Tracking The Biggest Star In The World

One thing is for sure: David Johnson knows Jay-Z. But does Jay know him?

OLIVIA HARRIS / Reuters

David Johnson tells Jay-Z everything.

He emails the superstar about his family, his career, and his ambitions. He sends messages about his kids written as if to an uncle. He sends what could be read as either op-eds or diary entries, depending on the context; sent from and to a personal email address, they assume a confessional tone. He sends lyrics, poems and songs, written from both his perspective and Jay’s. He sends photos and videos, tossed-off notes and page-long manifestos.

Most significantly, Johnson questions Jay-Z about his place in life, in society, and in black culture with startling confidence. Sometimes it reads like a frank mogul-to-mogul talk: “I hate to say ‘I told you so’ but I told you so,” Johnson wrote to Jay in July 2010, just after Lebron James famously announced his intentions to play for Miami, rather than the rapper’s own Nets. “Lebron has an ego and wants to be his own man,” he explained, “he doesn’t want to be in your shadow.” Other times, it’s an impassioned appeal from a concerned peer. “Make a real difference,” Johnson demanded at the end of another message sent two years later. “Give like Martin and Fight like Malcolm. Black kids are your kids. Don’t forget that Jay.”

From Johnson to Jay, July 2010

Race is of particular interest to Johnson, and a recurring subject in his emails. Over the phone, Johnson emphasized his belief that, as a public figure, Jay has extraordinary responsibilities as a role model — as does his family. “Beyonce is one of the most beautiful women on the planet,” he told me, “and I try to express to [Jay], her hair is blonde. How do you expect to make people love themselves, love the hair they have?”

Since March 2010, Johnson has sent at least 262 emails to one of the biggest stars in the world, compiling an incidental diary in the process. He hasn’t received a single reply.

If he weren’t sure his messages were being seen, Johnson probably would have stopped sending them a long time ago. But he’s confident that not only is Jay-Z opening the emails — he’s also reading them. And it’s possible he’s right.

***

Johnson, 27, lives in Davis, California with his wife and two kids. He has written extensively about his experience growing up as one of “the only black people” in his peer group, through poverty and domestic instability (he moved over a dozen times as a child). He played basketball in school with the hope of making it his career. Eventually, he settled into a counselor’s job at a local junior high, and coached basketball at another; his wife had started a photography business. When his job was eliminated due to budget cuts, he took the opportunity to start writing. He formed a company and started self-publishing. It was Johnson the writer — specifically, at the time, a memoirist — that started writing to Jay-Z.

“If someone says it’s weird or creepy, I say they’re not trying hard enough in life,” Johnson told me over the phone. He understands how it all looks — the years of emailing, the personal tone of the messages, the fact that he sends from his wife’s email address — but it doesn’t bother him. “The reason why you think it’s creepy is because you’ve never suffered before.”

Johnson’s approach to Jay-Z, it turns out, is an expression of a philosophy he’s been living by for years. In 2009, the New York Times published a story about his attempt to play professional basketball. Despite not being in, or even close, to any traditional NBA recruitment channels, a combination of intense training and breathtakingly brazen self-promotion got him an audience. “Everybody within the N.B.A. family knows who he is,” the president for basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks told the Times.

“[I]f he can play, why can’t we let teams know he exists?” Johnson’s partner, Jessica Raumer, told the NYT.

His strategy for becoming “that guy” to the most important people in basketball will sound familiar:

Over the past year, [Johnson’s girlfriend, now wife] has relentlessly sent e-mail messages and called N.B.A. general managers, asking them to give Johnson a look. She also created commercial-like videos on the Internet of the 5-foot-10 Johnson dunking, and has sent the links to people to, among others, David Stern, the commissioner of the N.B.A., and Pat Riley, the president of the Miami Heat.

Johnson did not end up becoming a professional basketball player. He did convince a lot of serious people to take him seriously, and put himself in the room, so to speak, with the ones that had the power to give him what he wanted. They didn’t, but they thought about it.

***

“[Jay] has opened every single one of my emails, even re-opening them to re-read,” says Johnson. “He has clicked on links and had emails open for as long as 20 minutes.” He knows this because he uses a tool called ReadNotify, which embeds a small, unique invisible image in every message he sends. When the message is opened, the image loads from ReadNotify’s servers, which record the time of the view, its duration and rough location. ReadNotify then gives the sender a read receipt, confirming that the message was seen. These services have been around for years, and they work — this kind of “bugging” is an old email marketing trick.

At first, Johnson didn’t give the read notifications much credence. “I told my wife, ‘This must not be his actual email — maybe it’s a secretary of some sort opening these for him,’” Johnson told me. He seemed relatively confident that this was the right address from the start— he declined to mention how he found it, only that he believes very few people have it. But then he started noticing the locations.

On November 23, 2010, two days before Jay-Z was scheduled to play a show with U2 in New Zealand, one of Johnson’s emails was opened near Auckland. Another, sent while Jay-Z was vacationing in France, was opened from an iPhone in Paris. Messages were opened in Geneva, Denver, London, Manchester, Sydney, Philadelphia, and East Hampton.

The few dozen receipts Johnson sent me don’t just follow a travel pattern you’d expect from an international superstar — they match the publicly documented travel pattern of a specific international superstar, almost perfectly.

****
Johnson’s early emails to Jay-Z are modest, always direct but tender and personal. The first few months of messages are perhaps best thought of as an emailed diary, submitted not to a person, but to a pop culture avatar. Or maybe as a series of open letters.

Consider, then, what it must have been like to find out — or at least come to sincerely believe — that Jay-Z was reading those emails. Not just one or two, but all of them, sometimes more than once. To believe this is to believe that you have the ear of a man who millions of people admire, and that you’ve become a part of his life. To believe that what you were typing in Davis was reaching a hero of yours as he roamed the world. To believe this is to believe that you have a deeply strange but nonetheless real relationship with Jay-Z.

Ten, 20, or 50 years ago, this kind of interaction really could be only interpreted in one way. The power of the fan letter has always been directly correlated with the sender’s power of imagination, and will to believe. There were the people who sent one or two letters, and then fell prey to a sense of futility. There are those that sent more, never really believing they were getting read but never knowing for sure that they weren’t. Then, there were the stalkers.

There are precious few discrepancies in the email tracking records (see location/time issue above), which mostly just imply that either more than one person has access to this inbox, or that an automatic forwarding tool is triggering a read notification. The majority I’ve seen, however, make sense.

The internet complicates the old fan taxonomy, and Johnson’s self-awarely intense approach complicates it much further. My first instinct, that Johnson has taken this much too far, would have been undoubtedly correct in a different decade. Today, parts of it feel familiar. I hurl an endless stream of veiled self-promotion onto Twitter with comparatively little feedback, and allowing yourself to believe you’re being seen when you’re probably not is as close to a pithy summation of social media culture as I can come up with. There’s something almost reportorial about what Johnson is doing, which I was constantly reminded of as I was working on this story, knowing that Johnson could see every time I went back to read one of his messages.

If you can set aside the issues of privacy and propriety, and any distaste you have for such brash self promotion, it’s easy to see how not continuing to send these emails would have seemed like the crazy thing to do.

***
Believing you have a direct, one-way line to someone like Jay-Z also inevitably forces you to confront some questions. What is he getting out of this? What does he think of me? And the one that you can only ignore for so long: If he’s reading, why isn’t he responding to me?

In later emails, you can sense a growing frustration with the lack of acknowledgement, and the emergence of a feeling that, after all this time, Johnson feels as though he’s owed something.

Last month, the relationship reached a crossroads. Johnson, who has self-published a number of books, had decided to compile his letters into something of a personal narrative which, like the letters themselves, would have been more about him than the man he was writing to (though a looming, invisible, all-knowing but silent Jay-Z is a powerful literary device, I think).

Before going forward, Johnson approached a number of major publishers with his raw materials: an emailed pitch, the emails, his explanation. He approached the publishing industry the same way he approached the NBA: with astonishing zeal. Conversations happened. Johnson says that a major publisher was interested in the pitch, but asked that he get some kind of response from Jay-Z before moving forward.

Naturally, Johnson had gone straight to the top. The email conversation, which I can confirm took place, was with an executive, not an editor, at one of the biggest publishing houses in the world. The executive passed on the pitch to some editors. There were multiple emails, none of which made any promises, conditional or otherwise, and — to my eye — strained to be polite. Johnson says there were phone calls, too. In any case, he got his audience, and he made his pitch. He just needed that one email from Jay-Z, he believes, to make it happen.

And so, for the first time since he started emailing, Johnson felt that he actually needed something from Jay-Z. When Jay-Z still didn’t respond, Johnson says, it changed how he thought of Jay — Shawn — forever. He wrote in an email:

He talks about how much he wants to help his black community and how proud he is of his own black people, He has a brand “All Black Everything.” He rocks a black Jesus piece, he has songs about “my president is black, my Maybach too and I’ll be god-damned if my diamonds ain’t blue.” However, when it comes to actually stepping forward to help a fellow black man — he stood silent.

The discussion with the publisher ended with a courteous but short rejection, and a wish of good luck.

As for why Jay-Z hasn’t responded, there is no shortage of possible reasons. Maybe he doesn’t want to open the fan email floodgates, or risk publicizing his email address. Maybe he doesn’t want to indulge obsessive behavior, or give hope to stalker types. Maybe he’s uncomfortable with the whole situation. Maybe he doesn’t believe the book deal is real. Or maybe, despite the email tracking, Jay-Z actually isn’t seeing these emails at all.

Status: read.

I reached out to Jay-Z’s reps for comment. They didn’t want to go on record, or publicly dignify the situation with a response — most likely, again, to discourage others from trying the same thing. I’d characterize our discussion as a denial, but a strange, oblique, and ultimately unsatisfying one.

The email address Johnson is sending to doesn’t turn up any hits on Google, and it’s plausible enough. Test emails didn’t bounce, while emails to made-up addresses at the same domain bounced instantly. A music industry insider recalled using a different address in her correspondences with Jay-Z, but couldn’t rule this one out.

This leaves open a number of possibilities, which I’d rank in likelihood as follows: that the email address belongs to someone else; that it belongs to Jay-Z but goes through someone else; that it exists as an alias but goes nowhere; or that the email tracking service isn’t working quite right. Johnson’s facts have stubbornly checked out to the extent that I can verify them, but we’re still missing that last, crucial one.

Johnson is disappointed but, I suspect, undeterred. His way of being — how he sees himself, and the way he wants the world to see him — will certainly strike many people as strange and obsessive. But his dedication to it is unwavering. It’s also, I think, powerfully modern, and an example what the shocking, unconditional confidence that’s coming to define young people today is actually worth: not nothing. “Closed mouths don’t get fed,” he told me, “and the internet opens your mouth so damn big.”

Finally, I sent an email to what I had come to believe was maybe, possibly, Jay-Z’s personal inbox, asking for comment. Or just acknowledgment, I guess. Why not? I thought about installing a tracker, but decided against it.

I haven’t heard back.

****

You can track David Johnson on Twitter.

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