“There is a knowing in being an artist,” Jay-Z says in one of the many videos of him currently on view at the Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) main branch, located at Grand Army Plaza in the center of New York City’s most populous borough. That the local man born in 1969 as Shawn Carter — but who now prefers to call himself “HOV” — knows how to create memorable popular music and stay atop the entertainment industry is not in doubt. 

But is a public library the appropriate venue for a shrine to a billionaire’s glamorous life?

Whether the “knowing” HOV refers to places him in the category of artistic genius is a thorny debate that hinges on which criteria one uses. But conspicuously absent from The Book of HOV exhibition is any material that illustrates how the rap superstar came to learn anything. Indeed, there is scant attention devoted to Jay-Z’s life before he reached stardom in his late 20s. 

Installation view of The Book of HOV at the Brooklyn Public Library

That absence is doubly odd given that Brooklyn’s largest public library is where generations of kids from all backgrounds have learned to read and open their minds to the world. But visitors to The Book of HOV will not come away with knowledge about any books, world leaders, or even musicians that inspired young Shawn Carter. 

The show’s opening last week raised further questions about its intended audience. On a hot weekday, the heavily trafficked library was closed to its constituents in preparation for a celebrity-studded evening event hosting the rapper and his VIP friends.   

Following the lead of the introduction that greets showgoers, the New York Times called the exhibition an ode to “aspirational celebrity extravagance.” Others may view it as more akin to a house museum, complete with trophies (e.g. Emmys and BET Awards), random memorabilia (a football signed by Rihanna), pictures of Jay-Z with assorted famous people (such as Tom Brady), and cover photos of him in rich-dude magazines (including Cigar Aficionado).

The heavily trafficked library was closed to its constituents in preparation for a celebrity-studded evening event hosting Jay-Z and his VIP friends.

It’s worth noting that on the other side of the East River, the main branch of the New York Public Library currently hosts an exhibit of Charles Darwin’s letters, while a show at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture presents art by incarcerated people. These more traditional exhibitions adhere to a public library’s longstanding mission.

Not all of The Book of HOV simply celebrates Jay-Z’s commercial success, however. One “chapter” of the exhibit in the BPL’s first-floor Youth Wing is titled “Advancing Policing and Prison Reform.” While the cases of Meek Mill and Kalief Browder may be familiar to most adult showgoers, the items displayed — posters for Mill, the Peabody Award that Jay-Z and company won for their 2017 documentary about Browder — are presented without any background details.  

Given that at first glance they appear to feature selections from the BPL’s book collection, it’s not certain that attendees will notice the 10 shelves nearby in the Youth Wing that showcase a handful of books “From the Library of Jay-Z.” These are mostly art books, including Basquiat’s Defacement (2019) as well as works by contemporary Black artists including Rashid Johnson, Henry Taylor, and Clarence Major.

The show is akin to a house museum, complete with trophies, random memorabilia, pictures of Jay-Z with assorted famous people, and cover photos of him in rich-dude magazines.
Conspicuously absent from The Book of HOV is any material that illustrates how the rap superstar came to learn anything.

Such books provide a snapshot of Jay-Z’s current intellectual radar. Much of what else is on his mind surfaces in his music. On the other side of the first floor, a section titled “Did It All Without a Pen” enables visitors to listen to hundreds of albums from the BPL music collection that include the original songs that Jay-Z has sampled throughout his career. This is the closest one gets to illumination in the exhibition. 

By breezing past his youth, The Book of HOV fails to highlight another venerable Brooklyn public institution that contributed to Jay-Z’s intellectual development: George Westinghouse High School in Downtown Brooklyn. Jay-Z’s classmates included Busta Rhymes, and during the era Biggie, DMX, and Wu-Tang producer Oliver Grant also attended the school (as did the late actor Michael K. Williams). Such a legacy is worthy of celebration. 

Instead, The Book of HOV hypes the success of a man who does not suffer from a lack of hype. The exhibition came together precisely as New York City Mayor Eric Adams threatened severe budget cuts to public libraries, only to backtrack amid popular outcry. Alas, The Book of HOV is thus unlikely to be the last time that the Brooklyn Public Library hosts a vanity show for a billionaire. 

Theodore Hamm is the editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn and the author of Bernie’s Brooklyn. He chairs the journalism and new media studies program at St. Joseph’s University in Clinton Hill,...

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  1. I’m alright with this exhibit as I’m assuming the library received a hefty fee. Considering the NYC Mayor has slashed library funding they need the money to serve the public.

  2. Thank you. Your article is balanced and fair. Jay-Z and his team no doubt had final say on the exhibit’s context. May more super celebrities support public libraries and public schools.

  3. I went to this exhibit … it is bringing in an audience that the Brooklyn Museum or any other “art” venue would not draw in; the exhibit is not about “art” but culture and I- like many others who came – are celebrating Culture. Moreover. It is incredible marketing for BPL!!! Lastly, I see nothing wrong if indeed BPL is receiving a “fee” or other monies… BPL can use it; Kudos to the management of BPL for this event!

  4. came to this article as it was linked from Gothamist. Agreed with Lou in the comment above. Wonderful that people are excited about library cards! Jay-Z means something to New Yorkers, but we could not expect a white guy from Chicago to understand this.

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