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How to Market Literacy: Cool Lessons from Jay-Z and the Brooklyn Public Library

Pop culture, art, and celebrity

people at outside party raising hands in the evening

How to make more readers?

American beauty companies spent 7.7 BILLION marketing beauty products in 2022. Car manufacturers spent 2.7 BILLION dollars in 2021. Pet food and supplies corporations spent over 1 BILLION dollars marketing their wares to pet owners.

But there is no agency or organization that spends billions of dollars to market one of the most important "products" we can offer: basic literacy.

While we have an abundance of writers, we have a dearth of readers. More than a quarter of the adult population (27%) has not read a book in the past year. Sadly for brick-and-mortar retailers, 70% of adults have not been in a bookstore in the past five years!

So it's an amazing thing when a hip-hop star makes reading "cool," bringing people into libraries.

Wow. Thank you, Jay-Z!

Who is Jay-Z?

I love music, but I have to admit that as a woman in my sixties, I never fell latched onto rap and don't follow rap musicians. Of course, I've heard of Jay-Z, (and Beyoncé), but I didn't know much about him.

Sometimes, I'm delightfully surprised by what I learn.

Jay-Z is one heck of a guy.

Jay-Z was born in 1969 with the name of Shawn Carter, a kid who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in an area surrounded by drugs. He eventually turned to rap as an escape from the violence around him. He began taking part in rap competitions and released his first rap album in 1996 under his own label, Roc-a-Fella Records. His music career flourished, and he became wildly successful, eventually winning 24 Grammys and using his career to launch into big-time entrepreneurship. Jay-Z was the first rapper to achieve billionaire status.

No one becomes a billionaire without a lot of savvy, hard work, and an understanding of marketing. Not all billionaires then use their money and their marketing ability for the good of others. Jay-Z used his prowess to help a library and further the cause of literacy. (Or at least that's how I want to spin it. More on that in a moment.)

Pop culture, art, and celebrity

One of Jay-Z's business ventures is his entertainment corporation, Roc Nation. Roc Nation

is the entity that manages the details of contents and performances, so they are used to handling details and envisioning special effects.

Jay-Z grew up in the Marcy Projects, not far from the Brooklyn Public Library, and the library had originally intended to ask Jay-Z to be an honored guest for the annual fund-raising event. But plans changed, and Linda Johnson, the CEO and President of the library had another idea. She asked Desiree Perez, the CEO of Roc Nation about an exhibit based on Jay-Z's career, and the idea for the Book of HOV exhibit took off.

As a celebration of Hip-Hop's 50th anniversary, Johnson and Perez planned to fill the library's public space with a huge exhibit of Jay-Z ephemera, instruments, art, clothing, and even a full-size replica of Baseline Recording Studio.

Philanthropy from Jay-Z

Not only would Jay-Z's memorabilia bring people in, but the positive publicity and popular appeal of the exhibit wouldn't cost them anything except a little extra security cost. (Free marketing is a rare phenomenon, to be sure.)

Jay Z's business, Roc Nation, paid for the whole exhibit. In addition, Jay-Z raised 20 million dollars for the library's annual fundraiser in July of 2023 that honored Gloria Carter, (his mother,) and him for twenty years of charitable work.

What's more, the Brooklyn Public Library issued a set of thirteen different library cards, each one with a picture of the cover art from one of Jay-Z's albums.

In the first month of the exhibit, more than 14,000 people applied for a library card!

Not only did people apply for library cards, but they came into the library and browsed around. In the first week of the Book of Hov exhibit, from July 14 to July 20, 2023, five times the number of people came in. More than 39,000 visitors walked through the library doors, and checkouts were up more than 10% from the previous weekend.

What made this event - at a public library, no less - so exciting?

The exhibit used three standard tactics in successful marketing: celebrity endorsement, visual appeal, and exclusivity.

The power of celebrity is proven in the marketing world, and Jay-Z's celebrity is obvious. He's a billionaire music mogul, owner of a luxury liquor brand, a sports streaming service, and the 40/40 sports clubs. People love Jay-Z and wanted to see the retrospective exhibit of his legendary career.

The exhibit had immense visual appeal, a tangible smorgasbord of Jay-Z history, spread over 40,000 square feet of the library space. People could wander around and explore the library while they perused the displayed objects.

Maybe the biggest visual impact and smartest marketing came from promoting The Book of Hov exhibit on the outside architecture of the Brooklyn Public Library. It's hard not to notice!

Brooklyn Public Library covered in Jay-Z lyrics
The Central Branch facade is covered in Jay-Z lyrics. Photo: Book of Hov, Roc Nation

Finally, the marketing of the event included an element of exclusivity. A set of 13 library cards with artwork from each of Jay-Z's 13 solo albums are available. Different designs rotate on different dates to different library branches. You have to be a New York resident, and you MUST go to the library to get one of these special-edition library cards. In the best of marketing terms, the urgency of getting your card NOW is reinforced:

"Note: This card is limited-edition and the designs will only be available while supplies last."

My spin versus a critic's spin

I am naturally an optimist, looking for the best in people, and it's my take that Jay-Z is doing a great thing for the library, the people of Brooklyn, and literacy in general.

One critic disagrees.

Adlan Johnson argues that the exhibit lacks substance and focus and is just there as a way for Jay-Z's people to glorify him. Where, after all, is representation of other hip-hop artists, since the Book of HOV is supposedly tied into the 50th anniversary of hip-hop?

Other people wonder...If thousands of people get library cards does that mean they'll start checking out books? Sets of the Jay-Z library cards have appeared on eBay already, so it's apparent that some people collected cards just to sell them, not to use them.

I, however, believe that what Jay-Z and the Brooklyn Public Library did is a good thing. Even if only 1% of the 176,000 people who visited the exhibit come back to the library as patrons, that's still 1,760 new users of its services. If just 1% of the new library card holders check out books, that's still 140 people reading books who may not have otherwise gotten started.

To promote my argument that Jay-Z has good intentions, I'd argue that The Book of HOV exhibit is not that much out of line with what the Sean Carter Foundation has been doing for years: giving scholarships and opportunities so low-income students can achieve their dreams through education. The Sean Carter Foundation's mission statement:


Seems to me that someone who has spent twenty years giving scholarships to underprivileged students, and then using his acumen to provide one-of-a-kind free marketing to libraries, a place that encourages literacy and learning, is a special kind of hero.



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