I left the country for a few hours tonight.
I was in international territory as a guest of the United Nations.
The occasion was the premiere of MTV’s “Diary Of Jay-Z: Water For Life.” The half-hour special (which premieres this Sunday on MTV2 and MTV.com) follows Jay’s African travels among the one billion worldwide who lack access to safe drinking water. The project was a joint partnership between MTV, The UN, and Def Jam.
My role was oversight of the project’s digital corollary. My boss, Michael, and colleagues, Owen and Rahman, did most of the heavy lifting, but I was there through it all (which pretty much sums up an Executive Producer’s roll. And yes, grandma, my name is in the credits.)
But that’s just set up. The experience was, well, right on par with the rest of my crazy, weird week.
Getting into the UN is, not surprisingly, like getting on a plane. At the security gate on First and 46th, guards confirmed our identity, and that we were invited. A few hundred yards later, in a makeshift tent to the south of the General Assembly building, we emptied our pockets and passed through metal detectors. The tone of the proceedings, though, was much less severe. Everyone in line, from teenagers to diplomats to media executives to socialites, was excited and smiling. For many of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. MTV and the UN? Jay-Z and Kofi Annan? Who’d have thought.
The interior of the United Nations is straight out the 50s. (In fact, Swiss architect Le Corbusier and Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the headquarters shortly after WWII.) It looked quite a bit like Lincoln Center, or the Des Moines airport, or a large high school. The color palette is cream and aqua. The primary building materials are white brick and linoleum. The hallways are wide, and long, and circuitous, and populated by young pages whi kept us on course. They’re lined with stately oil paintings of past secretaries. There are dusty display cases with various national treasures: a Balinese headdress here, an Ghanese ivory carving there.
Still, entering the Trusteeship Council Chamber was impressive. There in the cavernous auditorium with rows of wood paneled desks (complete with microphones and translator headsets) and their orange and aqua leather chairs, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe. Or Nicole Kidman looking all spooked out at Sean Penn.
I didn’t bang my shoe (in fact, I tried to conceal the fact that my soles were held together with duct tape), nor did I look spooked out. But I was. There were 700 people in one room. I was surrounded by executives (second time this week). And everyone was dressed to the nines. (I was dressed to the six and a halfs.)
Kofi, as it ends up, was not in the house. His spokesman, who led the proceedings, announced that the secretary general was in Addis Ababa where he had just exited a meeting between the EU, Arab League, and the African Union at which Khartoum had agreed “in principal,” he said (“And I underscore, ‘in principal'”) to allow UN peacekeeping troops into Darfur.
Which underscores (and I underscore my use of the word “underscore”) my appreciation of and belief in the United Nation, if not in outcome (see also: Palestine, Lebanon, Kashmir, or Kosovo), but in principal. On paper, and in concept, the UN stands for everything I believe in: addressing and even pre-empting international disputes, while championing social equity through dialogue.
After brief addresses from UNICEF Director, Ann Veneman, and MTV President, Christina Normal, our show premiered. The 22-minute doc was brief, but powerful. We catch up with Jay, who has gone from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to CEO/President of Def Jam, in Angola. We learn that 1.1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water, and more than 4,000 children die every day from diseases related to the problem. We watch children walk miles for water, laboring to shuttle heavy buckets up mountainsides. We learn that these children have cell phones, but lack a clean source of drinking water, or a sanitary environment in which to shower or use the restroom.
“In my business, we like to say we’re from the hood,” Jay says, settling into the leather seats of his SUV on his way out of the shantytown. “We’re not in the hood. By no means. Not even close.”
Afterwards, MTV News correspondent Sway Calloway introduced Jay (bucking the seasonal color palette in a tan cashmere hair coat) and his travel partner, United Nations Development Programm scientist Arinaba Gosh. The kids were beside themselves with excitement, pointing and snapping photos. Sway and Jay were jubilant. “Hip hop at the UN?” Sway joked. “My grandmother would be proud.”