Two worlds collide

The king of bling Jay-Z was a strange choice to headline a hippie festival, but perhaps both he and

Michael Eavis, founder and director of the Glastonbury Festival, was clear about his motives for inviting the rapper Jay-Z to perform in the headline Saturday-night slot. "I don't understand the music," he admitted to the BBC's hip-hop guru Tim Westwood. However, "I was very keen on the Obama thing . . . With [Barack] Obama coming through in America it seemed very appropriate to have a black fella headline Glastonbury."

If the booking was a symbolic one, Noel Gallagher of the rock group Oasis helped to make it controversial by denouncing the lack of Anglo-Saxon rock in the top slot. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said an interview shortly after the line-up was announced. "Glastonbury has a tradition of guitar music . . . I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It's wrong."

The subsequent discussions on blogs and in pubs around the country had an uncomfortable racial dimension. But it wasn't simply Jay-Z's skin colour that riled the critics; for many people he represents a high-rolling, Cristal-swilling, misogynistic hip-hop culture that seems at odds with the festival's hippie ethos. The British rapper Tricky, for one, sided with Gallagher. "He's not actually that good," he said. "If it was like, Public Enemy or Rakim, you might get away with it, because Rakim's an extreme talent, and Public Enemy changed the face of music. People in England would probably relate to that more. But the 'bling bling, I'm God' sort of bullshit, English people ain't into that."

All the chatter gave Jay-Z's appearance something of a clash-of-civilisations significance before he had so much as raised a bejewelled hand to the mike. Never one to sell himself short, he began the show with a video montage featuring world leaders, including the Queen, Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin, contributing their tuppence-worth to the debate. "I'm pleasantly surprised he is playing," read the subtitles beneath footage of Putin making a speech. "He's definitely got better hair than me," proffered Kim Jong-il. The masterstroke came when the opening chords of "Wonderwall" by Oasis rang out across the field and Jay-Z made his entrance clutching - what else? - an electric guitar, delivering a tuneless rendition of the indie classic. "For those of you who don't know," he said, "I'm Jay-Z and I'm pretty fucking awesome."

After the thrill of the first few minutes, however, the show settled into a predictable, monotone rapathon. As with so many hip-hop per formances, the highlights were the samples (Amy Winehouse's "Rehab", the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back", Rihanna's "Umbrella") and any lyrical prowess by Jay-Z himself was obscured by the squall of background noise. Despite heavy hints on the programme, there were no special guests to liven things up and vary the pace. Hits such as "99 Problems" and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" (a song to which Obama made reference in one of his anti-Hillary campaign speeches) might electrify his fans in the States, but they are not widely enough known in Britain to carry such a huge crowd.

Yet, to focus too hard on the music would be to miss the point. Jay-Z is not really about music. He uses the music industry as a platform from which to market a kind of lifestyle package that includes clothes (he created the Rocawear fashion label), real estate (J Hotels) and sports teams (he part-owns the New Jersey Nets). His stated ambition is to become a billionaire, and he recently moved substantially closer to realising his dream when he signed one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of the music industry with the concert promoter Live Nation for a variety of services, including "talent consultancy" and publishing. This is money-making as an art form: it was entirely fitting that images of Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull were used as a backdrop for the Glastonbury show.

It was oddly touching to see this self-confessed "hustler" cheered on by a field full of muddy campers who didn't know any of the lyrics to his songs and wouldn't know a Rocawear jacket if they tripped over one. For a couple of moments he let the bravado drop and seemed genuinely overawed by the reception: "This is a beautiful moment. I'm here representing my culture, and I'm glad I could share it with each and every one of you." The crowd roared back. Whatever Jay-Z was representing, he was right - it was a beautiful moment.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’