The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.
Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
No need to explain;
Is the the only thing that matters.
Jay-Z is not his real name. It’s just what he’s called.
No one knows exactly how the name came about. Some say he got it from Jaz-O aka Big Jaz, or just Jaz. His government name was Jonathan Burks. Jay-Z and Jaz (similar, yes?) rapped together early in their careers. Another: B-High says a cat from Marcy started calling him Jazzy and Jay-Z evolved out of Jazzy when it began to sound too glitzy and it no longer represented him. Another theory is that Jay got the name from the J/Z subway lines with a stop at Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, on the way to Queens.
Jay-Z’s government name is Shawn Corey Carter.
Jay-Z also goes by Hova, or Hov. That’s short for Jay-hovah. A string of derivatives followed: Hovi Baby, Hovito, ‘Vito, Young Hov, Young H-O, or just Young. H to the izzo, V to the izzay. Jay Guevara, a rarer one. The Black Axl Rose. Or just Jay. He is also known as Jigga, Jiggaman, S-dot, Mr. Carter, or S. Carter.
If his name is “the only thing that matters,” why does he keep changing it? Or does each name say something different, if only a little?
It is common for rappers to have many alter egos or nicknames, in addition to their original rap moniker, which is not usually their “real” name, that which is called their “government name,” i.e., the one recognized and registered with the government. In the case of Shawn Carter, a whole constellation of aliases proliferates.
One of the most prolific name changers in rap was a man named Russell Jones who, through born in Brooklyn, the BK, represented Staten Island, or Shaolin. Born Russell Jones, he died known as Big Baby Jesus, which was what followed Dirt McGirt and Osiris. He was best known by a former nickname Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB.
The phenomenon did not begin with rappers, however. During the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s, many in the black radical community returned to traditional African names as a means to resist white power. In the case of the Black Panthers, the surname Shakur became prevalent. Tupac Amaru Shakur, better known as 2pac, was born of Panther Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams). Panther Justice Minister Hubert Gerold Brown renamed himself H. Rap Brown, then, once imprisoned by the state, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. One could look back a little further to Malcolm X, whose surname Little was dropped in an act of protest. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali shortly before the champion boxer refused to cooperate in the United States’ war in Southeast Asia.
To name oneself in opposition to one’s “government name” is an act of opposition and evasion vis-à-vis the State. “Government? Fuck government. Niggas politic theyselves.” There is a relationship between “government name” and the slave name, as slaves and their descendants officially bear the names of a plantation owner. While free people bore the name of the father, slaves were assigned a false father, the master. Thus, renaming oneself is to shed both the mark of slavery and the American state which permitted and perpetuated it. Since one is named at birth, this renaming is something a rebirth. At the conclusion of the last album in the In My Lifetime trilogy, Jay-Z describes a sort of rebirth which is signaled in a nomenclatorial transition: “Back to Shawn Carter the hustler; Jay-Z is dead.”
Tha Carter: “Carter” is a known slave name and a common surname among African Americans. In the film The Hurricane, based on boxer Rubin Carter’s book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472, Carter explains his nickname: “’Hurricane’ is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. ‘Carter’ is the slave name that was given to my forefathers, who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia. It was passed onto me.” In the ring, Rubin Carter became “The Hurricane.” Carter’s book also describes another renaming, done by the US corrections system during Carter’s false imprisonment, in which The Hurricane became a mere number.
In addition to any political dimension, Jay-Z might be considered a name for the stage, a name that accompanies one’s public, performative existence, in relation to the name accompanying one’s private life.
In relation to other rappers, Jay-Z is Hov, God MC.
Who you know fresher than Hov? Riddle me that.
The rest of you know where I’m lyrically at.
Can’t none of y’all mirror me back.
Yeah, hearing me rap is like hearing G Rap in his prime.
I’m Young H.O., rap’s Grateful Dead.
Here Jay-Z refers to Hov in the third person. There is you (the listener), Hov, Jay, Young H.O., and the doubling capacity of a mirror. Leaving aside Kool G Rap and the Grateful Dead. Quite a crowd.
Giorgio Agamben points out that the Latin alter ego, contrary to its modern usage, suggests nothing less than “an otherness immanent in selfness, a becoming other of the self,” whose closest analogue is the friend. Alter egos: a multiple self, as if composed like a group of friends.
In some ways, rap was the ideal way for me to make sense of a life that was doubled, split into contradictory halves. This is one of the most powerful aspects of hip-hop as it evolved over the years. Rap is built to handle contradictions…But this is one of the things that makes rap at its best so human. It doesn’t force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or sinner. It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas.
Another Brooklynite, Walt Whitman, offered in his 1855 “Song of Myself”,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Jay echoes Whitman, perhaps consciously, tying the multiple self to the matter of names: “I never had to reject Shawn Carter to become Jay-Z…those two characters come together through the rhymes, become whole again. The multitude is contained.” But Jay-Z builds upon Whitman’s multitude, making each name a “character,” suggesting a necessarily performative dimension to one’s being. Being a character doesn’t make each persona false but, rather, achieves the truth of the condition of multiplicity.