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Team Roc, Roc Nation’s Activist Wing, Works in the Trenches

Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded in 2008 by Jay-Z and associates, has been a household name for quite some time, especially in Jay’s home town of New York. As eclectic as Roc Nation’s operations are, some of their projects end up flying under the radar. Yet Team Roc, a department within the company, may be the most important of them all. Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez spoke to The Knight News about what she called Roc Nation’s “philanthropic wing.”

For an idea of what Team Roc is, Perez’s elegantly simple description will suffice: “Team Roc consists of folks basically working around social and racial justice.” The group’s eight members work on all philanthropic efforts. Often, this means devoting attention to particular instances of injustice nationwide. Of course, Team Roc is just as keen to advance the charitable causes of Roc Nation’s athletes and entertainers; Perez named Rihanna’s Diamond Ball and Robinson Canó’s RC22 school in the Dominican Republic as projects helped along by Team Roc’s resources. 

As Perez was quick to note, Roc Nation had maintained a presence in activism long before organizing under the Team Roc banner. Perez dated the organization’s involvement in community affairs back to the case of Sean Bell, who in 2006 was shot by police officers in Jamaica. In 2008, Jay-Z, having followed the incident, established a college fund for Bell’s fatherless children – and so began Roc Nation’s pursuit of social justice.

So what was gained by forming Team Roc if this work was already being done? Perez points out that the title lends their efforts legitimacy, which can be helpful: “If we call a police station or other contact and ask for information and help, it’s going to help our chances if ‘Team Roc’ is calling rather than any one person.”

This need for legitimacy had become apparent to Perez in 2018, when Roc Nation stepped in to the Montavious Smith case. Smith, a black man, was arrested in a Memphis mall and charged with felony probation violation. The crime? Wearing a hoodie, in violation of the mall’s dress code. “We couldn’t believe what we were reading. A man was going to be put away for wearing a hoodie. We couldn’t sit idly by and let that happen,” Perez recalled. She and her colleagues had found that the policy was being selectively enforced along racial lines. Marquee names were enlisted to help; Roc Nation signee Yo Gotti publicly called for the charges to be dismissed. For her part, Perez held a private conference in her office with the owner of the mall chain, David Simon, who told her that, because the dress code was drafted and enforced by the security firm he contracted for his malls, the situation was out of his hands. Perez wasn’t having it. “I told him, very politely, that there was actually a lot he could do, starting with lobbying to have the charges dropped. And that’s exactly what he did.”

Team Roc has brought this focus and resourcefulness to its present work, which includes a lawsuit the team recently filed against the Kansas City Police Department for gross misconduct. Perez compared the case file Team Roc received to “something out of a movie… police officers raping women and teenage girls, police officers getting kickbacks from drug dealers.” She realizes that the battle for justice in Kansas City will be an uphill one, owing to the fact that “…when 2 FBI investigations go nowhere, you realize that there’s a conspiracy there… nobody at the top really cares.” Nevertheless, Perez continues to hold out hope that “the facts are the facts and… these guys will be held accountable.”

There is also much to be done on the homefront. Team Roc hopes to see a reversal of the sentence of JJ Velazquez, a New Yorker who was wrongfully convicted of an armed robbery in 1999 and served 23 years in Sing Sing Correctional. Perez recalled that Jay-Z and his associates spent time helping Velazquez, which included “funding of his legal bills.” Earlier this year, Velazquez was finally granted clemency by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in one of his last acts before leaving office. Clemency is simply a commutation of one’s sentence; it does not constitute admission by the government that the conviction was wrongful. Indeed, the prepared statement issued by the Governor’s office makes no mention of Velazquez’s innocence. What Team Roc and Velazquez are looking for is a pardon, something for which The Knight News was told “the fight continues.”

Team Roc’s work occasionally falls beneath the notice of big media. This doesn’t bother Perez in the slightest. “We do all sorts of work that never rose to the level of press,” Perez acknowledged, “but it’s not about press. It’s about resolving the issue.”

The Knight News thanks Ms. Perez for her time and involvement. Those interested in lending a helping hand can visit Team Roc’s website.

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