News Feature | April 10, 2015

Jay Z Stumbles Into Value-Of-Water Debate

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

To the chagrin of consumer advocates, Jay Z is not a reliable source on questions of water pricing.

The hip-hop mogul set off alarm bells last month when he made an inaccurate statement about the cost of water.

“The challenge is to get everyone to respect music again, to recognize its value,” Jay Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, told the New York Times. “Water is free. Music is $6 but no one wants to pay for music. You should drink free water from the tap — it’s a beautiful thing. And if you want to hear the most beautiful song, then support the artist.”

The comments focused on price structures in the music industry and weren’t supposed to remark on the state of water rates. Nevertheless, consumer advocates casted his words as tone deaf.

"While tap water may seem free to a rap mogul, those in Detroit who have been living without this essential service because they cannot afford to pay their water bills are singing a very different tune," wrote Darcey O’Callaghan and Kate Fried of Food & Water Watch, per EcoWatch.

Many Detroit residents have struggled to pay their water bills in recent years, resulting in thousands of water shutoffs. The city garnered United Nations scrutiny for its approach to ratepayer delinquency.

"While many of us are conditioned to turning on the tap and always finding water flowing from it, it’s crucial to note that water is a finite resource. We may pay fractions of a penny for a glass of tap water, but that water doesn’t magically find its way to our homes—it gets there through a complex infrastructure system that requires billions of dollars a year for upkeep," the Food & Water advocates continued.

After Jay Z's remarks were published, Twitter users jumped into the fray. As one put it, "I just got off the phone with the Department of Water Management. Apparently Jay-Z is fibbing."

In a separate interview, Jay Z referenced the price of water again.

“If a person can pay $6 for a bottle of water, something that used to be free, if someone can do that, I can definitely show you why you should pay for Lauryn Hill’s album. There are 14 reasons, it’s incredible. Someone’s changed our mindset to believe that that bottle of water is worth $6,” he said, according to Jezebel.

This comment struck critics as equally off-the-mark. "I'm like, what world is Jay Z living in where water costs $6? He's clearly in this rarefied world that we do not live in," music critic Geeta Dayal told CBC.

A commentary in The Root, titled "Dear Detroit: Send Jay Z Your Water Bill," noted that the rapper has referenced water prices in the past. 

"One of my favorite Jay Z verses is from his song 'U Don’t Know,' off his Blueprint album: I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell. I am a hustler baby, I'll sell water to a well," the article said.

The commentary criticized Jay Z for being out-of-touch about the realities of water billing. "For millions of people who aren’t rich music moguls, water isn’t free, and it can even get shut off if you don’t pay your water bill or if the infrastructure that exists in your city is piss poor."

Though he intended to make a remark about the music industry, Jay Z inadvertently dove into the turbulent debate over the value of water.

Utility experts say the price of water could become too high for customers to pay in the coming years. “The era of cheap water is really coming to an end,” Tom Curtis, the leader of governmental affairs at the AWWA, told Governing.

Critics argue there will be severe consequences if prices do not rise. "Water is far too cheap across most American cities and towns. But what’s worse is the way the United States quenches the thirst of farmers, who account for 80 percent of the nation’s water consumption and for whom water costs virtually nothing," according to Eduardo Porter in the New York Times.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) ranked the value of water as one of the top concerns for water professionals in 2014. Numbers four and five on AWWA’s list, respectively, were “public understanding of the value of water resources” and “public understanding of the value of water systems and services."

As the water industry battles misperceptions about pricing, outreach to at least one hip-hop mogul might be particularly apropos.