his music footprint expanded, so too did his business empire.
Jay-Z is both an artist and an entrepreneur, a businessperson and a writer. But he seems to basically walk this unbelievable line.
Linda E. Johnson: I think that his career defies those kinds of definitions, as does the experience that you have here.
Christopher Booker: The elaborate exhibition started with a phone call. Johnson wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop by honoring Jay-Z at a Brooklyn Public Library gala and called Perez.
Linda E. Johnson: I started yammering away about all the reasons that the library was deserving. We're the most democratic institution in our society. We're free and open and accessible to everybody, blah, blah, blah.
And all of a sudden, Desiree says: "How many square feet is that building?"
Linda E. Johnson: And I said 350,000 square feet. And all of a sudden, the whole nature of the conversation changed.
Christopher Booker: Perez had spent years looking at different venues to showcase Jay-Z's vast collection of ephemera.
Desiree Perez: Nothing ever felt right. It just didn't feel right. It didn't feel like it belonged. And when I heard Linda speak, it just seemed like the perfect place that she was describing.
And it's a public space and it lends itself to everyone.
Christopher Booker: On the day we visited, visitors praised the space.
Ronald Fields was in town from Atlanta and came straight from the airport.
Ronald Fields, Visitor: When I Googled it, I had to double-check. And I'm like, whoa, it's a library? So, I didn't know that. But it's really cool that it's here, actually. I wish we had something like this back at home.
Christopher Booker: Thomas Sorger has listened to the rapper for 20 years.
Thomas Sorger, Visitor: I think the library is the premier institution for making accessible the finest examples of our country's culture.
Christopher Booker: Has the library ever done anything of this scale?
Linda E. Johnson: No, not even close.
Linda E. Johnson: Our door count has tripled. Our new library card registrations have doubled. So, everything has just been magnified.
Christopher Booker: A limited edition line of Jay-Z library cards released at branches across the borough has become, in the words of The New York Times — quote — "the merch of the moment."
While Jay-Z is bringing more people into the library, he also continues to bring younger generations into the arts.
Kota The Friend, Rapper: The first beat that I ever rapped over was a Jay-Z beat. He gave me the template, and I just put in my words. And that's — that was the beginning of it.
Christopher Booker: Thirty-year-old rapper Kota the Friend grew up in Brooklyn listening to his brother's Jay-Z C.D.s.
Kota The Friend: It was like a real education. Like, I'm listening to the lyrics. I'm learning how to use my words. I'm learning how to say things without saying them, you know? Like, it taught me poetry.
Christopher Booker: Kota the Friend turned down record labels to stay independent. He keeps all the profit from the millions who stream his music each month. He also owns a fashion and entertainment brand.
Do you think that was possible or was that even a path that you saw without Jay-Z?
Kota The Friend: I think Jay-Z really gave us the confidence, you know? Like, it wasn't a big thing when he was coming up for people, for artists, especially hip-hop artists, to be independent and be doing their own thing.
Because he exists, we all exist.
Christopher Booker: Back at the library, Tanya Joyner (ph), a Brooklyn native, echoed that sentiment and quoted another legendary local rapper, the late Biggie Smalls.
Tanya Joyner, Visitor: I think the words are Biggie always, who would think hip-hop would make it this far? That's definitely real, definitely real.
Christopher Booker: The exhibition has been extended until December 4.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Christopher Booker in Brooklyn, New York.